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Frugal Friends Don’t Let Friends…

friends

“Friendship is the soul’s heaven,” according to Bronson Alcott, and it’s also a key to unlocking frugal synergy. Expensive friends certainly exist; they aren’t pretending to be poor and always invite you on expensive outings. Even frugal friends have their costs (weddings!). But a network of friends is invaluable, financially and otherwise, as friends can naturally share talents, time, and possessions with each other. Not to mention the many immaterial beauties of friendship. Here’s how to increase your financial flexibility with frugal friends synergy.

Frugal friends don’t let friends…

Pay for professional services. Don’t worry, I don’t let my friends drill cavities or deliver babies. But there are lots of skills you can trade for or discount among your comrades. For example, Neil took graduation pictures for a number of high school students we knew and charged only a fraction of typical studio costs. More recently, my brother-in-law shared extensive labor and expertise to help Neil DIY a major home repair project. It’s always good to know a mechanic, a computer whiz, a cosmetologist, a pastry chef, a remodeler, and people from any number of other fields since it’s cheaper to enlist a pal’s help than to pay a professional.

Of course you should always show appreciation for your friends’ time. Give a thoughtful gift, buy lunch, or offer your own talents next time they need help. Lending a hand is a great way to inflate your usefulness instead of your lifestyle. When you do need a professional, ask friends for recommendations.

Buy stuff they can borrow. Does every homeowner on earth really need to own a 15-ft extension ladder? Or pick-up truck? We lend and borrow tools, gadgets, and other special-use items among friends regularly. Currently we’re in possession of a friends’ electric smoker. Neil and his buddy even bought a bike tool set to share between them. It just doesn’t make sense for everyone to multiply the cost, storage, and maintenance of special use equipment. Borrowing is a great option to consider before buying used.

My girlfriends and I also lend everyday items like clothing (especially baby and maternity), books, baby gear, and special occasion shoes or accessories. All of the punjabis I’ll wear on my trip to India this summer are on loan as well (thanks!).

Being part of a community also opens opportunities for receiving free or friend-price items. Almost all of our furniture has come through our network of family and friends (and their network of family and friends). With hand-me-downs it helps not to be too picky; remember, life is not about your preferences.

Pay movers. When we moved into our home we didn’t have to rent a truck or hire movers because 25 people showed up to help! I’m sure if we were going farther than eight doors down we might’ve needed a truck. But we’ve always moved for the cost of pizza for our volunteers. And we’ve helped many other friends move. That’s how frugal friend synergy should work.

Pay babysitters. We spent less than $100 total on babysitting during our first four years of parenting, despite leaving the kids with sitters a couple times a week. We are very blessed to have help from family and many trusted volunteers from our church. However, much of the free childcare we’ve received has come through swapping with friends. For example, we have a date-night co-op where we trade off babysitting on Friday evenings. When we do need to hire a sitter, we’re happy to use references from people we know personally. (Update: Three years later, this has changed and we have spent more in this area, but the date night swap is still a great idea for many people.)

Over-spend on entertainment. While it’s fun to go to restaurants or movies with friends sometimes, we’re more likely to invite people over for dinner, a cookout, or a bonfire at our house. Hosting has its costs, but can often be done inexpensively when you shop sales, cook homemade, or ask people to potluck or pitch in toward pizza. Plus hospitality is a habit we’re willing to spend on.

Get lonely. An American epidemic of loneliness is in effect as we work extra hours, shuttle kids to extracurriculars, and zone out in the front of the TV in sheer exhaustion. Instead our family opts for building community. We believe close relationships, along with generosity, are a integral part of a good life so we make them a priority by setting aside several evenings a week for social and church gatherings (these two are often one and the same for us). We aren’t side-hustling during these times, but we also aren’t over-spending on recreational shopping or entertainment.

Whatever your faith or schedule looks like, don’t end up lonely at the top. Make time for friends. A good pal will offer their power tools, sewing services, and a listening ear. It truly pays dividends to have friends.

How have friends helped you save money? Share your examples of frugal friends synergy!

The Danger of Christmas

meeting-santa

I love Christmas, but I’m also afraid of it.

