Why Not Rent?

Does the seven year itch apply to home ownership? Because seven years in, renting is sounding pretty good. I’m very grateful for my home. It serves our family well. We love having a yard, storage space, and a garage. We also enjoy having space to share with others. There are advantages to home ownership, but there are also real drawbacks.

Let’s look at some common reasons for wanting to purchase a home.

My own space.

The dream: Before you buy a place, you scheme about what colors you’ll paint the walls, the sleek interior decorating you’ll do, and the spare room where you’ll finally have space for your hobbies, or guests.

The reality: Houses are huge boxes made of things that break and wear out, full of items that break and wear out. And fixing and replacing all this stuff isn’t easy, or cheap.

Lots of stuff has been breaking, wearing out, or needing to be upgraded around here. That’s just routine. And then there’s the time ants ate the studs of our house two years ago. You really can’t quite appreciate what “maintenance and repairs” will involve until you’re several years into home ownership. It’s not merely cosmetic. Homes have to be maintained, sooner or later, and we’d rather keep up with it along the way than wait until it falls into real disrepair.

I’d love to have a yard.

The dream: I’ll read out on the back deck while drinking coffee every morning. The kids will play out back while I clean the house. We’ll host fabulous neighborhood barbeques and everyone will like us. I’ll also raise a vegetable garden and can the fruits of my labor.

The reality: The yard you’re longing for? Has to be mowed. The garden you want to keep? Is a ton of work. The flower beds you dream of? Good freaking luck. Maybe I’ll plant flowers when my kids go to college.

That said, we love our .3 acre (.1 acre “farmable”) burbstead. Right now we have chickens, bees, a garden, a woodpile, and a years’ worth of sap from our maple trees.

I want a garage.

The dream: I will never have to scrape a windshield before work again. I’ll have a place to put my bike and tools. I’m going to do projects and make awesomeness out there.

The reality: I don’t miss scraping my car windshield in the winter. But you know what I do miss? Not having to be responsible to fix every single thing that breaks. So next time you’re scraping your windshield, think about all the time and trouble you’re saving by not having to fix stuff.

If you really want a garage, rent a place with a garage. Then you get to not spend all your money fixing your house, and you don’t have to scrape your car, either. Best of both worlds!

I want more space.

The dream: You’ll have room to move, host, do hobbies, store stuff out of sight, and have kids.

The reality: Having more space is nice, and there are some perks to that especially once you have kids or for people who want to host big groups. More space also means more to clean and maintain, and it makes it easy to accumulate excess stuff.

I would ask: could you get some of that space in a rental? We had some decent-sized parties in our one-bedroom apartment. We fit about 10 girls for a youth ministry sleepover once. And our Bible study used to meet weekly in the basement “party room” of an apartment complex.

I want to gain equity.

The dream: I will sell my house for way more money on day, making it a great investment.

The reality: That “equity” is often purchased with your interest payments and the cost of maintenance. Why do you think it’s called a mortgage–French for death pledge? Read a breakdown in Millennial Revolution’s “Why Renting Will Make You Rich.”

Why let someone else build the equity by renting? Because we don’t have to do the work. We don’t have the risk—of what will break, and when, and what the market will yield if/when we ever want to sell. Plus taking a mortgage is a lot like renting from the bank.

The Takeaway

If we could go back we might buy a duplex, live in one half, and rent the other. We could save the money we made for a down payment in the future. Then, when needed more space and were ready to move, we could potentially cover most of both mortgages by renting out the two apartments in the duplex. In this scenario, there would be more to maintain, but at least it would be for an actual investment (here’s why I don’t think most residences are investments).

I don’t mean to discourage prospective home buyers, but to say: enjoy renting as long as you do. If there’s no rush to get a place, take your time. Because a few years later, you just might find yourself missing the old apartment.

 

 

Renters–what are you longing for in a home? Home owners–do you ever miss renting?

Why Do You Hate Money?

Why does she hate money?

