A Letter to My College Self

College me: "I live in a tiny dorm room with 2 other people, and it's awesome!!"

Dear College Kalie,

You are afraid of so many things. Don’t be.

Don’t let your adviser scare you. Just because he told you, all of 16 years old, that you need to decide your major within a semester, doesn’t mean it’s true. You have to explore and find out what you love before you make that choice.

Don’t let the fear of failure dictate your decisions. Listen to advice about your course of study. Remember that time your journalism professor, journalist friend, and grandmother (who worked at a newspaper) all tried to convince you to change your major to journalism? Seeing as you’ve spent more time working as a freelance writer than a teacher, maybe you should’ve listened. You chose to teach English in part because you were afraid to write. You learned so much in those two journalism classes you had to take. Just imagine the skills you could’ve learned had you studied it more! Sure, there are things you love about teaching, but that 65-hour-work week (at least till you’re tenured) is not going to work with the rest of your life.

Don’t be afraid to live off campus with friends. Even though you’ll forego some scholarship money, the experience will be well worth it, and God will provide. Living in close community with five other Christian women will prepare you for marriage like nothing else. You’ll learn how to resolve conflict, relate to those quite different from you, and admit your own shortcomings. And you’ll still be good friends with some of those roommates over a decade later.

Don’t be afraid to have fun. You’re all about the grades, but your GPA is never going to be your problem. You’re way too serious and need to loosen up and live a little. The “A’s” are all a blur, but the times you stayed up late listening to a friend, or laughing with your roommates, or going to Taco Bell with Neil are all as clear as if they happened yesterday. College isn’t just about a classroom education; it’s about learning who you are and what you can offer the world.

Don’t be afraid to make friends. You set out to do this, even though you had no idea how. And some of those relationships will continue long past graduation. They’ll be there for you when you get married, have kids, and hit rough patches along life’s road. Your GPA won’t do you any favors then, but your friends will.

Don’t be afraid to invest in the stock market. You will have the exact same amount of money in savings when you start college as when you get married and join finances. Lesson? You could’ve invested most of it, if only to get in the habit, learn the ropes, and earn a bit more than 1% interest.

Don’t be afraid to give. You’ll be glad you always gave away some of your meager income in college. Starting this habit early will teach you that there is always something to share if you make it a priority. And it’ll teach you to trust God to provide as you work hard and follow Him.

Don’t be afraid to get married. When your boyfriend of three years suggests getting married before graduation, try to be nice. Sure, it’s not conventional, but you know you want to spend your lives together, so why wait? Your destinies were practically set since you realized you both subscribed to Zillions (Consumer Report for kids) while growing up. In fact, you’ll help each other finish school and establish a simple lifestyle together from the start. And those student loans you’re marrying into–don’t worry, you’ll pay them off long before they’re due. (For information about repaying student debt and student loan refinancing, please check out Earnest’s resources here.)

What would you tell your college self? Were you as afraid as I was? 

Weird Habits of Suburbanites

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Ah, the sights and sounds of autumn. The crunch of leaves, the bright blue sky, the brilliant foliage…

And the deafening sound of leaf blowers. Inefficient, loud, lazy leaf blowers blowing six leaves at a time, when a rake can coral hundreds at once.

Here are some more weird habits I’ve noticed in our Midwestern suburb. No offense if you do any of these. We do some weird stuff, too, like raising chickens, hauling manure in our hatchback Focus, and baiting swarms of bees. And there’s the time my kid peed in the middle of a Kan jam tournament. Maybe we just belong in the country. That’s why we’re rocking the burbstead.

