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5 Habits to Improve Your Financial Health

Well into February, perhaps your new year’s resolve is waning. I didn’t make any resolutions this year, but I did find myself wanting to eat healthy and declutter. Maybe I was just recovering from all the Christmas cookies and gifts.

Another popular New Year’s goal is improving one’s finances. Maybe you made a budget or pledged to reduce spending or increase savings. Maybe you vowed to cook at home or pay off debt. Whatever your goal, have you thought about what skills or habits will help you keep that resolution past the first few weeks of the year?

Most people don’t keep their resolutions because new year, new you is unrealistic. I didn’t wake up a different person on January 1, and neither did you. My will power doesn’t magically improve with the turn of the year. We really need to understand the habits and skills that make for success in an area, rather than hoping we’ll somehow have better motivation in 2020.

Let me illustrate. I’m a naturally quiet, even shy person. I’m much more comfortable around my small inner circle of friends. But I hated feeling overwhelmed and intimidated in new social situations. So I started observing what more outgoing people do in these settings, and imitating them. They approach people. They ask questions. They smile. They laugh. They tell stories. I started doing these same things, even though it felt unnatural. And soon enough, even if I still felt a bit awkward, I was able to overcome my shyness.

I bring this up because I believe people tend to have different financial personalities. Some love to spend, others love to save. I see it with my kids. One hoards his money and we have to practically force him to spend some of it. The other wants to spend her money as soon as she gets it, often on junk she will never touch again, and we have to try to talk her out of it or at least make her wait.

So what are the traits or habits of the naturally frugal? And how can anyone learn those skills, even if they aren’t second nature? Here are 5 tools to improve your financial health:

  1. Plan ahead. Whether it’s making a grocery list for the week, or investing for retirement, much of financial health has to do with looking to the future. And this comes easier to some of us than others. Think about your spending pitfalls and ways to plan ahead and avoid them. For example, make a menu and grocery list so you can avoid eating out too much. Make a budget for the year (or month) and determine how much you want to save. Then, set that money aside as soon as you get paid.
  2. Be patient. So much of building wealth has to do with being patient. You wait for investments to grow. You wait for hard work to pay off in a raise. You wait for a great deal on something you want to buy. Instant gratification is the enemy of financial health. When you find it hard to wait, try to remember the bigger picture of the goal you’re working toward. Some people like to create visual reminders to help them see progress while they’re waiting. Others like to find inexpensive ways to celebrate smaller steps along the way. Figure out what motivates you to wait.
  3. Seek alternatives. For any problem you encounter, there’s usually an obvious option to throw money at it. But before you order for next-day delivery, try to learn the Art of the Alternative. Can you fix it? Borrow it? Use something else? Buy secondhand? DIY? Get a second quote? Ask a friend for help? There’s usually more than one option, and a little brainstorming can turn up less expensive ways to resolve the issue. If you do need to go with the pricey option, at least you’ll know it’s the best choice.
  4. Prioritize. Money is always a “Would You Rather?” proposition. There’s saving, spending, giving, investing, debt payoff. There are wants and needs, both for the short and long term. Personal finance is often a matter of prioritizing, and there is usually not one right answer. Budgeting is a great way to decide your priorities and spend accordingly. If you’re not sure how to prioritize, check out Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps, talk to a financially wise friend, or chat with a fee-only financial adviser.
  5. Automate. Take the will power out of the equation by creating auto-payments for as many goals as possible. Many apps allow you to allocate money for savings through ACH. Set up auto-deductions from your paycheck straight to retirement savings. Don’t wait to see what’s leftover. Pay yourself first (assuming you can pay your bills, too). Start small if you need to, and slowly increase.

What other habits or skills do you notice among those who are good with money? What habit do you most wish to gain?

Pretend to Be Poor 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 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?

Products We Loved

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 buybuy Baby 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.

My list isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but here are the items we used most in the course of having three kids, including a few less obvious favorites.

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 this thermometer to us and it’s been such a trusty parenting tool. It’s still going strong 8.5 years later. 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 stroller dominating your entire trunk, consider getting a stroller frame that fits the car seat (also essential). 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 loved 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 want to document the first year.

