DIY Diary

Is starting a complete DIY bathroom remodel foolhardy when you’re third baby is due in 3 weeks? Probably. But life got away from us since we discovered loose tiles—and a leak and ruined subfloor—in the very outdated bathroom we were already talking about updating.

Here’s how it’s gone so far.

Demo

Neil spent three evenings after work on demo. The idea to work on it after the kids went to bed quickly proved difficult, as the demo (and some of the construction) was way too loud. Their bedroom is right across the hall. Solution? See how far he can get before they get tired, keep them up late because it’s summer, and one night they slept in our downstairs guest room.

During this time the nursery, which was finally clean and ready to go, became the storage place for the toilet and tools. The attic access is also through the baby room closet, so that space is now full of loose insulation. No complaints, though. I want a new bathroom! If the room isn’t accessible before baby comes, I’ll grab the pack n play and stick it in our room. Seven-pound people just don’t need that much space.

Bathtub

The first weekend after demo, Neil put in 2 very looong days wrangling the plumbing and installing the new bathtub and shower. The water was off all day Saturday—he turned it back on at 10:30 pm and that was with a temporary fix to keep pipes from leaking just for the evening. I was filling up water jugs like a maniac because I drink at least a gallon and a half a day at this point.

One downside—if you can call it that—of having such a handy husband is that I have developed absolutely no skills in the DIY area. I’m not even allowed to paint, because I suck at it. I can find things and clean up so I tried to help in that area. But it’s pretty pathetic and even comical trying to do much of anything when you’re nine months pregnant.

Walls

The following week saw him installing the subfloor and drywall where it’d been cut for the shower and fixtures, and lots of mudding, sanding, mudding, and sanding. Then lots of priming and painting. We’ve had the A/C on way more than usual trying to dry out mud and paint as quickly as possible. But the bathroom has no windows in or near it and the fumes were getting to be too much, so we had to turn off the A/C and open the windows on a 94 degree afternoon.

Floor

The floor—vinyl tile—is going in as write this (at 10 p.m.). Once that’s done, the toilet is next! I’ve never been so excited about a toilet in my life. There’s still a lot more to do; I’m not hoping for finishing touches before the baby comes, but a toilet would be lovely.

Silver Linings

I’m very grateful that we have another bathroom in the basement, including a shower.  I’m also grateful for the expertise of Neil’s brother, and the helping hands of several friends. And while the ninth month of pregnancy wasn’t an ideal time to start this project, there are perks. I’m enjoying more A/C than I’d indulge myself in otherwise. School being out affords more flexibility in our morning and evening schedules, which is helpful when we’re down to one bathroom and sometimes dealing with late-evening noise. And the progress Neil has made is significant—it’s that much to do after the baby is here. Lastly, the bathroom is a nice distraction from “waiting for baby.” As I get more uncomfortable in the final weeks, I’d probably feel more antsy to get this kid out if I had a functional bathroom (and clean nursery) upstairs.

What DIY projects has your family attempted? What have been the ups and downs for you?

How to Throw a Shower (or Party) That Doesn’t Cost a Fortune

Being a woman is expensive, not least of all when it comes to wedding and baby showers. The average woman will attend about one thousand of these events in her lifetime, and while they are a great way to show love and support to a new family, they are not cheap, especially when it’s your turn to throw one. If you’re a man or not likely to throw a shower anytime soon, this post could read as “How to Throw a Party That Doesn’t Cost a Fortune,” as many tips would apply for festivities for other occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, retirement, etc.

I’ve thrown a few showers in my day, with guest lists ranging from 10-60+ people. Here are my tips and tricks for showering your friend with love, without breaking the bank:

Venues

My friend group is blessed to have several people who have purposely purchased homes with large spaces specifically for hosting. Because of this I’ve been able to throw several showers in people’s homes. This has the advantage of coziness and convenience as well as being less expensive. You’ll have everything you need on hand, without having to haul coffee makers and crock pots and food warmers around. I’ve also thrown smaller showers a.k.a. “sprinkles” in my own home, in my not particularly large living area.

Naturally not everyone will have this option available to them. At that point I’d explore community centers and park shelters. Often your community will offer resident discounts for its rentals. In my area these are generally not expensive, but can fill up fast, so plan ahead.

If that option doesn’t pan out, explore any connections you have. Does your workplace have a meeting area you could ask to use? Or maybe a friend’s workplace does? I’ve been to two showers in the meeting space of a local realty company. Some of the neighboring cities to me have less expensive, more available rentals, and I’ve asked a resident friend to book them for me at the discounted rate (and paid them back, of course). If the shower falls during warm weather, ask the bride- or mom-to-be how they’d feel about an outdoor shower. Use your backyard, a friend’s yard, or a picnic shelter in a park. Just make sure you have a plan for rain.

Food

Now that you’ve got the venue, you’ll need to feed the guests. This can easily be the greatest expense. Catering isn’t cheap, and neither is cooking for a crowd all on your own. My solution: make it a potluck. Once again, I’m blessed with a great network of friends who are more than willing to pitch in and each bring a dish to share.