  1. Mulch flower beds. Every spring, mulch is advertised ubiquitously and many homeowners spend a bunch of time and money spreading mulch on their flower beds. God forbid we let the dirt show. I suppose it may cut back on weeds, but I can’t imagine why mulch is so highly coveted come spring in the suburbs.
  2. Plant annuals. While you’re picking up mulch, why not buy a few flats of impatiens or other small, non-fragrant flowers, and painstakingly plant them strategically around your home? Never mind that they’ll be dead within two months, and that you’ll have to do it all over again next year. We’d rather grow something edible.
  3. Stay inside. Once those beds are mulched and annuals planted, most people hibernate until it’s time to blow leaves. The yards people moved to the ‘burbs for sit largely untouched, except to mow the grass. Just about everyone has an unused patio furniture set and a grill that makes all of four burgers a year. People with children might venture out a bit more but for the most part the prized decks, patios, and lawns of suburban homes lie empty.
  4. Not meet their neighbors. We’ve thrust ourselves upon the neighbors by baking them cookies when we moved in as well as when anyone new moves into the ‘hood. (Thank God the pastry chef was NOT HOME when I took them some slightly-too-crisp chocolate chip cookies before I learned her profession.) Anywho, meeting your neighbors takes work nowadays, and even some pretty sneaky moves like just *happening* to check the mail at the same time.
  5. Park in the driveway. Let’s just be honest–having a garage is one of the biggest advantages of suburban vs. city dwelling. Where else are you going to store all your extra junk? I mean, park your car. Wait no, definitely store the junk. We only park in our garage in the winter, and only then after a massive garage clean-out in which we fold up the stroller, bike trailer, ping pong table, chicken feeders, and other trappings of burbstead life.
  6. Buy each other’s stuff at yard sales. Speaking of garages, when do we venture out to see our neighbors? When we want to buy their stuff on mad discount at garage sales. Two fancier neighborhood have community garage sales and it’s crazy how people show up early to start rifling through other people’s junk. We went and scored some K’nex which have been a huge hit.
  7. Trash pick each other’s stuff. What’s more embarrassing than haggling over your neighbor’s used furniture? Picking it out of their tree lawn under cover of darkness later. Not that we would know 🙂
  8. Own too many tools. Clearly every homeowner needs to own a pressure washer, an extension ladder, a post hole digger, a table saw, a hydraulic jack, and an air compressor. We wouldn’t want to share or anything. That’d be too neighborly. Instead we’ll all spend thousands of dollars on all this equipment we rarely use, and store it all in our garages where our cars don’t fit, so that we don’t ever have to meet each other. Or, if you’re like us, wait until someone throws out their broken equipment and…well, you know the rest.
  9. Treat their lawns. Grass, that stubborn plant that cannot be allowed into the flower beds, is highly coveted in the rest of the yard. Clover, on the other hand, is intolerable. People pay a small fortune for toxins to kill any non-grass plants that may dare to grow. Maybe it’s my Irish heritage, but I can’t imagine what’s so offensive about clover, and certainly won’t be paying anyone to kill it.
  10. Helicopter parent. Another supposed advantage of the suburbs is their safety, yet we’re still expected to watch our kids like hawks. Go to a suburban playground and observe the moms. They are on the slides, up the ladders, and generally following their children at no more than a two-step distance. They are most certainly not sitting and watching from the park benches, lest they be accused of negligence. I love when no one is at the park (which happens often since no one goes outside) so I can sit down for once in my life and just do nothing. Isn’t that what playgrounds are for?

Has anyone observed these or other strange suburban habits? What are some quirky country or city ways you’ve noticed? 

The Personal Finance Topic No One Talks About

Image result for scrooge jumping into money pool

Copyright Disney

There is one word that is noticeably absent from personal finance content. I’m sure someone’s written about it, but I can’t remember reading a post on it in the two years I’ve been blogging. We hear the buzzwords repeatedly: side hustling, decluttering,  values-based spending, travel hacking, card churning, zero sum budgeting, and more. But what about the real root that gets so many of us into trouble when it comes to money?

I mentioned it in “5 Money Euphemisms to Avoid.” Interestingly, it was the one term that no one commented on. It’s almost a dirty word. Yet it’s something we’re all prone to.

Greed.

I hardly expect greed will ever become a buzzword. It can’t be good for SEO. But I think it’s important to broach this taboo that can seriously stymie our financial progress, or limit our happiness even if we are swimming in money.

Admitting the Scrooge in All of Us

The Greek philosophers’  concept for greed was pleonexia, an over-desire. Inordinate desire. A wish or drive out of proportion with what the thing can deliver. An unhealthy appetite. We think that car purchase, sleek device, or rising stocks will make us happy, but these things disappoint. It’s not because those things are inherently wrong, but because we’re wrong for placing our trust in them. Can so much metal, silicon, or stock value change our well-being for the long-term? That’s simply asking too much of too little.

I’m a naturally frugal person, but greed still finds its way into my heart regularly. Sometimes I wish for a more beautiful home even though we have a nice place with more space than we need. Sometimes I dream of new clothes or furniture even though what I have is perfectly passable. Sometimes I desire more savings although we’re filthy rich by global standards. And I know my generous, thrifty husband at times longs to own more land, a nicer car, or a bigger nest egg.

Sometimes yearning for more is a healthy impetus to work hard and live wisely. I’m not talking about such a contented quest to do the next step well. Greed is by definition discontent. Let explore a few examples.

My kids always want more. They have more toys than they have time to play with, but they want everything they see in the store. I know that’s “how kids are.” But isn’t “how kids are” a glimpse into raw human nature?

Credit card debt is often the result of greed, though there can be other factors. I can have something I can’t afford, and I can have it now.

Or take car loans. Unfortunately, they’ve been normalized to the point that people cannot see this. Taking a car loan is saying, I want a nicer car than I can purchase in cash. So I’m just going to get it. For an alternative approach, check out How I Spent $8000 on Cars in 17 Years of Commuting.

Mortgages a.k.a. death pledges are a bit different, since homes are an appreciating asset. Still, it’s all too easy to get greedy with the mortgage, especially when you’re offered loans much bigger than you need or can comfortably afford. Surely the housing market crash of 2008 demonstrated how pervasive greed can be in this arena. During our house hunt we almost purchased a home which would’ve made things tight. It all looked fine on paper but in retrospect I’m glad we went with something less expensive.

