Building a Bait Bee Hive: A Case Study in Thrift

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Like most of our burbsteading endeavors, it was one of Neil’s engineer friends who talked him into beekeeping. If it weren’t for his ilk, we wouldn’t raise chickens or tap our maple trees, either.

Our garden, chickens, and maple sugaring didn’t start as attempts to save money. Rather, they fit the bill for the types of hobbies we like. That is, activities that aren’t too expensive, produce something, teach useful skills, and are kid-friendly and outdoorsy. Neil (and his engineering buddies) sit in cubicles all day and sometimes don’t get to see tangible results from their labor. I suspect this is one reason they tend to gravitate to productive, hands-on, organic activities.

Neil joined the bee bandwagon first and foremost to have a hobby in common with his friend. They took a class together, read library books, talked to other beekeepers, and went to purchase bees & hives off Craigslist together. This brings me to another hobby criterion: it should fit well into our existing social schedule. Of course it doesn’t have to be a shared hobby, but those are great! Bouncing ideas off fellow burbsteaders and sharing resources has led to some good times and beautiful frugal friend synergy.

Free Bees?

Beekeeping, like many hobbies, can be very expensive or quite economical. Buying one complete bee hive, with bees, costs around $375. Just the bees are around $100. Neil wasn’t willing to shell out that much for a tag-along hobby, especially since the bees can die so easily and we’re not spending a ton of honey as it is. It’s too much of a gamble.

When we say we pretend to be poor, we don’t for one minute think we’re living like those truly in poverty. We do find it very helpful to pretend we don’t have $375 available to get into beekeeping, and see where our research, creativity, and DIY courage take us. If we can find a reasonable cheaper solution, we will.

Through Neil’s research, he learned that you can catch a swarm of bees instead of buying them. Don’t worry, it’s not as dangerous as it sounds. In the spring, the new queen bees, along with lots of drones, will separate from their hive in a swarm. They can build their own hive, but will take up residence if they find a move-in ready bait hive.

A bait hive is pretty simple and cheap to make. Neil made it using scrap wood, and it took a couple hours, with the assistance of our son and his bee buddy. It’s basically a wooden box made to fit the hive frames, and some bee food to attract them. Our bait hive is currently in a tree in a friend’s yard next to woods, wildlife, and a field of clover and thistle.

It remains to be seen whether we’ll catch a swarm. But since we have next to nothing invested in this project, we don’t care too much whether we catch one or not. If we succeed, we’ll need more bee boxes, which can also be made from scrap wood.

Free Honey?

A friend who kept bees while growing up assures us it’s a great hobby for kids—something I wasn’t too sure about since my son acts afraid of ants sometimes. It’s already helping him overcome fear; he went with Neil to buy his friend’s hive and walked through a wall of bees, and even responded calmly when one landed on him.

Bees are also awesome for pollinating the garden, so it’ll be a true burbstead synergy if we could reap that benefit. We don’t use tons of honey, but we often top my homemade yogurt with it, and sometimes use it in homemade granola, granola bars, or just on peanut butter sandwiches. Local honey is said to help with seasonal allergies. It would also make a good gift for certain friends and family. And I’m a Blistex addict, so I’d be willing to attempt some homemade beeswax lip balm.

If all goes well, we’d expand the burbstead and maybe even save some money. Worst case, we’re out a few bucks for the bee frames, and some fun hours with a friend. Either way, beekeeping represents our philosophy of burbsteading, our hobby criterion, and our thrifty approach to potential new costs. Pretend you don’t have the money, and see what creative solutions you can come up with.

Stay tuned to find out if we catch a swarm!

Anyone have experience keeping bees? If not, what is a way you’ve found to do what you want to for less?

Have You Planned For Your Funeral?

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We recently attended a memorial service for an elderly friend in our church. But he wasn’t a typical elderly churchgoer. More than half the people in our church are under 25. I’m an “oldie” at 30! Aside from his wife, Howard was the only regular member over age 70. But he wasn’t just a “member.” He was the grandfather of our whole community.

Since his death, no one can stop talking about him and his impact in their life. Many, including us, weren’t even particularly close to him. But our interactions with him are so memorable. He was warm and wise, humorous and humble. Always so interested in the other person, and always had something interesting and encouraging to say. He knew Greek and Hebrew, studied the Bible voraciously, and also taught water color painting, played the piano, and sang. He probably had many other talents and accomplishments that I don’t know about, because he didn’t talk about himself much.

Before his death, he let his family know that in lieu of a funeral he wanted his friends to have a BYOB dance party.

I don’t know anything about his finances. He was a social worker and was retired by the time I met him. He certainly understood the Secret to Financial Freedom and inflated his usefulness instead of his lifestyle. However he handled his money, his memorial service left me aspiring to leave a legacy like Howard’s.

The point of all this money stuff is so we can actually live. Howard lived a full life up until the day he fell unconscious. He had a degenerative muscle disease during his adult life, but he saved his energy for serving others. The day before his collapse, he went over to a friend’s house and grilled steak for the family. During an recent week-long church trip he volunteered to give an in-depth Bible teaching for those who weren’t able to go on the trip.