What if someone asked, “Why do you hate money?” every time they saw you with a frivolous purchase? Better yet, what if someone asked you this before you bought that $5 daily coffee drink, or gorgeous new shoes, or that fancy new phone? Would that change your spending at all?

What if you asked yourself, “Why do I hate money?” when making spending choices.

What if someone asked, “Why do you love money?” every time you thought about money? Better yet, what if someone asked you this before you checked the stocks for the third time that day, or search for deals or coupons, or took on more side gigs? Would that change your savings at all?

What if you asked yourself, “Why do I love money?” when making financial choices.

Of course, none of the actions I’ve mentioned—from buying a mocha to a car, to checking stocks or side hustling—are wrong. What matters is why we do them, and what we’re ultimately trusting in to bring satisfaction. The casual spender who frequents Starbucks could have a much better relationship with money than the frugal, committed net worth tracker. Or vice versa.

Three Attitudes Toward Money

The Bible has something to say about our attitude toward money: “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” The love of money tends to manifest itself in one of the two ways described above. Either you love having money, or you love spending money (what I call “hating” money). Each of us has a natural tendency to save or spend; to love or hate money; to hold onto money too tightly or too loosely.

The Bible also suggests a different perspective on money: it is simply a resource to be managed. If “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1) and there’s nothing we’ve been given “which you have not received” (1 Corinthians 4:7), then it all ultimately belongs to God. The parable of the talents, found in Matthew 25:14-30, illustrates the principle that we are managers, not owners. This view actually motivates me to manage money better than if it were mine to do with as I pleased.

It’s important to note that if money is a resource for us to manage, it isn’t inherently good or evil. In fact, the Bible says wealth can become “filthy riches” or a “blessing” from the Lord. It all depends on the manager’s attitude toward it and use of it.

Breaking Free From Loving or “Hating” Money

Money is neutral, and therefore doesn’t deserve our love or hate. Don’t waste your passion on pieces of paper your government has assigned some value to. Money itself is cold, detached, indifferent. And these should be our feelings toward money.

We manage money well by harnessing it as a tool. A tool isn’t good or bad on its own. Think of a knife. It’s amoral. I can use it for good—to cook a meal for my family. Or I could use it violently, to harm an innocent person. In either case, the knife isn’t right or wrong. The person wielding it is the one we pass judgment on.

We will wield money one way or another. What good can you do with money? The possibilities are endless. Charitable giving, freeing yourself up to volunteer, providing for your family, practicing hospitality, and being available for family and friends come to mind.

So you can go through life prioritizing how to have more money—loving money. You can go through life prioritizing your next purchase that will make life better—“hating” money. Or you can manage well the money that’s been entrusted to you, motivated to please the good and gracious Giver.

Are you naturally a saver or a spender? How does viewing money as a resource to be managed free you up to make better financial choices?

We Bought a Car for $200

We sold our rusty but trusty Focus last weekend.

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

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

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

Who Wants a Hooptie?

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

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

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

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

Uncommon Sense for Car Buyers

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

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

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

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

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

The Math of a Mission Trip

In 2013, Neil traveled to India with three friends to witness India Gospel League’s (IGL) growing ministry. In addition to teaching at a Pastor’s Conference, they traveled up steep mountains roads to visit a village transformed by the Adopt-a-Village program. This holistic program provides clean water, schools, vocational training, medical camps, Bible teaching, and much more.

The trip cost approximately $3000 for each traveler, bringing the total trip costs to a hefty sum of $12,000. Many, including myself, would balk at that price. Wouldn’t that money be much better spent directly helping the people there? Couldn’t it go further there? Are these trips more for the travelers than those they’re supposedly serving? Are they financially inefficient?

These are important questions. It took a decade of interest in short-term missions for Neil to find a organization and type of trip that seemed like a sensible partnership.

Even still, it was hard to cough up $3,000 for travel expenses when many people lack basic needs. Should he skip the trip and give more? In the end we decided it was important to see the work firsthand, help with the organization’s need for Bible teachers, and meet and encourage our sponsored child.