Greed is also the stuff Black Friday is made of. Again, there’s nothing wrong with Black Friday, and I know lots of people purchase only gifts or items they’ve planned for. But Black Friday would not be nearly as lucrative if it were not fueled by both consumer and corporate greed.

Responding to Greed

Greed could be for more savings, more travel, more experiences, perhaps even for more “freedom.” Again, it’s not the object of desire that’s a problem. It’s our attitude toward that thing. This attitude is uniquely hard to decipher in a society where greed has become normalized, institutionalized, and celebrated at nearly every level.

Where’s the line between normal desire and greed? That may look different for everyone, but it certainly crosses the line when we start acting on it, practically putting our faith in those things which cannot ultimately deliver.

It’s okay to admit you fall prey to greed. It may just be in your thoughts, or it may limit itself to insignificant purchases that don’t do much harm. It may be a gray area, but it’s there. And I think we’d experience more freedom from it if we could just admit it.

I know it’s scary, but think about the possibility of greed next time you:

  1. Think about charging something you can’t afford.
  2. Consider taking a car loan.
  3. Spend on “wants” while living in debt.
  4. Put off giving until you’re “comfortable” or “better off.”
  5. Check your investments constantly.

We can guard ourselves against acting on greed with the following measures:

  1. Giving consistently and sacrificially.
  2. Setting a budget and sticking to it.
  3. Paying off debt as quickly as reasonable.
  4. Avoiding new consumer debt.

Anyone brave enough to admit how greed affects you? What do you do to combat it? If I’ve missed any good posts on greed, please share them!

Things Fall Apart: What We Do When Something Breaks

coffee

My coffee maker broke. As fate would have it, I’d stayed up too late the night before and my toddler woke up an hour early. She then proceeded to poop her pants while I took a quick shower. After cleaning up that mess, I frantically pushed the coffee maker’s power button. I fiddled with every moving part, turning the machine in various positions like a woman in labor. Alas, nothing happened.

What do you do when something breaks, and can’t be fixed?

  1. Go to the nearest store and replace it immediately.
  2. Buy one on Amazon that day.
  3. Compare prices on several web sites and order one later in the week.
  4. Search Craigslist and buy-sell-trade pages for a couple weeks.
  5. Hope you find it at a garage sale, hand-me-down, or in the trash.

Choices 2-5 are all pretty good options, in my opinion. But there is another, less considered option that we’ve found by practicing a wait period.

Why Wait?

We all know the importance of waiting to make purchases. Give yourself time to think it over, asking do I really need/want it? Can I really afford it? Is it worth the space it’ll take up, as well as the cost? Is it worth the opportunity cost?

When planning a new purchase, we often take time to research it. Maybe you ask around to see if anyone has a lead on a good deal, a giveaway, or feedback about the best brand or type.

But when something breaks, we often reflexively replace that item without thought. If I already owned it, I don’t need to go through the agonizing decision all over again.

Except, why not? There are certain possessions that I’m 100% sure I want to own. Coffee maker is certainly in that camp. Ditto for a phone. But when one of nine lamps in my house broke, I realized…I don’t need nine lamps. Maybe eight will suffice, at least now.

We’ve waited on replacing even big items like cars and furniture as well as smaller items like home goods, clothing, or toys.

Why Deflate?

Broken or worn out stuff is an annoying inevitably. Yet therein lies the perfect opportunity to minimize, simplify, or deflate your lifestyle. Rather than rush out and buy a new one that day, or asking Amazon to mail you one, implement a wait. Unless it’s super important, wait and see if you really need to replace that object.

Naturally, the very first step is trying to fix it. We love free and broken stuff, which means we love fixing stuff. Okay, Neil loves fixing stuff, and I love cheering him on. But if Neil can’t fix something (or doesn’t know someone who can), I know the object in question is probably a lost cause. The man has skillz.

Your ingrained consumer instinct is to get new thing ASAP. Maybe a better one. As per constant barrage of marketing, broken = opportunity to upgrade. It’s the lifestyle inflation that feels totally justified. After all, you need a new one!

Every time something breaks or wears out, you face a consumption crossroads. You can 1) inflate your lifestyle, 2) maintain your lifestyle, or 3) deflate your lifestyle. Discerning the right move requires a bit of time.

What if you waited? One of these beautiful things might happen:

You realize you don’t need it. One of our glass end table tops broke when a vase fell on it. First of all, who needs a decorative vase? That thing had to go. Secondly, who needs all these end tables? We didn’t replace our end table, and I can’t say I’ve missed it. (It’s twin is still going strong, far away from ceramics armed with potential energy.)

The bigger the belonging, the greater opportunity for savings or lifestyle deflation. Who knows? You might not just save yourself the initial cost of replacement, but the ongoing costs of maintaining and replacing in the future as well.

You get a free one. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve wanted something and then I came by it for free or very cheaply. It happened just last week, though I was replacing broken toys for our church nursery, not my own home. Whether it’s replacing an item, or just a new want or need, free rules! There’s hand-me-downs, gifts, give-aways, and tree lawns. Because we’re not above trash-picking.

