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We Bought a Car for $200

We sold our rusty but trusty Focus last weekend.

I’m always a little afraid our site title will be taken too literally. We don’t claim to be “extremely frugal” or living at the poverty level. But if there’s one area we veer pretty far from the norm, it would be our vehicle purchases. Perhaps a good way of describing it would be “pretend to be a teenager.” Because who besides a student drives a $1000 car?

While I wouldn’t assert that everyone should follow suit, allow me to divulge the thinking behind the thrifty approach to vehicles that’s served us well into our 30s, carseats and all. Perhaps you’ll find something that will help next time you need a car.

Would foregoing car ownership altogether be the cheapest option? Yes! But this isn’t a good fit for many, including us. Instead we’ve tried to minimize what we’ve deemed a necessary expense.

Who Wants a Hooptie?

We’d been preparing to replace our rusty but trusty 2002 Focus for a while. This meant we had money in our car fund and Neil had his eye out for the type of car he wanted in the under $5000 price range. He was strongly considering flying south for a weekend and bringing back a rust-free vehicle. Before a free weekend materialized, his coworker told him that his neighbor wanted to sell a car for $500 max—a 2004 Scion that needed a clutch.

After contacting the owner, Neil got a ride from his coworker since the location was an hour away. Neil, usually a hard-core haggler, wasn’t trying hard to get the price down. Because it had some problems in addition to the clutch, the owner thanked him for taking it for $200. No, that’s not a typo. That’s $200–less than what most people pay for a bike or a stroller.

Neil got the Scion home without incident. He could replace the clutch himself for around $300, but that could take the better part of a weekend. A mechanic friend quoted him at $500 for the job and we decided it was worth it to outsource. (See–not extremely frugal.) The total for all repairs came to $800. So you could say we bought the car for $200, or spent $1000. Either way, it’s a steal.

Neil listed his other car on Craigslist and within the week it sold for $750. More on that below.

Uncommon Sense for Car Buyers

Having the option to buy a car for $200 is hardly reproducible but it wasn’t totally random either. I picked Neil’s brain and unearthed the secrets of a frugal car-buyer, most of which fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

  1. Don’t drive your car into the ground.  While we believe in driving cars for a long time, but we don’t drive them into the ground–anymore. We jumped Neil’s 1985 Ford F150 twice on the 5-mile trek to the junkyard. Later we were a one-car couple for a month while searching to replace a dead car, the free totaled vehicle he restored and drove for years. This is when we bought Neil’s beloved 1990 Dodge Shadow, a $750 car he sold years four later for $500. My 1992 Brother still drives it. Most grown-ups (including us now) can’t tolerate the inconvenience of a truly dead car, and that urgency tends to spur people into overpaying for vehicles.
  2. Don’t pay for less miles. Not only do we not see the point in buying a new vehicle, we don’t see why we’d pay much more than $5000 for any vehicle. Beyond $5000, you’re most likely just paying for lower mileage. We actually prefer cars that have lived a good life 100,000 miles, at which point some major repairs have been done and depreciation drops off dramatically.
  3. People do notice you drive a clunker–and that’s a good thing. Getting connected with the $200 car wasn’t entirely random. A couple years ago, a different coworker had a car he wanted to get rid of. Neil bought it for $1800 and sold it for $3500. All he put into it was the price of the temp tags and about an hour’s work. Neil works at an engineering firm that employs lots of young grads who drive nice cars. He sticks out in his rusty 15-year-old vehicle. Being known as a scavenger/grease monkey is ideal when someone is looking to offload a hooptie.
  4. Less rust is worth it. If you work on your own cars and live where it snows, it’s worth starting out with a rust-free vehicle. Getting a $50 airline ticket somewhere south and driving back in a solid vehicle is a good idea if no one tries to sell you a car for less than the price of a bicycle.
  5. God provides. The timing of both cases of Neil’s two most recent vehicle purchases was uncanny. In the first, the $1700 profits covered the exact balance due after fund-raising for my India trip. In the second, we’d been actively planning how/when to replace the Focus. We’ve found time and time again that God provides in unexpected ways as we follow Him.

Car ownership is expensive, to be sure. But it doesn’t have to a $20,000 proposition. It doesn’t even have to be $10,000. You can save a lot by recalibrating your view of what a reliable used vehicle can cost. And how sweet would it be to never have a car payment again?

For further reading check out How I Spent Less Than $8k on Cars in 17 Years of Commuting.

What is your approach to vehicle purchases? Has your frugal reputation ever scored you a great deal on something?

Sugar, Fire, and Love: Winter on the Burbstead

A local winter sunrise.

As the season comes to a close, it’s time reflect on this winter on our burbstead. Winter is our least “stead” and most “burb” season, but we make the most of our .3 acre plot by splitting wood, making fires, and tapping our maple trees. And we get to enjoy the fruits of last season’s harvest with our own chickens, canned salsa, and pickled jalapenos. Our maple syrup also lasts the year and pancakes are a Saturday morning tradition here.

Maple Sugaring

Why do we tap our trees? Because they are there. One of our two maples was afflicted by ants while the ants were also eating our house. We stopped tapping it since it isn’t healthy. Fortunately our wonderful next door neighbors let us tap their maple tree. Of course we give them syrup in exchange.