Battery snot sucker–Just got one for baby #3 a.k.a. Snotlout and it’s way more effective than the aspirator yet totally gentle. 

Space saver high chair–This high chair sits atop a regular chair and is easier to move and store. We also got a lot of use out of our booster high chair which is good for travel, when you have other kids over, and when you’re baby is a toddler. In fact, our kindergarten just asked to bring it back to help her sit still at dinner!

Play gym–We got sooo much use out of this play gym. The babes loved it from about one month till they were crawling.

Baby swing–I didn’t love ours and never found it to be the silver bullet for crabby babies. But again, many parents swear by them, especially for infant naps. If you get one, opt for something that looks cozy; I think ours was too hard. 

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. 

Personal preference

I found I did not get a ton of use out of my Bumpo seat or doorway jumper. Didn’t need a video monitor. Didn’t need a Scandinavian snot sucker. Sophie the Giraffe is not worth $20. 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.

Registering for a baby can be overwhelming. I hope this list helps. I also recommend going to the store with a mom you trust and getting her tips and tricks.

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

10 Reasons to Give Away 10 Percent of Your Income

I’m a Christian, but I don’t believe in “tithing”–a religious requirement to give away 10% of your income. However, I think it’s a darn good idea for a host of non-religious reasons.

1. Ten percent is enough to make a difference. I’m sorry, but tossing a couple bucks in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas isn’t going to change anyone’s life. Neither is the random $20 tip. Ten percent of your income can’t save the world, but it can truly inflate the lifestyle of someone who needs it. For example, 10 percent of a median $50,000 salary is $5,000—enough to sponsor about 14 impoverished children for one year. Or fund 50 micro-loans to help end the poverty cycle in one family.  Multiply those effects over years of giving and you’ve made a significant impact.

2. Giving ten percent motivates financial responsibility. Learning to practice giving has helped us figure out both the how and why of managing our money well. It’s led us to practical steps like getting financially educated, annual budgeting, and living like college students while we paid of our school loans. It’s also motivated us to make responsible choices, because “having something to share” (Ephesians 4:28) is one of the most convincing reasons to say no to yourself.

3. Giving ten percent can make you cheerful. A famous Bible verse says “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:6). Interestingly, secular research shows giving can actually help make you cheerful. The Paradox of Generosity, based on the most comprehensive study of American giving habits ever done, reports generosity causes—not just correlates—with happiness. The study found lower depression rates among Americans who donate more than ten percent of their income, along with many other positive outcomes. It pointed out that those who experienced happiness practiced generosity consistently over time.

4. Giving ten percent is not irresponsible. A concern is that people will give to the point of financial irresponsibility. Let’s be real: I don’t think most of us are in danger of this. But ten percent is a very reasonable guideline that will not endanger you financially. After all, it’s in proportion with your income. If you can live on $50,000, you can almost certainly make it on $45,000–though perhaps not without some sacrifice. (Of course, if you are in a financial season of no income or great need yourself, it’s wise to press pause on giving.)

5. Giving away ten percent teaches you how to live on less than you make. Ten percent is enough to inflate your lifestyle, too. Giving away a tenth means you’ll choose a slightly simpler life with lower expenses. This can come in handy in lots of scenarios, like if your income decreases due to a job layoff, career change, retirement, or one parent staying at home with kids. It’s also just a great way to keep a buffer between income and spending.

6. Giving ten percent helps you spend on what you value. We talk a lot about values-based spending, and then go to Target and buy boring stuff diapers and Lysol. It hardly feels like values-driven budgeting. I guess I value containing bodily fluids and slaying germs. Okay, I value my kids! But if I care about the homeless, the hungry, and the hurting, I will spend money on them, too. 

7. Giving ten percent acknowledges God’s provision. Even if you don’t believe in God, it’s healthy to recognize that certain circumstances outside your control, such as your intelligence, personality traits, or opportunities, contributed to your current income. Of course that doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard, hone skills, or grow your career. Both are true.