Potlucks don’t have to be disorganized or tacky. Pick a theme, provide a portion of the main course, and ask people to sign up for specific items or at least categories of items. Here are some successful themes I’ve seen or used:

  • Brunch–egg casseroles, french toast casserole, build-your-own parfait station, fruit.
  • Tacos–crockpots of taco/burrito fillings such as different meats, beans, and rice, plus all the fixings.
  • Parisian/French–variety of quiches, croissants, pastries, coffee.
  • Italian/pasta–lasagna, alfredo, pesto, salad, bread.
  • Comfort food–fried chicken, mac n cheese, pizza, or whatever the guest of honor loves.
  • Finger foods–our playgroup has a tradition of throwing “sprinkles” for second-time moms, and snacks like fruit, hummus and veggies, cheese and crackers, and cookies are a hit with moms and kids alike.
  • The honoree’s favorite foods or cuisine.

If kids are invited, consider making up a “kids’ feeding trough” filled with goldfish crackers, string cheese, fruit, and carrots or cucumbers. Kids tend to take a plate of grown up food, eat two bites, and throw away the rest. Why not just give them what they really want in the first place?

Decorations

Decorating has to be my least favorite part of throwing a shower, so I always enlist the help of people who are better at it than me. It does need to look like a party, but it doesn’t need to be Pinterest-worthy. You could spend unlimited time and money decorating with a theme. Or, like me, you could go with the theme of “it’s a wedding” or “it’s a baby” or “it’s a [boy/girl].”

To go for the latter, buy a bunch of balloons, plates, cups, and napkins of appropriate colors at the dollar store, Walmart, or party store. I’m extremely fortunate to have a friend who literally owns a decoration library. She has decorations for just about every occasion, from holidays to showers, and willingly lends them out to friends. I realize this is a rare set-up, but do consider saving and lending out decorations you choose to purchase or make for your event.

Fun and Games

Feelings about shower games vary greatly. Some people can’t get enough, and others are bored to tears by their one hundredth round of baby shower bingo. Ask your guest of honor what she’d prefer. Does your bride-to-be want to be quizzed about the circumstances of meeting her fiance? Does the expecting mother want people to cut ribbons and guess how big her waist has grown?

Then consider the guest list and what people might enjoy. Does Aunt Bonnie really want to blind-taste baby food and guess what flavor it is? Does anyone? And please, don’t ruin someone’s favorite candy bar for life by smashing it into a diaper and pretending it’s poop. There is some sick stuff that goes down at these events.

Purchasing prizes are where the expense comes in for the hostess. My stance is: buy something decent or skip prizes entirely. Personally, I do not want another random candle or bottle of lotion in my life. I once received the worst bottle of wine ever as a shower prize–and I drink box wine. Try something practical like a nice quality scented hand soap. And you probably can’t go wrong with a Starbucks gift card.

Party favors

To be honest, I’ve immediately thrown out most of the tchotchkes I’ve received at showers, even if they were adorably hand-crafted. If it isn’t universally useful or edible, don’t send people home with it. If you don’t want to send more sugar or tchotchkes into the universe, skip the favors altogether. No one will miss them. (We didn’t even have them at our wedding.)

Stationary

One nice touch is to provide envelopes for guests to self-address for thank you cards. Especially for new moms, this can save a lot of time and headache. And rather than recording the gift list on a random piece of paper, write it down in a pretty notebook she can later use as a journal. Some people also like to create a notebook of advice, well-wishes, or encouragements for the guest of honor. This can be a nice keepsake, although I find it a little redundant for those who have already written a thoughtful card.

Whatever event you’re throwing, keep in mind that’s it’s about the person you’re trying to honor, not a showcase of your cooking, crafting, or hosting skills. Focus on making it enjoyable for all the guests and you can’t go wrong.

What are your tips and tricks for hosting showers or other parties? Have you found ways to make it less expensive while still throwing a good party?

Spring 2018 Burbstead Update

Did spring even happen this year? Here the weather went from quite cold, with lots of snow in April, to high temps including a 95 degree Memorial Day.

Getting baby chicks is usually a spring highlight, but sadly, we aren’t raising chickens this year. They’d be due for processing right around my due date. Our kids and their friends love the baby chicks so it’s a little sad to skip it, but we’ve got plenty of other things on our plate.

Such as… Neil’s planning to begin our bathroom remodel this weekend. That’s going to be interesting, considering I have to pee about every 30 minutes. Fortunately we have a second bathroom with a shower in the basement. So it’s just going to be a lot of stairs for my nine-months-pregnant butt. Oh well. I need to stay in shape somehow. And DIYing the bathroom is going to save sooo much money, it’s a no-brainer. Thanks Neil! (Why didn’t we start this sooner? Long story. Wish us luck.)

In other news, we are hosting a friend’s bees in our backyard again. Neil refuses to spend $100 on something that will probably die. His friend asked again if he could keep a colony in our yard. Hopefully we don’t lose them all (and the honey) at the end again this year.

Due to the late spring the lettuce didn’t get planted until this week. Peas went in in April, a few weeks after the traditional St. Patrick’s Day planting day when the ground was still too frozen. The rest—mainly tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers—went in Memorial Day. Neil also planted two new fruit trees and two blueberry bushes. Not expecting the fruit trees to produce this year but the blueberry bushes are transplants from my mom and have produced in previous years.

I’ve got a little over 3 weeks till my due date—ah! We’re pretty much ready on the logistics front. The crib is set up, the clothes are washed, the gear is gathered and clean. I kept most baby things, with a few exceptions. Some things were borrowed and I returned them; a few things got lost in the hand-me-down circle, which is only to be expected. The car seat was expired before we decided whether to have a third, and I hated the one we had anyway. A friend generously gave me her car seat & two bases for free.