The weather this winter made for a strange sugaring season. We must have tapped at the right time because I’ve never seen the sap flow like it did those first couple of days. After a good first week, the temperature was all over the place. For a while it was in the 60s by day and not dropping below freezing at night, which is necessary for sap flow. Then it was too cold for a stretch—it has to go above freezing during the day.

Liquid gold.

We just kept our taps in and waited it out. Sap can be refrigerated or frozen while we’re waiting for a full pan for boiling, or if our schedule requires us to prioritize suburban activities over homesteading ones.

This was the first year we did not lose any syrup to mishaps like burning or spilling. We’re bad burbsteaders 🙁 But that’s the beauty of burbsteading—we’re not actually living off the land, so there’s no pressure while we figure out things like how quickly syrup cooks at the end. We learned to bring it in from the outside to our stove at the end for close monitoring.

All told our yield was over a gallon. For more on making syrup, check out our creatively titled post, Maple Sugaring.

Wood

Our wood pile is getting low, meaning we’ve enjoyed lots of lovely fires in our fireplace. It has a heat exchanger insert which greatly increases the fireplace’s efficiency. Neil did some tests this year to measure the heat output for different amounts of wood burning in the fireplace. Conclusion: we’ve been wasting a lot of wood by stacking it high in there. The “smaller” fires are more efficient. Again, all part of the burbsteading learning curve!

Our five-year-old often alerts us when the fire needs a log—and he really knows whether it needs one or not. It’s quite helpful and adorable.

Neil splits the wood himself and gets it for free from tree lawns, the city leaf and wood pile, and has been known to knock on doors when someone is clearly having a tree cut down. For more on getting free firewood and fireplace efficiency, check out Fuel Your Way to FIRE with Free Firewood. Neil also received a nice kindling hatchet as a gift for being in a wedding. Which brings us to…

Weddings

Since fall, Neil was the best man in two weddings, and we attended a third one as well. This means wedding festivities—showers, bachelor parties, rehearsal dinners, and of course the big day—were a common calendar items for us this past season. Neil’s bachelor parties and toasts were a hit, and I believe his days as a best man (these were not the first) are over as all his dearest friends are now married.

Most people go through a season of life when they’ve invited to lots of weddings. Then the majority of their friends are married off, and they might just go to the occasional cousin’s wedding. Not so for us. Though the wedding frenzy has slowed some (one summer in college we went to seven!) we spent several years in youth ministry and those kiddos are now grown up and getting married. Add in the cousin weddings, and some friends who found love after the post-college wedding peak, and we’re still in this space. Let’s just say our annual budget’s “gift” line item accounts for this and always gets put to good use.

Another wedding happened to be on St. Patrick’s Day, and the bride and groom asked if I would lead an Irish dance. I sometimes plan “flash mob” type dances, and I took a whole nine months of Irish dance during high school. My credentials were satisfactory for this carefree couple, and I rounded up a troupe of about 10 to perform a simple reel to a Riverdance tune. I was just impressed I found any willing participants.

Our peas are planted so it’s officially spring. I’ll keep you posted on our garden, bee-baiting ventures, and baby chicks in the next burbstead update!

Review: $30 Verizon Wi-Fi Smart Phone Plan

Big news: I got a smart phone.

I know, I just extolled my dumb phone in In Praise of Old Technology. But when Neil got a mobile upgrade at work and got to keep his iPhone 5s, it seemed like the right time to make the switch.

I knew it was inevitable. I was having problems receiving texts that contained emoticons—which comprised a lot of texts from a lot of my friends :). It rendered the whole message unreadable :(. I also couldn’t respond to group texts.  And I got lost on the way to basically anywhere off the beaten path.

There were other things I LOVED about having a dumb phone: no temptation to waste time online, my kids couldn’t ask me for constant entertainment, and my battery life was amazing. Once after a vacation I didn’t unpack my phone charger until 5 days had passed!

Anyway, my time had come. Now what phone plan to get? I’ve had Verizon for 10 years. Don’t judge me. Every time I start thinking about switching to a less expensive provider I hear awful things about it from a friend. Since Neil’s always had his phone paid for by his employer, who also discounted my dumb phone plan for a while, I’ve never been motivated to change.

I’m definitely not one to scoff at small savings that add up in perpetuity. But this is one area I’ve been willing to pay $5-10 more per month to avoid 1.) the cost of purchasing a phone and 2.) the hassle of changing phone plans. Because let’s face it, dealing with phone companies is a hassle.

While we’re on that point, let me clarify: I’m not in any way affiliated with Verizon. My recent experience with them has been a hassle. But I do think this little-known plan I’ve stumbled upon is pretty sweet—too good to keep to myself.

The plan is a $30 per month, prepaid Wi-Fi only smart phone plan. Talk and text are unlimited, of course.

This plan is not clearly visible on their web site. To find it, you have to begin the process of signing up for a different prepaid plan, and then go to the  shopping cart page where  you can downgrade to the $30 Wi-Fi plan.

Why it’s awesome: Almost everywhere has Wi-Fi now. It automatically connects to my home network. If I’m somewhere without Wi-Fi and really need it, there’s probably a McDonald’s or somewhere nearby where I can get it.

Thirty dollars per month is the same price I paid for my very first cell phone plan when I went off to college 14 years ago. I realize the market has changed a lot, but the fact that I haven’t increased this expense is nice!

