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July on the Burbstead: A Baby-batical

Last summer was jam-packed with adventures: within a month, we camped in Michigan, took a steam ferry to Green Bay, and soon after camped at Mammoth Caves and viewed the solar eclipse in totality. Shortly thereafter Neil headed to India, and the kids and I went camping again. Whew!

This summer we’re taking a completely different approach to adventures. The beginning of summer saw me trying to survive the ninth month of pregnancy with two kids out of school, trying to pack in summer fun at the lake and visiting friends as much as possible, all while Neil did a complete DIY bathroom remodel. After our baby girl came, Neil started his month-long “baby-batical”. In other words, he took all his vacation time plus his week of paternity leave and is keeping the big kids busy.

How did he pull it off? He talked to his boss, then repeated “I won’t be in in July” like a mantra to make sure expectations were clear.

His plan? Help with the baby of course, but also keep the big kids busy and enjoy summer. The day we came home from the hospital, he printed off a blank July calendar and start penciling in activities from the list he’d started beforehand.

Let me just tell you, this arrangement is the way to have a baby! I’m getting spoiled, taking naps, reading books!, and even writing this blog post! And actually keeping up on basic household tasks since he’s taking care of big kid childcare and grocery shopping. Baby is also enjoying lots of undivided attention and snuggles from mom.

And of course the big kids (and Neil) are having the best summer ever. In addition to visits from family and friends, they’ve enjoyed a Fourth of July parade, party, fireworks, and going to the fireworks store; weekly kids’ movies at a local theater; lots of time at the lake with their friends; lots of creeking; pool parties, play dates, sleepovers, epic bike rides, and baseball games. They’ve also gone on a train ride and pontoon boat; went to a water park, an amusement park, the county fair, and a trampoline park; and visited an old growth forest, one of the Great Lakes, a science center, and went camping. And read The Goblet of Fire and went to a Harry Potter festival.

How much is all this entertainment costing? You know us. If there’s a cheaper way to do something, we’ll find it. We agreed ahead of time that we were willing to spend on more kids’ activities this summer since we weren’t taking a vacation. (Although having a baby costs more than a vacation!) However, there are so many free and cheap kids activities, we haven’t spent much yet.

Neil found a movie theater offering $1 kids movies once a week in the summer (they are not new releases). We got our lake passes this year as a Christmas gift. The train ride is $5 instead of $25 if you ride your bike one way. Baseball game tickets for the local AA team are about $5. And a friend generously offered discounted passes to the local water park. Our reciprocal museum pass ($58 per year) got us into the science center, which would have run close to that much for one visit!

The kids have also collected lots of free, half-price, or BOGO coupons from the library reading program and the week-long Vacation Bible Camp they attended, for both activities and restaurant meals.

Neil also put most of the finishing touches on the bathroom while the kids were at a sleepover with their friends. Pics forthcoming. And starting looking for a mini van–more on that soon!

Taking this month off has been perhaps the best way we’ve ever flexed our financial flexibility. Even though it didn’t end up costing us in terms of income, it was a successful foray into taking a big chunk of time off work. That in itself requires some flexibility. And it’s confirmed that it could be worth forgoing a couple weeks’ pay in the future. After all, we value family time, adventure, and travel highly. And who doesn’t feel a bit bereft upon taking their first real job and realizing you’re facing thirty or forty years without childhood’s glorious three-month summer break?

What do you think of the idea of taking a month off each year? What would you do with the time?

DIY Diary, Part 2

So much progress! Really looking like a bathroom.

The toilet is in! Yay! Here’s what else happened this week.

Paint

We agreed on a color from a paint chip. After many rounds of mudding and sanding, the walls were finally ready to be painted. After the first coat, Neil was very disappointed. The light gray we’d picked out appeared light purple on the walls. “I don’t want a purple bathroom,” Neil concluded, and got a paint sample from the Sherwin-Williams sale. Painted sample onto the wall and we both agreed that’s what we were going for. Bought gallon of paint, cut in the bathroom, it dried, and it looked purple again! Realized they’d given us the wrong number of the sample color—not what he’d asked for—but he didn’t notice this. Who would? So when he went for the gallon of that number, he got a different color. Back to paint store to beg for mercy, and they were able to tint the paint to the actual sample color. Back to cutting in and painting, again. I felt awful, as this was very frustrating and a waste of limited time for Neil, but we do like the color!