If you can believe God or the universe has smiled on you at least a little, giving acknowledges that. “What do you have, that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). If we believe we’ve been given to, we are so much more likely to give to others. And giving ten percent is a tipping point where you’re parting with a substantial portion of your pay. For those of faith, you’re actively agreeing that 1. God gave me this and 2. He will continue to meet my needs. I don’t need to hoard it all for myself if God is a good provider.

8. Giving ten percent helps protect against greed. It’s easy to say, I’ll give when I make more, or when I reach financial independence, or when I have XYZ in place. There are seasons where more or less giving is appropriate, to be sure. But the only way of being fairly certain that you really will give when X, Y, and Z happen is to give all along the way. Greed is not reserved for those with an affinity for nice, new things. It can also corrupt those like me who love to save. Generosity guards your heart by keeping you compassionate toward others

9. Giving ten percent allows charitable organizations to plan for consistent impact. Giving consistently over time makes you a dream donor–even if you aren’t giving away millions. We split our giving between several destinations, but deciding ahead of time how much to give, and making the commitment over several years allows the organizations you support to keep their efforts afloat.

10. You will feel it if you give away ten percent. Generosity has an opportunity cost. It’s helpful to realize the trade off and affirm how worthwhile it is. Choosing to forego a few wants in favor of supporting important causes is a beautiful way to practice mindful, sacrificial philanthropy.

Lest anyone start to feel guilty, judged, or pressured about their giving habits, I leave you with this gracious verse:

“You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. ‘For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.’ And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others” (2 Corinthians 9:7-9).

What benefits have you experienced from practicing generosity? What causes do you value?

Reflections on a Decade of Pretending to Be Poor

How much change a decade brings! It’s almost exactly 10 years to the day since we bought our house. We started trying to start a family around the same time. We also finished paying off student loans about 7-8 years ago and have met a couple other financial goals since then.

Buying a house and having three kids hardly sounds like a frugal decade, right? It was the decade when we slowly graduated from our “live like a college student” mantra. No more living in our friends’ basement.
No more broken lamps in our bedroom. No more dates at Taco Bell. Okay, a lot less dates at Taco Bell. Neil’s car is worth more than $1000, and we even own a flat screen TV.

But while our expenses have waaaay increased since the newlywed apartment days, we’ve been able to pay off debt and get that retirement nest egg rolling, mostly on one income. I scarcely knew what a 401k was 10 years ago. Now we’re setting ourselves up to exit the traditional workforce by our mid-40s.

I imagine the next decade is going to be one of the most expensive of our lives, so I’m glad we spent the last ten years living simply a.k.a “pretending to be ‘poor'”. What’s great is that, while our spending has increased, it hasn’t kept pace with our income. So now that we’ve entered a more expensive period of our lives we have the wiggle room to keep giving and saving like we want to. We really didn’t do anything too crazy except not spend all our money on cars. But you be the judge:

Slightly crazy stuff: Neil fixing head gasket on 1990 Dodge Shadow, buying a $200 car, DIYing all home repairs and remodeling.

Crazy only in our culture stuff: not buying a bigger house (yet), buying used cars in cash, not upgrading cell phones every year, camping for some vacations, doing own car maintenance and yard work, packing lunch.

Fairly normal stuff: shopping at ALDI and the thrift store, eating most meals at home, using hand-me-downs, not going to Disney (yet).

Just five years ago I couldn’t bear the thought of opening a can of beans because dry ones are so much cheaper. Today I pay Walmart $98 a year to deliver unlimited cans of beans to my door step. Times have changed. What will the next decade bring?

Whatever it brings, I know our thrifty 2010s helped us lay the foundation for our future goals. It may take another decade to reach our next big goal. The point is, you can do a lot in 10 years! Whether you feel like you’ll never get out of debt, or buy a house, or save for retirement, the 2020s are the time to start.

Have you done anything “crazy” to save money? How have your life and finances changed in the last decade?

The Easiest, Laziest Way to Save More Money

The easiest, laziest way to build wealth is to invest in index funds. But where is that extra money supposed to come from? The easiest, laziest way to have extra cash available is to avoid car payments.