So aside from a few medical co-pays, our baby prep spending has been: $10 for a baby bath tub and $20 for a stroller (both on Facebook buy-sell trade). $22 on newborn sleepers and pants since all I had was onesies. I’ve spent about $30 on maternity clothes—one sweater, one jeans, one shorts, and 3 long-sleeve tees–since I had very little for winter and many things were worn out.

And big news—Neil is taking off an entire month. He was planning to take some unpaid time, but he has enough vacation left after taking the week of paternity leave offered by his company. Never had that before! He is very excited for his “sabbatical” as he’s calling it. He’s got big plans for the big kids, and I’m so glad they won’t have to miss out on summer fun that I won’t be able to do, like swimming and biking. I know they’re going to have the most epic summer. It’ll be interesting to see how they hold up with dad in charge. I think there’s going to be a lot more danger, adventure, and junk food. But I know they’ll survive and have a blast.

What do you have planned for this summer? And how does your garden grow?

5 Things To Do With Your Money After College

Congratulations! You survived college and earned your degree. Now you’re headed for the big leagues, or at least, full-time employment. It’s such an exciting time—but it can also be overwhelming. Once you land that  job, what do you do with your new income? Buy a car? A house? Pay for a wedding? Here are five simple steps every new grad should take with their new income.

  1. Start making regular charitable donations. If you haven’t already, now is the perfect time to start supporting your church and/or other charities. It’s so easy to keep putting this off, thinking I’ll start giving to charity when I’m making more or I’ll start when I’m done with my student loans. But right out of the gate is the easier, best time to set this invaluable habit. And while I can’t tell you for certain that you can afford it, I know most of us in developed countries could find some expense to skip in order to make giving possible.

The overall average starting salary for a Class of 2016 bachelor’s degree graduate stands at $50,359, according to results of NACEs Spring 2017 Salary Survey. So if you’re making $50,000,  giving 5% would be $208/month. If that’s too much of a stretch, just start with something.

  1. Contribute to your retirement account. I know retirement is the very last thing you’re thinking about right after graduating! But time is one of the key ingredients in saving enough for retirement. At the very least, you should aim to get your employer match. If not, you’re essentially leaving part of your paycheck on the table since it’s part of your compensation. The earlier you start, the more time will work its magic on your investments. The little you can contribute today can grow exponentially with the power of compound interest. If you’re making $50,000, 6% is $250/month. Once your student loans are paid off, it’s wise to contribute at least 15% of your income to make sure you are well prepared to retire. Which brings us to…
  2. Start paying off student debt. I know, it’s one week after graduation and you are likely still looking for that first “grown up” job. But try your best not to defer or extend student loan payments, especially once you land that job. Your future self will thank you. Deferral may seem like a great way to catch a break, and in some cases may be necessary. But it’s really no fun down the road when you want to buy a house or start a family and you’re still nowhere near paying off that debt.

We paid off our student loans in part by freezing our lifestyle as much as possible even after graduating. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment for years and kept driving our older cars, one of which we just sold, 15 years later. We kept shopping at ALDI, packing lunch, and eating dinners at home. We didn’t do anything crazy or extreme—we just kept rent, transportation, and food/entertainment expenses manageable, while choosing to splurge on travel before having kids.

  1. Make a budget. Just because you’re making the “big bucks” now at your real person job doesn’t mean money grows on trees. Don’t loosen the reins too much before you first make a budget. What can you afford now that you couldn’t before? Try to evaluate whether it’s worth your time both now, and in the future. Do you want to work another 5 years to pay for that new car? Is it really worth that much of your life?

Your new income needs new direction. Maybe you didn’t have much discretionary income in college, and now you do. Or maybe your living arrangements, transportation needs, or other factors are changing. Put your expenses in writing, making sure to account for #1-3. And if you’re not sure about how much you spend on variables like food, household items, and entertainment, look back over your last couple months of bank statements and take an average.

  1. Save for emergencies. If you didn’t learn this during college, I’ll let you in on a little secret: “emergency” expenses are inevitable. Expected the “unexpected.” Your car will break. You will get sick and have medical costs. You could get laid off. Budgeting is you doing your best to predict expenses and plan ahead, but life always throws curveballs. And they feel a lot less like real emergencies if you have some money saved to cover them. Start by saving $1000 and work up to saving 3-6 months’ living expenses.

If you save $166/month you’ll have $1000 in six months. If you save $83, it’ll take a year.

Unexpected fun stuff will crop up, too: the expenses of being in a wedding party, going on a mission trip, or seeing your favorite band. Consider keeping a few hundred extra in checking, or even opening a separate account, for “fun” or an “opportunity fund.” You won’t want to dip into your emergency savings for something that isn’t an emergency, but you do want to having something set aside for unpredictable expenses. It’s a great way to start building financial flexibility—you’ll be able to say yes to more opportunities without worrying about how you’ll also pay next months’ rent (or pay off those pesky loans!).

New grads, do yourself a favor and lay the groundwork for a stable financial future. Give, save, invest, budget, and pay down debt. Now is the time to set your lifestyle and develop habits that will serve you well for decades to come.

What financial advice would you give to new grads? What do you wish you would have done differently?

My Financial Heritage: A Mother’s Day Reflection

In light of Mother’s Day, I’ve been reflecting on the financial legacy my mother and grandmother have left me. I learned more about frugality and generosity than investing or growing wealth. I’ve never expected to inherit a dime and that’s fine with me, because I’ve inherited something much more valuable.

My mother and grandmother passed on their values of generosity and volunteering. Of putting people before money. Of hard work and the value of pouring that hard work into your kids for a season.