His life was the epitome of real worth.

We can talk Vanguard vs. Betterment all day. We can talk Roth vs. Traditional all day. We can talk Minimalism vs. Pragmatism, Classic vs. Extreme Frugality, Budgeting vs. Tracking all day and night long.

These are all helpful philosophies, tools, and practices—if we keep them in their proper place. They are servants, not masters. They are the pieces, not the purpose. You could get all the financial stuff right and leave an outrageous inheritance, but if your family hates you, it’s worth less than nothing. Worst investment ever.

It’s also often said that on your death bed, you won’t wish you worked more hours or drove a nicer car. That’s a true and lovely sentiment, but what are we supposed to do with it? How do we live today wisely and well while also planning for the future?

I believe the answer lies in diversifying your life’s portfolio, leaving both real and net worth behind. The net worth could be easily consumed within a short period of time. Real worth is something that can last much longer, even for eternity.

Howard’s passing made me realize I don’t want to be moderate about my real worth legacy. I want to leave my kids a modest amount of money (maybe), and a host of friends celebrating a life that changed theirs. I want my family to have a hard time finding a venue big enough for my memorial service. I want a sea of youth 50 years my junior dancing at my final going away party. I want people deciding to turn back to God as they contemplate how I reflected the love of Jesus.

In reality, these are the details are Howard’s legacy. Mine will be different. But I certainly want it to reflect the spirit of his: that countless people felt deeply loved and drawn to Jesus by him.

I’m nowhere near having built such a legacy. And I know my legacy-building can’t be about me. That’s the irony—if I want this all for my own glory then it should never happen. That’s not how love works: “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters.” Real worth isn’t about what I’m doing, it’s about how that helps someone else.

Howard planned for his funeral every day, with kind and encouraging words and thoughtful acts of service. By sharing about God’s love with grocery baggers, and teaching New Testament Greek classes to punks like me. By faithfully praying for hundreds of people each week, and making dinner for his friends. He will be greatly missed this side of Paradise, but his legacy is thriving.

Are you planning for your funeral?

A Brief History of Work

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Have you ever wondered how society transitioned from farms to cubicles? And why so many now want to escape the cube—sometimes back to the farm? Sixty percent of Americans work in cubicles, and 93% dislike it, according to Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval (2015). As a burbsteader, I’ve been seeking to understand why we long to escape our white collar confines, which have been considered the pinnacle of employment.

First, there is the simple ebb and flow of culture over time. Generations seem to fluctuate back and forth. For example, there have been trends taking us from thrifty to spendy and back again. Compared to our parents, millennials tend more toward minimalism, passion careers, and saving money. But our parents were responding their parents, who may have saved or spent to extremes as a reaction to emerging from the Great Depression and WWII.

One main innovation led Americans from the agricultural farm to the cubicle farm: the railroad. People farmed for subsistence and for local markets until the birth of the steam engine. Horse & cart could only take goods so far, and only so many people were needed (or had the capital) to work as storekeepers. Farmers would sell or barter directly with the local storekeeper or individuals for the items they didn’t produce themselves.

With the railroad, farmers could focus on growing more of one or two crops and shipping these long distances. Industrialization replaced independent farmers and artisans, meaning more people worked in factories. At the same time, all this transporting and selling of goods required more people doing paperwork, keeping track of inventory, routes, and accounts. These people were called clerks.

Previously, clerks worked at “counting houses” and then their modern counterpart, banks. There weren’t many clerks in one institution and they often worked directly under one top dog in a flattened hierarchy where they could likely one day replace the boss. After the economic shift of industrialization, people were needed to manage these clerks and factory workers. Now a legion of clerks aspired to a limited number of managerial positions, which came to be called “white collar” jobs, a term satirically coined by Upton Sinclair.

People started studying how to manage clerks and factory workers. Enter industrial organization, scientific management, and vocational training. Next came studying which types of people to hire: the HR department was born. Office jobs continued to proliferate. In 1956, America reached a tipping point in its labor history: white collar workers outnumbered blue collar ones for the first time.

As big business grew in the early 1900s, skyscrapers were needed to house the growing population of clerks and middle management. Just as standardization was prioritized in management classes, it was prioritized in architecture. While some opulent skyscrapers boasted artistic lobbies and lavish offices for upper management, the bulk of the space was designed to be easily and efficiently multiplied. The standardized office units that we know today as cubicles were first called “cells.” What a lovely term—reminiscent of prison!

In fact, the principle-turned-proverb “form follows function” was coined by one of the most famous architects of this period, Louis Sullivan. Cookie cutter “cell” design had the advantage of being rentable. It allowed businesses to move in and out of spaces with ease. Rather than considering the best work environment for the employees or the type of work, future real estate value was the primary concern.

And so the majority of Americans ended up in cubicles. Why? The steam engine. The railroad. Paperwork. Big business. History reveals the concrete answers, but what lies beneath?