Neil recently commented while driving, “The more I think about it, cars are the key to having money or not. What else do people willingly throw away tens of thousands of dollars on?” Sure, maybe you get take-out a little more often than you’d like, but are you really dropping $300-500 a month on it? But some people do on cars. Without even thinking twice about it.

While transportation clocks in at #2 of the average top expenses behind mortgage/rent, real estate generally appreciates while vehicle values tank rapidly. Keeping the mortgage in check will go a long way toward financial stability. Yet people don’t upgrade homes at nearly the rate, or with as little thought, as they upgrade cars.

A common objection to avoiding car loans is that you won’t be able to afford a safe, reliable vehicle. Not everyone can fix cars like my handy husband. But taking out a car loan isn’t the only solution. The trick is to save up to pay for your next vehicle in cash. I understand that this will look differently for every budget. Perhaps you’re only able to save up $1000 for the first car you buy in cash. Hopefully, though, you can save up a few more thousand for the next one.

People tend to think those older cars will need such expensive repairs, you’d be better off buying a newer vehicle. Of course, it will all depend on the car. Have your mechanic or a knowledgeable friend look at any used vehicle before you buy it, using any necessary repairs as a bargaining chip unless the price already reflects these. Despite what panicky naysayers would have you believe, it would be hard not to come out ahead of paying $350-500 per month for a car payment or lease.

Let me illustrate the wealth-building potential of not having a car payment. If a couple both has a modest car payment of $250, that’s $500 a month or $6000 a year. You could max out an IRA each year for that amount!

If you set aside $1000 per year toward your next car, and invested the other $5000, in 30 years you’d have over $472,000! (Assuming 7% interest.) Up the payments to the average American’s $350, less $1000 per year, and you could build $700,000 in wealth!

In conversation with people, I’ve noticed that having just one car payment is seen as financially conservative. And I agree that it’s way better than having two. That brings your potential investment down to $189,000 – 302,000. But I’d still rather have the retirement savings than the newer vehicle. Wouldn’t you?

What if you can’t do your own repairs, or worry about reliability of older vehicles? If you absolutely must purchase a car with a payment, keep the loan amount as low as possible and pay it off as quickly as you can. When purchasing, try to avoid loans that will charge a penalty for early payoff. That’s just highway robbery.

Then drive that car as long as possible! Where people go wrong isn’t simply with buying a new car. If you pay it off in 5 years and then drive it for 15 more, that’s a pretty frugal way to go. The trouble starts when you upgrade every time the last vehicle is paid off. That never-ending cycle of car debt is will rob you of the flexibility to retire before 60, travel, be generous, or whatever else floats your boat.

What if you already have a car payment? Assess the situation. Can you pay it off quickly and drive that car for a long time? Then pay it off! If you over-spent on the vehicle, it’s probably wiser to sell it. There’s a sunk cost fallacy stating that once you’ve already spent so much on something, and it’s depreciated, it’s better to just keep it. But if you’re in over your head or realize the cost is more than you can justify, it really is better to sell. It’s a hard choice to make but in the long run you will thank yourself! Take some of that money from the sale and buy a car you can actually afford.

Of course, if you can get by with no car, you’re better off even still. But for those of who can’t swing that, your vehicle choices are part of the key to your financial future. Choose wisely! Start today by setting aside $50-100 per month, or whatever amount you can, toward the goal of owning your next car outright. Once you’ve reached that goal, direct your old car payment funds toward your future.

Further reading on frugal car ownership: How I Spent Less than $8k on Car in 17 Year of Commuting

What is the best, or worst, car purchase you’ve ever made? What other objections are there to buying cars in cash?

Christmas Gifts that Keep on Saving

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

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

For the new parent:

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

For the handy man: (suggestions from Neil)

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

13. For the home chef:

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

14. For the kids:

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

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

Weird but True

Craft supplies or Play-dohReplenish crafty consumables.

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

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

16. For the whole family:

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

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

Book sets such as Weird But True, Narnia book seriesLittle House book series.

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

Museum or zoo memberships.

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

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

This post contains affiliate links. 

A Pretend to Be Poor Investing Primer

So, you’re about to graduate, you got your first job, and you’re ready to invest for retirement. Congrats! Or maybe you’re finally starting to crawl out of student debt, but you don’t want to neglect retirement, either. Good for you! Perhaps you’ve got it all–all the expenses, that is. Kids, a mortgage, student loans, car payments….what does investing look like for you?