I’m also not tempted to be browsing the Internet needlessly while out and about. I won’t bother getting on Wi-Fi unless I actually “need” to. Hey, price-checking is necessary! Plus, I’m usually surrounded by people (including my husband) who have data plans so I can just be that annoying person who asks questions and lets someone else look up the answer. (I consider this a great way to serve my husband since he loves looking at his phone!)

For directions I use the GPS on the Google Maps. I downloaded a map of my area—and it’s a big map. While offline, it can search nearby for open-ended destinations like “library” or “Indian restaurant” (both important!) and find it without an address. Then it offers offline directions, map, and navigation just like an old school GPS.

Having those maps downloaded is actually better than using Verizon’s network because it’s not dependent on signal strength. Just last month, we were driving back from a church retreat in the middle of nowhere and Neil’s phone service wasn’t working as we left. Because I had the map saved, Google maps app navigated us without a problem.

Drawbacks: sometimes there is no Wi-Fi available. This requires more planning ahead, including downloading maps, coupons, and other information ahead of time. You could probably get something similar for $5-10 less with a different provider.

I recommend this plan for anyone:

  • Interested in switching from a dumb phone to a smart phone
  • Who is home a lot and is paying for Wifi there, or has access to free Wifi most of the time.
  • Values having very reliable phone service.
  • Who (like me) reguarly gets lost in the middle of nowhere and doesn’t have a GPS.
  • Who comes by a good free smart phone and is ready to make the change.

Someday I may want data, at which point it’ll be time to shop around. For now, I’m happy with my Wi-Fi only plan, great service, and being able to keep my phone.

Would you ever consider a Wi-Fi only plan? Any recommendations for data plans with reliable service? 

Are You Ready to Buy a Home? The Non-Financial Checklist

If you passed our homebuying readiness checklist, it’s now time to think about your wishlist. Here are some important questions to consider to help lead you to home, sweet home.

When we started looking for a home, we didn’t know exactly where we wanted to live or what we wanted in a home. We saw fixer-uppers, turnkey homes, old homes, new homes, big homes, small homes…probably 100 homes before we finally settled on one three years later.

Our poor realtor.

She isn’t a realtor anymore. She claims that isn’t related to us.

More important than sparing your realtor’s time is protecting your own time and money. Here are some important questions to consider in your home purchase, beyond what you can afford.

Where do you want to live?

There are so many possible good reasons for choosing a location, but if you don’t prioritize you may have a hard time honing in on a search range. Do you want to live in the suburbs, the city, or a rural area? Will you base your choice based on proximity to your job, family, friends, quality of schools, how hot the real estate market is, home prices, proximity to shopping, walkability, or neighborhood type?

These are just a few of the many factors you may consider. It’s possible to satisfy more than one, but you may not hit all in one property. Prioritize to narrow your search and save yourself time. Or if you’re flexible on all of these you may be able to prioritize price over other factors.

How long do you want to live there?

What first-time homebuyers don’t see is how much it costs to sell a home. Realtor fees cost 6-7% of the home’s value. So for a $150,000 home you’re looking at $10,500. This is in addition to extra repairs and upgrades you’ll make to help it sell. The point: it pays to stay in your home for long enough to gain equity to compensate for the cost of selling.

Buy with a view to sell. We’ve talked about the fallacy of depending on your residence as an investment, but do keep future marketability in mind. Chances are you will not live there forever. Properties in obviously bad neighborhoods, with very strange floor plans, or with major foundation or structural problems are not just drawbacks for your time there. They’ll also deter future sellers.

What type of home do you want?

Are you looking for something move-in ready, or are you willing to build sweat equity on a lower-price property? It’s so important to know thyself here. Don’t buy a fixer-upper if you don’t like to fix things. Don’t count on sweat equity if you don’t like to sweat. Unless, of course, you’re happy to pay someone else and have the savings to do so.

Maybe you’re very handy but are short on time. Again, be cautious about getting in over your head. And just because a home price is low doesn’t mean it’s affordable. For example, if the property needs to be gutted, make sure you have the cash on hand or can responsibly finance the project.

Do you want a starter home or somewhere you could stay indefinitely? Keep in mind how long you want to stay and whether the home could accommodate children, a home office, or anything else you might have in mind for the future.

Do you want an older home with more character, or a modern home that may be more “cookie-cutter”? Older homes may be an affordable way to score beautiful features, but they can come with a lot of maintenance requirements as well. If you’re not interested in taking care of an older home, don’t buy one!

We also discovered that the newest homes we looked at (1980s) were also the most run-down. In our price range, these newer homes were just old enough that nothing had ever been replaced. That meant we were looking at 30-year old furnaces, hot water tanks, and roofs. (Not to mention lots of outdated wallpaper and fixtures.) Read: lots of expenses on the horizon. We opted for a late 70s home that had updated these major items within the past 5-10 years.

What features do you want in a home?

When we started house-hunting, we were interested in having a large room that could hold up to 30 people for church meetings. As time wore on we realized this would be hard to find in our location and price range. We didn’t want to get into a situation that required major remodeling right away. Eventually we dropped this from our list. Thankfully we’ve still been able to host lots of other types of events.

Some people really want a master bath, a two-car garage, a dishwasher (or room for one), or a formal dining room. We knew we wanted a yard—it didn’t have to be big, but we saw many homes with postage-stamp size yards, some of which were completely paved. We knew we need a little grassy space to garden. Thank goodness we realized this. Now our .3 acre plot is a burbstead where we raise chickens, garden, and tap our maple trees.

