How to Sell Your House While Home Schooling During a Pandemic

The same day we reported our decision to List It, the house we were looking for came on the market. We saw it the next morning and made an offer, which was accepted. At exactly the same time, the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. became evident.

But first, the house. It’s in our dream neighborhood, with just two houses between it and the home of some of our closest friends. There are also many, many other friends and the kids’ friends within walking distance. There’s a great bike & hike path in the neighborhood. The house also checks the boxes of a larger entryway and more storage space for pantry items. It even has a fireplace and a sun room, wish list wants we weren’t sure we’d find. It’s far from updated, but there’s nothing we can’t live with, and with Neil’s DIY skills we can change things affordably over time.

How does one sell during a pandemic? For one thing, we changed our time frame on listing. Rather than wait we decided to list ASAP. So for two frantic weeks, we packed, cleaned, painted, and Neil even installed a wall and a vinyl tile floor to finish the unfinished half of our basement. All while having everyone home all the time, with Neil working from home and me trying to “crisis school” my kids, and with social distancing, i.e. no help and no babysitting. Let’s just say this was not my favorite.

Probably the worst part was having to make major decisions, for which no one had the experience to offer guidance. Do we buy a house right now (this was before all contingencies were released)? Do we list sooner, in presumably worse/messier condition than if we’d moved first? Or do we wait it out, risking a possible housing market crash? Do we want strangers in our home during a pandemic? When the stay at home order was issued, we didn’t know right away if you could still sell your house (our realtor quickly informed us it was covered under essential business in our state). What price should we ask? We also had a carpet order that got cancelled, hence installing the vinyl tile. Turns out home office carpet is not essential.

We decided to move forward since we have no mortgage and can afford to keep both homes for quite some time if needed. We are using a bridge loan, a low fee, low interest loan based on your home’s equity, which is used to smooth the gap between buying one home and selling another. Once our current house sells, we’ll pay back the bridge loan from our proceeds. Then we’ll re-cast our current loan, applying almost all of our remaining equity. We have one year to repay the bridge loan.

During most of the first week our home was listed we stayed at a cabin in the woods to cut down on germs and clutter. It was a great place to social isolate and it was amazing to have a change of scenery, which we never would have had were it not related to essential business. We enjoyed hiking, a hot tub, cable TV, and home schooling via my new cell phone provider Mint Mobile‘s current offer of free data add-ons.

We’re back home and after just under a week on the market, we’ve had good showing activity according to our realtor. We got an offer today, and while it was a good offer on the surface, several details left us wondering if the buyers would be able to secure financing. Since it was an FHA loan there would have been a long wait on securing the loan, and a lot of hassle on our part. Our realtor did some digging and determined that since one of the buyers is unemployed during the stay at home order in our state, the loan would not go through.

I’m realizing we’re going to have to be way more patient than we’re feeling. We’re trying to sell during an unprecedented, uncertain time. I’d really hoped for a good offer during our stay in the woods, but mainly so I can be messy and not worry about germs. The latter is a valid concern, but the former is more about convenience than anything serious. We are limiting showing times and taking precautions such as cleaning before the kids go back inside. Since we move in 3 weeks, we don’t have too much more of this to put up with. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

To top it off, I’m “crisis schooling.” The real crisis in this schooling scenario is my sanity. My kids are extreme know-it-alls (like me). As a former teacher, people seem to think I’m somehow more qualified to educate my own brood. Let me tell you, it is not the same thing. First, I used to get paid. Second, I taught high school. Third, I taught one subject. And lastly, I did not teach anyone related to me, whom I also have to tell to use a napkin, unload the dishwasher, brush their teeth, and any number of other seemingly obvious and routine statements that my kids react to as if I’d cast an Exruciatus curse on them.

Then there are the mood swings. My oldest stares into space until I tell him what to do next, and then cries half the time when I do tell him (he’s getting better, though). My middle one swings between wild enthusiasm and wild defiance. Our very first lesson consisted of me trying to convince her that rabbit is in fact two syllables, not one. She DID NOT believe me. I dropped it, concluding that my kids are just going to be one nine-weeks dumber than they’re supposed to be. There’s nothing for it.

And then, I have a toddler. Like all toddlers, she wants nothing more than to mash keys on a computer keyboard. Most of the kids’ work is done on the computer. So in addition to running between two kids in different rooms helping them sign into 20 freaking different apps a day, I have the babe screaming at the top of her lungs because she wants the computer. And if you’ve ever tried to listen to a video, or read or write or think with someone screaming next to you, you will understand why my kids are going to be one nine-weeks dumber than they’re supposed to be.

