A Pretend to Be Poor Investing Primer

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

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

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

Where should you start?

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

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

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

How much should you invest?

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

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

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

What should you invest in?

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

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

What to watch out for

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

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

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

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

Wrapping it up

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

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

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

This post contains affiliate links.

My (Literal) Dark Night of the Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I learned from this experience:

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

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

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

Are Online Glasses a Good Deal?

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

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

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

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

Online or Insurance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for Buying Online

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

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

Favorite Online Glasses Sites

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our DIY “Shed” Solution

Our new “shed”

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

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

“Maybe we need a shed,” Neil said.

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

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

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

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

Inside the “shed”

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

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

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

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

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

Cheap Thrills: Surviving Summer with Kids

View from the dunes

I’ve been on the struggle bus trying to survive the second half of summer. The big kids are fighting more than ever, more as a pastime than out of malice. The baby is happy but into everything, and needs a lot of attention which previously would have went to older ones. With the structured glories of VBS and Safety Town a fading memory, we need ways to have fun without hemorrhaging money on kids’ outings.

Sure, we could shell out $500 for a pool membership, and sprinkle in amusement parks, ninja warrior gyms, trampoline parks, Chuck E. Cheese, the movies, mini golf, and all sorts of other activities. But with two kids, these things add up, and with a baby, certain outings are impractical. And no amount of money can make summer with 3 kids less exhausting.

Swimming has been one of our main pastimes. We’re not spendy enough for the nearby pool just yet. Instead we opted for a $80 family pass to the local lake. We also received 3 free family passes to the pricey pool, and have generous friends and family who have invited us to swim in their backyard pools as well.

VBS, Safety Town, the library reading program, and the 4th of July parade have all provided prizes such as free kids’ meals and treats, the pool passes, and SkyZone passes. I just love when free fun generates more free fun! And of the course the air conditioned library is itself a wonderful activity.

Swim lessons and soccer mercifully wrapped up by the end of June. Evening activities are not my favorite.

Playgrounds, splash pads, and playing with friends are the other mainstays of our summer days. We also went to a minor league baseball game, hosted a Hawaiian-themed cookout, went to a picnic in the national park, a 4th of July party, our nephew’s grad party, and celebrated our baby’s first birthday. Next up is our son’s birthday. We gave him the choice of a gift or taking a small group of friends to SkyZone. He chose the latter.

At the blueberry patch

We also visited another city for an annual church conference and visited friends. We went to a large science museum with our Science Museum Reciprocal pass which we purchase for $63 annually through the McKinley Presidential Museum. I highly recommend this or a similar pass to all families, as it functions as a reciprocal pass to 250 science centers and 300 history museums across the country. If you can’t purchase it through McKinley, find a museum or science center near yo that offers reciprocity benefits through the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) and/or the Time Travelers program. We purchase membership through a lower-cost museum; admission to many of the reciprocal attractions would cost more for one day than we pay for the annual pass.

We ran out of energy before making it to the zoo while on our trip, which would have been half-off from our local zoo pass our daughter won from the library last summer. We did visit our zoo a couple times as well. We haven’t even made it to area wading pools, interactive fountains, large playgrounds, or nature centers because we’ve been so busy!

We just returned from a vacation to Michigan, where we rented a house with 3 other families. We visited the beach, saw the dunes, rode bikes, went to a small water park, picked blueberries, and watched the sunset a couple times. Sleeping with the baby in the room was less than ideal; our normally good sleeper kept waking up and wanting us since we were in sight. Our week away felt more like a month, as all the parents there agreed. Reminiscent of Rip van Winkle. But with much less sleep.

Blueberry baby

We’re planning another small trip before school starts. With the condition that the baby sleeps in a separate room. (Watch, we’ll end up tent camping.)

With two and a half weeks left till school starts, the end is in sight. I honestly can’t imagine only having one child in tow for 7 hours a day, and one that still naps, at that. People ask if I’m emotional about my middle one starting school. Yes. I’m ecstatic. She is so ready and so am I. The baby will probably be a different story.

