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Spring 2018 Burbstead Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Things To Do With Your Money After College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always Err on the Side of Generosity

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

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

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

That phrase has stuck with me ever since.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Baby Registry Recommendations

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

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

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

What New Parents Need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Register For:

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

Blankets—ditto.

Toys—ditto.

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

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

Personal preference

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

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

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

Do Grown-ups Need an Allowance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much is enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips and Tricks for Thrifty Road Trips

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

Nothing Parties Like a Rental

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pass the Snacks!

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

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

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

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

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

Are We There Yet?

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

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

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

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

Odds and Ends

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

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

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

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

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

If You Give a Wife a Lampshade…

Well, friends, I moved out of the dorm. In December we traded in our metal bed frame, childhood dressers, shadeless lamps, and the plastic drawers I was using as a nightstand for real, matching furniture. Pretty fancy!

How did it happen? I suggested to Neil that bedroom lamps would make a good Christmas present. All of ours were broken and had been for at least two years. We didn’t mind and really didn’t even notice, until we did. “How about $20 lamps instead of $9 ones?” I suggested after explaining why they do not sell replacement lamp shades for the $9 lamps. For the record, I bought the $9 lamps and they lasted many years but they tip over too easily for my clumsy self.

The next day, we were looking at bedroom sets. Neil had taken my suggestion to its logical (?) conclusion and decided it was time to think about buying “real” bedroom furniture. Now, it’s still all PTBP around here, so he was interested in a Craigslist find at a thrift store. After a little comparison shopping at a local discount furniture warehouse, we went to see the Craigslist set and it was without a doubt a great value. Real wood, manufactured one year ago, and came with a nice quality, one-year-old, professionally sanitized mattress. Delivery? $15. We’ll take it?

The day after we got bunkbeds for the kids. Neil had been looking on Craigslist for a real wood set, and even though I was still in my first trimester, we figured we’d better pull the trigger when a good one became available. Plus it’s given the kids plenty of time to adjust to sharing a room.

A couple weeks later we replaced all the broken lamps.

Next up is the dining room table. We’re not in a rush or even actively looking, but ours has seen better days.

As much as possible, we try to purchase real wood furniture. And of course, we buy used. Between Craigslist, garage sales, thrift stores, and Facebook buy-sell-trade pages, there are plenty of avenues for getting decent used furniture.

The older we get the less we enjoy the “college dorm” vibe we readily accepted as part of our early marriage vow to keep living like college students as long as possible. Of course, that ship sailed when we bought a house in the suburbs. But our approach to furnishing it has remained very college-like until recently. Neil surprised me with matching (Craigslist) couches while I was out of the country a couple years ago. And now everyone is sleeping in a real wood bed instead of a bare metal frame (not that there’s anything wrong with that). We really are getting fancy.

Is buying real furniture lifestyle inflation? On the one hand, it was a big purchase and a serious step up in our bedroom milieu. On the other hand, it doesn’t change our monthly expenses as I’d sleep on a mattress on the floor before financing furniture (of course, I’m still young enough to do this).

The bottom line is that our definition of what’s a reasonable way to live is changing as our finances mature. Ten years ago when we still had student debt, it would have been ridiculous to spend much on furniture when we could get hand-me-downs. Now, it feels appropriate to designate some spending to our daily environment, and almost stingy not to. We also want our house to feel like a home to our kids. That in no way requires fancy matching bedroom sets for everyone, or Pinterest-worthy décor, but lamp shades seemed like a good idea.

And if you give a wife a lampshade….

How has your lifestyle changed as your finances have improved? Do you think there is some appropriate “lifestyle inflation”?

 

 

 

Maple Sugaring

It’s time to tap the trees in our neck of the woods. Not that we have woods (much to our chagrin). All it takes is a maple tree or two, a few pieces of simple equipment, and a love of pancakes dripping with real maple syrup.

Actually, scratch that last prerequisite. We rarely ate pancakes before we converted our suburban yard into a sugar bush. I couldn’t convince Neil to eat pancakes when we first married, which was rather disappointing as I find them delicious. I had resigned myself to a life without pancakes, when lo and behold! Neil started making syrup.