Neil benefited personally from the trip in many ways. He learned new things about himself, God, and the work going on through IGL. He gained a new perspective on the world and our family. But the trip also started a chain reaction of financial giving and spiritual impact, and the cumulative effect far exceeds the $12,000 the team invested. From a mathematical standpoint, this trip was far more financially effective compared to if we’d gifted $3,000 to the organization.

The Chain Reaction

For starters, while Neil’s team was in India they used their limited wi-fi access to connect unsponsored children they met with sponsors from our church. At least 8 children were sponsored at $360 per year, a commitment the donor can continue until the child finishes high school.

When the team returned, they came with a huge ask: Could our church raise $75,000 over 5 years to sponsor a village in India through the Adopt-a-Village program?

Many individuals in our church said yes, and our church was matched with the most remote village in the program. Since then, the village and church there are growing spiritually and economically.

In the past year, a farmers group started meeting to help improve agricultural efforts. Eighty women attended a candle-making training to learn how to generate income for their families. Other women have been trained in tailoring, or making crafts or food to sell.

Adopt-a-Village staff and leaders also gathered for training on communicable diseases, pre- and postnatal care, accessing government subsidies, running Women’s Transformation Groups, and character development.

The people of this village have not been content to keep these benefits to themselves. Another important aspect of the ministry is outreach to other villages in the region. The pastor was walking up to 15 kilometers a day (over nine miles) through rough mountain terrain to share the gospel with neighboring communities. He was living the prophet Isaiah’s statement: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, the good news of peace and salvation, the news that the God of Israel reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7).

When our church heard this we realized the pastor needed more than just his feet to carry the message—he needed some wheels. The church raised funds and bought him a motor bike.

Since then the pastor has started churches in six neighboring villages. With the help his motor bike, the pastor recently discovered an extremely remote, primitive tribe which is unreached by any government structure. No schools. No health care. No running water or electricity.

To address these urgent needs, our church is in the process of raising an additional $10,000. The gift will be used to provide educational materials for the school and daycare that IGL has started. The money will also provide skills training for villagers, and run medical camps since malaria is rampant.

The Bottom Line

Are mission trips a waste of money? In Neil’s case, his team’s $12,000 investment has yielded well over $90,000 for the ministry. This has directly benefited hundreds of people whom the government was likely unable to help.

Mission trips should not be a trap for endless fundraising. But done right, they can unlock support and action when others hear about an effective organization from a person they trust. In fact, all of our charitable giving has started as a result of hearing a friend speak about their firsthand experience with a particular ministry.

Many of the benefits of a missions trip are difficult to quantify, but there’s no doubt Neil’s trip was a great investment in financial and spiritual impact. Without seeing the Adopt-a-Village program there was little chance our church would’ve felt ready to commit. Our $3,000 was just a drop in the bucket, and we’re excited to hear how far the ripple spreads.

For more on short-term missions, read Are Short-term Mission Trips a Scam? and What Seeing Poverty Taught Me About Pretending to Be Poor.

Do you believe mission trips are financially inefficient? How have you seen the ripple effect of a trip?

The Most Important Factor in Your Finances

What would you say is the single most important aspect of your finances? Your net worth? Your income? Your budget? Your investments? Insurance? To find the answer, let’s consider a famous ancient story:

Then Jesus told them a story: “A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops.  He said to himself, ‘What should I do? I don’t have room for all my crops.’  Then he said, ‘I know! I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll have room enough to store all my wheat and other goods.  And I’ll sit back and say to myself, “My friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Eat, drink, and be merry!”’

But God said to him, ‘You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?’

“Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” (Luke 11:16-21)

In this parable (teaching story), the guy retired early, with plenty of savings to see him through a luxurious lifestyle for the rest of his life. The catch? His life ends just one day after he blows out the candles on the retirement cake.

Fortunately Jesus sums up the point of the story for us. It’s not that it’s wrong to be wealthy, save for retirement, or enjoy good food and drink. He says it’s foolish to prioritize getting rich while ignoring more important matters, namely, having a “rich relationship with God.”