Until the magic of public education resumes, I’m trying to pace the fun and take a bit of time for myself, reading fiction and exercising at home. Cheap thrills indeed.

How do you get through summer with kids? Does it get any easier when they’re older?

Save Time, Money, & Sanity with Grocery Pick-Up

I’ve always grocery shopped with my kids. And they’ve always been pretty good at the store. So I thought nothing of it the first week of summer when the four of us set out to ALDI. While no one was even bad, I wouldn’t recommend it. ALDI is crowded and my kids just don’t know where to put their little bodies now that they are too big for the cart. They were invariably standing right in front of the cart, or hanging off of the side of it (into the other side of the aisle), or pulling on each other, or asking me for random foods every other minute.

Not to mention unloading the cart and then bagging all the groceries takes a loooong time when you’re shopping for a family of five people with high metabolisms. And of course then you have to load it all into the car, take back the cart, and unload it all and put it away at home.

I know I’m making living in a suburb with a car, a house, and easy access to unlimited amounts of food seem like some kind of hardship. I don’t mean it that way. I’m grateful, I promise. It’s just that grocery shopping, which used to be a relaxing errand I actually looked forward to, has become much more tiring and time-consuming as our family has grown.

I can’t tell you how to survive summer with kids while maintaining your sanity, but I can offer a solitary tip for simply staying alive: try grocery pick up.

My friends have been singing the praises of Walmart grocery pickup and/or delivery, and I tried it on vacation and few other times under special circumstances (sickness, extreme weather). Now it has become a magical way of life. The kids are perfectly happy to be strapped into their car seats (read: no one to chase), listen to music (read: not fighting), and then wonderful people put groceries straight into my minivan. For FREE.

This has taken the number of people I drag into the store from 4 to 0. It has reduced the number of times I touch the groceries from 5 to 1. It takes less time to drive to Walmart than it does to bag my food at ALDI.

I was resistant at first to the idea because I didn’t want to pay more, I didn’t know if they would do a good job picking out the produce, I didn’t want to drive further, and I’m not all that crazy about Walmart in general. Overall, none of these have been a problem. And after trying other local grocery stores’ pick-up services, and Target’s, Walmart is by far the best.

How does it work? First you download the Walmart Grocery app, or create an account on your computer. Next, you search for items you want. The results are relevant, store brands come up alongside brand names (just be sure not to use trade names like Cheerios vs. oat cereal), and show you price per ounce for comparison.

You can add items to your cart with a single click, select a pick-up time (one-hour window) when you’re ready to check out, and you can continue to edit the order until about 6 hours before pick up. You do need to plan the pick-up about 6 hours in advance. You can share your location and say you’re on the way, or call when you arrive and park in the pick-up area. Within about 5 minutes the magical employee comes and delivers your groceries.

Things I love about it, other than the obvious convenience:

  1. Substitutions. If they don’t have the item you want, they will replace it with a bigger item, name brand item, or similar item. You have the choice to accept or reject each substitution. On my last order, I got 2x as much sliced cheese, 2x as many strawberries, and 50% bigger bottle of ranch dressing. You do not pay any more for substitutions.
  2. More products. I can get just about anything–school supplies, household items, diapers, toiletries, etc. It doesn’t cover anything in Walmart, but there are way more things that ALDI doesn’t carry, and it’s really nice to avoid extra store trips right now.
  3. Adjusting your total. You can see your total change with each item you add. This is nice because it’s impossible to keep a running tally at the grocery store, and more of a hassle to abandon items at the check-out. If you’re sticking to a budget, it’s great to be able to pare down your order based on what you really need. Which is related to…
  4. Fewer impulse purchases. While there is a small number of “suggested” items shown, it’s a lot harder to make impulse purchases when you have to generate the search ideas. It is a great way to stick to your list.
  5. I forget less because I can add to an order throughout the week, whenever I think of something I need. I don’t even make a list anymore, I just put it right in the grocery cart from the app. It also saves your old orders so you could re-order an entire order easily. It also suggests items you frequently purchase before check out, and allows you to favorite items.
  6. My husband can grocery shop from his phone. We all know the drill: “What do you want from the store, honey?” “I don’t know.” Fast forward 12 hours. “Why don’t we have any good snacks?” “I don’t know what you want!” We both have the app logged into the same account, so Neil can also add things he wants when he thinks of them.
  7. So easy! Compared to every other store pick-up app I have used, Walmart’s is by far the most user-friendly.
  8. Greater variety. I love, love, love ALDI. But after shopping there almost exclusively for years, it is nice to have more variety.
  9. Coupon codes. There are coupon codes for first delivery, first pick up, and other promos throughout the year.