Getting started with investing can be overwhelming and confusing. I used to think of the stock market as a realm only rich people understood. I didn’t realize that investing is how regular people “get rich,” i.e. build wealth. Indeed, investing is what’s behind the “pretending” part of Pretend to Be Poor. Rather than allocating resources toward a lot of fancy gadgets, showy cars, or pricey vacations, we’d rather live simply and build wealth that will allow for more flexibility in the future.

Even once you get why to invest, it’s easy to feel intimidated by this seemingly abstract world. Where do I start? What should I invest in? Will I get ripped off? Will I have to start obsessively checking the stock market every day? I’m no expert, but I’m happy to share a few simple principles of investing, from one lay person to another.

Where should you start?

The place to start depends on your benefits. If you have an employer match in a 401k or 403b, start there. It’s like “free money,” or, more accurately, it’s part of your compensation. For example, the employer may contribute 3% of your salary if you contribute 6%. 401k contributions are made on pre-tax income. You can contribute up to $19,000 of pre-tax income per individual per year. But at the very least start maxing out that match!

If you don’t have an employer-matched option, start with an IRA. Individuals can contribute $6,000 to an IRA each year. There are two main types of IRAs: Traditional (pre-tax) and Roth (after tax). With the traditional, you’ll contribute on pre-tax income, and pay taxes later when you withdraw (like the 401k). With the Roth, you pay taxes on your income now, so you will not have to pay taxes later when you withdraw. There are pros and cons to each. Consider whether you are likely to be in a higher tax bracket while you are contributing, or later when you withdraw.

If you are on a typical American lifestyle-inflation plan where your expenses will increase with your income, you may want to pay those taxes now and go with the Roth. If you plan to keep expenses fairly stable as time goes on, and keep them well below your current income, then your “income” when you start withdrawing will be a lower later on.

How much should you invest?

Dave Ramsey recommends directing 15% of household income to investments as the 4th baby step after paying off all but mortgage debt. Others say the sooner you start investing the better, so don’t even wait to pay off debt to get started. It really depends on your comfort level with debt (and what interest rates you are paying).

Time is a key ingredient in growing investment so starting ASAP is wise. I highly recommend contributing enough to get your employer match from the day you get your first job, at the bare minimum. Work up to 15%, and then try to max out accounts as you’re able. If you reach that goal, look into index funds through a low-fee brokerage service such as Vanguard.

One strategy we’ve used to increase investments is to direct “extra” income to retirement. So when we get a bonus, we give at least 10% to our church/charitable causes, we may spend a little on an extra, but the bulk goes straight toward retirement. You might use the same approach to allocating side hustle money, gift money, or your household’s second income, if you’re able.

What should you invest in?

Index funds are a good, low maintenance, low cost approach. Index funds split your investment across lots of companies at once so your fund has diversity and stability. You can also be super lazy, as there’s no trading of individual stocks. Because they don’t require a lot of babysitting these funds have lower fees compared with other types of accounts. Many employer-based plans will have index funds to choose from.

Fees vary widely between different types of accounts and brokerage firms, so be sure to compare. And doesn’t it make sense to pay less fees and keep more of your money? It’s also wise to compare the performance of various index fund options before investing. For more on how to choose an index fund, read this.

What to watch out for

Annuities: these funds guarantee a certain annual income in retirement, but at a huge price. It’s really a type of insurance. While it seems nice to have a guaranteed income, there are lots of fees and charges, and they are less fluid and flexible. Your earning power is much great with an index fund. Do yourself a favor and avoid annuities like the plague.

Really, you’ll want to be wary of advice from anyone selling a financial product. Naturally they’ll have their own stake in the game. Many companies are cutting out the need for human brokers by using robo-advisors, and this is how they are able to provide lower fees. If you want to get professional financial advice choose a fee-only fiduciary. These pros are paid the hour rather than based on a commission for selling products. Radio personalities such a Dave Ramsey and Clark Howard offer lists of trusted financial services providers, searchable by location and type.