I’m afraid our kids will feel entitled by all the gifts they receive. I’m afraid they will lose sight of the true meaning of Jesus’ birth. I fear it will reinforce their tendency to believe life’s all about them. I’m concerned they’ll turn into greedy over-consumers.

We’re committed to not over-doing the gifts, but we do enjoy making Christmas morning magical for our kids. Surely that will look different as they grow up, but at their ages, this doesn’t cost a lot.

We’re grateful to have relatives who are generous but reasonable (not over-gifters). But even one or two reasonable presents from a number of relatives, plus “Santa,” adds up to a fair amount of stuff. (I do see the toys as a resource to survive the long winter months ahead!)

I’m also tempted to fill the precious days off of school and work with fun holiday activities. There are more special events than we can possibly attend, plus simple pleasures like sledding, baking cookies, and watching Christmas movies. I want to be sure that helping others is prioritized in the midst of seasonal entertainment, and that will mean passing on some fun activities, even if they’re free.

We want to celebrate Christmas with special treats, gifts, and family activities. We also want our kids to learn generosity, empathy, and service. Here’s how we’re trying to combat the greedy, entitled, all-about-me mentality that kids (and all of us, if we’re honest) are naturally prone to.

“It is better to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

We first introduced this verse to my son when he was three. He replied, “That’s not true,” and refused to memorize it. We didn’t force the issue. Two years later he was voluntarily quoting it (sometimes to his sister) and trying to understand it. He asked if getting presents on Christmas morning is bad. I explained that both giving and receiving are good and fun, but giving is special because it helps others and can bring them happiness.

To involve our kids in giving, I encourage them to buy or make something for each other and their dad. Sometimes with their closest friends they might swap toys they already have or chip in toward a small gift.

“If you help the poor, you are lending to the Lord—and he will repay you!” (Proverbs 19:17)

Our kids live a strange existence in which all their needs are abundantly met. Without scaring them, we try to explain that not everyone lives this way. Some kids don’t get toys for Christmas; others don’t have enough food or even clean water. (Compassion International’s Explorer magazine was helpful for this.) We can’t solve all those problems, but we can share some of what we have with others. We use Dave Ramsey’s suggestion for give, save, and spend jars, and set a deadline in December for choosing a charitable destination for their money. This year they chose to give to a children’s ministry through the outstanding organization India Gospel League.

Two years ago I took my son to help out with a “Christmas with Dignity” store through a local ministry in a low-income neighborhood that’s home to many refugee families. The children work throughout the year to earn digital “dollars” by attending after school tutoring, completing homework, and participating in programs. With these funds they can shop at a Christmas store featuring a large variety of new, donated items. We volunteered with the set-up, which involved carrying lots of items down lots of stairs.

The store featured toys, but also many practical household items ranging from coffee makers to diapers to toilet paper. Friends who volunteer at the store noted how many of these items the kids choose over the toys.

Once we got through the explanations and he got to carry stuff around he got increasingly excited. He talked about the kids choosing from the different items. He was also bragging about how strong his muscles were getting from all the hard work. Maybe he still thinks it’s all about him (& his muscles), but I was grateful he had a chance to help others in some way. He left in an exceptionally good mood because he got to experience firsthand the joy of giving rather than receiving.

“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress…”(James 1:27)

A friend suggested that the kids from our church visit nursing home residents and sing carols. Yesterday we did just that. Yes, visiting people you don’t know feels awkward. And children aged four to seven barely remember the lyrics to the songs. But I hope our short little concert went a long way toward brightening the residents’ day, and showing our kids that they’re not the center of universe.

The book The Me, Me, Me Epidemic  includes some more great ideas for involved kids in both planned and random acts of service.

I don’t share these experiences because I have it all figured out, but because I don’t. My kids are more entitled and self-centered than I want to admit. So am I. The path to financial success is fraught with danger for the soul. But serving those often forgotten by society can be a great antidote to turning into a Scrooge.

I’d love to hear more ideas for promoting a giving attitude in kids at Christmas. What are some practical ways you’ve tried to teach generosity and service, especially during the holidays? How have you seen your children’s attitude toward giving change over the years? Or perhaps you remember how your own perspective changed?

Christmas Gift Ideas

Still shopping? Me, too. And who wants to gift junk people don’t need? Forget about jelly of the month club. Give gifts that will keep your frugal friends and family members saving all year long.