Let’s just say the kids are learning some interesting vocabulary words this quarter.

I can’t even imagine if I was working from home on top of all this. Seriously, I feel for those parents. I’m in the best of circumstances as a stay at home mom, and one who supposedly knows how to teach people things. I’m also so grateful that Neil’s job is secure, that we have health insurance, and that we’ve stayed healthy thus far. I’m grateful that we don’t have underlying health conditions. I’m grateful that we live in a state that took early action to fight the spread. And I’m grateful for the many chances we have to connect with people virtually. We’ll get through this, we’ll move to our new house, and who knows? Maybe some day we’ll even be able to visit our neighbors again.

How crazy is this social isolating / home schooling making you? What are you grateful for in the midst of it?

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Love It or List It Update

Last summer, we shared about wondering whether to Love It or List It. We also brainstormed ideas to make our home work better for us. We did a minor living room makeover–clearing out large furniture and getting new carpet. We expanded our storage area by making a “shed” under our deck. Lastly, we started using our 4th bedroom on the lower level to better make use of our space.

In addition to tweaking our use of space, I’ve tried to do what I can to build community in our neighborhood, and to schedule play dates with friends from school. But it’s just not the same as spontaneous backyard play.

Eight months later, we are strongly leaning toward listing it, but it has more to do with location than our home. That said, we have a much clearer sense of our wants and needs than we did 10 years and 3 kids ago.

By any standard, we have a nice house in a good neighborhood. But long story short, we’d like to live in a neighborhood with more young families. Our block once enjoyed close community with lots of little kids, but this has proved transient. We really miss that vibe, and I know we can regain it in nearby neighborhoods that are less transient and are home to countless young families, including many we already know.

Will people move away wherever we live? Absolutely. But these neighborhoods were designed with young families in mind, with larger homes, community playgrounds, and walking paths. Google Earth reveals playgrounds and trampolines in most yards. And we’ve been watching home sales in these neighborhoods for years, and there are a lot fewer sales in these areas compared with ours. So we may need to wait a bit to find what we want.

The recent comps in our neighborhood have been strong and therefore it seems like a good time to sell. We’ll pay more for our new home in a thriving market, but because of our equity we can get the kind of upgrade we’d like for a reasonable amount.

This decision has been very conflicting for me, and at times I still wonder if we’re out of our minds. Should we really go through the hassle and expense just to move 1-2 miles? Do we really need a bigger house in a different neighborhood? I’ve concluded that no, we don’t need these, but we would really like more space and more community. One mom from a target neighborhood recently told me her kindergartener goes on a daily walk around the block with her friends. That’s the kind of neighborhood we want to live in, and the type of childhood we want for our kids. I’ve finally seen that it is worth the (one-time) effort and the price to gain these during this season of our lives.

Another thing I’ve wrestled with A LOT is my aversion to excess. I don’t want a too-big house. I don’t want to pay for it, maintain it, or clean it. I love efficiency, and our current home is very efficient. The houses in our desired neighborhoods simply are larger. While I don’t want excess, I can see many uses for more space (and storage!) as our kids and their friends get older.

For a long time I felt like it was somehow morally wrong to say we want more when we already have so much, and others have so little. And greed and materialism are huge risks in our culture. At the same time, I’ve realized it’s not immoral to seek more community and more living space, which we’d love to use in serving that community. And while we won’t be buying another bi-level, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll purchase a house less updated than ours, in order to afford a home in our desired neighborhoods. So it’s not necessarily about getting a “better” house.

What is on my wist list for a different home? It’s pretty simple. Four bedrooms, a larger living or family room, and a pantry. A sun room and fireplace would be great, since those are favorite features of our current house. But I won’t hold my breath. Oh, and not a bi-level. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?

Financially, the biggest trade off would be waiting up to two more years till early retirement, an opportunity cost we’ve calculated, weighed, and found worth it. Also, a home purchase in these neighborhoods will almost certainly appreciate much better than our current place.

Logistically, our plan is to move first, then finish fixing up ours (lots of painting!) and get it on the market. I cannot imagine getting our house ready to sell and show with 3 kids still living here. We’d do it if we had to, but since homes are moving quickly and we can afford to, we won’t do that to ourselves.