There’s no right or wrong to your home-buying wish list, but you may have to hone your non-negotiables. And those may change over time as you see what’s available. Update your priorities as they change and communicate this with your realtor.

And hopefully she won’t quit.

Further reading:

Are You Ready to Buy a House? The Ultimate Checklist

So You Want to Buy a House?

Who Wants a Death Pledge?

Mortgage Myths

Homebuyers, what’s on your wishlist? Homeowners, what else should prospective homebuyers think about? What do you wish you would’ve considered while house hunting?

Are You Ready to Buy a Home? The Ultimate Checklist

The English language borrowed the word mortgage from French, in which it literally means “death pledge,” alluding to the long-term nature of such a commitment. Not to mention if you get in over your head, your home loan will surely feel like death.

A mortgage is also a place where you can royally mess up your finances for the long haul. You can clip coupons, shop at ALDI, do a shopping ban, and drive an old car, but if you over-do it on the house, it’s hard to ever get ahead. This is one of the big areas to get right as it’s likely going to be your top living expense.

Fortunately there is a way to buy a home without killing your financial future. It’s all about going in financially prepared. Use the checklist to determine if you’re ready to take a mortgage, rather than a death pledge.

I know how much money I spent last year. You must know where your money is going, or you don’t know whether you can afford a house. If you base mortgage affordability solely off what you pay in rent, you may be unprepared for the extra costs of home maintenance and repairs and increased utilities.

I’ve recorded a budget for this year. You must know where you want your money to go in order to save a down payment, cover closing costs, and be sure you know what you can afford to buy.

I have no credit card debt. Ideally, you’d want to go into buying a home with no debt, since a mortgage is the largest debt most people will take on. At the very least, you wouldn’t want to be paying high interest on credit card debt. That’s a financial emergency you must get out of before you start saving for a house down payment or getting into another loan commitment.

What about car loans? It doesn’t make much sense to keep an auto loan around (and paying interest on a rapidly depreciating liability) while trying to purchase a home, either. It would be wise to pay it off ASAP, thus minimizing the interest.

What about student loans? In a perfect scenario, you’d want to have student loan debt out of the way. Especially if you have a mortgage-size student debt, why not wait? You don’t need two death pledges! But as long as you have a plan to pay off student debt and factor this into your budget for a home, you should be fine. We had a modest amount student loan debt remaining when we purchased our home, but purchasing an affordable home and having a plan to pay off the debt meant it wasn’t a big burden.

I have six month’s living expenses saved.  That’s nice you’ve saved $20,000. But what is it for? Emergencies such as job loss or illness? A down payment? Closing costs? Incidentals and furnishings? You need to separate these categories, at least mentally. Write it all down, total it up, and save that much, not a random round number that sounds good. What if you buy your house and unexpectedly get laid off? Having a cushion to fall back on is more than ever once you have the major financial commitment of a mortgage.

I have determined a budget for the price of my home, and the mortgage, taxes, and insurance will not exceed 25% of my monthly take-home pay. As mentioned before, please base your budget on the lowest income you expect to earn while paying off that house. If you’d like on parent to stay home with future kids, base it off of one income rather than two. You can always save, invest, or pay down debt with the other spouses’ pay while you’re still a dual income household.

I have saved a 20% down payment. Again, this is in addition to my emergency fund (6 months’ expenses). Putting 20% down will:

  1. Avoid PMI which is money down the drain for a homeowner with insufficient equity to secure the property.
  2. Ensure some equity when you need/want to sell. Early mortgage payments are almost entirely interest meaning you don’t gain much equity in the first few years.
  3. Make your mortgage smaller and monthly payments more affordable.
  4. Indicate you have the financial discipline to handle a mortgage.

I’ve saved an additional 5-7% for closing costs, inspections, appraisal, and setting up the home. For a $100,000 loan, you’ll spend around $5,000 or more just on the home-buying process. Additionally, you may need a lawnmower, furniture, appliances, and other tools to set up your new pad. The cost can add up even if you purchase secondhand. If you buy below your budget, the difference from your down payment savings can cover this. If you buy at the top of your budget you’ll need some extra cash on hand.

I am saving for retirement. At the very minimum you should be earning your employer 401k match. If not you’re essentially allowing your employer to keep part of your paycheck. But investing 6% is only going to inch you toward solid retirement savings. Dave Ramsey recommends investing 15% to build a solid nest egg for the future. Don’t ignore your future in order to purchase a home.

The difference between a death pledge and a mortgage lies in your financial readiness for home ownership. If you’re free of high-interest consumer debt, have sufficient savings, and live in area where home prices are reasonable, home ownership can be a solid choice. Just don’t sacrifice other goals like retirement, staying home with kids, or paying off other debt to do so. It’s worth the wait to avoid the death pledge.

Homeowners, what would you add to this list? What do you wish you’d done to prepare for buying a home? 

Shopping Hack: Shop the Wrong Department to Get the Right Price

I try to avoid this place as much as possible.

The very act of shopping makes me feel like a sucker. Here I am at the mercy of a retailer, a helpless consumer who needs to buy things I can’t or won’t make. At the same time, I’m really glad I don’t have to spend my days shearing sheep, carding wool, spinning yarn, weaving cloth, and sewing clothing. That would suck. I hate sewing on buttons.