You get a great deal. We all know how sometimes during that wait you find a better deal than you ever would have at traditional retailers. When one of our cars broke, we waited a month to buy a new one. While this arrangement might not work in our current situation as it did then, it allowed us to find a great deal on a (very) used car which cost us only $5/month to drive.

You get creative. When I suggested we buy our son a CD player for his audio books, my husband thought he had an old one in his “electronics lab” (read: boxes of cords and broken electronics collecting dust in my basement). He fixed it up by adding a second power plug.

This is just a smattering of examples, and I know I’m not the only one who waits on purchases. Who’s realized they didn’t need something, or found a freebie, great deal, or creative solution rather than going the traditional retail route? Share your stories!

The Case for Consistent Generosity

My son's spontaneous food drive last year.

My son’s spontaneous food drive last year.

In conjunction with today’s post, please check out my recent Society of Grownups article “Choosing a Charity: A Hands-on Approach.” I wrote it because I know it’s overwhelming to trust someone else to manage your money well, and there are an overwhelming number of options. So I describe a step-by-step process for selecting a trustworthy nonprofit to donate to. Now to today’s topic…

”I prefer to give time instead of money.”

“There are so many corrupt charities—I don’t want to line the pockets of some rich con artist.”

“Giving doesn’t have to be financial. You can give time, possessions, or simply kindness.”

“I like to give when I feel there is an urgent need.”

“I love to give really generous tips to servers.”

I hear these sentiments about charitable giving all the time, and each one conveys a piece of the complicated puzzle that is generosity. Yet each could also represent a misconception about philanthropy.

Last month I shared my belief that the purpose of money is to provide for needs and wants, for myself and others, now and in the future. We dissected wants. Vs. needs, and probably ended up more confused, though grateful, than we started.

This week let’s look at the next part, “for myself and others.” We’ll explore different types of giving, and I’ll make the case for one approach you can’t afford to skip.

There’s More Than One Way to Give a Dollar

Sometimes people conflate the idea of generosity with being a nice person in general. Volunteering at your kids’ school or helping old ladies cross the street could be called generosity under this definition. I find it a bit odd that on personal finance blogs, we’d suddenly jump topics and start talking about random acts of kindness.  By all means, help the old ladies, but let’s stick to the theme: money. (Things that you buy and then donate count, too). Here’s a list of ways one might give away the green stuff:

Others Wants & Needs
Gifts for friends and family
Fundraisers
Giving to a faith-based group
Giving to charitable causes and non-profits
Being hospitable
Random acts of generosity to individuals
College funding for your children (?)

I see two main categories:

  1. Personal gifts
  2. Charitable gifts

Both are valuable and important. And there can be overlap between these categories. But we’re not going to count our familial Christmas shopping as philanthropy. I love giving and receiving thoughtful gifts, but personal gifts—even very generous ones–can’t and shouldn’t replace charitable giving in your financial plans. Giving to those outside your own tribe cultivates compassion in a way that guards against greed and grows your real worth all at once.

Under charitable giving, there are two main approaches:

  1. Spontaneous gifts
  2. Planned gifts

Many people practice spontaneous giving. Perhaps it’s the Boy Scouts selling popcorn, the Salvation Army Santa outside the grocery store at Christmas, or the community food drive. Then there are the urgent calls for disaster relief or refugee care. Being able to respond to needs in the moment is incredibly important. These are times when compassionate, spontaneous giving is invaluable.

The Case for Planned, Consistent Giving

If we rely on spontaneous giving alone, we will not give as generously as if we plan ahead. Yes, it’s more work up front. Yes, it will require more money. But it also allows for a long-term partnership where you know your money is actively and effectively helping others on a regular basis. We plan ahead for ourselves with emergency funds and retirement accounts. It only makes sense to plan ahead to help others, as well.

There’s a reason many of the world’s faiths call upon followers to give away a portion of their income, such as ten percent. I don’t believe 10% is a magical number or even required by my faith, but it’s a good starting point. Choosing a percentage is helpful because it’s easy to feel like I’m doing so much good because I’m giving away $50 a month! That’s a great starting point, but if you’re making a median $51,900 per year, you’re giving away a whopping 1%.

It’s also easy to give less (percentage wise) as your income increases by simply giving the same amount you always have. The average individual American charitable giving by percent is lower for those with higher incomes.

Whatever percent or amount you choose, please choose ahead of time! We read all the time about why we should save a certain percent, invest a certain percent, don’t let housing costs exceed a certain percent, etc. Plan your giving like you plan your saving, investing, and spending. If you believe sharing is part of what money is for, grant giving the forethought and importance it deserves by choosing what to give ahead of time.

We choose the causes we want to give to, then the amounts we want to give. Next we add ’em up and see how that compares against our income, i.e. the percentage. Then we can adjust the amounts and/or causes as we see fit. Finally, we sign up to have these auto-drafted from our checking account monthly, just as we do with most of our expenses and investing. Giving to urgent needs is determined as they arise.