Overall, I feel very grateful for our current home and the community we have enjoyed. Making this move from a place of contentment is important. I know a different house won’t ultimately make me happier or make life magically easier. Starting over with new neighbors will take time and effort, and sometimes won’t work out. And there is a chance we won’t find something that checks the boxes in our price range. I’ll be content either way.

Are we insane for wanting to move nearby for these reasons? Any tips on moving with kids?

Everything Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect: Fighting Lifestyle Stress

I hear it every week–the anxiety women feel about keeping up with their homes. This should come as a surprise, because housekeeping has never been easier. We have machines that clean the floor, the dishes, the laundry. Machines to cook the food. We have running water and electricity and store-bought clothes. This is reality, yet to hear me talk, you’d think I was a scullery maid, not a SAHM with grocery delivery service!

Yet the women* I talk to express great angst about their homes. Too much clutter. Too many toys. Too many clothes. So many rooms to paint. So many house projects to get the home “updated.” And so much guilt if you ever feed your kid fast food or hot dogs on a busy night.

Yet the solutions we often hear don’t always serve us well: Simplify. Declutter. Tidy up. One in, one out. Create a capsule wardrobe. Choose minimalist decor. Meal prep.

Insofar as any of these lifestyle trends decrease stress, I’m all for them. Challenging excess consumerism and fostering contentment are worthy goals. Owning less and simplifying our space and schedules can make our lives so much easier. However, I sense many women are more stressed by these trying to attain to illusive ideals, than by the “problems” these ideals try to solve.

For example, my parents never seemed stressed by the generous amount of toys we had as kids. Granted, the toys weren’t allowed to live in the living room. But with 5 kids, plus others my mom babysat, and neighbor kids, having a lot of toys was useful and fit with the season and situation we were in.

Sometimes I long for the 90s, when purple paint, green carpet, and knickknacks abounded. Back then you could feed your kids Kool-aid, send them outside unsupervised, then welcome them back to a toy-strewn home and a Kraft Mac-n-Cheese dinner without feeling like you were failing as a parent.

Either you’re thinking, “The horror!” or “Those were the days!” And either reaction is a pendulum response to the modern narrative of a beautifully curated life. The counter-narrative we need to preach to ourselves each day is, “Everything doesn’t have to be perfect.” This was one of my biggest take-aways from visiting India, where the people I met just made do with whatever they had and seemed pretty grateful for it, too.

So where is all this “lifestyle stress,” as I’ll call it, coming from? After all, women’s magazines have always depicted impractical aesthetics as ideal. Now, HGTV, Pinterest, Instagram, and other forms of media spread trends with a speed and force like never before.

Yet it’s not our surroundings, our wardrobe, or even healthful meals that will make our lives work. These things appeal to us for many good reasons, but also because they give us a sense of control. If I can just control how my house looks, or how I appear, or what I eat, then I will be in control and life will work smoothly. I promise you, it won’t. You can’t plan your way out of life’s messiness.

Of course, being healthier and less materialist are absolutely good goals. But living under a weight of anxiety over not living up to the fable of these lifestyle trends is not healthy. And it can become reverse-materialism when we spend so much time thinking about stuff–having the right stuff and getting rid of the wrong stuff.

I, too, get stressed out about tidying my home. But one thing is certain: I will never get it even close to perfect. With the help of my husband, I’ve accepted that we will own more now than in any other period of our lives. We will have more mess. And that’s okay. Being a young family is a season, one filled with fun, giggles, and ridiculous amounts of toys. It’ll all go away someday, and we’ll probably even miss the Legos and paper crafts everywhere.

Realizing this doesn’t mean the angst all evaporates. But if you continue to struggle with lifestyle stress, I suggest trying some of the following:

  • Take a break from media that reinforces ideals you don’t buy.
  • Focus on defining the values you do want to live by. For example, isn’t being hospitable better than having a perfect house?
  • Write down 5 things you’re grateful for each day.
  • Take a break from non-essential shopping, so you can practice contentment with what you have.
  • Reflect on what appeals to you about certain ideals. Identify what’s helpful and unhelpful about these ideas, and how you can apply what serves you and discard what doesn’t.
  • Serve someone outside of your comfort zone. It may bring some perspective, as well as joy, to your life.

Amazingly, Jesus addressed worry over these same topics over 2000 years ago: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” Check out the rest of Matthew 6:25-34 for his solution to this age-old problem.

*Do men feel this way too? I have no idea.

Have you experienced this “lifestyle” stress? What ways do you fight these feelings?

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.



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 the price IMO. 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.