  1. How about an electric throw blanket or a space heater for the frugal freeze baby on your list?
  2. Rechargeable batteries. Keep powering toys, flashlights, and other gadgets with less cost to you and the environment.
  3. Glass storage containers. Packing lunch and storing home-cooked leftovers is so much easier with the proper containers, and glass ones are healthier and easier for re-heating food.
  4. College fund contributions. This is the gift that keeps growing with the child, and adds value throughout his or her life. While toys and clothes begin depreciates as soon as a kid touches them, compounding interest will grow your gift over the next decade or more. And it’s tax deductible if you contribute directly to the fund.
  5. Wool. Barring wool allergies, wool sweaters, socks, or scarves are a great way to help a frugal gift recipient stay warm throughout the winter, ‘cause you know they’re too cheap to turn up the heat.
  6. Camping gear. Open the Door to a Lifetime of Vacation Savings by lowering the entry cost of camping. We save over $1000 a year on vacations by camping, but wouldn’t want to without our tent, camp stove, air mattress, and sleeping bags.
  7. DIY reference materials, such as books on gardening, DIY home repair, cookbooks, backyard chickens, honey bees  or any other book supporting a money-saving hobby or endeavor. Here’s my favorite Indian cookbook.  And my favorite bread-baking book: Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day book.
  8. A bike. Biking for frugal transportation seems to have made a comeback.  Helmets are also a good gift for anyone whose brains or beauty you wish to preserve.

For the new parent:

  1. temporal lobe thermometer: This thermometer is so quick & to use, my kids like getting their temperature taken. It also seems more sensitive than traditional ones.
  2. Miracle swaddler: This blanket gently helps keep those arms swaddled much longer than other styles.
  3. white noise: A small, portable white noise machine is ideal for travel, even if it’s just to put your baby down to sleep at a friend or grandparent’s house. It’s also great for hotels and camping.
  4. rechargeable batteries: Battery-operated toys are bound to enter your house. This set will save you loads in the long run.
  5. Caffeine paraphernalia: How about a French press, K-cups, or a hot pot and Yorkshire English breakfast tea.
  6. Free babysitting and a restaurant gift card. Need I say more?

For the handy man: (suggestions from Neil)

  1. drive socket set: I’ve been preaching this to anyone who will listen lately, once you go 1/2″ for automotive work, you won’t go back. If you or a loved one will be doing any work on their car in the near future, I cannot recommend highly enough to get 1/2″ drive sockets. Most people use 3/8″ drive, and it’s nothing but frustration and busted knuckles.
  2. wire strippers: These auto-stippers are a tool you didn’t know you needed until you use one. They perfectly strip wire of any common size without breaking the conductor. Much better and faster than using scissors or traditional strippers.
  3. loupe – LED illuminated: These loupes are really fun. Easy to use and show the kids stuff close up. Bugs, carpet, newspaper, wood, all fun when viewed through a loupe.
  4. wood-splitting ax: This Fiskars Axe is the only way I am able to split my own firewood. I am not a giant lumberjack; I cannot wield a 8-10# maul for a few hours at a time. This thing is light, swift, and well designed. It makes splitting wood fun.
  5. drill bit set: Get these if you own a 1/4″ drive impact driver. Makes it into a small electric impact gun. Very useful and fast for backing out bolts/ nuts.

13. For the home chef:

  1. These amazing pots and pans. The best, affordable pans with no weird coatings, that still come clean. I’ve had mine for 10 years and still going strong.
  2. pressure cooker: I never knew how amazing pressure cookers are until I received an electric one as a gift. It has saved dinner on more than one occasion when I forgot to thaw meat, or got home later than expected. It can cook bone-in frozen chicken pieces in less than half an hour. It also makes meat way more tender than other cooking methods.
  3. instant pot: I don’t have one of these, but I’ve heard it’s the pot to end all pots. It’s a programmable pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, yogurt maker…you name it, it can do it. It’s priced very reasonably compared to purchasing one or two of these other devices. If I didn’t already own a pressure cooker and slow cooker, this would be on my wish list.
  4. good knife: A good knife makes cooking sooo much more enjoyable–and safer.