Individual stock-trading: while some people “get rich quick” day trading, it’s kind of like gambling in Vegas. Do you really think you’re the rare whiz who is going to beat the house? Your chances of beating the market consistently over decades are slim to none. Even stock market geniuses like Warren Buffet recommend index funds! Trading individual stocks simply isn’t a strategy for building a retirement fund.

High fees: even for solid types of funds, fees can vary widely between different brokerage firms. Be sure to compare fees before choosing a product or firm.

Wrapping it up

Of course, there are countless technical details about how to optimize your investments for tax advantages, balancing stocks with bonds depending on your age, sequencing returns, converting funds, and more. For more in-depth information on investing, check out The Simple Path to Wealth or The Legacy Journey. But when you’re getting started, the main principles are investing are quite simple:

  1. Get your employer match if you have one.
  2. Invest in low-fee index funds (401k or IRA).
  3. Keep investing and let the compounding interest do the work.

What other questions do you have about getting started with investing? Or what books or blogs did you find helpful for learning about it?

This post contains affiliate links.

My (Literal) Dark Night of the Soul

One night on vacation last summer I couldn’t fall asleep. It happened again a couple days later. In my groggy state, I noticed that my legs were sort of kicking when I tried to sleep. Maybe I had restless leg syndrome, I thought. A couple days later it happened AGAIN and even my arms moved a couple times.

We returned home, and I tried very hard to unwind before bed and go to bed on time. I slept fine that week, until it kicked up again over the weekend. I was up till 2 am with my legs and arm moving restlessly that night and the following. Sometimes it went on till 4 am! If I tried to take a nap the next day the same thing happened.

At first I got diagnosed with restless leg syndrome. Self-care prevention wasn’t helping, so I tried medication. I had a lot of side effects, including fainting. I was scared to go to bed because I never knew what side effects to expect and the symptoms weren’t under control yet either.

I saw a different doctor and she thought the RLS was caused by low iron. (My blood work results were “normal,” but the iron was at the low end of that.) Then I finally saw my actual doctor, and she didn’t think it was restless legs at all. And I realized I’d been describing it wrong. The movements were involuntary, not almost irresistible but voluntary motions.

This was about 6 weeks into serious sleep loss and I was desperate. She prescribed a different medication which, once we got the dose right, worked well. But she also wanted to look for underlying causes.

She ordered my third round of blood work, a CT scan of the brain and head, a sleep study, and a nerve conduction test/EMG (muscle test). Needless to say, now I was scared. I’m pretty nervous about health stuff in general; I tend to worry about the worst. And it took a long time to get the tests authorized by insurance and scheduled.

One by one I got my tests done. Everything was normal, except for the sleep study showing limb movements. I didn’t get those results until I was about to leave my neurologist appointment and it finally got faxed in. This was 3.5 months after symptoms began.

The neurologist basically just said you have hypnic jerks, which is a symptom, not a diagnosis. In light of all my test results being normal he said it’s benign and that the medication I’m taking is also “benign.” The medical community doesn’t understand what causes hypnic jerks when they happen once, let alone for hours on end.

What I learned from this experience:

  • Medical tests are expensive. I learned how to compare prices using our insurance web site cost estimator and call center for imaging cost estimates. I saved $500 on the CT scan by driving to a location 1 hour away. Worth it! And the sleep study would have cost me $1500 more to do at a hospital than an independent sleep health center! I never knew costs could vary so widely for the same exact procedure.
  • Moms need life insurance. I’m fine, but just facing the possibility that I might not be reminded me how important it is to have life insurance. Even stay-at-home moms need coverage; replacing what we do is valued up to $90,000! Think about how much it would cost to outsource childcare and household tasks like cooking and cleaning. Those really add up, and family and friends can only help out so much.
  • Money is for now as well as the future. Whether it was take-out when I was too tired to cook, or having to pay lots of $$$ for medical bills, I couldn’t control our spending as I’d like to. There was no way around it. And that’s okay.
  • Compassion. I’ve always felt for people with medical problems and how that could affect your finances and mental health. But now I have a better understanding of just how frustrating and confusing it can be to navigate the medical maze. I also have a better appreciation of how health problems and/or anxiety can impact every aspect of one’s life. For example, I became terrible at cooking! When I was in the throws of fatigue and anxiety, I would forget I needed to make dinner, I couldn’t think of ideas of what to make, and then I kept messing up the food I did make. Also, I had no energy or inspiration for blogging, which is why I went silent for two months here.