What about the prices? Many of the store brand prices are similar to ALDI prices. However, the quality of some of the “Great Value” items is not good compared to ALDI, particularly dry/grain-based. The dairy items seem ok. The eggs are awful, but I’ve been farm fresh ones from a friend. I haven’t been buying a lot of fresh meat there because we had a freezer stash, and I’m going to start shopping at a local butcher’s.

Overall, I am paying a little more for some items, but for the short-term of the summer, it’s well worth the convenience. I also think the lack of impulse/ kid-driven purchases may be balancing that out. There are great ALDI items that I miss, but I will venture there with 1-2 kids on occasion to stock up on those.

Even if you don’t have 3 kids, I’d recommend trying grocery pick-up if you are short on time, don’t like shopping, are prone to impulse buys, or need to control your grocery spending. This is not a sponsored or affiliate post, I really just like Walmart grocery pick-up so much more than I expected and want to share the magic with others.

What do you like about grocery pick up? Or what hang-ups do you have about it?

Our Living Room Makeover

As we consider whether to Love It or List It, we’re trying to make more room in our living room. It’s roughly 12′ x 13′. Add two couches, some baby toys, and three kids, and we’re feeling the squeeze. The room is on the top floor of our bi-level. Neil remodeled the kitchen and dining room, opening it up to the living room when we bought the house. This helped the layout a lot, but we needed to make more changes in order to love it.

We also recently decided to replace our living room, hallways, and entryway stairs carpet. When we moved in, those areas plus the bedrooms had a multi-color Berber. Though not beautiful, it was durable and fairly forgiving in terms of stains. Almost 10 years and 3 kids later, the stairs, hallway, and living room carpet were worn and dingy, despite having it professionally cleaned regularly. Underneath the living room rug was literally a different color of carpet.

Bday party in the “before” living room.

We had never bought carpet and had no idea what we wanted. Every free Saturday morning we’d spend about 15 minutes pretending to choose carpet. After 5+ trips to Lowe’s over the course of 5 months, we made a decision. We chose a highly durable and cleanable, low-pile shag/Berber combo in “greige” with a good quality pad. In terms of cost, it was fairly middle of the road. For the carpet, pad, and tax, we paid $1500 (installation was included).

Considering our complete incompetency at choosing carpet, we did not shop around to compare prices. That would have taken another 3 years!

People also asked if we wanted to replace it while still having young children. I’m sure I will have moments of regret, like when the baby spit up (which she never does!) all over the carpet 2 days after installation. Oh, well. Part of the motivation for new carpet was giving her a cleaner surface for crawling. This carpet is also so much softer and now her knees aren’t red if she crawls without pants.

My kids do a lot of stupid things and are bound to stain the carpet. But I find grown-up guests spill as much as kids, simply because they are allowed to bring things that aren’t water onto the carpet!

Baby & planks (dr’s orders) in the “before” LR

In addition to new carpet, Neil cashed out some not-very-valuable credit card points and purchased a flat-screen TV. Previously we had an HD CRT that weighed about as much as an anchor. Despite it being “the height of technology in 2005” and having “more inputs that the new TV,” Neil gradually became ready to part ways with it, and moved it out of Neil’s technology museum our basement to a friend’s house.

Our living room makeover ran us $1100 for carpet and $28 for the TV mount.