14. For the kids:

K’nex, Legos, or Duplos: My son spends countless hours playing with these building toys.

Narnia book seriesLittle House book series: Classic children’s books make a great gift kids and parents will like.

Craft supplies or Play-dohReplenish crafty consumables.

Zoo or children’s museum membership, sports class, Highlights magazine subscription: keep them entertained throughout the year with fun activities or subscriptions.

15. For the fit (or those aspiring to be): For those skipping the gym membership, my favorite workout videos are Zumba,  Ballet Beautiful, & P90x.

16. For the whole family:

Whirlypop: We make all our popcorn in this stovepop popper. It makes excellent kettle corn as well.

Board games such as the Busytown Game (for younger kids): This game has the whole family work together to win. Zingo is also a fan favorite around here.

Book sets such as Narnia book seriesLittle House book series

DVD sets such as Narnia, Harry Potter, or Star Wars

Museum or zoo memberships.

 

Happy shopping! I hope you find something for everyone on your list.

What other gifts keep on saving? What is the most useful gift you’ve ever received?

 

This post contains affiliate links. 

How to Buy an Electric Bike

Step 1: Research Electric Bikes. What are the kinds? The makes? The models? Read about them. Test drive them. When you travel for business, find the e-bike store and test drive some more.

Step 2: Set a major financial goal, and say the reward for accomplishing it will be an e-bike. Work toward goal for years, all while casually researching and test driving the e-bikes.

Step 3: Meet major financial goal, and keep over-analyzing researching and test driving e-bikes. Research building own e-bike. Set up Craigslist search for used e-bikes (rare).

Step 4: Buy a car for $200. Think maybe this justifies e-bike purchase. But then think how could I spend 10x as much on a bike as my car? Keep dreaming researching.

Step 5: Replace possible e-biking hobby with reading about e-bikes hobby. For years.

Step 6: Give up on ever buying motorcycle for nerds an e-bike.

Step 7: Craigslist search shows e-bike for sale nearby for $500. Buy e-bike. Assemble. Ride. Love.

 

Does anyone else approach purchases like this? What’s the longest it’s taken you to pull the trigger on a purchase?

My Grandma’s Legacy

How do you keep writing when your biggest fan is gone?

My grandma died, rather suddenly, a few weeks ago. She was the first and most faithful reader of this blog. Last winter she talked about wanting to help edit the content into a book. She said she had it all outlined and organized in her mind already. Can you see where I got my love of writing?

When I tell my friends and Neil’s family about my grandma’s passing, they’ve said things like, “She was a very special lady” and “I really liked her.” Those close to her knew her faults, too, but she was truly impressive. People tend to brag about the deceased, but I bragged about her while she was still alive, including the post My Financial Heritage: A Mother’s Day Reflection, that I’m so glad I posted when I did.

The short story is that she had many jobs before having three children, then became a special education teacher for children with severe emotional/behavioral difficulties, fostered 17 children, and in retirement became a guardian ad litem, a child’s voice in court. She garnered awards in all her endeavors.

She was also an avid quilter, scrap-booker, reader, and Wizard of Oz afficianado. Her name was Dorothe.

Her financial personality? Spender. She’s the ultimate example of a great person who was not great with money. Fortunately her late husband, a banker, was.

She never gave me money advice, and, in response to my blog, said she wished she’d learned these things sooner. But she did pass on two personal finance lessons:

  1. If you find a sweater you like that fits well, buy it in every color. (Somehow I never latched onto this.)
  2. Live generously.

My grandma was extravagantly generous. Generous to a fault. And while her children may literally be faulting her for this as they deal with the messy aftermath of her finances, her generosity remains a powerful example to her naturally stingy first grandchild (that’d be me).

Even in my giving, I want efficiency to rule. I want to give to the most effective, efficient organizations only, and tend not to be very generous to fellow Americans who already have what they need (read: my friends and family). My grandma saw the value of both. And I’m trying to learn to be spontaneously generous to the people around me as I reflect on her habits.

She didn’t leave an inheritance, but she left a legacy. She changed my life far beyond impacting my very existence. She passed her faith on to me and that has transformed me from a sad, stingy person into a joyful, generous one. An invaluable impact.