It seems that people were chasing freedom and security. Relief from the backbreaking or mind-numbing labor of farm and factory. Ending man’s dependence on out-of-control variables like the weather, animals, and diseases that threatened one’s livelihood. Freedom from subsistence living.

Cube life offered an illusion of freedom: if one moved up the managerial ladder enough, one would become wealthy and successful. No longer a drone, but a free person. Not told what to do, but telling others what to do. As it turns out, this is a mostly empty hope, as only an elite few climb this high, leaving a vast pool of desperate middle managers and unsatisfied office workers behind. Politics, policies, procedures, and TPS reports abound.

The modern cubicle is a bit like the epidural for childbirth. It might make the job less painful, but it’s still hard work.

William Whyte, author of Organization Man (1956), believed the corporate system was stifling freedom and the Protest work ethic that fueled America’s economic growth. He observed that big corporations “offered the womb-like safety and security that colleges provided….A smooth pipeline from dorm room to the desk made organization life irresistible.” Engineering and business education were emphasized during the cold war, and those emerging from the Great Depression were quick to view big business and office jobs as a source of security.

Baby boomers, born into a thriving post-war economy, became the most extravagant generation in history. In the 1970s, credit cards and other consumer debt became widely available to the average consumer, funneling many coming-of-age Boomers into unprecedented sums of personal debt.

And so a nation moved from one type of restriction to another. What numbed the pain of physical labor also ended up numbing the soul, or so it would seem from the wealth of satire surrounding the modern office. And don’t forget about the 93% disgruntled cube-dwellers. Many deal with this discontent with therapeutic spending. Shopping, restaurant outings, entertainment, and vacations are sought to alleviate the sting of all that cube time. A tiny portion, following the example of Jacob Lund Fisker’s Early Retirement Extreme, have used their office skills (and sometimes office down time) in the ultimate act of subversion: calculating their path to freedom and investing more than half their income in order to escape.

It’s invaluable to understand where we came from. Almost all of us came from the farm. Our progenitors left the farm because of the steam engine. And because eeking an existence out of soil is hard, and risky. But the cube has brought its own dangers. It’s the modern equivalent of smoking. Working in a colorless sea of identical “cells” can feel dehumanizing. It promises a stability it cannot deliver, which stifles artists, entrepreneurs, nonconformists, and naturalists alike. And this, as far as I can tell, is why people want out.

What do you think? Is the cube a wonder of the modern world, or nearly prison? Why do so many people want out?

 

This post draws upon the following sources, especially Cubed. Since this isn’t a research paper, I haven’t used in-text citation, but I want to credit the following references:

Lind, Michael. Land of Promise: an Economic History of the United States. 2012. Harper Collins Publishers, New York.

Newman, Rick. “Americans Don’t Like to Buy Stuff Anymore – And That’s A Problem. Yahoo Finance. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/americans-don-t-like-to-buy-stuff-anymore-%E2%80%93-and-that-s-a-problem-170924225.html

Saval, Nikil. Cubed: a Secret History of the Workplace. 2015. First Anchor Books, Random House, New York.

Rocking the Burbstead: How We Homestead on 0.1 Acres

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The chicken tractor is behind the Cozy Coup.

Last weekend, Neil accompanied a friend who was purchasing a hive of bees. The errand took them into the country, where they drove past a 100 acre farm for sale. At $1 million, it’s just a teensy bit out of our price range. But it left me thinking about how our .1 farmable acreage (calculated using this tool) is perfectly sufficient for our needs. For now 100 acres isn’t 1000 times better just because it’s 1000 times bigger. We feel no need to wait for “financial independence” to delve into our interests.

Setting big goals is great, and achieving them is even better. But what about the many years spent working toward those dreams? “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon sang. How to live well in the gap between your goals and your reality is an important question. Our Next Life recently addressed a similar theme in their post “Crafting a Life that Keeps the Stoke High“.

At the Pretend to Be Poor household, we’ve shared about enjoying the journey by prioritizing friendship, generosity, and volunteering, but we also have hobbies we find just plain fun. Mostly these center on old-fashioned, outdoorsy endeavors that have led more than one friend to call our place “the homestead.” While we dream of more land, more gardens, more animals, and more trees, we recognize we have the best of both worlds here at the old burbstead.

Liquid gold.

Burbsteading is serving us well. I can’t say we adore our suburb. Rural living sounds idyllic compared to our city’s strip malls, yet we acknowledge the many wonderful resources at our disposal. In addition to a good work situation and social network, our 0.3 acre property hosts many treasures.  Two maple trees provide enough syrup to last our family (and brunch guests) throughout the year.  Our 0.1 acre of “farmable” backyard area currently holds 4 garden plots, the sugar maples, 4 fruit trees, a berry patch, a rain barrel, a large wood pile, 2 compost piles, a bait beehive, and a 12-chicken pen. Plans for expansion are detailed below.

Si & chickens

Kids love burbsteading!