After LR

We been jettisoning large (and small) objects from our home as part of our attempts to Love It. I tend to think it’s working. Two VCRs, all the VHS tapes, lots of DVDs, CDs, and stacks and stacks of CD ROMs–can anyone say Microsoft Office 2003? Neil got rid of not one but two anchor-size HD CRT televisions and an equally over-sized and antiquated computer monitor. And accompanying cords from his prized collection All of this culminated in him spontaneously and voluntarily cleaning his desk–a true Fourth of July miracle. And yes, he is running for Husband of the Year.

Amazing how we moved from “In Praise of Old Technology” to “why the hell is this crap in our house?” in a few short years. Hoopla and Libbyare saving us so much space.

I parted ways with the beautiful roll-top desk my grandma handed down to me. I never use it, and it’s way too big for a kid’s desk. I was thrilled to pass it to a friend who had always admired it. Gone is a persian rug, a couple bags of extremely outdated work clothes, an old projector screen, and a chicken coop we never used.

All surviving boy clothes are going to friends, as are baby things as our baby outgrows them. Some to friends, although much of our gear is junk. The poor babe probably doesn’t even know that rocking chairs are supposed to rock, or that exersaucers are supposed to have toys attached to them. Not that she cares a whit. Please note, getting baby gear at garage sales and then putting three kids through it is more stupid than frugal.

There is something exhilarating about decluttering, and I haven’t even been watching Marie Kondo. We can fall prey to reverse materialism, an inordinate fixation with minimalism or decluttering where you’re still focused on stuff. When it comes to possessions, we strive for pragmatism, keeping what seems to be of use now or in the near future. Clearing out clutter lately is improving the functionality of our home and we are Loving It for now. And should we ever decide to List It, we’ll have a little less to deal with.

Have you ever made your space more useful through decluttering or remodeling? Please share inspiration!

Love it or List it: Should We Buy a Different House?

Living our best bi-level life.

We are starting to wonder if we should buy a bigger house in a fancier neighborhood. I know, I know, it’s very not-pretending-to-be-poor. It’s true! But I’m coming to you with our real-life question, and I’d love your honest advice: should we love it or list it? True to the premise of the HGTV show, one of us is more inclined to love it than the other, though thankfully it’s not a point of real contention.

First, what could make us love it?

Better use of space: Our house is definitely feeling smaller now that we have a third kid. Our house was listed at 1268 square feet, but it is somewhat bigger than that. It’s a bi-level and the upstairs is about 1000 sq. ft. Half of the basement is fully finished and the other half is partially finished.

Bi-levels have some functional perks, but our entryway is tiny and bracketed by stairs. We can’t all come in the door and take our shoes off at the same time. Seeing guests out the door is awkward. We can’t keep our coats by the door because there is no room to get ready down there, let alone with a baby and stairs every which way. And if we each have one or two pairs of shoes down they take up half the space.

The other drawback to bi-levels is that when you have stairs in the middle of the house, it really chops up the rooms. So while we do have quite a bit of space, we don’t have any large spaces. And half that space is in the basement, which doesn’t help with the baby stuff that is taking over our living room.

I don’t want to have an unrealistic expectation of what our living space needs to be. I know many people live in much smaller spaces with many more people. Neil’s grandparents raised five kids in a small bungalow, living in that house for 70 years and never “upgrading.” It’s helpful to remember that it’s totally doable, but it’s hard to directly compare to a different era. We just want to keep things in perspective as we decide what makes sense for our family, in our time and place.

Neighborhood: We don’t live in a bad neighborhood, but just a couple houses past us in one direction the neighborhood transitions into rentals. While we are all about renting when it makes sense, there are several factors that make it more difficult to build community in this mostly-rental neighborhood. Additionally, many of our beloved neighbors have moved/are moving, especially ones with kids and grandkids around the same ages as our kids. There are still nice people and kids around, including one of our son’s best friends, but most of our friends and our kids’ friends live in a different neighborhood nearby.

So, the reasons we would considering moving are: more space/different layout, and wanting to be able to build more community, especially for our kids.

What could we/are we doing to love it?