In essence she spent any inheritance on us while she was alive, and it brought her great joy. It came in the form of frilly dresses and too many toys at Christmas when I was a kid. And in adulthood, it was kitchen gadgets, multi-level-marketing company products, and college fund contributions for my kids. And while I’d only recommend the latter as a solid use of money, my frugal soul has benefited more from these extravagances than it could have from any size inheritance.

Of course, it isn’t an either-or between leading a great life and being good with money. We should all think about leaving our finances in order for our families, whether we want to leave an inheritance or not. There are many good resources available that explain how to manage your assets, what documents to create, and how to organize them for your family. One such resource is found at the end of Dave Ramsey’s The Legacy Journey.

Leave a legacy. Plan for your funeral–not just financially, but relationally and spiritually.  “Tell them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:18, 19).

What are your thoughts on leaving an inheritance and leaving a legacy?

The Hidden Cost of Frugality

It’s been busy, busy, busy on the burbstead. Neil replaced the timing belt & radiator on our new minivan, DIYed a complete bathroom remodel, and replaced two of our hallway doors, with two more to go. He’s also done a many-step process to re-grass our back yard after years of leaving it untreated for the chickens. In addition he’s replaced his car’s muffler and has been sprucing up the station wagon in order to sell it. We canned our delicious cowboy candy (sweet-hot jalapenos) and made lots of garden salsa. And as always, there’s plenty more on the to-do list.

All but the bathroom was done since he returned to work after the baby-batical. All while maintaining his volunteer ministry schedule and raising three kids. Yes, he’s amazing.

But I started feeling that life was getting too frantic.

Whether it’s big-time savings of DIY car and house repairs, or the little every day habits that add up, frugality costs time and effort. The opportunity cost of paying $1300 may be what $1300 makes in the stock market over 30 years. But the opportunity cost of saving $1300 is the time you could have spent otherwise.

Is the answer to give up frugal living and start outsourcing everything? May it never be! We not only like saving money, we also like learning new skills, accomplishing new challenges, and modeling thrift and hard work for our children. But we are learning to how to juggle many balls in new ways now that we have three kids. Here’s how we’re trying to handle the hidden costs of frugality:

  1. Prioritize.  I started resenting my superhero husband for all that time spent under the hood of the car, saving us money, while I rocked a baby in a dark room for a little longer than my sanity could stand. I didn’t want to sound ungrateful or critical. And in my pride, I didn’t want to sound like I needed his help, either. But I finally admitted it and since then we’ve worked together to list and prioritize projects on the burbstead.
  2. Pace yourself. Along with priorities comes a sense that all is not urgent. While it might be uber-productive to squeeze in an oil change right before putting the kids to bed, it’s not an emergency. Maybe there’s something else that is more important right then. And it might not be the type of thing you’d put on a to-do list. For example, we’ve been prioritizing dates with the big kids now that they’re both in school and sharing our attention with more siblings.
  3. Pay for convenience (sometimes). We are learning when it makes sense to outsource. We’ve done very little of this since becoming home-owners (or car-owners). But sometimes it’s just not worth the opportunity cost–that time, effort, or sanity. The day before our baby was born, Neil paid for a haircut rather than asking 9-month pregnant me to grind out another task. Thank you! That week also saw the purchase of take-out pizza. Thank you again! On a bigger scale, Neil’s decided to pay someone to paint the new doors once they’re all installed. He did one himself and didn’t like the process or the finished product. And we’re considering paying a lawn care company to treat our front year so that we don’t end up with the same situation we did in the back.
  4. Plan ahead. In addition to talking through the priorities of various tasks, we’ve also talked about timing/pacing them in a sane manner. It really helps to discuss this before or near the beginning of the weekend, otherwise we run around simultaneously stressed and unfocused, desperately wanting to be productive but unsure what exactly we’re trying to accomplish. And I like knowing what to expect, when possible. These little “schedule meetings” help us support rather than resent one another as we work on our respective projects. Okay, my project is mainly keeping the kids alive. But if I know Neil needs to work on something not kid-friendly, I can plan to keep them out of his hair during that time.
  5. Press pause. Sometimes you have to power through. For example, Neil couldn’t exactly leave the water off to work on the bathroom for too long. But other times it’s okay to press pause. Know when you’ve come to a good stopping point and then–stop! You’ll accomplish more later if you take time to relate and rest.
  6. It won’t be perfect. Even though I love the idea of “balance,” I know it will always elude us. We’ll inevitably over-do it sometimes, whether it’s with the social calendar or the honey-do list. Instead of blaming each other or ourselves for these imbalances, we can simply expect them.