It’s no surprise we’re embracing the burbstead, since we raised vegetables and herbs in pots on our apartment balcony, in a plot rented from a community garden, and in pots in our friends’ backyard when we rented their basement. There’s nothing unique about growing a few tomato plants; our interests don’t go much further than classic frugality or living like grandma. The point is that we can substantially realize certain aspects of our dreams without changing our situation much at all.

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From our apple tree.

Maybe you’d never ever want to homestead, burbstead, or come near a tomato plant or a live chicken. Burbsteading represents a larger philosophy of practicing contentment and creativity in our current situation. Of living your dreams in little servings today. This means we can be at peace with being rooted in the ‘burbs for now while exploring our interest in raising our own food and getting outside often. It’s an active peace, making the most of our situation with rewarding, useful pursuits that don’t require major changes to other areas where we’re quite content.

So instead of pining after a better property, we are rocking the burbstead. This year we want to raise and preserve more food. We already feed our family of four (and frequent guests) a protein- and produce-rich diet for $75 per week, in large part by supplementing through our homegrown goodies. We’ve gradually increased our harvest each year. Plans for this year include:

  1. Doubling the number of garden beds.
  2. Doubling the number of chickens we raise by doing 2 rounds. This would provide enough chicken for almost half the year.
  3. Catching a swarm of bees in the bait hive Neil built. (More on this to come.) Honey from our yard could replace store-bought honey, some store-bought sugar, and could make good gifts.
  4. Preserving more produce through canning and freezing.
  5. Continue finding and splitting free firewood to offset heating costs.
  6. Continue cooking with whole chickens and making lots of homemade items such as broth, bread, yogurt, beans, granola bars, and more.

The efforts of the past 5 years here have culminated in the following results:

  1. Our compose piles and rain barrel make our garden organic and inexpensive.
  2. Free wood collection means we no longer pay for any firewood (or gym memberships).
  3. We enjoy at least 3 months of purchasing very little meat or vegetables, and less fruit.
  4. We enjoy canned condiments (salsa, pickles, jalepenos) for about half the year.
  5. We make all our own maple syrup.
  6. We have built-in hobbies, exercise, and activities for the kids & their friends.

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Burbsteading also allows us to trial new skills and interests in a fun, safe environment. We’ve burnt syrup, killed vegetable plants, and lost a fruit tree and a chicken or two, all without sweating the loss on a large scale. We’ve also had the freedom to ease into these hobbies slowly. Burbsteading brings a dose of reality to our dreams, and adds a measure of our dreams to reality.

The principle behind burbsteading applies to anyone. What is your dream? Your passion? Your interests? How can you incorporate these in the place you’re planted right now? Life can feel like a waiting game, but we’re not meant to wish away our lives until we bank a big stash. Integrating your interests into your present scenario goes a long way toward maintaining motivation, building skills, and enjoying the journey.

What aspect of your dreams could you integrate into your life today? Does burbsteading interest you?

Teaching Our Kid About Money

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Not too small to start learning about money.

April is Financial Literacy month, so I thought I’d share with you what a deplorable job I’m doing at teaching my kid about money. My kids are four and two, so at least we have time on our side. Suggestions are welcome!

We’re familiar with Dave Ramsey’s “give, save, and spend” jars to teach kids about money and our efforts are very loosely based on those principles. So far we pay my son a couple coins—exactly which ones depend on availability—for putting away the silverware. He is currently saving for a $50 Duplo set. At the rate he’s saving, he’ll be too old for Duplos by the time he saves enough. We also periodically ask if he wants to put something in his “give” bag (a sandwich bag in his piggy bank). As you can tell, we are highly organized and official about all of this. It’s practically the Federal Reserve over here.

Internal Conflicts

The poor child can’t be convinced that each coin has a different monetary value. How do you teach a kid about finances when they don’t understand the value of money? I’m sure being more consistent about the exact payment would help.

Then there’s the dilemma of which chores to pay them for, and how much. Will paying too often or too much teach them they deserve to be paid for contributing to the family? Will not paying them mean they don’t learn that money comes from work?

Does it make sense to teach them to give, save, and spend, when it’s all quite artificial at his age? Even if he understood some of the math, his money is only going to wants. We are going to meet his needs whether or not he vacuums to earn a quarter.

But then, like so many things, doing something is better than nothing. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. I could become paralyzed trying to figure out the perfect system, but in the end it’s got to be flexible enough to work for our family, our unique children, and the shifting needs that time will bring.

For now, we have a very ad hoc system that seems to be teaching him at least something.

He doesn’t understand the value of a dollar, but he does seem to appreciate the value of his time. Maybe a little too much. He refuses to vacuum, even for a whole dollar! Which is fine, because I’m way better at it.

He’s also learning about competition in the job market. If he takes too long to put away the silverware, his little sister will swoop in, do the job, and demand payment.  She also might pour sugar into the silverware tray. So we do prefer the quality of his work to that of a toddler.

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Last fall, my son collected more than twice his body weight in food pantry donations.