Friends, you can have your finances in perfect order. You could be debt-free, with a solid income, and growing savings and investments, but still be headed toward disaster. Because the most critical factor in your finances is your heart.

Here’s why: your underlying goals drive your financial decisions. If your underlying goals are unwise and selfish, your money decisions will be unwise, too. Even if you follow the most conservative financial advice.

So what’s your goal? Do you want a super-successful career? Do you want to reach FIRE ASAP? Do you want a parent at home with young kids? Do you want to do full-time ministry or volunteering one day? Do you want to own a home? Just “be comfortable”? Impress others? Have nice things? Few of us would admit the latter goals, but I imagine they are latent in many of our hearts.

Many goals aren’t right or wrong in and of themselves. Our motives, our underlying heart attitudes, are what determine whether our financial goals and choices will lead us toward a good life, or destruction.

We’ve made a lot of inefficient financial decisions that would be considered unwise by many. Working part-time, refusing to relocate for career, giving away money while in debt, and volunteering instead of side-hustling all come to mind. Yet we don’t regret any of it because it flowed from our values and priorities.

We also toss around a lot of tips, tricks, and advice on this site. Buy a used car. Consider a 15-year mortgage. Shop at ALDI. And while we only share what has been helpful to us, the details of how one does money matter a lot less than why ones does it.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)

This well-known verse illustrates just how closely related our hearts and money are. It’s descriptive: where your money/stuff is reveals your true values, what you care about most. Maybe your treasure is a fancy car, beautiful clothes, the latest technology, or an impressive investment portfolio. Maybe it’s your savings account, your home, or travel. We all have “earthly” things we treasure a little too much. What does your treasure say about your heart?

Will we treasure more those things that will outlast us? These are what make us “rich toward God.” This could be supporting your local church, charities, or humanitarian causes. It could be investing in your family, friends, church, and the less fortunate in your community or around the world. It could be taking a family vacation, taking your spouse on a date, or taking your sick neighbor some soup.

Your net worth, the term of your mortgage, or your paycheck simply do not tell the whole story when it comes to your financial health. I’m all for financial education, but never underestimate the importance of setting your heart on what truly matters. Someone with a heart that loves God and cares for others, and that views money as a tool to use toward those ends, will tend to make better choices with money than someone with the best financial training.

What are your top values or goals? Has your heart ever led you astray with your finances?

The Secret to Financial Freedom

jail

What is the secret to true financial freedom?

I already said I don’t believe in financial freedom/independence. Most people define financial freedom as never having to worry about money again, living off investment income instead of work. For many the secret to achieving this means earning more; for a few it means living on less. For most it requires 40+ years of toil and fading faith in Social Security. But according to the Bible’s ancient insight the only real financial freedom comes from contentment.

Take it from a first-century Roman prisoner who wrote about financial freedom. I’ve visited the Mamertine prison and it’s just a dank, dark hole in the ground. So for the apostle Paul to write about contentment from there is shocking. He said, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11b-13).

Paul describes real financial freedom as being content whether you are rich or poor, whether you have too much or not enough. So often we think the key to curbing our spending is a new detailed budget, a cash envelope system, or more self-discipline. Any of these approaches could help, but we have to be operating from a basic position of contentment rather than feeling deprived. Otherwise we’ll feel self-pity because we’re constantly denying ourselves of good things. Contemporary marketing has done much to catalyze this false belief the human heart is already predisposed to.

If you’ve started implementing some of the practical ideas on this blog maybe you’re starting to feel deprived. Or maybe it doesn’t seem to make a big difference since skipping Starbucks isn’t paying dividends just yet. But feelings of self-pity, denial, or deprivation don’t make for good long-term motivation. Maybe you’ve experienced this with dieting. When it comes to money, marketing teaches that when you feel bad about yourself, you should buy something. “Treat yourself! You deserve it!” is the message of modern advertising, a marked change from “you need this” or “this will improve your life” techniques of yesteryear. The latter messages are now considered insulting to today’s consumer who is supposed to have achieved a fulfilled and happy life through materialism already.