Sugaring, like most of our other pretend to be farmer hobbies, snuck up on us. Neil’s friend encouraged him to try it and gave him a couple taps & buckets. That was six years ago, and we now look forward to syrup season and yield enough to last the year.

How It Works

  1. Sap flows when temperatures are above freezing during the day & below freezing and night. For us, this usually happens sometime in February or March.
  2. Drill a hole in an adult maple tree. “Sugar maples” yield a sweeter sap, but all have sap that can be boiled down into syrup. The hole should be about 1.5 inches into the tree slightly angled toward the ground. Use the recommended drill bit for your spile (5/16 for plastic or 7/16 for the old style metal). Then gently tap in the spile in with a hammer.  The bucket hooks onto the spile or tube is connected and is covered to prevent rain or snow from getting in.collecting sap
  3. Collect the sap. Check your buckets about once a day and collect the sap. We store it in pitchers or clean milk jugs. Store it as you would milk, below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Or you can freeze it. When you’ve collected a few gallons, get a fire going outside. You can use a “turkey burner” with propane or a wood fire with the pan set above on something like cinder blocks. Of course, the wood fire using free firewood is much cheaper, though less convenient. The wood fire also harkens back to sugaring parties of pioneer days.

    Splitting wood for the fire.

    Splitting wood for the fire.

  4. Boil it to  7.1 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point of water in your elevation. This will take a while—the sap to syrup ratio is about 40:1. We switch to a small pan at the end to finish it. You can take the temperature with a candy or meat thermometer. The legit method is to use a hydrometer. There are also a host of non-technological “how it looks when falling off the spoon traditions,” but I’m not so good with that type of subtlety. Watch out! It burns fast. We know from experience.

    Liquid gold.

    Liquid gold.

  5. We filter through a cheesecloth into glass jars while it is still hot, which sufficiently sterilizes it for storage. Let it cool completely, then freeze whatever you won’t use within the month.
  6. Make pancakes! Or whatever you love to eat syrup on. My favorite recipe is Fluffy Pancakes. We also like Maple Almond Granola and it can replace the honey in Playgroup Granola Bars.

Why We Make Maple Syrup

Considering our very infrequent pancake consumption before sugaring, I have no illusions that making syrup has saved us fat stacks of cash. Confession: we actually used to buy the deplorable imitation syrup since we didn’t use it often. After purchasing equipment, it’s probably just starting to save money compared to buying the real deal. However, it’s also a pastime that fits the bill for us–it’s productive, kid-friendly, happens outside, and isn’t expensive.

We love that it’s a thrifty throwback hobby. Anything described in the Little House books is guaranteed to get me excited. Except the grasshopper plagues and scarlet fever, of course. And what’s not to love about the sheer efficiency of using what you already own?

Another reason I love making syrup is that it’s a sign that spring is just around the corner. It’s a great excuse to get outside at the end of winter, enjoy the slightly warmer days, and make use of your yard before it’s time to plant the garden and raise chickens. It’s become a talking point with the neighbors, and they’ve even graciously allowed us to tap their trees.

It’s also a great hobby for families. Our son loves checking the buckets, helping collect the sap, and hanging out around the fire while it boils down. And of course, the kids love eating pancakes.

Pancake breakfasts have become a hospitality staple in our home. Inviting people over for breakfast can be less expensive, easier to schedule, and more casual than a dinner invite. And who doesn’t love carbs drenched in sugar?

What You Need

Sugaring requires no special skills! Anyone with a maple tree, a big pan, and fire can make the magic happen. Here’s the full equipment list if you’re interested:

Happy maple syrup season! I hope you consider putting your untapped potential to delicious use if you have a maple tree.

What are your burning questions about boiling sap? Do you have a similar hobby?

How to Save on Maternity Medical Expenses

Having a baby costs a lot of money. I know plenty of parents who joked about how they were still “paying off” their kid, i.e. maternity hospital bills, well into the child’s toddlerhood.