Let me first brag about my grandma. She fostered 17 children in addition to having three of her own. After a season at home, she worked as a special education teacher for children with emotional and behavioral difficulties. She volunteered as a Sunday school teacher and vacation Bible school teacher at her church. She won numerous winning awards for being an outstanding educator and volunteer.

After retirement, she volunteered extensively as a guardian ad litem, a child’s voice in court. Her experiences as a foster parent and affinity for detective novels served her well as she got to the bottom of what would be best for the child and represented their interests regarding custody. She regularly spent time with these children, took them out to lunch, and stayed in touch with their schools and guardians.

She helped neighbors, friends, and family in need.  She befriended a young woman with a terminal illness. She helped out a struggling neighbor. My grandparents were extremely hospitable, always hosting parties and barbecues, providing lots of food, and even took in people who needed a place to stay.

My grandparents were very generous to us grandkids, but also to those whom they didn’t know. Whether it was the Angel Tree at Christmas, the food pantry donations, or contributing to a mission trip, they put their faith into action by providing for people in need. I’m sure I don’t know the half of what they did because they never put on a show about it.

They clearly passed these values onto my mother, who is generous almost to a fault. Somewhere in the midst of having five kids, she found time to volunteer at our church in the music and children’s ministries. We almost always had neighbor kids over at our already bustling house or backyard.

While “staying home” to raise us, she side hustled like crazy to supplement my dad’s income as a teacher. She provided before and after school childcare and sometimes babysat all day. She taught private music lessons several evenings a week. She sold hand-made oboe reeds, first to her students and then to a widening circle in her network. I also remember her taking on various side gigs sewing, cleaning, baking, and playing oboe in performances. Where did she find the energy?! She now owns and runs a small music store and plays side gigs.

I also learned the art of thrift from my mom. She somehow managed to hang laundry, shop sales, clip coupons, and cook 99% of our meals at home.

At age twelve I started earning a regular allowance. She taught me to give away some of this hard-earned money, and because of her generous spirit I never viewed this as a stupid rule, but a wise suggestion.

I couldn’t be more grateful that these values were modeled to me and I hope to pass the same onto my kids. We’d also like to teach them more financial literacy, while carrying on this legacy of sharing time, money, and skills.

What type of financial heritage did you receive? And what do you hope to pass onto your kids?

Pretend to be a Preschool Teacher: What I Learned from a Year of Volunteering

Last summer I looked forward with great anticipation to sending my first kid off to school. After six whole years home with him (late August birthday), we were both ready. He did attend one year of preschool to help him get ready for all-day kindergarten. And my husband and I had decided that one year seemed sufficient, meaning my daughter would have another year before she went to preschool.

Then I stumbled across a post looking for volunteers at an organization several of my friends volunteer at. The group serves a low-income community in a nearby city, where much of the population consists of immigrants and refugees. They were looking for assistants for their preschool classes. I was not looking for more volunteering opportunities at the time, since we already had some established evening volunteer ministry in our church, and I was home with the little ones and getting childcare so I could volunteer during the day seemed inefficient.

But when I saw this post seeking preschool helpers, the thought popped into my head, “maybe I could take Jane.” She was, after all, preschool age. And I would love her to experience more diversity than we typically do in our suburb. Neil agreed it was worth at least finding out, so I asked and they not only said yes, they were quite enthusiastic about the idea of having an English-speaking peer. After some prayer and talking it over a little with friends, I signed up.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pretty excited for Jane to “go to preschool with the world,” and equally stoked to have the opportunity to serve refugees in some small way. It turned out to be more challenging than I expected, in part because of deciding to get pregnant, but I also learned a lot. I’d like to share what I learned with you because volunteering does more than help others, it can transform us as well.

I did not miss my calling as a preschool teacher. There are things I enjoy about preschoolers. They can be so darn cute, after all. But give me an angsty teenager any day. I found the first week of preschool extremely boring. Things got more interesting as we started working one-on-one with kids on specific skills during their free play time AND they got more comfortable and ornery. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to communicate with 3-year-olds with limited English. And it’s adorable how excited they get about painting.

I am really, really selfish. There were times, especially as I went through unpleasant pregnancy symptoms, that I dreaded going to preschool. There were some rowdy kids in the class and communicating with parents about this was difficult as the parents’ English was typically more limited than the kids’. I often felt like my short two-hour stint there wore me out for the rest of the day. And I’m not used to getting worn out so easily.

I tried to pray on the way to school, reminding myself of the privilege it was for both Jane and me to spend time with these kids, and asking for the energy, patience, and compassion to do my job there. Overall the kids were very sweet and cute and it was fun to see some kids blossom throughout the year. One very quiet little boy started laughing and chattering just in the last couple weeks. I had no idea he knew that much English!

I am really, really blessed. While all the kids in our class were born in the U.S., many of their parents were born into poverty and political oppression. Some may have spent their entire lives in refugee camps or as displaced persons in other countries, until coming to the U.S. And of course, it’s incredibly difficult coming here with next to nothing and not knowing the language or how things work. I’m working at such an advantage.

But the thing that really struck me when I got crabby about wrangling twelve little wild things, was how privileged I was just to have the opportunity to volunteer. What a blessing to be able to stay home with my kids, and to have happened across a way to serve alongside my daughter. If I had to work during the day this opportunity would be out of the question. I also thought about how many daycare employees work long, hard, underpaid hours.