All types of giving are valuable, but planned, consistent giving is the key to unleashing more funds toward improving our world. I believe many people would be moved to greater generosity if they thought of giving as a strategic financial commitment. If it’s truly better to give than to receive, let’s plan to make giving happen.

For more on charitable giving, check out:

Choosing a Charity: A Hands-On Approach

Inflate Your Usefulness, Not Your Lifestyle

Inflate Someone Else’s Lifestyle Instead of Your Own

Get Rich With Generosity

The Treasure Measure

What Seeing Real Poverty Taught Me About Pretending to Be Poor

Real Worth vs. Net Worth

What type(s) of generosity do you practice? Has anyone found they give more when they commit ahead of time?

Maximize Your Minimalism

Fall visit to a local farm.

To minimize or not to minimize? That’s not really the question. The crux lies in why you’re minimizing.

Like frugality, simple living, or values-based spending, minimalism must be viewed as a tool in order to be effective. Owning less stuff is hardly a worthy life direction. Getting rid of clutter cannot make your life meaningful. Meaning makes life meaningful.

Meaning means you’re doing something significant on this planet. Something worthwhile. It means having a purpose. But figuring out your purpose is whole lot harder than cleaning out your closet, and I suspect this is why many more articles are written on the latter.

I won’t pretend I can tell you what your purpose should be, though you can check out some overarching principles in the post “How to Pursue Happiness” (hint: pursue purpose instead). I will share that our purpose is very much related to living out our Christian faith. This means we value involvement in our church, hospitality, and poverty relief.

Let me illustrate how your purpose might shape how you practice minimalism. If you want to be a minimalist so you can be generous, maybe you won’t be the type of minimalist who spends $300 on the perfect bag to end all bags. You’ll keep your three bags, while spending minimally in order to help the poor.

If you are the type of minimalist who has downsized forever, you probably need to buy that $300 bag because you don’t have room for three bags. And you’ll save much more than $300 by downsizing.

But if you’re the minimalist who highly values hospitality, you may not downsize. And you’ll keep more furniture and more toys or kitchen appliances or linens. But you’ll avoid adding unneeded stuff to make room for more people.

If you’re the minimalist who loves to DIY, you’ll have more tools. If you’re the minimalist with lots of kids, you’ll have more stuff than the minimalist without a large family. Okay, enough examples?

It’s been said plenty of times that minimalism looks different for everyone. But it doesn’t look different randomly. It should be different for a purpose. Linking your choices to your bigger picture will free you to own your choices about what to own and spend.

I largely curtailed recreational shopping when I read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger at age 18. Suddenly browsing clearance racks at the mall for clothes I didn’t need seemed absurd. Helping people in poverty became part of my purpose, which changed my spending and owning habits forever. I’m certainly not the most generous person, but having a deeper motivation helped me change my consumption habits for the long haul.

Once you determine that purpose, start asking if the things in your home fit that purpose. I don’t care whether my possessions bring me joy. I don’t think the point of possessions is to evoke emotions. They are there to serve my purposes. My kitchen’s contents allow me to produce many healthy, homemade meals each week. They also help me to host and feed many guests throughout the week. My dishes hardly enrapture me, but they sure are useful.

I can tell you one possession that does not give me joy: the giant Rubbermaid tub of hand-me-down Legos. There’s stepping on Legos. Seeing my basement covered in Legos. Telling kids to clean up the Legos. Helping the kids clean up the Legos. But I could never get rid of the Legos. They’ve helped make our house a place where kids want to come. They’ve served as a way for me to bond with my son. And they foster my kids’ creativity and development. They may be annoying, but those little pieces of plastic serve my purposes so well.

The framework of purpose helps us use minimalism as a tool for a greater good, rather than falling into materialistic minimalism. After all, it is purpose, not possessions, that truly brings us joy.

How has your purpose influenced your consumption choices?

The Unexpected Benefits of Marrying Young

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I met my husband the second day of college, two weeks after my 17th birthday. Fast forward three years and it was obvious we were heading toward marriage.

When he suggested tying the knot before commencement, I was surprised and a bit resistant. That’s simply not the typical order of operations. But I warmed up to the idea and happily married when I had one semester left, and he had three.

We had very little money and even less income during the early months of our marriage, yet our youthful union turned out to have unexpected financial benefits.

Phase 1: Both in school

During our first few months, I was student teaching and not earning income. Neil worked about eight hours per week at his internship, for a monthly net income of around $1000. We were also paying for private health insurance until one of us got a job with benefits. We lived off of his income, with a bit of help from our pooled premarital savings and wedding money.

Phase 2: Kalie graduates

During the first summer, Neil interned full time, I worked as a nanny, and we were both relieved that I landed a teaching job for fall. The back-up plan was for me to work as a substitute teacher. At the beginning of his senior year, Neil accepted a full-time position with his company upon graduation.