Open concept: Before we moved in, Neil renovated the kitchen and dining room, taking down several walls that partitioned it and opening it up to the living room. We are working on giving away some larger furniture, which is opening it up about as much as possible. We also got new carpet in the living room, hallway, and stairs as the old stuff was very worn. The new carpet is not only cleaner and looks more updated, it’s so much softer. I swear the baby started crawling on her knees more as soon as we got it!

Kitchen remodel. Never been this clean again.

While I abhor the entry way and it’s really one of the worst parts of the house, it would be hard to change. Expanding the entry way would require bumping out the entire front of the house, which would be expensive, involved, and in my opinion, ugly.

We continue to try to figure out better ways to use our basement space, which is partitioned into four rooms–a family room with a fireplace, a possible bedroom/office, the under-heated office/hobby room, and semi-finished mud room which leads to the laundry room. But honestly I’m drawing a blank on how to improve the downstairs beyond getting rid of stuff we’re storing down there that we don’t use.

We can’t change our neighborhood, but we can be grateful for the neighbors we do know. We are also only a mile from the nearby neighborhood where so many friends live. So seeing people requires a little more planning and a short car trip, as we have to cross a busy road without traffic lights. We continue to try to make friends by taking cookies to new neighbors and trying to make play dates with kids from the bus stop.

Our wish list for a newer house would include a larger entryway, larger living room, a fourth bedroom, and the kids being able to walk to more of their friends’ houses.

After profits from the sale of our house, buying the size/condition/layout of house we’d consider in this neighborhood would cost around $800 more per month than we’re currently paying for a 15 year mortgage. While we can afford this, it’s a big “Would You Rather?” between that and other options like retiring earlier. And of course, moving is expensive. So if furnishing and maintaining a larger house.

Is it really worth $800 a month for a little bigger living area, when we just opened up ours? And for a better neighborhood and closer proximity to more friends, when we already live so close? I can’t decide! I’ve experience how amazing it is to have the spontaneous play of lots of friends up and down the street, and I really miss that. Scheduling play dates is more time consuming and it just happens less often. Lastly, our home will appreciate more in the fancier neighborhood. So what we put into it, we will likely get out of it one day when we downsize. But that’s a long way off, not 100% guaranteed, and not our primary consideration right now.

So what do you think? Should we love it or list it? Any brainstorms for loving it?

Frugality for the Frantic

I just survived Maycember, the hectic end of school year schedule that rivals only the craziness of the holidays. Although our kids’ school calendars aren’t full of banquets and concerts just yet, this May included a weekend retreat, a family wedding, a family graduation, and a church camping trip with Neil teaching.

May’s craziness saw me valuing convenience like never before. I’m done making homemade everything and hang-drying every single sock for a while. I need fast, low-effort frugality.

So, what are the easiest, most efficient ways to save money? Or, what does it look like to stay frugal when your schedule feels frantic?

First and foremost is keeping your top 3 expenses–housing, transportation, and food–under control. Once you set yourself up to save in these areas, it’s actually pretty easy to maintain a frugal lifestyle.

Most people’s number one expense is housing. The best way to keep housing cost reasonable is to buy only what you can afford, and resist the urge to upsize unneccessarily. Conventional advice states your monthly mortgage or rent should not exceed 25% of your monthly income.

As your income increases it can be tempting to look for a bigger, better place. As our family has grown we have very much felt this draw, and perhaps someday we will need or want a different home. There are reasons we’d buy a bigger place, which I’ll discuss in a future post. But not buying at the top of what we could possibly afford, and not upgrading as soon as possible, has saved us a lot of money.

If you’re looking for a home, stick to that 25% monthly income budget for your mortgage payment. If your current place feels small, is there something you can do to rearrange? Declutter? Remodel? You can do a lot for $10,000-$20,000. Which is about what you’d probably spend just in selling your home and moving costs.

If you’re feeling stretched by your rent or mortgage, consider alternatives. Could you live with a friend or relative for a year to save up money? Could you rent a room of your house to offset mortgage costs? If you’re paying PMI, can you cut back on spending or side hustle in order to put more money toward your principle? And if you’re truly in over your head, could you consider moving to a less expensive home? Easier said than done, I’m sure, but it can yield loads of financial relief.