For my first pregnancy, we had a hospital co-pay which made the whole endeavor less expensive. But when our second child arrived, we had a completely different plan: a high-deductible HSA. We chose the plan hoping to have another child that year and had crunched the numbers to determine it was a prudent choice. It was, in part because the company was offering a $2000 HSA stipend. But we still became much more cost-conscious since we were essentially paying for more of our medical expenses directly from our own pockets. The great side-effect was that I become more proactive and informed about my care.

The first thing I did was start questioning some of the procedures at my first prenatal visit. Were the many blood tests (that I’d just had two years ago) covered fully by insurance? They were, so test away.

But my practice had also added an early ultrasound “for dating” as a routine procedure. This was not the case when I had my first, and since I knew when I got pregnant, I didn’t feel I needed it. With the second baby I also felt comfortable waiting to schedule my first appointment until I was far enough along to hear the heartbeat. This made the ultrasound less necessary, as well. In the end it saved me at least $250.

I know others who received the ultrasound (some practices require it), but were strategic about timing it in the same calendar year as their due date so it would count towards the deductible.

Of course, if your pregnancy is high risk, you might need to see your practitioner sooner. There are some problems, such as low progesterone, for which early interventions exist. But in a textbook pregnancy they don’t even test hormone level changes (at least at my practice).

Near the end of both my pregnancies, I was told I needed an ultrasound because I was “measuring small.” In both cases it was user error, because in fact I measured perfectly. The first time, it was a simple matter of the intern writing down the wrong number. In the second, I saw a different practitioner and he just didn’t seem to take the same careful measurements as the person who had been measuring me for months.

In both cases, an ultrasound was ordered. Intrauterine growth restriction is a real, serious problem that can be minimized with early delivery, so I didn’t want to write it off, but I also felt that careful re-measurement by a nurse-midwife was probably all I needed. In both instances, I checked out perfectly and saved another $250 on ultrasounds. Why make use of expensive equipment and procedures when a simple tape measure will do the trick?

I also turned down early screenings for genetic disorders. While these decisions are very personal, I think helps to understand that screenings do not provide a yes or no answer to whether your child has the disorder (though some tests do); there is nothing that can be done medically to fix the problem; and if you’re not willing to terminate the pregnancy, it might make sense to save yourself the worry and expense.

It’s often confusing to figure out whether a procedure is covered by your insurance. If you’re not sure, ask for the diagnosis and procedure codes and call your insurance before accepting it. Since some tests in pregnancy are time-sensitive, you may want to ask at your first appointment which procedures will be offered throughout the pregnancy, or at your next visit. I’ve found that using these codes has helped me get much more concrete answers from the insurance company than even inquiring with the procedure’s name.

I also researched hospital charges and discounts, since my practice and insurance were compatible with two area hospitals. I’d heard from a friend that one hospital offered a 30% discount if you requested to pay your bill upon leaving the hospital. In my case, the maternity bill was prepared, but the newborn’s bill wasn’t ready yet. So they said to call and inquire about the prepay discount which had been noted on my account. In the end I saved around $1000 by asking for this discount (and having the money in the HSA ready to go).

So having a baby is going to be expensive, no doubt, but you can minimize the cost by becoming informed about what your insurance covers, why a procedure is being offered, and what discounts are available through your local hospitals. This, paired with saving in advance, can make bringing home that bundle of joy a little more joyful.

Have you found ways to reduced maternity costs? What are some ways to save up ahead of time?

Beyond Rice & Beans: Budget Dinners that Aren’t Boring

Masala Spiced Roast Chicken (recipe below)

Has someone ever told you about an easy, delicious recipe that you have to make? As they describe it, you realize the ingredient list will easily run you $40 for a single meal. Of course you can make easy, delicious food if it involves lots of fancy, expensive ingredients. Almost anyone can do that.

At the other end of the food conversation spectrum are the ubiquitous thrifty suggestions of rice-and-beans or pasta. Both tasty in my opinion, but it gets rather boring. Certainly there has to be something in between.

If you’re looking for good ways to stick to your budget in 2018, your grocery bill is a great place to start. Food is one of most people’s top three expenses, up there with housing and transportation. And of the three, it’s probably the most flexible, the easiest to change without major effort. (Like moving!) I believe with a little planning, effort, and willingness to try new things, most people can reduce their food costs substantially.