Loving people where they’re at. I was a little surprised by the teacher’s approach to discipline at first; it wasn’t as strict as I’d expected. Then again, many of these kids may have no concept for what we were asking them to do: clean up, stand in line, sit still, or stay in time out. After all, some of them don’t even have toys to clean up at home. And they’re three. As time went on, I realized the teacher was providing structure and boundaries while loving the kids where they were at. And that is something I could really stand to do much better with pretty much everyone in my life. After all, that’s what God has done with me. And I have many friends who love and accept me despite my plentiful faults.

With the preschool kids, it was fun to focus on their strengths even when they would get out of hand at times. The boy who couldn’t sit still at circle time was  gifted both athletically and artistically. The aggressive, emotionally immature one was also one of the most articulate (and the youngest). I could go on. This same perspective and exercise would serve me well in all my relationships, as I can be hyper critical and focus on problems rather than progress.

I’m not sure I’ll ever sign up to teach preschool again, but I’m glad I did. I learned a lot and hopefully helped some little ones prepare for school one day while following Jesus’ call to serve the “least of these.”

What has volunteering taught you about yourself? Have you found a good match that uses your strengths while meeting needs?

Always Err on the Side of Generosity

Years ago, I attended a missions conference. Meals were provided, but the scheduled specified “lunch on your own” after things wrapped up midday Sunday. So we were surprised when, as we walked to the door, a build-your-own Philly cheesesteak buffet awaited us (we were just outside Philadelphia).

“We thought lunch wasn’t provided,” several of us almost objected to the staff.

“Always err on the side of generosity,” the conference host said.

That phrase has stuck with me ever since.

Its application has looked different ways at different times. When we were simultaneously climbing our way out of student loans, saving for a down payment on a house, and contemplating starting a family, it looked more modest. As our financial flexibility grows, we find ourselves a bit more liberal.

I’m not a naturally generous person. I want to be generous, but I can’t be without also being calculating. I want to give, but I want to save. I want to share, but financial goals and the impact of just about every financial choice is never far from my mind. It’s just how my brain works. But my mind is learning, partly with the help of that conference hosts’ aphorism, to reckon generosity as worthwhile.

You won’t find me buying rounds of drinks at the bar (even when I’m not pregnant), or handing out ten dollar bills to the homeless. I don’t buy extravagant gifts, either. I lean toward what I view as more effective forms of generosity. But I do find myself loosening the belt when it comes to the every day things that go beyond charitable giving.

I’m a firm believer in giving away 10% of your income—not because of some religious rule, which I don’t believe in, but because it’s just practically helpful and usually doable. Naturally, if you don’t have income or are in dire straights, you should take care of you. But if you are living above the poverty line as an adult in the developed world, you can probably find something to share. And no, I’m not talking about time. This post is about money—please let’s not change the topic to time, etc. I consider volunteering a separate topic.

I also advocate consistent, planned giving , rather than waiting for a whim or responding primarily to emotional appeals. I believe practicing generosity can make us more financially responsible, and can be the best, most enjoyable spending we do.

But what if you’re in debt? Should you still give? It’s a personal question, but I’d just say, why not err on the side of generosity and give something? Greed is often complicit in consumer debt, and giving is a great antidote to that.

Aside from consistent charitable giving, here are some ideas of ways to err on the side of generosity:

  • When attending a potluck or bringing snacks to a social event, treat your friends by bringing a special dish or treat.
  • When your kids’ teacher is hitting up the parents for Kleenex or markers again, why not pick up a box or two to send in? Believe me, those teachers don’t need to be stuck without supplies, and they don’t need to spend more of their own money on them, either.
  • When your kids are attending the tenth birthday party of the season, resist the urge to buy random clearance junk or regift crappy Christmas gifts. Take a deep breath, set a budget, and ask what the kid actually needs or wants. (On the flip side, don’t feel obligated to attend every invite you receive. Many schools now require every kid in the class to get invited to private bday parties to avoid hurt feelings. So if it’s someone your kid has never even mentioned before, feel free to decline.)
  • When it’s time to go out for a friends’ birthday or other celebration, pre-game dinner and order food to share. This is a great way to be frugal and generous at the same time. Mostly I pre-eat because I’m ravenous by 5pm and often these outings take place much later. Secondly, restaurant food is horrible for you. And of course chip in or pay for the birthday person’s check.
  • When the bill for your meager order comes, tip big. I often try to tip as I’d ordered a full meal.
  • For showers, choose something off the registry that you’d find most useful to have. Or whatever might be most meaningful to the couple. For big ticket items, consider organizing a group to go in on it together.
  • Invite people over for dinner. It doesn’t have to be an extravagant affair for it to be greatly enjoyed by all.
  • When hosting a party, order the extra pizza. Buy the extra snacks. Have an abundance and enjoy the leftovers later. I don’t do fancy, and I don’t do themed Pinterest-worthy parties. I just try to make sure there’s plenty to eat and drink and focus on the people.
  • Buy gifts people actually want. I don’t buy gifts for all my friends—I’m blessed with “too many” friends to do this with. And our families seem to be exchanging fewer gifts outside of Christmas. After all, we all have what we need. But while many personal finance bloggers extol not exchanging gifts with your spouse, I’m happy to gift my super frugal husband something he’d never buy himself. And when I do buy a friend or family member a gift, I aim for something meaningful and useful to the person.
  • When I first sponsored children in need, I didn’t always give extra for birthday, Christmas, or other holiday gifts. But by the time we met one of our sponsored children, we couldn’t say no to these little extras throughout the year. We budget it for it just as we do for our own children’s gifts, and considering how little these children have, it’s probably much more appreciated!