Floor

The next day, Neil glued the floor down. This seemed to go pretty smoothly after the tedious process of measuring, cutting, and get the floor ready to be installed. It looks great and is sooo updated compared with the wacky retro blue tile that was in there. Which I also kind of loved but was getting old and gross.

More plumbing

At some point during the project it became apparent that our home’s main water valve needed to be replaced. This requires scheduling with the city to have the water to the house turned off during normal office hours. As Neil realized how quickly my due date was approaching, along with the fact that both our other babies came about a week early, he decided to take a day off. So last week he replaced the main valve. On the same day, he did some work on the roof to prepare for a new ventilation fan.

He’d also realized earlier that week that the new vanity’s drawers were going to interfere with the sink plumbing. So he extended those pipes to one side. That afternoon, Neil enlisted the help of a neighbor to carry in the new vanity. I’m so excited to have drawers soon! Our old vanity had no drawers, just a half shelf half-way up. It was impossible to organize.

Neil cut in the holes in the vanity for the plumbing, and, with the valve fixed, plumbing moved, and vanity in, turned the water back on. The sink will be functioning again sometime soon.

Vent

That same day, a friend graciously offered to install the vent fan. Neil had spent some time on the roof earlier that day getting ready to do so. This was a huge help and we are so grateful! The old one was so gunked up there’s no way it was working effectively.

Toilet

That night around 11:30 pm, the toilet was installed. Yay! No more waddling downstairs 20 times a day! Again, I’m so glad we have two bathrooms, but I really love having one on the main floor.

Counter

Neil’s brother came over and helped carry in the very heavy countertop. His brother got the countertop from a client who was remodeling. I think we paid $75 for it; it could have easily cost us $400+ since the vanity is 48 inches. It’s not what we would have picked, but it’s very good quality and in good condition. We weren’t sure how it would look with everything else until they got it into the bathroom, but it looks good with the other elements we (okay, mostly Neil) chose. Our daughter says the bathroom is looking “pretty pretty.”

Odds and Ends

If it sounds like there’s been huge progress this week, there has! It actually looks like a bathroom again, and has a functioning toilet. If it’s sounds like it’s about done, there are lots of odds and ends left. Like caulking, installing fixtures, painting, and replacing trim. Neil’s brother helped install the new door last night. In fact, Neil is planning to replace all the doors in that hallway—the bathroom and the three bedrooms. But we’ll see how soon he’s able to get to that.

I’m sure there are lots more details to complete that I don’t even know about. One detail I was keenly aware of was the ladder to the attic in the nursery, along with all the loose insulation that rained down in there. After the fan was installed, I asked Neil if he could replace the bag of insulation he’d saved so I could clean the closet. He did so promptly and although the nursery still has tons of tools in it and is far from clean, it’s a relief to the have the closet clean. My room is also getting crowded as it houses a shop vac, air compressor, paint cans, and the vanity drawers.

In case you’re wondering what I look like super pregnant, here’s a pic from two weeks ago. Photo credit: 4 year old daughter.

And baby is still patiently waiting for a cleaner bedroom, or functioning bathroom sink, or maybe finishing touches? Who knows. At this point, I’ve never been this pregnant. But it’s not my due date quite yet so I’m trying to be patient. It’s so weird to think about something so much, and at the same time, it doesn’t feel real that we’re about to have three kids. Wish us the best! Hopefully you won’t hear from me next week.

What’s the next DIY project on your list? 

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?

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?

Tips and Tricks for Thrifty Road Trips

Road trips can be a great way to save money as compared with flying, especially if you don’t earn a lot of travel rewards or have a large family. And a perk of car over planes is that they make it easier to take along camping gear. This saves big time on lodging once we reach our destination.

Nothing Parties Like a Rental

One of the less-obvious tips I’d offer is to consider renting a vehicle in certain circumstances. We drive older vehicles, which allows us to keep our transportation costs quite low compared to the average. (Neil has spent $8000 on vehicle purchases in his 18 years of driving. My total isn’t much higher.)

We really don’t want to wear out our older cars by putting 1000+ miles on them in one week. Nor do we find it rational to purchase newer vehicles primarily for the purpose of having a reliable car for our occasional road trips. Rather than  pay $250-450 per month on a car payment, it makes so much more sense to spend $200-300 for a rental once or twice a year, while preserving our older, paid-for cars. Even counting fuel costs, this comes in way below the cost of flying our family.