Give

He is excited to give. Last year he gave ALL his coins to the VBS drive to purchase a van for the kids at a homeless shelter. My son loves vehicles and particularly loves his friends’ van, so I wasn’t surprised he wanted to give all his money.

I also knew that there was no real cost for him to give all his coins, and he didn’t understand what he could buy with them because we hadn’t been very good in the “spend” department. I felt the weight of this when he wanted to give it all away. Then again, most of it had been given to him as random change passed on by grandma or dad (he wasn’t doing a ton of paid chores at age 3). I decided to emphasize that he couldn’t get it back, that it is good to help people, and that it was his decision. He went through with it, and Neil matched his contribution.

I was glad he was willing to give his money, but I realized it wasn’t pure generosity since he didn’t understand money very well. The VBS was also having a competition between girls’ and boys’ donations, so mixed motives were at play.

Save

He’s recently started saving up for purchases larger than $1, and succeeded! His last goal was a new light saber, but by the time he saved up the$15 he changed to his $50 Duplo goal. It’s amazing how waiting can help us make good financial choices. Imagine if it took adults months to save up for purchases, instead of swiping plastic?

I’m proud that he saved $15, mostly through working. He was definitely motivated to do extra chores to reach that goal. It’ll be hard to watch him blow money on big purchases that I don’t consider worth it, but I hope the wait time helps him make good choices.

Spend

On the spending front–what is the difference between save and spend for a four year old? We don’t present him with a ton of options to spend money on a regular basis. I feel conflicted about his spending opportunities being so directed by us. If we take him to a candy store and ask “do you want to spend some of your money? (true story), are we teaching him to make choices about spending his money? Or are we teaching him to spend money on candy? If we take him to the Dollar Tree, aren’t we just teaching him to buy useless, flimsy junk? If we take him to Target, aren’t we teaching him to buy overpriced, trendy junk?

Confession: I mostly forget to have him bring his money places. Forgive me if I don’t remind him to cart around a noisy, metal, coin-filled bank that looks like Elmo’s head. I suppose he needs a little wallet or envelope of some sort.

A recent positive “spend” experience was when he noticed knock-off Duplos on clearance at ALDI after Christmas. The set was $4. He didn’t have his money with him so I said he’d have to come back later. He asked his dad to take him there as soon as he got home from work, so they counted out his money and went to buy it. I’m glad he picked out something  himself, had time to think about it, and paid a reasonable price.

At this stage of development, financial education is on par with teaching your kid to say sorry, even when they don’t mean it. To say thank you, sometimes begrudgingly. To brush their teeth, though they would rather be raised by wolves. You try to get them to pretend to be civilized, until one day, they kind of are civilized. Hopefully.

P.S. We recently learned that our son’s name is the same as Mr. Money Moustache’s boy. How cool is that?

Any tips for teaching kids about money? What was your financial education like? What do you want to do differently or the same with your kids?

Who Wants a Death Pledge?

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If someone asked you if you wanted to take a death pledge, how fast would you run away?

Actually, there’s a good chance you already have one. While reading The Big Short, we learned that the word mortgage means “death pledge” in French. Despite being a former English teacher, I never thought about the etymology of the word mortgage. I just assumed it was finance jargon. And it is—would you have a thought a little harder about taking a mortgage if everyone called it a death pledge?

“I’m refinancing to a better interest rate on my death pledge.”

“Death pledge rates are really good right now.”

“Death pledges are good debt.”

“I’m debt-free except for the death pledge.”

“You’re invited to celebrate my new death pledge!”

The literal translation suggests a very serious commitment that is going to be with you for life. This isn’t something you’re going to waltz away from easily if you change your mind. You’ll be stuck with this contract until you die.

Though many mortgages are paid off long before death, the allusion to a serious, long-term contract still applies. You can check out the math behind the death pledge in Mortgage Myths. Today let’s consider other aspects of the decision to purchase a home.

Sorting Out Your Emotions

Many have pointed out that purchasing a home should not be an emotional decision. It is a business transaction. But let’s be honest—it’s hard not to be influenced by emotion when buying a house. A house becomes a home, and “there’s no place like home.” After all, “home is where the heart is.” I’ve heard people who are moving say that they are sad to sell because “this is where I brought my babies home” or “this is where I raised my kids.”

Seeing a beautiful home we believe will meet our family’s needs, host friends, and provide comfort day in and day out is emotional. Rather than pretending we can eradicate emotion, why not recognize them and navigate the decision making process with attention to how those emotions influence us?

Creating a spreadsheet of the features, size, costs, pros, and cons of our final death pledge candidates helped us objectify the choice. Sleeping on any big decision such as a death pledge is also essential. We also gained valuable insights from bringing an entourage of friends and family (the remodelers) to weigh in on prospective properties.

We purchased our home after three years of contemplation, number-crunching, and a year of renting in the neighborhood where we purchased. We questioned the cultural assumption that we needed a house and seriously considered the option of renting long-term. This was a helpful exercise which brought a perspective of gratitude, stewardship, and financial sobriety to our decision to sign a death pledge.

Is a House an Investment?