These are just a few ideas for erring on the side of generosity in daily life. What ways do you suggest? Have you ever been on the receiving end of an act of generosity?

My Baby Registry Recommendations

Once most of your friends are married, you can breathe a sigh of relief. That expensive season of weddings, bridal showers, and bachelorette parties has passed.

But wait—baby showers are may be just around the corner.

Luckily, celebrating your friends’ new baby is often less pricey than their nuptials. And of course, who doesn’t love buying tiny, adorable clothing? It’s a fun event to shop for, but what are the items new parents need most? (Hint: it isn’t onesies!) And when it’s your turn to pop out a little, where are the best places to register?

What New Parents Need

There are hundreds of lists already out there on what to register for, from minimalists/natural parenting lists that even eliminate the crib, to the Babies ‘R’ Us recommendations which would have you register for nearly everything in the entire store. Sure, all baby really needs is you, but some baby gear will make your life a whole lot easier.

I’m not going to rehash the list, except to say I do recommend a crib! I will share some of my favorite less-obvious baby products, as well as listing a few that I didn’t find all that helpful, at least for us.

Thermometer—this is one of the best gifts I received. Our first night at home was grueling. Baby was fussy, we finally realized he had a heat rash, and couldn’t get an accurate read with the cheapo thermometer that came with the mostly useless baby grooming kit we registered for. (I’m still using the nail clippers, though.) My friend overnighted me this thermometer and it’s been such a trusty parenting tool. Plus my kids actually enjoy getting their temperature taken with it!

Rechargeable batteries—an endless number of other gadgets operate on batteries, and while it’s wise to pick out items with electric options, sometimes you just can’t. Enter rechargeable batteries, the least expected but invaluable baby shower gift.

Travel white noise machine—we are not homebodies and definitely took our kids out and about a lot. White noise helped them sleep on the road and while we host at home.

Light-blocking curtains—I really believe these made such a difference in our babies abilities to sleep, and I’m not the only young mom to say so. Sure, taping cardboard over the window works too, but I like to be able to let in sunlight when it’s not sleepy time.

Stroller frame—if you have a smaller car or just don’t want your stoller dominating your entire trunk, consider getting a stroller frame that fits the car seat. It doesn’t have an actual seat, and you’ll need a different stroller when the baby outgrows the car seat, but by then they’re ready for a jogging stroller or umbrella stroller anyway.

Jogging stroller—if you want to do any off-sidewalking, I highly recommend a jogging stroller. Most regular strollers have smaller wheels that don’t do well on grass. I’m not acquainted with the fancier, more expensive strollers, but the standard brands don’t do well off pavement. Even bumps in the sidewalk can be a lot for many strollers to take. We’ve used our jogging stroller for hiking, camping, walking, and, of course, jogging.

Ergo carrier—the nice thing about the Ergo carrier is that it allows you to wear the baby from a very young age up through toddlerhood. It transitions from front to back (and can be worn on the side as well, though I’ve never tried it).

Bath tub with sling—this is far from a necessity but we loved ours so much and the babies seemed to love it, too. It’s a small plastic tub with a mesh sling that clips on for infants. It made bathing their slippery little selves so much easier. And when they’re able to sit up, it was a nice shape for them to keep bathing in without the sling, until they were steady enough for the big tub.

Pack n play—we used ours a ton. Didn’t get the fancy model with the changer attachment, though. It still seems too low.

Swaddle Me blankets—we loved these. I thought my daughter was going to go off to college still sleeping in these. I also liked the Miracle Swaddle.

Baby book—you’ll definitely want to document the first year.

The new product I’m going to get for baby #3: a rock ‘n’ play. I’m planning to borrow one of these because they look absolutely awesome! Babies seem to find them cozy, they fold down small, and are super easy to transport from room to room or for travel. I didn’t know they existed when I had my first.

I’ve included affiliate links to the products we liked, or similar, but of course, if you can find some of these used you’ll save a ton. I’d recommend getting a new car seat, pack n play, and stroller if you plan to have multiple kids, as it seems like the normal-priced baby items are only designed to go last for 2-3 kids.

Don’t Register For:

Clothing—you’ll get it anyway. Especially onesies.

Blankets—ditto.

Toys—ditto.

Bowls that claim they won’t spill—they will spill. Toddlers are geniuses at spilling things.

What to Expect the First Year—there are one million copies of this in the universe already. Get a used one. Or just talk to another mom. You won’t have time to read, anyway.

Personal preference

I found I did not get a ton of use out of my swing, Bumpo seat, or doorway jumper. Didn’t need a video monitor. Didn’t need a Scandinavian snot sucker. Sophie the Giraffe is not magical. Wouldn’t get a diaper pail that doesn’t use regular trash bags. Or anything really gimmicky or trendy unless you are trying solutions for a specific problem.

I loved registering on Amazon. There are so many options, which can be overwhelming, but also means you can get what you really want. The reviews and ratings are also very helpful. I liked that I could register for non-baby items like curtains, a lamp, a hamper, a nightstand, and books. If I wanted to see something in-person, I’d check it out at a retail store first.

What was the most useful baby item in your opinion? What was not that worthwhile? 

Do Grown-ups Need an Allowance?

Remember the magic of childhood allowance? You could buy toys or candy, or watch it amass if your piggie bank with Scrooge-like glee. And no bills to pay with it!

What if grown-ups could have the same guilt-free, responsibility-free spending experience? If you’re married with joint finances, that might be just what you need to relieve marital money tension.