During the following year, Neil worked fewer hours per week than he’d ever worked during college. His grades had always been solid, but they improved since he was finally able to focus more on his coursework. Though he already had a job, finishing a rigorous five-year program with a GPA hike was encouraging.

It’s no secret that first-year teachers don’t make much. We had a lot more money than the year before, but decided to live like college students as much as possible, for as long as possible. Getting married while still in school set our standards of living fairly low. Sharing a quiet one-bedroom apartment felt luxurious compared to the many roommates we’d rented with previously. Our rent was less than the combined amount we’d been paying for rundown houses in a pricey college town. I even convinced Neil to pack a lunch instead of buying Taco Bell near campus.

For many couples, marriage marks the beginning of being a “real adult,” so to speak. That’s when it’s time to buy that first home where you’ll start your life together. Then you remodel and decorate the home to make the space yours. Perhaps you purchase a new car or two.

We didn’t have any money for these “adult” steps, so we embraced the simple lifestyle that worked just fine throughout college. We bought used furniture, accepted hand-me-downs, and shopped at the same discount grocery store we knew and loved from our student days. For entertainment we walked our new city, and invited friends over.

Phase 3: Neil graduates

Once Neil graduated, our income increased, but our lifestyle increased only slightly. We splurged on a trip to Europe we saved for that first year. We took road trips, went out with friends, and I got a membership to the gym within walking distance. While lifestyle creep is all but inevitable,measuring your spending against your college-day budget can provide welcome perspective on wants vs. needs.

Unexpected Benefits

Simple living. If we had waited longer to marry, I imagine we would have spent more on our wedding  rather than keeping it simple. We also would have set up our home differently, probably opting for a larger apartment or buying a home much sooner than we did. Perhaps we wouldn’t have been willing to live in our friends’ basement. Spending wasn’t really an option, so we kept a simple lifestyle and largely stuck with it, even after our income increased. From the beginning we made a habit of giving money to our church, missions work, and poverty relief. Establishing this from day one has helped us practice generosity consistently.

Working as a team. Getting married so young made it easy to combine not just our finances, but our dreams. Travel, giving, and volunteer ministry were values we shared. We also began operating as a financial team. Neil was better at seeking financial education by reading about personal finance. I was better at budgeting and keeping our living expenses low. We each taught the other our fortes, rather than attacking each other about our weak areas.

We grew up financially together. Neil’s interest in personal finance certainly paid off. We learned about topics like investing, insurance, and mortgages together. Every choice we made was researched and discussed until we could agree on a course of action. Though we’ve certainly had differences of opinion, our basic financial philosophy was formed in a process we were both very much a part of. This blog is one outcome of this financial formation.

Transition to parenthood. Our early days taught us to live on one income, which prepared us for allowing me to stay at home with our young children. We agreed this was our plan before we got married, and six years later we had a seamless transition. I’d already left my full-time job for freelance writing, which I continued part-time until our second child was born. We also put the student loans behind us and purchased a home we could afford on one income.

The timing of our wedding was unconventional, but I’ve never regretted it. What’s best for each couple is different. Just don’t assume you have to follow the “normal” timeline of life events. I wouldn’t recommend marrying before you can support yourselves, but that may be easier than you think if you avoid drastic lifestyle changes.

Have you ever deviated from the norm when it comes to life events? What would you say to someone who wants to get married while in college?

Not Your Mom’s Meal Planning

Meal Planning

My friend described her mother’s meal-planning approach: every day she’d browse through Bon Apetit, choose a recipe, and shop for the ingredients. My mom, who was feeding a family of seven, would scan the grocery circular and build meals around the sale items.  Not everyone has the time or inclination peruse food magazines or even grocery ads, yet planning ahead for meals is one of the best ways to stay within your food budget.

When we were first married I planned meals a month in advance! Now I spend less than ten minutes per week meal-planning, and my family eats healthfully on half the USDA’s “low-cost” food plan.  Check out these simple speed-strategies that may be quite different from your parent’s approach to meal planning.

  1. Create a rotation of familiar favorites.

What are your favorite meals to cook and eat? List five to seven ideas, or however often you make dinner at home. Next, write a “master” grocery list including all the items you need for these meals. Save it digitally and check which items you need to replenish before grocery shopping. If you’re a diehard creature of habit, you might like to assign each dish to a certain night of the week. It takes all the guesswork out and is a great way to get in the habit of cooking at home.

  1. Schedule themed days.

Maybe you can’t stand the thought of eating the same meals week after week. Instead, create a schedule of themed days that allow for more flexible. For example, Taco Tuesdays could involve different proteins or toppings, while still offering some structure to speed meal planning. Other themes ideas include main ingredients like Pasta Night, Meatness Monday; your favorite ethnic cuisine; or a go-to dish, such as pizza or curry. (My all-time favorite is Leftover Night)

  1. Batch cooking tailored to your schedule.

Is one part of your week busier than another? On less hectic days I like to cook larger, more involved meals that will provide leftovers later in the week. I also might cook a lot of one protein, to be used into two or more dishes. For example, shredded chicken or ground beef can be incorporated into a wide variety of recipes. Or grilled or baked proteins can later be served with different sauces. You can batch cook more than one meal at once, or simply prep a protein to streamline meal prep later in the week.