If you’re keeping things simple for breakfast and brown-bagging it for lunch, dinner is probably your budget-killer. It’s easy to get sucked into spending a lot on fresh, healthy food. And I’m all for fresh, healthy food. But it doesn’t have to be outrageous. I’ve shared my foundational food principles already in:

20 Frugal Food Hacks

Hospitality Hacks

Say Good-bye to Meatless Mondays (protein price per serving comparison chart)

Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half Parts 1 and 2

Not Your Mom’s Meal Planning—approaches for speed-meal planning and keeping things simple.

Naturally, food preferences and dietary needs/priorities are as varied as is food itself. The ideas below are not the absolute most healthy, least expensive, or quickest options available—but they all strike a great balance with each of these factors. I vary our less expensive meals with more interesting, exotic, sometimes easier, and sometimes more involved dishes. Creating your own list of thrifty, easy, tasty stand-bys can go a long way toward lowering your grocery budget and dinner-time stress. Here re some of my go-to meals:

Juicy Roasted Chicken

Masala Spiced Roast Chicken

Any on-sale bone-in chicken that you cook with a simple, inexpensive sauce or seasoning is a good thrifty dinner option. Grill, bake, or sauté with BBQ, honey mustard, teriyaki, jerk seasoning, lemon butter, balsamic, etc.

A word on side dishes: While proteins are important, sides are also an area to watch spending. Fancy accouterments like cheese, nuts, herbs, and exotic grains, spices, or out-of-season produce add up quickly. We tend to stick with thrifty stand-bys like baked or roasted potatoes (white or sweet) rice, or noodles; steamed vegetables; and simple garden salads.

Chicken Noodle Soup

Lime chicken tacos

Fall-off-the-bone chicken thighs I use any fresh or dried herbs I have on hand.

Mujaddarah Incredibly simple, delicious Middle Eastern dish.

Sweet potato burritos A seemingly strange combination that is so tasty!

Peanut Butter Noodles Knock-off Thai vegetarian dish. I add stir-fry veggies to it and double the sauce. Can be vegan if you sub for water for chicken broth.

Potato soup I use real cheese instead of processed.

Cincinnati style chili I make this with ground turkey instead of beef.

Chicken Taco Soup

White Chicken Chili Use a fresh jalapeno instead of canned.

Masala hard-boiled eggs (egg curry) Way more exotic than breakfast for dinner. Don’t knock it till you try it. Everyone I’ve served this to loves it!

Butter chickpea curry (not authentic; for better recipes see Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking or Vegetarian cookbook)

I have found it worthwhile to “invest” in the pantry items for Indian cooking and a few favorite authentic Chinese and Thai dishes. Buying these items at the Asian grocery (or directly in India!) is by far the least expensive route. Shopping with an international friend knowledge about the cuisine is extremely helpful as they know which brands to buy! The upfront cost of a few spices and sauces pales in comparison with restaurant spending on similar dishes.

I also have go-to recipes for hosting that are a little more impressive than what’s listed above, but still fairly inexpensive. We just hosted two large (13-15) person family dinners over the holidays, and the meat for each cost only $7, respectively! Clearly I didn’t serve prime rib, but people praised the food and ate seconds. Maybe they were just being polite. I’ll let you judge these recipes for themselves:

Turkey

Butter Chicken

Thai curry (Maesri brand curry paste mixed with 1 can full fat coconut milk + water as needed. Add vegetables and protein of your choice; serve with jasmine rice. Many Asian groceries carry it.)

Grilled pork chops with sweet & spicy dry rub. I can’t find the recipe I used but it contains Montreal Steak, brown sugar, and we substitute habanero powder for cayenne!

Grilled chicken tacos with chipotle marinade This is NOT a chipotle copycat recipe but it’s equally delicious in its own right—maybe better. I make the marinade in large batches (3-4x) and freeze it.

And my go-to bread recipes are always a hit:

Crusty White Bread—super easy, can be made ahead, large batch, good for every day or holidays.

Amish Dinner Rolls—a little more involved, good for holidays.

Do you have trouble sticking to your grocery budget, or meal planning? What are you favorite frugal dinners?