All the research we did surrounding our home purchase led us to a belief that has been truly freeing for us: buying a home (for your residence) isn’t primarily about investment.

I broke down the math debunking this myth in Mortgage Myths. If you are going to live in, maintain, furnish, pay taxes & interest, and insure a home—you are not primarily making a financial investment. Even if your home appreciates significantly, you probably won’t make a huge profit when all is said and done. And that’s perfectly fine, so long as you aren’t expecting it to be wildly profitable.

There are exceptions, of course. Some people get a great deal on a foreclosure, purchase with plans to rent the home in the future, or buy in a hot location that will drastically appreciate. And then there is actual real estate investments, not to be confused with purchasing what amounts to a liability on many levels.

The house we bought was our least favorite home style, in a city we didn’t love, in a neighborhood we didn’t love, to be near people we love. By near I mean I can watch my four-year-old ride his bike to his best friend’s house down the street. In many ways our home is more of a real worth investment than a net worth investment. I’m not offering that this example as great financial advice, but we couldn’t imagine living any further from our friends.

The false assumption that real estate is sure to appreciate has been brutally exposed, so while you shouldn’t purchase a personal residence as your main investment strategy, I wouldn’t be nonchalant about the numbers, either. Purchasing a home you can afford with wiggle room for all the hidden costs is prudent. Especially after seeing so many go upside down in their death pledges, even though they never missed a payment. I’ll bet that feels a bit like death.

Viewing our home as primarily a home, not an investment, also takes some pressure off when it comes to living in it. We knew hosting parties would invite stained carpet and having kids would invite stained everything! Of course we maintain our home with the hopes of being able to sell it when the time comes.

If you scored a killer deal on a home, congrats! But if you’re contemplating acquiring a death pledge, I’d encourage you to acknowledge your emotions, clarify why you want to purchase a home, and make sure your financial expectations are realistic.

Do you view your home as an investment or residence? What advice would you offer a prospective home-buyer?

Real Worth vs. Net Worth

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“What am I worth?”

This is the most vital question about our lives. And while tracking one’s net worth is a helpful financial tool, we all know that a number can’t summarize a human’s value.

Of course, most people don’t view increasing net worth as their ultimate life goal. There is, however, a very real temptation to become overly focused on a quantifiable value. While seeking to avoid materialism, consumerism, or debt, we could become slaves instead to the mistaken master of net worth. The antidote to an undue emphasis is to ensure we’re establishing real worth, or substantial impact in our world. In simpler terms–be helpful.

What Is Real Worth?

Real worth is given to us. We believe our true worth comes from God. If God loves us, then we are more valuable than we can comprehend. Whether or not you share this belief, we all sense that human life is precious and priceless.

Real worth means substance and capability. Real worth and net worth are not antithetical. Worthwhile contributions happen through our day jobs as we perform useful services in the world. And if you are working hard, being productive, and avoiding the uselessness of over-consumption, your net worth will likely increase, even if it’s slowed slightly by other types of real worth investments. Building skills, relationships, and community service are all examples of real worth growth.

Real worth impacts people. As a natural response to inherent value, we believe in investing time and money to try to improve other people’s lives. Jesus put it this way: “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8). We’ve framed the idea of real worth as increasing your usefulness instead of your lifestyle. Additionally, it’s worth increasing your usefulness even if at times it’s at the expense of your net worth.

Real worth is helpful to anyone. Increasing your real worth could look like so many things. It could be volunteering, charitable giving, or spending time with friends. It could be getting involved in your church or practicing your faith in another way. It might look like mentoring youth or babysitting for a friend. It could be some type of activism that will make the world better for others. In fact, we believe it’s important to be useful in the local and global community, as well as within your family.

Trading Net Worth for Real Worth

We’ve made a number of decisions that have stunted our net worth growth, and I don’t regret any of them. For example, staying at home with our children has slowed our net worth for now, yet it’s 100% worth it to us.

Another decision that’s decreased our net worth while increasing our real worth (usefulness) is that we’ve always donated a minimum percentage of our income. We have in no way arrived as the generous people we hope to be, but this is a concrete example of investing resources away from our net worth. Though I also believe generosity can make us richer, even financially.

We’ve also foregone side-hustling in favor of volunteering and in the wake of having children. We’ve spent money—sometimes a lot—on travel, vacations, and retreats. We pay a weekly babysitter so that we can participate in our home church group. We’ve attended hundreds of social events like showers, weddings, birthday parties, and other outings. None of this has helped our net worth, but these relationships have added so much to our lives.

So next time you find yourself considering how to improve your net worth, take a moment to consider how you might also increase your real worth. Sometimes the two work beautifully in tandem, but don’t be surprised if at other times you have to make a trade-off.

Some of the material in the post was inspired by a Bible teaching. Check out the podcast here.

How have you found it worthwhile to build “real worth?” Have you ever faced a clear choice between building real & net worth?