If we need something out of the ordinary, we wait to see if we can make do without it or fix what we already have. Next, we exhaust options like freebies, gifts cards, hand-me-downs, Craigslist, garage sales, or eBay (depending on the item).

But if I have to go the typical retail route, I avoid paying full price if at all possible. One strategy that has saved me a lot is shopping in the wrong department. This works particularly well for certain sizes of clothing and shoes, but also for some specialty items. Just think about it: you are in the clothing section, held captive to these awful prices because you need a bathing suit.

Here are some examples of discount finds I’ve made by shopping the wrong section.

  • Kids XL bathing suit bottoms instead of women’s Small: $8 instead of $22. Same brand.
  • Kids tennis shoes: $20 instead of $60. Same brand.
  • Juniors undergarments instead of women’s: one quarter of the price. Same brand.
  • Toddler clothes instead of little boys (for sizes 4-5T): $4 instead of $8. Same brand.
  • Boys undershirts instead of girls’ camisoles: $1.50 each instead of $2.50 each. Same brand.
  • Sunhat in gardening instead of fashion accessories: $10 instead of $20. Same brand.
  • Baby Advil & sunscreen: in medication/personal care instead of baby: half-price generics available.
  • Travel mugs: in dishes instead of travel or lunch box section: $8 instead of $20.
  •  Kids-size fishing pole in fishing section vs. one in toy aisle : $8 instead of $16 & way more durable.
  • Pretty blank cards in stationary, instead of individual greeting cards: a box of 20 or even 50 can cost the same as a single greeting card.

A few tips:

  • Look outside of specialty areas. If you are in a specialty section, you might pay more for the same item. If it’s an item only sold there, you’re out of luck. But if you can think of another area where it might fit, check it out. It might be half the price.
  • I realize not everyone can fit children’s clothes, but if you or your children can span two departments, the smaller size section will usually be cheaper. Toddlers overlaps two sizes with kids. Babies overlap one size with toddlers. Kids’ shoes overlaps several sizes with adults’.
  • Steer clear of end caps and seasonal displays. There are often less expensive, sometimes better quality options in the larger departments.
  • When shopping secondhand, small women’s items are sometimes misplaced in the girls’ section. I don’t go digging through the entire thrift store aisle of kids’ clothes, but sometimes just walking by will notice an item that looks too grown up. Scored my last pair of shorts this way (J. Crew, $5), as well as a couple sweaters. Maybe this happens with boys’ clothing too?

If this sounds time-consuming, it isn’t. Glance through two departments and compare prices. If you live simply, avoid clutter, automate errands, and don’t shop as a hobby, these expeditions for non-routine items should be few and far between.

I hate feeling like consumer sucker. Don’t you? Brainstorming alternatives is second-nature to those pretending to be poor. It’s not extra effort. It’s only natural. We enjoy it. Seeking creative alternatives and solutions is fun!

Have you ever found a great deal by shopping in the “wrong” department? Tell us about it! What are your other thrifty shopping tips?

So You Want to Buy a House?

“Contact your bank for pre-approval.”

“Determine your budget.”

“Location, location, location!”

“Make a wish list of features you want or need.”

“Start browsing online to get an idea of what you like.”

All of this advice and more is cited as step one for prospective homebuyers. But before you start shopping for a home in earnest, there is one thing you absolutely must do: have an annual budget.

I’m not talking about a stab in the dark at what you think you spend in a year. I mean cold, hard, well-crunched numbers based data, i.e. your spending from the previous year or more.

If you’re working toward home ownership, I’m assuming you’ve already started saving a 20% down payment. More here on why that’s critical and you’re foolish to buy a house without one. Plus, practicing the discipline required to save up that big of a chunk of change is a good sign that you’re financially responsible enough to take a death pledge (the literal translation of mortgage.)

A fortunate few receive all or part of a down payment as a gift or from an inheritance. If this is the case—congrats! What a wonderful gift. But this makes it all the more important that you carefully inspect your budget and confidently know what you can afford. I’ve seen people buy too much house this way and it’s not a pretty sight.

Why am I so dull as to peel you away from your Zillow search so you can stare at bank statements and spreadsheets? Because I love you.

  1. How the heck can you set a home price budget without knowing what type of monthly payment you can afford?
  2. How can you determine what you can afford without knowing how much you spend now?

I realize that people compare mortgage payments to their current rent prices, and that makes sense to some extent, but you also must account for the hidden costs like closing fees, property taxes, homeowners’ insurance, utilities, repairs and maintenance, furnishing, and moving. Check out Millennial Firecracker’s excellent calculations on the true cost of home ownership. This stuff definitely adds up over time, making home appreciation less profitable than you might think. Plus, you can’t walk away from a 15- or 30-year commitment easily as you can at the end of a lease.

And don’t even consider your monthly budget, not until you account for all those annual or biannual expenses like vacations, Christmas, gifts, other holidays, and the like. Once you’ve determined those expenses, either spread them out evenly over your monthly expenses (total ‘em up & divide by 12), or subtract them from your take-home pay and pretend that money isn’t even yours. Then put it in a separate savings account.