For shorter trips we’re happy to take our own car. For long hauls, we opt for rentals. We check prices and make reservations ahead of time. We’ve also found ways to save by using rental car coupons or rewards accumulated from work travel.

As an added perk, rental cars add a feeling of luxury to our trips because we are accustomed to cars that have far fewer features. Plus it feels pretty luxurious not to have to vacuum the car and do an oil change as soon as we get back from a long trip.

We always rent an SUV because mini-vans are often twice the price without offering substantially more space.

Of course, if you have a reliable, newer vehicle that you don’t mind putting miles on, it may be more economical to drive what you already have. Driving your own vehicle comes at some cost of wear, tear, and maintenance, so weight the options carefully.

Pass the Snacks!

Packing food and limiting restaurant stops is perhaps the most obvious road trip tip. I’ll just add that I used to spend way too much precious, last-minute time before vacation assembling all manner of breakfasts and lunches, in additional to a plethora of other snacks. Only to have soggy sandwiches the next day that sometimes no one would even eat. I’ve streamlined my food-packing task by simply packing the raw ingredients for a variety of sandwiches—ham, cheese, peanut butter, honey, and bread—and making them “to order” on the road. I pack extra paper plates, napkins, and plastic cutlery as well.

For breakfast, hard-boiled eggs, bagels with cream cheese, yogurt cups, or dry cereal seem to please everyone without requiring me to cook much.

For snacks I usually pack some combination of nuts, fruit, carrots, granola bars, crackers or chips, and candy. Because some junk food is requisite on road trips, right?

We bring coffee and tea for the morning. In the afternoon I’ve done everything from drinking old, lukewarm coffee from home, to skipping coffee altogether. Please, do not do this. I’ve repented and now require fresh, hot coffee in the afternoon, especially if I’m driving. It can be from anywhere, it just has to happen. I bring Neil a tea bag and just get him hot water, because who wants to pay $2 for bad tea?

It may be worth stopping at a grocery store for food before you head home. We’ve also been known to take PBJ supplies with us from our hotel breakfast.

Are We There Yet?

We’ve never gone for the travel DVD players they sell for kids, although last year we got an iPad for the Lego Boost. But for the majority of the trip we try to occupy our kids the good old-fashioned way: Benadryl. Just kidding! We bring along plenty of music, coloring, magazines, and small toys, and also pray they will fall asleep.

We also use a lot of audio books, which we download ahead of time using library apps like Hoopla and Libby. Hoopla also offers tons of music. Neil and I each have an account with each app, meaning we can download a total of 17 titles per month each between those two apps.

For children’s audio books, I find either age-appropriate chapter books or audio collections of picture book series. Boxcar Children, the Little House series, Olivia, Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, Dr. Suess, the Hobbit, Magic Treehouse, Henry Huggins and the Mouse on the Motorcycle series have all been favorites. Depending on your kid, they may also enjoy some adult non-fiction.

Having something new for the kids—a magazine, library book, graphic novel, or dollar-store toy—can be a lifesaver during long trips. And of course, we’re not above using Benadryl modern technology. We now download the allowed number of TV shows from apps like PBS kids and Amazon Prime before a trip. It’s reassuring to have this in your back pocket for that last, melt-down leg of the journey.

Odds and Ends

How long you’re on the road will impact your road trip costs. When we had babies, we stopped halfway at a hotel. We used hotel points and opted for places with free breakfast, but still needed to spend more on food the longer we were on the road. While I would NOT recommend driving too far with little people just to save money, I will say that leaving at 3 am has allowed us to get there in one day and we do spend a bit less money this way. Again, this has only been viable since our kids are a bit older and I’m not stopping to nurse and change diapers.

If you do need to stop, look into credit card rewards ahead of time. Or Priceline it. If you need to stop on short notice, I recommend the hotel coupon books available at travel centers and many gas stations. They’re with the tourist info and usually offer better deals than available for walk-ins.

Sometimes tolls can really add up. That may be unavoidable, but it’s worth checking whether there are alternative routes that will get you there in a similar time frame.

Gas prices can also vary greatly. Consider getting an app like GasBuddy or Gas Guru to point your toward good prices along the way.

That’s my two cents on saving on road trips. What are your best tips and tricks?