All of this adds up to lots of communication. I’m sure that, too, will wax and wane as we learn to manage the hidden cost of frugality–time. Because we certainly don’t want the hidden cost to turn into anything more, like our sanity or our relationships.

How do you decide when to in-source vs. outsource? What other ways do you use to manage your time?

Ahh! We Bought a Minivan

Is it just me, or do people seem to either love or hate minivans? I’ve never been rabidly anti-minivan, but I’ve never longed for one, either. I just really love our station wagon, tape player and all. But the time was drawing near. Our station wagon only seats three children, meaning we’re maxed out. Having the option to drive the kids’ friends along with us sometimes is important to us. And weaving the baby car seat over a booster seat is not exactly easy.

However, we didn’t see these limitations as reason to rush out and buy a minivan the moment we had a positive pregnancy test, or a live infant for that matter. An inconvenient car seat situation hardly constitutes an emergency.

Neil started researching and looking at ads for minivans during his baby-batical, in part because he had more time for this type of thing than usual. We concluded that, while we didn’t need a larger vehicle right away, we’d like to get one within the year, when it would become even more inconvenient to fish the baby in and out of the car. Also, that would mean we’d be able to take the kids’ friends places by next summer.

The options for third row seating these days are: giant, expensive SUV; full-size van; or minivan. Not surprisingly, pricey SUV was never on the table for us. And despite having learned to drive on a Club Wagon, I’m afraid of how many mailboxes I’d hit in a full-size van, not to mention the abysmal gas mileage. Minivan it is.

But who cares how we became minivan converts? What you need to know is how to shop for a car, minivan or otherwise. The whole process is fraught with pitfalls and surrounded by myths. We concede there’s more than one sane way to buy a car, but naturally, we highly recommend our way 🙂

“What type of car payment are you used to?” a friend asked when chatting about being in the market for a van. Clearly not a reader of the blog 🙂

None, my friend. None. Never had one, never want one. Neil’s last car cost $200. The one before that was $750. Check out a car post written by him: “How I Spent Less Than $8000 on Cars in 17 Years of Commuting.

For more on PTBP car-buying philosophy, check out Point A to Point B and Free and Broken.

What about reliability? We do spend more on the family vehicle (which goes on my car spending tally, which was not much more than Neil’s). Our budget for the van was somewhere around $6000. Of course we’d already saved for our next car in our Car Fund. I highly recommend that, rather than paying interest on a monthly car payment, everyone set aside money in a Car Fund until you have enough to buy your next vehicle outright. Rinse and repeat and you’ll never need a car payment.

Neil approached the van purchase with his usual analytical research. He bought a month of online Consumer Reports and read their reviews. He read online about common problems with the different brands. He test drove a Toyota and a Kia for a side-by-side comparison. The Toyota Sienna was the clear winner on all fronts so he narrowed his search to those. And although he didn’t put much weight on anecdotes, all my Sienna-driving mom friends sang its praises.

Neil’s ideal scenario for buying a van was to skiplag somewhere south on a weekend, buy a rust-free van, and drive it back. Our station wagon was purchased from a small private dealer who sells cars from the south, and Neil has always dreamed of doing this himself rather than paying someone else to. Big surprise, right?

But he found that the private sellers he was contacting weren’t getting back to him, and who wants to fly somewhere only to have a seller flake out? Our weekends can also be pretty packed, making it too much to pull off right now.

He started searching Facebook and Craigslist, but in the end he got this car the same way he bought two other cars: through work connections. He works, as most do, with people who upgrade their cars fairly frequently. So he put the word out that he was looking for a minivan and would pay trade-in value or higher. Soon enough, someone was looking to trade in their 2006 Toyota Sienna with 130,000 miles. Perfect! While many people are scared of cars with that kind of mileage, we think that’s around the sweet spot for buying a car–depreciation rapidly drops off around this point and some major scheduled maintenance has already been done.