Let me also highly recommend that you set your budget based on one income, even if you are a dual income house, if you ever conceivably might have kids. Even if you both plan to keep working. Even if you don’t think you’ll want kids. You simply do not know what the future may hold, and how having a child could change your plans.

Aside from having kids, you also never know when one partner could become unemployed. So pretty please do yourself a huge favor and buy a place you can afford on one person’s income. If you both keep killing it at work, you can pay that sucker off fast and be done with the death pledge.

How Much House?

The age of the starter home seems to be over. According to Zillow’s research on Millennial homebuyers, “millennials tend to buy larger homes with more square footage and a higher price tag. The median millennial home purchase is $217,000, which is just 11 percent less than Generation X home purchases and slightly costlier compared to Baby Boomer homes.” I don’t assign moral values to home size or price, but it’s curious that the generation with sometimes mortgage-sized student debt are also biting off big home loans. Certainly knowing your monthly budget will help you avoid getting in over your head.

With your budget in mind, determine how much you’d like to spend on a mortgage, including principle, interest, taxes, and insurance (PITI). Don’t forget to estimate 1-3% annually of the home’s value for maintenance—believe me, you’ll need it. Houses are made of wood, drywall, paint, and lots of other materials that wear out over time. They are also full of expensive appliances which are ticking time bombs for a financial emergency, if you’re not prepared.

Now that you’ve got a real monthly number that’s based on data (i.e. your past spending), go play with some online mortgage calculators. Zillow reports that two-thirds of millennials use mortgage and affordability calculators while considering home ownership. Friends, let’s make that number 100%.

And don’t be fooled by incomplete calculations. Watch out for those real estate web site calculators that report the monthly price for that gorgeous turnkey house is less than you’re paying in rent. They’re often assuming a 30 year term with 20% down, and may not be counting hundreds of dollars per month for property taxes.

While you’re playing with those calculators, select a 15 year term, which will NOT be the default. I know there’s a raging debate over whether or not to take a 30 year and invest the difference, earning a higher interest rate than you’re paying. But let’s just be real. Most normal people are NOT going to be putting the difference into the stock market. If you are really going to invest like crazy, I trust you to navigate this decision. For everyone else, I highly recommend the 15-year. Otherwise, the interest you pay will likely devour the appreciation. It basically works out to a rental agreement (with the bank), but you’re also allowed to hemorrhage money on maintenance and remodeling.

Conventional wisdom says not to spend more than 25% of your income on your mortgage. I concur. And let’s be conservative and say 25% of your take-home pay, and include all of PITI when calculating your housing costs. Naturally, you don’t have to spend this much, but don’t surpass it.

And for the love of God, do not pay PMI. Wait and save 20%. Side hustle, cut spending, put all windfalls into your down payment savings, and wait.

Remember, I’m telling all these horrible, awful things because I don’t want to see you strapped by your mortgage, let alone upside down in it. Even if you’re making payments easily, you don’t want it to prevent you from traveling, being generous, or having the financial flexibility to work less or retire someday. Don’t marry your mortgage. You’ll thank me later. 🙂

Homeowners, what advice do you have for prospective home-buyers? How did you determine your budget?

5 Ways We Spend on Our Marriage

What’s one value that should absolutely make its way into your values-based spending plan? Your marriage (if you’re married, of course)! Let’s face it: the health of your marriage is very important, but it’s also easy to ignore.

People may avoid spending on these areas because they perceive that it will be very expensive. As with anything, you could use the label “value” to justify lots of ridiculous spending. No one needs to spend hundreds of dollars a month in order to prioritize marriage.

It’s true you can’t buy love, but don’t cheap out on your marriage. That’s like telling your spouse, “Honey, I love money more than I love you.”

Here are 5 ways we spend on our marriage, and three price-points that should satisfy anyone

1. An annual getaway.

Before having kids, we jaunted around the world when we wanted to and could hang out alone at home. Now we’re in full-time parenting mode and quality time has to be planned ahead–and away. So we escape alone together for a night or two once a year. If you can pull it off twice a year, even better!

We are very grateful to my mom for babysitting for the weekend of our 11th anniversary this year. Getting an overnight sitter isn’t the easiest task for some, but it’s worth the effort if at all possible. More on that below.

The $$$$ way: Dinner at the city’s fanciest steakhouse, tickets to the best show in town, and drinks at a posh bar afterward. Pay full-price for nice hotel. (Seriously, this is not a terrible way to spend your money once a year.)

The $$ way: Book free hotel with rewards points. Our weekend away included free entertainment like the beautiful city library and art museum (I’m a hopeless nerd). We spent on our favorite ethnic foods and incidentals like parking. We packed snacks and drinks for the hotel.

The broke way: Drop them off at sitters, head home, promise not to clean or fix anything, explore free entertainment in your town, prepare meals together, or inexpensive local dining.

2. Monthly dates.

Getting outside your home and spending time together really makes a difference when you’re in the thick of parenting or just the busyness of life.  It’s easy to be tempted to clean up, work on projects, or veg out in front of the TV. Netflix and take-out is a great way to relax, but in my experience, not always the best way to connect. Especially when dinner conversation consists of talking about Star Wars with a five-year-old. Again.

The $$$$ way: Fancy dinner and a movie (or other pricey entertainment) every time.

The $$ way: Moderate dinner, split an entrée, go to relatively inexpensive place like Chipotle or whatever you like. Neil maintains that our best dates have been at Taco Bell. We also like hiking, biking, or visiting parks or thrift stores. Sharing a common hobby or experience together is a great relationship- builder. Dating is about connection, not consumption.