10 Fun Facts From Our Camping Vacation

big tree

We returned from our annual week-long camping trip and it was a wild ride as usual. The weather was great, travel was easier this year, and the beach was a blast. As usual, we have crazy poop and sleep stories to tell, as well as a few ways we saved and (accidentally) spent money.

In other news, check out my article “How Having Kids Has Improved Our Finances” on the Society of Grownups blog.

  1. Camping is a lot more fun when you don’t have a baby. Although I had great fun the last four years, I couldn’t believe how much easier this year felt. I wasn’t pregnant, nursing, or chasing a 1-year-old. It was awesome! By the final night I was quite tired and crabby, but I went to bed early and bounced back just fine.
  2. Camping is a lot more fun when the weather is nice. The last two years have been relatively cold or rainy, so we especially appreciated the dry, warm weather this year. We spent a lot of time on the beach, which is free aside from the excessive amount of sunscreen I lather on my fair skin (and the kids’). My daughter could scarcely be kept away from the ocean when it was time to head back to camp, and the boy built some awesome sand creations.catch on the beach
  3. Camping is a lot more fun with a playground next to your camp site. We’ve always picked a site next to the playground, but until this year, the playground consisted only of a swing set and some open space. This year brand-new playground equipment entertained the kids throughout the day, although it stressed me out at first because my son kept taking his toy light saber over and trying to battle strangers. Turns out most kids want to play Star Wars and it wasn’t much of a problem after all.
  4. Camping is a lot more fun with friends. About 150 people from our church camped this year, including around 20 friends our age, plus their kids. This makes for lots of free entertainment and good memories, from impromptu Disney song dance parties to conversation around the campfire. Neil enticed a group out to the beach one night to watch a rocket launch from Kennedy. They had a great view and everyone’s favorite part was Neil’s excited commentary on it. He loves space.
  5. Unplugging for a week is awesome. “What Happened When I Unplugged For a Week”–doesn’t that sound like a great post title? I wish I could pull it off, but it’d be utter click-bait because nothing happened. It wasn’t hard. I didn’t even realize I’d done this until the end of the week. I barely thought about personal finance or blogging or email. The kids didn’t ask me for TV. I did benefit from others using their data for directions or info a few times. But it was nice to be consumed with family, friends, nature, and survival (i.e. camp cooking and dishes).
  6. Camping with kids always involves some shenanigans. The bathrooms are a little bit of a walk, and when you’re four and distracted by playing Star Wars with your friends, it’s hard to get there in time. I’ll just leave it at that. Also, on the first day we discovered my daughter’s ability to escape her pack ‘n’ play. During her first tent nap time, she got out, took a brand-new bottle of sunscreen, and spread it on our clothing, toiletries, and part of our bedding. Luckily it was oil-free sunscreen and came out of everything easily.

    Baby camp bath.

    Baby camp bath.

  7. Neil loves camping so much, he goes a overnight backpacking trip with his friendsThis annual tradition is also known as manhike or campception–that is, camping within camping. He always comes back with some interesting stories. This year’s involved lots of spiders.
  8. Reading on vacation is the best. The last couple years have been so hectic we barely got to read. This year was a marked improvement. Neil listened to the entire audio book of The Big Short and I read most of Raising Boys By Design.
  9. Traveling during Easter means you should book your free hotel stay ahead of time. We were debating exactly when to leave and waited until the day of to book our free Marriott stay. There were no rooms available—at least not free ones—and we ended up spending $95 to stay overnight. We didn’t really have another good option since we’d already packed up camp, it was around 1 pm, and we had a 14-hour drive ahead of us. And were tired from a week of camping! So it was money well spent in the situation, but we will remember this in the future and plan ahead. We often book from the car on the way back, an hour or two ahead, but this doesn’t work on Easter weekend.
  10. Renting an SUV doesn’t mean you’ll have a lot of space. We had a free rental at Enterprise, accumulated after about 10 years of renting for business travel—and decided to use it for the trip since our vehicle has had some lingering problems that would be very inconvenient to deal with on the road with two kids. We decided to pay the $50 to upgrade to an SUV so we could fit our camp gear, but they gave us a crossover with less space than our station wagon. We fit everything, though! Here’s the $ pie chart: image (1)

Anyone ready to try camping?

The Power of Perpetuity

sand dunes

Photo by Neil Brooks

My son’s three favorite numbers are infinity, googleplex, and several. Lately, my favorite concept for considering numbers is perpetuity. The power of compound interest is a popular personal finance topic, but what may be even harder to get our finite minds around is the power of perpetuity. Its impact is significant both from the savings and income sides of a budget, yet we often write off opportunities for perpetuity when a sum sounds insubstantial in the present.

Let’s start by considering the savings side, because that’s a little easier to grapple with mentally. Take a relatively small expense like a cable bill. Let’s say you’re paying $60 per month. Sixty dollars is not a huge amount of money. It might not make a drastic difference in your finances. But when you think about the power of $60 per month in perpetuity, it looks a little different. That’s $720 per year. That’s $720 you can’t put toward debt, build into your emergency fund, invest for long-term goals, or share with people in need. That’s $720 more you need to bring in every year for the rest of your cable-watching life. That’s $720 per year that’s not earning interest. Sixty dollars per month is almost half a million dollars over 50 years at 8% growth ($479,932.83 to be exact).