Only in this case, the timing belt needed to be done. It was 40,000 miles past due! We were prepared to pay someone to do the job. But after Neil watched some YouTube videos, read about the job for that year and model, and consulted a mechanic friend, he decided to do the work himself. We purchased the van at trade in value for $3500. Typically a similar van would be listed privately around $6000. He spent around $500 on parts since he also ended up replacing the radiator. He estimates the work would have cost $1800 at a mechanic. A timing belt job is not for the faint of heart; there were some hairy moments, but overall he seemed to enjoy the challenge.

Even if we’d paid someone to fix the van it would still be a fair value. We were prepared to spend that much. But with Neil taking the leap to do a tricky major repair himself, we’ve got ourselves a decent deal. We’ll see how it does for us. But it runs smoothly and is by far the most luxurious vehicle we’ve ever owned.

I’ll admit not everything about our approach this time is reproducible. Maybe you don’t have wide connections to spendy coworkers. Maybe you don’t have a lot of experience working on cars and the necessary tools. But here’s what everyone can try to do:

  1. Don’t rush out and buy the car you need a year–or two or three–from now. Be patient.
  2. Save for your next vehicle in a designated account that you don’t touch otherwise.
  3. Buy used, preferably past the 100,000 miles to minimize depreciation.
  4. Do your research. Check out consumer reports and other online reviews.
  5. Put out the word that you’ll pay trade-in value or more when people you are know are upgrading.

What’s your approach to buying cars? Have you ever done a major job on a car?

What Salsa and Personal Finance Have in Common

One of the challenges of having a young infant is that once you get them to sleep, you have no idea how long they are going to stay asleep. For uptight types like me this is basically torture. Although I’m trying to roll with it as much as possible, one strategy that helps me is not to get started on ambitious projects that I’ll be frustrated if I can’t finish.

Like writing a blog post. lol

But one day last week, I tricked myself into completing a small project of sorts. Baby was sleeping. I was making tacos. And we had soooo many garden tomatoes. So I decided to cut up one or two tomatoes for a topping. Then I realized, we have all the ingredients for salsa. Now if I set out to make salsa, I would feel completely overwhelmed. So much chopping, and that baby will wake up any minute and I won’t actually have salsa to show for it.

So I told myself, just chop some cilantro for another topping.

Baby kept sleeping. Okay, just cut an onion. Also a topping.

Baby still snoozing. I’ll just cut a couple more tomatoes. I can always ask Neil to do the jalapeno when he gets home. And then I realized, I don’t have to get through this whole colander of tomatoes. I’ll just make as much salsa as I can, even if it’s barely any. One tomato at a time. Because some salsa is better than no salsa.

And miraculously, that baby slept right on through the making of a sizeable bowl of salsa. One tomato at a time. I even got to the jalapenos.

While I was chopping away I thought, sometimes money is like this. You just have to take it one tomato at a time. I can’t tell you how many times someone has explained to me why they can’t save more, or spend less, because they can’t do it all the time. Sometimes consistency is crucial to improving your financial situation. Investing $100 once isn’t really going to get you anywhere. But if you never try to make progress because you’re afraid you’ll lapse at times, that isn’t going to get your anywhere either.

Why not just take it one tomato at a time? What’s your tomato? It could be a money-saving measure, saving toward a goal, investing, or paying off loans.

For example, it may be forming a money-saving habit like making a menu and grocery list before shopping. Just do it once. Maybe the savings will help motivate you to do it next time. Even if you only make a menu or list half the time, you’ll save more than if you never made one. Same goes for hundreds of thrifty strategies. And for bigger-picture things like saving or paying off debt. Just because you can’t contribute extra every month doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it when you can. Does writing a will overwhelm you? Just make the first phone call.

Are there projects you shouldn’t approach this way? Sure. Take our recent bathroom remodel: we couldn’t just leave the plumbing half finished or the floor torn out for long. But many other tasks–like cleaning that bathroom–can be done in increments when needed. And many financial goals are finished incrementally, too. Whatever it is for you, just take the next step and see what happens.

What financial step do you find overwhelming or intimidating?  Have you ever broken down a goal into little steps?

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?