Our health is one of the easiest things to take for granted. Through this process I reflected on the fact that I don’t deserve to be healthy. I am thanking God that, while my symptom remains a mystery, serious disease has been ruled out and low-risk treatment is working. Things may not always work out so well, but I am trying to enjoy my health now and have better coping strategies when facing health problems in the future.

Have you ever faced a health problem? What did you learn?

Are Online Glasses a Good Deal?

Super glue and I became best friends over the summer. My prescription sunglasses broke after just two years of use, and I could not accept defeat until, many glue jobs later, the remaining hinge fragment broke off and there was nothing left to glue.

About six week later, my regular glasses broke. Neil soldered them for me, but I also ordered a new pair immediately.

So I’ve been buying a lot of prescription glasses lately. Which reminded me that I’ve been meaning to post on this topic for years now.

Neil and I both wear prescription glasses and sunglasses. Neither of us wear contacts so we use our glasses every single day. We’ve been purchasing eyewear online for years and have tried out many different websites. We’ve also purchased through our opticians’ office with vision insurance, and even bought glasses in another country! Today I’ll compare these options, ways we’ve learned to save, and pitfalls to avoid.

Online or Insurance?

I found the world of online eye glasses when I asked my fashionable sister for advice on choosing my third pair of frames. She sent me a picture of utterly adorable Kate Spade cat-eye half-rims. They were over $200 at the local opticians, but I found a pair for around $85 with lenses online (from a company that no longer exists).

When that pair needed a repair a year later, the manufacturer fixed them for free and they went strong for another couple years.

My next two pairs I purchased from Coastal.com for $15 (Very Bradley) and $65 (Vera Wang).

That brings us up to today, when the hinge on that last pair broke 2.5 years later. I consider that not so bad for something I wear every day. And my husband claims I’m rough on glasses.

Meanwhile, my husband has tried various super-cheap sites like eyebuydirect and goggles4you. They did the job, but last year he finally opted (pun intended) to get Ray-Bans from J.P. Optician ($100). I have to say, he looks a lot cooler compared with the discount options.

Neil has also purchased glasses abroad when his broke while on vacation in Mexico. So he went to an optician and got an exam and glasses for a total of $25 USD. Not bad! (This was like 15 years ago FYI.) While it isn’t worth traveling just to get glasses, it’s not a bad option to look into if you’re planning to travel abroad.

We both purchased prescription polarized sunglasses recently, Neil with vision insurance, and me online without insurance. For similar quality, mine were a little cheaper in the end, especially when considering the cost of the insurance premium.

Tips for Buying Online

When purchasing online, I recommend buying a brand name vs. the online glasses web site brands. I say this because I had a bad experience with my Coastal brand sunglasses. Technically I had them 2 years before they broke, but it’s not like I was wearing them all day every day like normal glasses. They offered nothing in the way of repair, replacement parts, or discounts on another pair. I suppose it’s not in the warranty. But if I spend as much as I did on those prescription, polarized lenses, I’d hope the frames would hold up longer.

What about trying them on first? Free returns seems to be standard in the online glasses biz, but it can be annoying to wait for delivery only to realize you don’t like them. You can always order multiple pairs to try. Or visit a local opticians’ to try some on, then look them up online. I’ve had good luck with this; it can get you in the right ballpark of size, shape, and style even if you don’t order the same exact pair. (Of course, if they’re priced well, it makes sense to support local business.) Referencing previous pairs you’ve owned also helps. I know I need a smaller frame and look good in a subtle cat-eye.