  1. Planning around protein sales.

If you want to shop sales but feel overwhelmed by grocery ads or remembering prices, focus on purchasing your proteins on sale, since this is often the most expensive ingredient in a recipe. See what’s on sale—ahead of time if possible—and brainstorm two or three meals using that same main ingredient as the basis for your recipe. Pinterest, Yumly, or other recipe curating web sites might help if you need ideas. But if you find those sites overwhelming, it’s better to stick with your favorite cookbook.

  1. Planning by cooking method.

For the busiest days, I plan ahead for quick recipes using the grill or pressure cooker. If I’ll have time at home but want a hands-off dish, the oven is my friend. Sometimes I want to unwind through culinary therapy and choose a hands-on, stove-top recipe. Of course the slow cooker is a stand-by for long busy days. Connecting these cooking methods to your scheduling needs can help set you up for meal planning success.

  1. Mix & match.

I use a combination of the ideas above to power meal planning. Practice has helped me become flexible and fast about making our menu, but I continue to think in categories: meatless dishes, 2 dishes from a large package of chicken, Thai, Indian, Mexican, etc. I enjoy trying one new recipe some weeks. This keeps things interesting and allows us to discover new favorite while keeping home cooking manageable throughout the week.

  1. Subscription services that plan meals for you.

If none of the ideas above appeal to you or meal-planning is just not your thing, you might try one of the subscription services that do the work for you. Many allow you to specify dietary restrictions, food preferences, and even tailor menus to weekly sales at various grocery chains. An affordable menu service could actually help you lower foods costs by reducing over-spending, food waste, and last minute dining out. I’ve never used one, but if you could recommend one, we’d appreciate your comments!

For more tips for cutting back your grocery budget without sacrificing nutrition, check out:

Say Good-Bye to Meatless Monday

20 Frugal Food Hacks

Are You Too Chicken? (To Raise Backyard Chickens)

Inflate Your Usefulness with Gardening

Cut Your Grocery Budget in Half

Cut Your Grocery Budget in Half, Part 2

Do you find meal planning saves you money? How do you plan meals? 

How to Stay Motivated After Meeting a Goal

victory

If you’ve ever reached a significant financial goal, congratulations! Maybe you saved an emergency fund, paid off a loan, or earned a promotion. Or you paid for a vacation or holiday gifts in cash. Feels great, doesn’t it?

But if you’re anything like us, you might find yourself floundering in the wake of your victory. The laser-focus that directed your progress can vanish once the finish line is behind you. Perhaps you loosened the reins on your spending, or even celebrated a bit too lavishly. Or rushed right into the next goal without recovery time, feeling burnt out and unmotivated. Here are some ideas for transitioning between goals successfully.

  1. Plan your celebration. Don’t let goal celebration week turn into month or quarter of pricey festivities. Choose one or two special ways to celebrate and determine approximately what they’ll cost. Dreaming about this reward ahead of time can be a great way to stay motivated. Of course, you can plan some free ways to mark the occasion, as well.
  2. Update your budget. Pull out that spreadsheet and update your numbers. We don’t fuss over a monthly budget much, but it’s important to plan for major changes to your income or expenses. Do so ahead of time if possible. Otherwise you stand the risk of letting that “extra” disappear if it’s unaccounted for. Updating your budget also lets you know exactly what you’re working with for your next goal.
  1. Set your next goal. I know it sounds obvious, but it can be hard to think past your current goal when you’ve got gazelle-like intensity. Or maybe you have too many goals in mind to choose from. Make a list, order them by importance, and record the dollar amounts each might require—total, and monthly. Refer back to your budget and decide which or how many goals to queue up.

After purchasing our home and paying off our student loans, we coasted for about a year without much financial direction. Fortunately we maintained the basics like saving, giving, and investing, but I wonder what we could have achieved with a clearer goal in mind.

  1. Expect some extra expenses. While pressing toward your goal, you may have deferred some spending. Maybe it’s home maintenance, a car repair, or replacing worn clothing or furniture. Saving for special purposes like your next vehicle or vacation may also need renewed attention. It’s fine to delay certain expenses until you meet your goal, but don’t be surprised if you have some catching up to do. Try listing these expenses before and/or after meeting your goal. Warning: catching up can be a let-down. Costs like replacing an old toilet or getting new tires can feel pretty boring after you’ve reached a lofty goal, but that’s just life. #adulting
  2. Give yourself some time off. This might sound dangerous, but you could feel defeated if your first couple months of extra income or lower expenses leaves you feeling broke. The cost of celebrating plus catching up on delayed spending can add up. That doesn’t mean you’re failing. If you need a month or two to recover before striving for the next finish line, go ahead! Just return to your routine spending habits after your recovery period and your budget will normalize.
  3. Remember what you’ve accomplished. The goal that once felt so significant might start to seem small in hindsight. Don’t take for granted that you accomplished something big for you. Be encouraged by your goal-setting success and let that spur you toward your next victory.