The broke way: Get takeout during lunch specials, and reheat after kids the kids are in bed. Turn off the TV, hide your phones, light a candle, pour a glass of box wine, and try to stay awake. Or go out for ice cream, coffee, or a walk.

3. Babysitting

#1 and #2 may require another expense: babysitters. We realize not everyone is as fortunate as we are in this department. But there are plenty of options for finding a sitter, and worth the effort to find one. A good babysitter is an invaluable asset for your family.

If you don’t know anyone who can watch your kids, I’d suggest trying to forge a relationship with someone who can. Think neighbors, friends, local high school or college students, people from church, or resources like Care.com.  And if the cost is a concern, I’d recommend looking for other areas to cut back in to allow for some childcare spending.

The $$$$ way: If you don’t know anyone, you can hire from Care.com or a similar website.

The $$ way: We hire a sitter for our weekly home church, and events or dates when our parents or friends aren’t available.

The broke way: We also swap babysitting with other families, and ask friends and family members.

4. Appearance

I’m not a made-up kind of girl, but I do occasionally purchase new clothing or makeup to look nice for my husband. This is an area where you need to “know thyself.” If you live in yoga pants and haven’t showered in three days (moms represent!), maybe you could allocate $20 for sprucing up for your next outing. If you have a history of over-spending in this area, mix it up with what you already have.

In short, I try not to look like complete hell all the time, just to save money.

The $$$$ way: Buy a new outfit for every event. (NEVER!)

The $$ way: Occasional thrift store or clearance chic for a special occasion, or update “date night shirt”.

The broke way: Borrow clothes from a same-size friend or family member. Or ask a talented friend to do your make-up or hair for your next date.

5. Gifts

Some people don’t exchange gifts with their spouse because they are frugal. We choose to buy gifts for one another, because we are frugal. We often delay purchases and ask for the item as a gift. Or surprise each other with something we noticed the other could use. After 14 years together, we are way past any danger of trying to buy each other’s love. But gifts can be a thoughtful way to express love, and some people feel particularly loved this way. If your spouse is one of them, please give them gifts!

The $$$$ way: Pricey gifts for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Anniversary, MLK Day (j/k).

The $$ way: Modest gifts for Christmas & birthdays.

The broke way: Skip the gifts to save money. Craft them something, make a special dinner, or write a heartfelt card.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Neil went all out for me this Christmas. I’m typing this on a new laptop! In addition to its killer specs, it has amazing features such as being able to close the screen, having all the keys connected to the keyboard, and not crashing if you don’t put it in sleep mode. Thanks Neil!

How do you spend on your significant other? Where do you tend to fall on the broke-to-$$$$ spectrum?

Hidden Home Savings

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Everyone says home ownership is fraught with hidden costs, but what are they? And how can you combat them? Today we’ll explore some ways to save when it comes to buying and maintaining a home, and minimizing utility costs.

Buying

I can’t recommend enough that you save a 20% down payment before purchasing a home. Sure, you probably know someone who bought with nothing down and lived to tell about it. But there are many good reasons to begin home ownership with some equity.

First, putting 20% down is the best way to avoid paying PMI, which is a form of insurance against your loan. In other words, you pay money to the bank every month that does not build any type of equity. Secondly, you could easily end up upside-down in your loan, owing more than you own, should your home value dip and you want or need to sell. While it may not seem likely, plenty of homeowners have found themselves in this unfortunate situation. Lastly, you’ll decrease your loan amount, and therefore your monthly payments and the amount of interest you’ll pay overall.

A home inspection is another important step before purchasing. It may be tempting to skip the inspection since they run $300-400 or more, depending on your location. But an inspectors’ knowledge can save you a lot of trouble and money over time. We passed on buying one house after the inspection revealed foundation problems. Many issues can be fixed, but it’s nice to have that information up front so you can ask the seller to make the repairs or lower the purchase price. It’s hard to determine a good price for a home without the inspection results.

Before purchasing, shop around for the best interest rate. Just be sure to get a fixed rate. If rates drop after your home purchase, crunch the numbers for refinancing. While finance fees will lengthen the time till you recoup the upfront expense, a lower interest rate over the long haul could be very beneficial. We refinanced to a lower rate in 2012 with a no-fee refinance for instant savings.

Insurance

Choosing a good neighborhood could not only improve your home value over time, but also reduce the cost of home owner’s insurance.

Researching insurance alternatives can help reduce this cost. For example, protecting your home with a wireless security system could save you nearly $700 in insurance fees over the course of a year.

Another indirect type of “insurance” is making sure your home’s electrical is updated to avoid property damage due to fire. Just last week, Neil’s cousin lost his home to a fire. Fortunately no one was harmed, but of course it if very difficult to start over after losing your home and belongings.

Energy

Updating insulation can make a big difference in energy bills. It’s very affordable to rent a machine and DIY installation of lose cellulose insulation to keep heat from escaping your home. Sealing leaks with caulk or weatherstripping is another low-cost way to reduce heating and cooling costs, while also making your home less drafty and more comfortable. Unlike updating windows, updating insulation, caulking and weatherstripping all have a relatively short ROI time. For more on home energy savings see our utility series: Pretend to Be Warm, The Electric Slide, Hippies, Hustlers, and Vampires, and Who Ya Gonna Call About Utility Bills?