Call it what you like: blow money, fun money, spending money, allowance, discretionary funds, or the old-fashioned pin money. It’s the idea that you have some that’s designated as yours, that you can do with as you like. You can spend on Starbucks or shoes or Taco Bell or tools, or whatever else you want, without having to ask or answer for it.

If you’re single, it always makes sense to budget for the types of things this “fun money” might cover in marriage: treating yourself, going out, and other “fun” purchases. But you probably have way more autonomy is choosing how much and how to spend then someone who has joined finances for life. (Skip to tips below about determining the amount.)

While Dave Ramsey and other PF gurus make blanket prescriptions about spouse allowances, I think it depends on you, your spouse, and your marriage. If you’re married, you might need an allowance if:

  1. You have different financial personalities. We all have a natural bent toward saver or spender. This may be influenced by your upbringing or life experiences as well as temperament. Were you the kid who spent every dime that came your way, or did you (like me) hoard it in your piggie bank, and are still rolling the coins? (True story).

Opposites tend to attract, so it’s pretty likely you married someone with a different financial personality from you. And you’ll see it, among other ways, when one of you makes a purchase the other doesn’t understand or agree with. “Why do you need another _____?” You fill in the blank. Or maybe someone’s coffee habit or smoking habit or gym membership or hobby adds up more than the other feels is reasonable. Even with like financial personalities, our individual tastes are often incomprehensible to our spouse and therefore feel like unjustified spending.

I don’t know how the stars aligned for me to marry a fellow saver, but a huge part of the reason we actually don’t practice the spouse allowance is that we’re just both pretty tight with money. We generally trust each other to make good choices and respect the other’s decisions even if we wouldn’t have made them ourselves.

If you’re both spenders, you might not feel the need to institute an allowance, but it could be a wise idea for your finances. If neither of you minds the other’s spending, great! But if you’re both frittering away money needlessly without accountability, you might want to reign it in by setting a limit ahead of time.

  1. You fight about spending regularly. I don’t suppose there are many couples out there who have never argued about money. In fact, the first argument of our dating relationship centered on who should pay for gas (we were both trying to pay). But for many, it’s more than the occasional tiff; it’s an ongoing tension that can affect the overall health of the marriage. If this is the case for you, please try giving each other an allowance! It won’t solve everything, but if you feel like your purchase of new sheets turned into World War III, budgeting for spending money could really help.
  2. You think marriage should be fair. Though we might not realize it, a lot of us come to marriage under the illusion that everything should be equal, 50/50, fair. Here’s a sample conversation:

“The bank statement says you spent $50 on Starbucks last month. I think you should try to cut back.”

“Oh yeah? Well, you must’ve spent at least that much going out with your friends. Do you have to cut back, too?”

If you keep accounts like this and use it to justify your spending, whether to yourself or your spouse, it might be time to try an allowance.

Trying an allowance will not solve disagreements between how much to spend on major purchases, or setting your overall financial goals. It won’t turn a spender into a thrifty person, though they could learn some things about their spending habits and triggers from it. And it certainly won’t solve the underlying causes of marital tension. But it can be very effective in giving each spouse the freedom to do some autonomous spending while working together toward bigger goals.

How much is enough?

That is a question only you and your spouse can answer. First, decide what types of purchases should be covered by allowance versus the regular budget. For example, you should have a certain amount budgeted for clothes that covers everyone’s needs. But if you want something above and beyond that, you can use your allowance, perhaps saving up several weeks’ worth.

Next, consider looking at your last couple months of spending via bank statements or your tracking software. How much of those purchases fall under the categories you decided should be covered by allowance? (Or how much went above and beyond what was budgeted for those categories?) Are you comfortable with spending that much, or would you like to cut back a little?

Look at your first month or two of allowance as a trial. You can always tweak the amount—and what allowance needs to cover—as you go. Regroup after the first month or two and have a conversation about how it’s going, whether it’s helping, and if you both feel satisfied with the amount you first set.

What if your spouse won’t agree to it? If it’s a matter of the other person not wanting to restrict spending, you can always institute an allowance for yourself that you promise not to go over. One person budgeting and saving is better than no one doing it. If your spouse doesn’t want anyone to have an allowance, see if you can have an honest conversation about why. Is there fear or other feelings surrounding money? Have you overspent or broken trust in this area? This can be tough—feel it out, and remember, the health of your relationship is more important than you getting what you want.

Just remember, a grown-up allowance is something you should both agree to and should serve your marriage and overarching financial goals.

Do you have an allowance? How has it helped your marriage and/or finances?

Why You’re Failing at Frugality

I received these napkins as a gift 9 years ago.

“I’ve tried to be better with money but it just doesn’t work. I was shopping at ALDI, but then I bought some strawberries that were moldy. So I’ve started using coupons. We replaced our weekend night out with take-out so we don’t have to pay a tip. I had to get a car payment because I can’t break down on my way to work. But now I’m saving on gas because the car gets better mileage. Plus I get fuel discounts from my grocery card. And I can’t get out of debt because I don’t want to wipe out my savings. If only I made more money, then I could follow all the financial advice I hear.”

Sound familiar? We’ve probably all heard or made some of these statements. If to err is human, so is to make irrational excuses. Don’t worry, I’ve erred and excused with the best of them. We nursed our student loans for a couple years (and went to Europe, and bought a house) before deciding to decimate them. I withdrew funds from my retirement account after leaving my first real job at age 21. (Doh!) We all make mistakes, and we all have different priorities. But I hear a lot of people who are completely mystified about their financial frustrations because they genuinely believe they are pretty frugal.