If you’ve already met a goal and are struggling to get your bearings, it’s not too late to take the steps above. Give yourself grace, remember your success, and get excited for your next goal. You can do it!

Have you ever lost motivation after reaching a goal? How did you get back on course?

Too Much Fun: Summer on the Burbstead

Our summer was too much fun. It’s my favorite season, and we try to swim, camp, garden, and travel as much as possible without over-doing it. Lest we seem like ascetics after our post on wants vs. needs, here’s evidence that we have plenty of fun around here.

First, some updates on our burbstead goals:

Our garden was a success. So were the chickens. We just picked apples today, and made some into caramel apples. The wood pile is well stocked with free wood for fires this fall and winter.

I didn’t learn how to can because we were able to keep up with our tomatoes. I helped with the prep for Neil to preserve 16 jars of salsa, as well as making several large batches of fresh pico de gallo. Neil and his brother canned two pecks of jalapenos into sweet-hot slices also known as cowboy candy.

peppers-2

The remote garden was unsuccessful. We just got too busy to take care of it, and it was a very dry summer for us. Maybe next year we’ll build more raised beds or give our community plot proper attention.

We didn’t catch a swarm of bees. Maybe our bait box was too small. We can try again next year. The beauty of the burbstead is that everything is small scale, the learning curve is gentler, and we don’t have to spend much to pursue these fun, productive, kid-friendly hobbies. We also fit in lots of suburban fun which wouldn’t be possible if we had more ‘stead to attend to.

Here’s is a sampling of our activities this summer:

Went on two vacations! The first was to Western New York, i.e. the middle of nowhere. It’s beautiful farm country. It wasn’t our first choice destination, but we didn’t plan ahead well, and still had fun. We visited two different Great Lakes beaches, saw the “Grand Canyon of the East” at Letchworth State Park, went to a war aviation museum, and spent time with the two families we rented a place with.

Our second vacation was a “YOLO” move. Our son will start kindergarten next fall, so we decided to take advantage of off-season prices and four free airline tickets and enjoyed a week near St. Pete’s Beach, FL. The kids were excited about flying and the weather and water were perfect. Until Hurricane Hermine blew in.

Neil's hurricane selfie.

Neil’s hurricane selfie.

Neil had the brilliant idea to purchase an annual family pass to a local museum for $56, because it offers reciprocal relationships at hundreds of attractions across the country, including several near St. Pete’s Beach. It was well worth it just for that week, though we’ll continue to use the pass elsewhere.

Went to two waterparks. We were offered free passes by our generous friends who got them from a work conference. The normal price for one adult is $70! The kids had a blast. The second was a local, much smaller place that we visit once a year. I made the mistake of showing my son in the lazy river, and he wanted nothing to do with waterslides after that.

Celebrated birthdays—three out of the four of us have birthdays within three weeks. We had a family party for our son’s 5th featuring pizza and water balloons. Throwing a Pinterest-worthy party is just not my thing.

Went swimming. My son took his first swim lessons after falling off the dock on our first vacation. We tried to get in as much water exposure as possible without purchasing a pool pass. We visited three free library events at a nearby pool and visited a local lake twice. And of course swimming at the beaches on our vacations. Neil’s sister, who lives nearby, had a pool put in near the end of summer. We were granted a “pool pass” and swam there several times.

Camped four times. We camped with our church Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, Neil went on a men’s retreat, and also camped out with our son one night. We want more camping, though. Camping really opens the door to affordable travel and recreation. We may squeeze in another trip before it cools off here.

Went to a conference.  I’ve been going to the Xenos Summer Institute, a Bible conference, since I was 17, and Neil was going there before we ever met. It’s one of the highlights of the year, and my mom graciously agreed to babysit so we could absorb 2.5 full days of teaching and practical training.

Went to two family weddings. Plus some bridal & baby showers, and Neil’s grandpa’s 99th birthday party!

Went to four funerals 🙁 With another this week. Each one hits home how important it is to live for real worth. Money is just a tool.

Watched a lot of Olympics. Go USA! I was useless the week gymnastics was on.

Went to the zoo. We have a pass to the local zoo—we split it with another family so it’s $50 for the year. We buy one every other year since the 13-month pass gets us through most of two summer, plus one off-season.

Road the local scenic railroad. Tickets are almost $20/person, but if you bike the parallel trail one way, you (and your bike) can ride back for $3. Bikes and trains are two of my kids’ favorite things so this activity is always a hit.

Were visited by two out-of-state family members. My dad and sister both came into town this summer, separately.

I’m always a bit sad for summer to end, but I’m enjoying the more structured routines of fall, as well as the seasonal festivities that are especially fun with little ones. A trip to the apple orchard, hiking, pumpkin carving, and campfires are all in our future.

How was your summer? What do you look forward to in fall?