We’ve also replaced our shower heads with low-flow shower heads that aerate water so it uses less water without feeling like you’re showering under a tiny trickle. Efficient shower heads are inexpensive and easy to install, making them a great way for homeowners to lower their water and energy bills.

Appliances

Keeping your refrigerator temperature at 38-40 will keep food safe while costing less than colder refrigeration settings. The refrigerator and other vents may be the last thing on your cleaning list, but it does help them run more efficiently. And softening your water can also lesson energy costs for all appliances that rely on water to run.

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Stay tuned for more on home buying within the next month!

How do you save on home ownership and energy costs? 

5 Tips To Save at the Pharmacy

Today, I’m pleased to feature a guest post on a topic I know little about, but is very important for many: prescription costs. We are blessed to thus far be a very healthy family with no regular prescription costs. However, I know many people face tough decisions about how to pay for medication, and finding the most cost effective source is critical for their physical and financial health.

By Fabio Caparelli 

On top of paying for rent/mortgage, transportation, food, and utilities, the average American also has to factor in spending an average of $1,370 dollars per year on prescription drug costs.

The high cost of prescriptions have been a source of anxiety for Americans for years, and with the forthcoming changes to the health care system and drug price inflation, there seems to be no relief on the horizon. Drug prices rose an average of nearly 10% over the 12 month period ending in May of 2016. What is the average American to do?

Since people can’t just stop buying the medicine they need to live a healthy and happy life, they are stuck with the burden of losing more of their income to pharmacy spending.

We asked pharmacists, nurses, and doctors to share their top tips to save and found the following five tips to help ease your pharmaceutical anxiety.

1) Choose Generic

If you’ve ever struggled with the decision of buying name brand vs an unknown store brand and gone with the name brand, you’re not alone. How could something “the same” cost half, or more than half the price and still be good?

Generic drugs are meticulously tested, and work as well as brand names. There’s a simple reason why generics cost so much less than their branded counterparts. When creating a drug, huge pharmaceutical companies cover the costs of research, development and marketing while taking on the risk that the drug may not get approval from the FDA. Once a drug gets approved, these manufacturers are rewarded with a patent allowing them the exclusive right to produce and sell the drug with the power to set their own price.

But after a patent expires, the drug formulation becomes available for other manufacturers to create and market their own versions. The increase in competition and lower costs mean that the new generics entering the market are just as effective but at a much better price. If your doctor prescribes you a brand-name drug, always remember to ask if there are generics available.

2) Compare Alternatives

For many diseases and symptoms, there’s more than one option for relief. For example, diabetes patients have a number of alternative insulin treatments to choose from. Similarly, arthritis sufferers have many prescription options to manage their pain. When choosing a treatment, keep in mind there may be many alternatives at a much lower cost. If your doctor prescribes you an expensive branded prescription, ask if there are alternative drugs that work just as well. Many physicians have no idea how much your insurance does or doesn’t cover, and would be more than happy to help you find an effective drug you can afford.

It can also help to ask your local pharmacist. Walmart, for example, offers 90-day prescriptions for $23 lower per member per year. Many pharmacies also provide lower cash prices for patients without insurance.

3) Patient Assistance Programs

It’s an unfortunate reality that many Americans are choosing to forego prescriptions because they can no longer afford them. For anyone needing to make the difficult choice between medicine and other basic needs, we recommend seeking out patient assistance programs offered by the state and nonprofit groups. Many states offer programs to cover large portions of bills, which can include copays. In addition, there are non-profits like PPA and RxAssist which help low-income patients find programs for free or low-cost medications.

4) Manufacturer Rebates

Another helpful tip is to search for manufacturer rebates or coupons for specific drugs. These are savings programs created directly by the drug manufacturer and can be worth hundreds in discounts. For example, Epipen has a $0 copay program to help offset out of pocket costs. A quick google search can turn up hundreds of similar programs for all kinds of brands and prescriptions. You’ll often have the best luck with new drugs where manufacturers are willing to lower prices to encourage new patient sales. The state sponsored Medicaid Drug Rebate Program  can also help reduce outpatient costs.

5) Shop Around

As with most goods, prescriptions vary in price from store to store and pharmacy to pharmacy. Prices for a single prescription can differ widely between Walgreens to CVS and Walmart. You don’t have to accept the first price you receive at your local counter. To save time and gas, we suggest using web tools and apps that can help you price check between stores. For example, SearchRx lets users compare prices for prescriptions and find the lowest priced pharmacy. By looking up a prescription and zip code, you get a list of prices at your local pharmacies. Plus, if your copay is high or you’re between insurance, you can email, text or print a coupon to help you save more.


In conclusion, get the most from your trips to the pharmacy by doing your research and shopping around. If price is a concern, do tell your physician as most doctors are happy to work with you to find affordable treatment. Seek generics if they are available or ask if there are alternative medications. Plus, be on the lookout for doctor samples, manufacturer rebates and state-run programs that help bring down out of pocket costs. To help you do all this, you can check out apps like SearchRx that make it quick and easy to search for the best prescription prices and coupons. Whether you’re insured or not, we hope these tips come in handy for your next doctor’s visit!

 How do you save on prescriptions? Have you ever used SearchRx?

 

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