When people today talk about financial freedom they mean you don’t need to earn money ever again. But countless celebrity stories have proven there’s never enough money to make you happy—because money isn’t what brings real satisfaction. Fulfillment in the richest sense come from following God by loving others. Because Paul was serving others even in prison, he could honestly say he was content, regardless of his financial circumstances. True financial freedom is trusting God to meet your needs, material or otherwise, as you work hard as a good manager of His resources.

Should we be content to stay in our current financial and work situation all our lives? By contentment I don’t mean complacent. The same author addressed this question in his historical context: “Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men” (1 Corinthians 6:21, 23, emphasis added). No, the Bible does not support slavery, but we can’t get into that right now.

Today, we could apply this to employees. If your current work situation works, don’t worry about it. If work feels like soul-sucking slavery to The Man (and you don’t just have a bad attitude), then why not “become free”? Free means flexing that financial flexibility. Why not put yourself in a position where you can be content with lower expenses so you can consider doing work you’re more passionate about, or even just hate slightly less?

The average American sees 5 gazillion ads per day and this is a huge challenge to contentment. But you already know the secret–that material things will never make us truly happy and we need a lot less than we think we do. It’s actually quite fun to “pretend to be poor.” It’s fun to fix things up instead of buying new ones, which will probably crap out sooner because new stuff is poorly made. It’s fun to rock old clothes that you’ve kept so long they are finally back in style, and brag about how you’ve had them since high school. It’s fun to drive an older car and perform the lost art of cranking windows. “Pretending to be poor” is a whole lot more fun than pretending to be rich, with all the heartache and bank-ache that comes with debt.

A friend described the perspective change from deprivation to contentment this way: “I walk into Target and think, ‘I can have anything I want. I could buy whatever I wanted.’ And then I realize I don’t want any of that crap. Thinking this way takes the power [of discontentment] away.” Part of fostering this attitude is realizing how little value “that crap” adds to your life. The principle of diminishing returns is acutely applicable to material possessions. While our lifestyle is far from ascetic, it’s slightly less extravagant than average. This actually makes us more content and useful, as well as more flexible.

So what could you do with this flexibility? How about:

  • Get out of debt.
  • Have one parent stay at home with young children.
  • Work for a church or non-profit for half your current salary.
  • Volunteer full time to help those in need.
  • Take your children on a short-term mission trip.
  • Become a missionary.
  • Substantially fund causes you care about.
  • Choose a job based on your priorities rather than just the paycheck.

How do you combat the feelings of self-denial that come with spending less? What do you think of our definition of financial freedom?

Sugar, Fire, and Love: Winter on the Burbstead

A local winter sunrise.

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

Maple Sugaring

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

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

Liquid gold.

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

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

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

Wood

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

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

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

Weddings

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

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

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

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

The Hidden Luxuries of Camping

We’re gearing up for our annual camping trip to Florida. Many people view camping as “not a vacation,” worse than a last resort when it comes to travel. Us, we’d rather travel more often in less style, than vice versa. Camping allows our family to take more trips while sticking to our annual vacation budget. Between now and the end of summer, we have five camping trips planned, with talk of a couple more one-nighters in the works.

Some camping trips are more “glamping” than others. To me the difference is all in the bathroom facilities, proximity to water, and electricity hookup. Other have preferences about the foliage, campground amenities, nearby attractions, or the size of the sites. Our Florida trip is definitely our most glamping trip—it runs us around $700 including a rental car. Here’s why I consider this camping trip luxurious:

  1. A room with a view. Camping is the ultimate room with a view. Rather than paying $150+ per night for a beachfront hotel, I pay $100 for the week and open my tent door to beautiful Florida foliage and sunshine–most days at least! Just a couple miles away, within the campground, is a gorgeous, expansive beach.
  2. We eat food I didn’t prepare. Between a couple inevitable (and budgeted for!) Bojangles stops on the way down and back, and the meal rotation we participate in with friends, I get to enjoy a few meals I didn’t cook myself. That’s a relative rarity and one I thoroughly appreciate. We also eat more processed foods, which is simultaneously gross and glorious, and makes my life so much easier for that week.
  3. We will rent a car. As part of our overall car cost strategy, we rent a car for this annual 2000 mile trek. Renting allows us to avoid putting undue wear and tear on our already-older vehicles. It costs us around $200 and sometimes we are able to use coupons. Though the main reason is to be kind to our vehicles, it’s an added perk that should something go wrong, we won’t have to halt our trip to personally fix it—a not unlikely scenario in the cars we own. And of course, driving a newer rental vehicle is quite lavish compared to our 14- and 15-year old rides.
  4. I will shower without my children in the same building. I’m really excited about this one! At home, I’m liable to be interrupted when someone has to use the toilet (we have two, people!), beg to join me (the toddler), or just ask me random questions about Star Wars plot points. In the camp ground’s remarkably nice shower house, the water temperature and pressure might not be ideal, but at least I am alone.
  5. We use paper products. Disposable napkins, cups, plates, forks…the irony of depleting earth’s resources while enjoying her beauty is not lost on me. Some friends wash reusable camp dishes, but I soak in the glory of simplied meal clean-up.
  6. We have instant entertainment. The campground contains a beautiful ocean beach, kayaking, nature trails, and a turtle pond. Then there is biking, the playground right next to our site, and the fact that over 100 of our friends are there with us. Not only are we in good company, our kids have a dozen of their pals right there to play with. No need to break out the calendar to schedule play dates. We just mosey on down the road and see who’s out. It’s a child’s dream—being outside all day with your friends, riding bikes, going to the beach, and best of all, being dirty.
  7. Speaking of which, I can look a mess. I’m not one for fussing over hair and makeup, but in normal life I feel compelled to at least look presentable, and maybe like I’m even trying a little. At camping, I refuse to straighten my hair, put on mascara, or anything of the sort. Ponytail and sunscreen is the extent of my beauty routine there. I always find it a bit comical to see the young ones getting done up in the bathroom. I’m sure they find the sight of me comical, or perhaps horrifying. Maybe I’m the reason they’re in there with their makeup bags!
  8. I don’t have to clean my house. In essence there is less cleaning because dirt is just part of the experience. No vacuuming, dusting (not that I actually dust), less dishes and laundry. Yay! I always pack too many clothes for the boys, forgetting they don’t change often while camping. I’m also secretly looking forward to using the dryer instead of my laundry lines at home.
  9. My husband will be there. One of the best parts of camping trips is having Neil with us all week. I suppose this goes for every vacation, but it’s more noticeable there because camping with kids absolutely requires us to work as a team. I always leave feeling closer to him and more cohesive as a family.
  10. I take a break from technology. My phone, my laptop, and Internet connection are all wonderful luxuries I wouldn’t want to live without. They’re also conveniences I didn’t miss one bit last year. I was completely offline all week last year and didn’t even notice until we were on the way home. It was a much-needed break from status updates, the blogosphere, and all the random distractions of the Internet. It was awesome to just enjoy the moment with my family, friends, and nature.

Perspective is everything. I could think about the drive, the dirt, the bugs, the kids getting off their schedules…or I could think about just how refreshing it is to camp in a warm, beautiful place with my family and over 100 friends. Not to mention the savings. An affordable spring break beach vacation? Yes, please.

More on camping, if you’re interested:

Open the Door to a Lifetime of Vacation Savings

How We’ll Save $500 on Our Next Vacation

10 Fun Facts From Our Camping Vacation

Have you ever reframed a frugal choice as luxurious? Have you/would you consider camping as a way to vacation more often?

Review: $30 Verizon Wi-Fi Smart Phone Plan

Big news: I got a smart phone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I recommend this plan for anyone:

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

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

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

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 $50000 salary is $5000—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. To be honest, 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.

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.

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 diapers and Lysol. It hardly feels like values-driven budgeting. I guess I value containing bodily fluids and slaying germs. 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. 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 provide

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 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?