So how is it that some people cut coupons, shop sales, eat Meatless Mondays, even give up cable (!) , but just can’t seem to get ahead financially? Chances are, they’re only pretending to be frugal, which is a world apart from pretending to be poor.  In a materialistic culture that masterfully markets the financial fallacy that we save money by spending money, it’s almost impossible to resist the pitfalls of faux frugality. The point here is not to feel guilty, but to wake up and get clarity about our financial decisions so we can take charge. I can’t sit back and let comrades Pretend to Be Frugal, when they should instead Pretend to Be Poor. Let’s explore the difference.

Pretending to be Frugal Pretending to be Poor
Finding less expensive ways to inflate lifestyle Finding ways to deflate lifestyle
Views spending as a way to “save” Views spending as something to minimize; actually puts “saved” money into savings
Seeking luxury, comfort, and convenience at a discount Minimizing luxury while increasing usefulness
Views spending as a game to get “more for my money” via coupons, sales, “freebies,” tax write-offs, etc.  Challenges oneself to increase savings and generosity by reducing expenses
Focuses on small savings areas instead of big ones Ruthlessly prioritizes savings on the big three (car, house, food); continually finds new small ways to save
Lacks consistency in frugal practices Has a detailed plan and focuses on results
Lacks goals and purpose of frugality Focused on financial goals & bigger purpose of frugality—understands why
Makes excuses for lack of savings, blames lack of income Tracks own progress toward goals
Fights with spouse/SO over spending. Competes for resources with spouse A frugal team, work together to find new ways of saving
Stuck in survival mode Generous

So are you frugal or just pretending? Are you simply finding cheaper ways to inflate your lifestyle, or taking concrete steps to deflate your lifestyle? In other words, are you looking for discounts on luxuries, or continually searching for the bottom boundary of how little you can be content with? You are either pushing the upper limits of your budget with excuses to spend, or challenging yourself to spend less and less.

Faux frugality views spending as a way to save. Do your “thrifty” habits belie spendthrift problems? We’ve all been tempted to spend extra to get a “free” gift, “free” shipping, or a tax write-off. But spending $50 to save $10 doesn’t mean you saved $10. It means you spent $50. On a larger scale, someone might upgrade a vehicle to “save” on fuel costs. But many times the cost of that upgrade can’t be recovered by the gas savings in a reasonable amount of time. People even buy houses because the mortgage payment looks cheaper than rent, and fail to consider the hidden costs of home ownership.

Those who Pretend to Be Frugal see spending as a game that consumers can win. If people who Pretend to Be Poor see spending as a game at all, it’s how little they can spend. Not how much crap can I accumulate while shelling out hard-earned cash. Instead, they want to spend in order to secure real needs and carefully chosen wants for as little as possible. I’m thrilled to optimize spending, but I’m not optimizing my money if I’m indulging in discounted luxuries that I don’t truly value. Materialism is a losing game, and I’m out.

Another big distinction between faux and true frugality is a willingness to tackle the big expense areas. The top three cost of living categories are housing, transportation, and food. If you can get these under control you are well on your way to financial progress. Often people stop at smaller areas like clothing or cell phone plans. I believe no budget line is safe from frugalizing. And people often need to start with something smaller and more manageable. But if you’re unwilling to delve into the deepest savings potential, you’re only playing at frugality, and it won’t get you anywhere. You can shop exclusively at ALDI and Goodwill, but if you’re unwilling to get rid of your car payment, slash your $300/month dining budget, pay off your student loans, or stop paying outrageous interest on credit card debt, you will not get ahead financially.

The Faux Frugals also lack consistency in key frugal practices. For example, they may shop at a discount grocery once in a while when it’s convenient, but mostly end up over-spending in unplanned trips to the Big Store. Until you are truly committed to the bigger picture of why you’d Pretend to Be Poor, you’ll lack the motivation to plan ahead and build frugal habits into your routine. Whether it’s hanging laundry to dry, packing a lunch, saving up for purchases, or paying off debt, consistency is key. You can’t practice frugality only when you feel like it; you’ll never see a difference. It’s those who give up too soon who say, “I tried being frugal, it didn’t really help.” The problem wasn’t the advice, but the lack of perseverance.

And this brings us to the issue of motivation. Pretending to Be Frugal has many possible motives. If you find yourself constantly comparing spending to friends, fighting with your spouse about money, or making financial decisions out of guilt, you probably haven’t latched onto lasting motivation. Understanding why you want tosave money is going to get you a lot further than just knowing how to save money.

Why the heck would I wash poopy cloth diapers or go camping for vacation with two tots in tow? What keeps us going is our purpose. Pretending to Be Poor is not about being a miser. There’s nothing actually impoverished about our lifestyle. But we are essentially pretending to have less money than we do, so we can have the flexibility to take opportunities that come our way (like my trip to India), prioritize people, and practice generousity . Authentic frugality increases your usefulness as you learn new skills, get creative, help others, strengthen your relationships, and enjoy it all as a fun adventure.

So stop playing at being frugal. Unless you make a ton of money, if you want to make progress financially, you have to go all-in. That doesn’t mean tackling your entire budget at once. But you have to be willing to challenge any area of spending, one at a time, big and small. You have to quit the materialistic game of spending to “save.” You’ll need to give up some preferences and be consistent. And you must get your reasons in order to secure lasting motivation.

Consider Proverbs 14:23: All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.

What other differences do you see between faux & real frugality? What motivates your frugality?