Favorite Online Glasses Sites

So where to buy? I shopped around a lot (imagine that) and GlassesUSA had the best deal going for the sunglasses because they were offering 70% off lens upgrades, and polarized lenses aren’t cheap. The downside of GlassesUSA was that I waited about 3 weeks for the glasses to arrive. This was rough as I didn’t have back up sunglasses and I’d waited till mine were broken beyond repair. And my eyes are very sensitive to the sun. They took longer than they said they would for several of the steps they kept updating me on.

I was a big Coastal fan for years. They have great promos especially for first-time customers, and fast shipping. I had good luck with “designer” brand glasses from there, but not with their brand.

For my new glasses, I just ordered from J.P. Opticians as I wasn’t finding anything I liked from a brand I trusted that didn’t cost a lot at other sites. Their prices for high quality glasses are better than the other sites I saw, and they offer 10% off your first pair. I also like that J.P. Opticians includes a 1 year manufacturer’s warranty; other sites charge $25 for this or simply don’t offer any protection.

What about Zenni? I’ve heard only abysmal things about Zenni. Over and over again. Sure, $5 glasses are tempting but who wants glasses that break almost immediately? It’s just more a hassle than it’s worth to me. FramesDirect and Warby Parker don’t carry super inexpensive options. As you compare prices, note whether basic prescription lenses are included in the frames price.

Unless you have HSA money to burn, you’re probably better off buying your glasses online. Even with vision insurance. As with anything, shop around, look for quality, and search for coupon codes and promos.

What the best online glasses sites you’ve used? What brands (or off-brands) have you found to be durable?

Our DIY “Shed” Solution

Our new “shed”

Have you ever looked in your garage and wanted to cry? Or maybe just throw away all your possessions? Our summertime garage featured 1 car, 7 bikes, a bike trailer, a wagon, a stroller, a cozy coup, a giant snowblower, multiple air compressors, a shop vac, a lawn mower, and tons of tools for working in the yard and on cars, the house, and said bikes. It was a clown car of a garage, and very hard to get to what you needed without risking injury.

We sold, gave away, or trashed a few things we didn’t need anymore. But that still left way too much stuff.

“Maybe we need a shed,” Neil said.

I was unable to restrain myself from pointing out that I made this exact statement last fall, to no avail.

Naturally, we didn’t rush out to Lowe’s and buy one that weekend. Neil searched Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for used ones, and also priced out different retail options. He found a great deal on one at the local Amazon-returns auction web site, but after picking it up, realized it was missing the door. (Usually that type of thing is listed in the description. Luckily he was able to return it.)

In PTBP fashion, we brainstormed alternatives. I suggested a lean-to. Lean-to? What the heck?! We live in the suburbs, not Little House in the Prairie! But then Neil had a serious brain wave and came up with the perfect solution: creating a storage space in the area under our sun room/deck, which sits off the upper level of the house.

He was already storing things like tomato cages and the chicken tractor under there. So he cleared out anything that was trash. Next he created a door by cutting into the lattice that enclosed it, and reinforcing it with some 2x4s. Then he moved things like the lawnmower and spare wood out there. Soon much more will migrate there so we can park both cars in the garage for winter.

Inside the “shed”

The breathing room in the garage is incredible. It still boasts a lot of bikes, tools, and toys, but now there’s space to access the stuff we need without it getting caught on bike spokes and air compressor cords. While we were at it, we organized the toys and sports equipment into containers on their shelf. Now when I look in the garage, I actually want to use its contents rather than throw them away, or just cry! It’s also so much easier for the kids to get to the stuff they want.

The “shed” isn’t waterproof, which works fine for the things we’re storing in it. And you have to duck a little, but if we keep things organized properly that shouldn’t be an issue either. It isn’t the fanciest or most suburban solution but it’s a lot better than a “lean-to” lol!

We saved a minimum of $1500 compared with buying a shed, and it was a lot easier than installing one. And it’s right next to the garage which will be good for the spring months when the back of the yard (where people tend to put sheds) is super wet.

Maybe you don’t have a clown car garage. Good for you. But I bet you have something you’re thinking about spending money on around the house. Be patient, shop around, and brainstorm. If you decide it’s worth paying full price, you’ll know you came to the choice thoughtfully. If not, you might save yourself some money and even some effort.

Have you ever brainstormed a thrifty solution to a problem? Do tell!