I realize this example is a bit extreme in the time-frame. But at age 30, I’m facing an average of 50 more years on the planet. We need to start thinking more in perpetuity or we’ll miss out on its power. We think about what we want now and how it’ll affect today, this month, maybe this year if we’re relatively long-sighted. While we need to enjoy and appreciate living in the present, we also need to consider the real trade-offs we’re making with our money (and time). Would I rather watch cable TV, or leave my children or a charity half a million dollars? This is extreme and over-simplified for the sake of illustration, but I hope it brings home the point. (And just because I don’t happen to watch cable doesn’t mean there aren’t 100 other ways I could blow half a million dollars over the long haul.)

Now let’s think about the income side. Take, for example, investing in rental properties. The upfront cost of purchasing and fixing up a property may seem overwhelming. You might not start seeing a return on your investment for 5-10 years. But after that, you could bring in an extra $1k per month in perpetuity. Sure, you might have the property vacant for a few months here and there, and you’d have work and expenses to maintain the property, but an average of $1000 per month in perpetuity is nothing to dismiss, especially if you invest it in retirement or college funds.

Now let’s say you find a few ways to save money—on utilities, foodtransportation, or whatever—and you’re saving $500 per month and (to be conservative) bringing in an extra $500 in perpetuity. That’s an extra $1000 per month to work with—in perpetuity. This is the power of frugality: if you live on less, you simultaneously can invest more and require less income in perpetuity. So while your investments grow, you freeze or even deflate your lifestyle, meaning you’ll need less of that stash when the time comes to start living off it.

Maybe you have no interest in cutting cable or owning a rental property. These are just examples. But if you can find something in your budget you’re willing to consider spending less on, and extrapolate the impact that could have over several decades, you may find yourself motivated to make a change you wouldn’t otherwise.

The same goes for the income side. Maybe you’re under-earning because you’re afraid to make a career change. You figure you’re making enough and feel safe where you are. I’m not at all in favor of revolving life around making as much money as possible. But you could be missing out on a more rewarding and lucrative career simply because it’s more convenient in the moment to stay put.

The power of perpetuity is why we’re willing to call our utility companies and negotiate lower rates. It’s why we shop at a discount grocery store and mostly cook at home. It’s why we buy second-hand (or even trash-pick) many items. It’s part of the reason Neil changed industries in his career, to increase his marketability and earning potential. In isolation, none of these moves might change the course of our financial lives; taken together in perpetuity, it’s the difference between financial slavery and flexibility.

Again, my point is not to work away your life and spend every spare moment scouring your budget for ways to save a dime. Rather, as you’re faced with day-to-day financial decisions, try to consider the power of perpetuity as well as the needs or whims of the present. It’s the latte effect on steroids. And it lets you dream bigger than you ever will just living for today.

How could you harness the power of perpetuity in your finances?

Hustle Away Debt Review

“Side hustling”—the trending slang for working a second job—is a hot personal finance topic covered in a new book, Hustle Away Debt, by David Carlson. His personal finance blog, Young Adult Money, focuses on ways for millennials to increase their income and manage money wisely.

Side hustles are great ways to increase the flexibility of how much you make. This is an important option for the many millennials who are drowning in student loans, or anyone struggling with debt. But side work is, well, more work. Carlson does a good job mentioning the pros and cons in his book, and offers realistic advice about how to choose the type of side work that will fit with your lifestyle.

We did some side hustling before we had kids, and even when we had one kid. This included photography (wedding, portrait, etc.), tutoring, coaching, babysitting, and writing. Now that we have two kids and a number of volunteer commitments, we aren’t focusing on this type of income, but it is a great option for tackling debt.

I like that Hustle Away Debt suggests side hustling for a purpose—to get out of debt. I’ve known a lot of people who felt overwhelmed and defeated about their debt, especially if they felt their income was out of proportion to their debt. Side work offers a way to take the reins and make a dent in debt when you might not otherwise be able to. If you are living off your current income, side hustle becomes “extra” that can all go straight toward repayment.

I believe any personal finance advice is best served with attention to motivation. Our motivation is what will carry us through all the extra hours of hard work and effort required when taking side work or changing financial habits.

Hustle Away Debt is short and sweet. It reads like a series of blogs, with bite-size, easy to read sections. The pictures and type spacing are even formatted like a blog. What’s better than a blog is that the material is one place, laid out in an organized fashion. I’m a linear thinker and don’t like clicking all over the internet (or even one site) in search of comprehensive information on a particular topic. I enjoyed the straightforward, logical flow of the book.

If you’re interested in tackling debt and willing to pick up a side hustle, this book will help you consider the options and pick the right approach for you. Hustle Away Debt: Eliminate Your Debt By Making More Money will be released on May 5, but is already available for pre-order on Amazon.

Has side hustling helped you reach financial goals? What type of work have you done?