For more on housing, check out these articles. We like the advice of putting 20% down and choosing a 15 year mortgage if possible, for the sake of financial efficiency. But there’s more than one way to do a death pledge.

Takeaway: keep housing costs reasonable, around 25% of your income.

The second biggest cost for most people is transportation. If you live in the suburbs like us, it’s almost essential to own a vehicle or two. (If you’re making life work without one, kudos to you!) The easiest way to save on vehicle ownership is to purchase a used car in cash. We all know new cars depreciate immediately, so it makes sense to buy something at least a few years old.

If you’re in the new car camp and can’t be swayed, be the person who drives it for 15-20 years. That’s not a bad approach, but it’s a straight and narrow path not many end up following. Rather than keeping a car payment, keep a car fund. We always have what we’d need to purchase a replacement vehicle in savings. When we do buy a car, we start replenishing that fund ASAP. Avoiding a car payment means saving thousands of dollars in interest. For more on saving on cars, refer to:

Takeaway: Buy used cars, in cash. If you buy new or take a loan, drive it for as long as possible.

While housing and transportation costs can be fairly set-and-forget, food costs are more variable and can be harder to control. We all need to eat, but the options for getting sustenance are endless. The simplest, easiest way to save money on food is to eat home-cooked meals. And unfortunately, this does require some effort. But fear not, there are simple changes that can make a big dent in your food spending.

I’d encourage everyone to track their food spending. Especially restaurants, since those bad boys can really add up, even if they’re just little trips that don’t feel extravagant. Shopping at a discount grocery store can also make a big difference. Not only are the prices lower, there are often just fewer options to spend your money on. Lately I’ve also been liking grocery pick up because it reduces impulse spending and allows you to see your total and tweak your order before you check out. Well, mostly I like it can so I can be lazy. But it’s good for those other reasons too! For more info, check out the following on food savings:

Home cooking doesn’t have to look like preparing a feast from Bon Appetit recipes. Ask friends and family for their go-to easy recipes. Carve out an hour to meal plan and grocery shop. And get the other members of your household to help out, whether it’s with putting away groceries, doing the dishes, offering meal ideas, packing lunches, and of course, help cooking. My 5-year-old just shaved her first cucumber and found it fun!

Takeaway: Cook at home. Track food spending, especially restaurants. Shop discount grocery stores. And ask for help!

If you can control spending on housing, transportation, and food, you needn’t devote too much time and effort to being frugal. Naturally, you’ll want to watch out for your weaknesses when it comes to spending. Now back to that busy schedule…

Have you ever had one of the big 3 expenses get out of control? How are you recovering? How do you save money in the midst of a hectic schedule?

From “Conveniencing Ourselves to Death” to I’m Dying for Convenience!

Last year I wrote about how as a society we seem to be “Conveniencing Ourselves to Death” with everything from Keurigs to brand-new cars. My call was not to forsake all convenience, but to choose to consciously draw a line on what we are willing to pay (financially and otherwise) for convenience.

My line has moved.

I recently discovered several amazing modern conveniences: yogurt cups, frozen pizzas, the electric clothes dryer, and Walmart grocery pick up.

There was a day when I marveled at how exorbitantly expensive and eco-unfriendly things like yogurt cups and using the dryer were. I’d make my own yogurt for the cost of milk, or at least buy the big container and scoop it into portions. Now I can’t stand the thought of more cooking or dishes, and we are living the high life shelling out for yogurt cups.

There was also a time when I couldn’t handle the thought paying anything higher than ALDI prices. Now I break out in a sweat of both exertion and embarrassment as I spend what feels like an eternity clumsily trying to speed-bag a cart brimming with food, with 2+ kids in tow. Walmart, I will give you all my money if you put those yogurt cups and frozen pizzas straight into my mini-van, thank you very much! (Although I still go to ALDI to stock up on certain favorites.)

And forget pretending to be warm. We upped the thermostat to 67 degrees this winter and I didn’t have to layer myself in wool and long-underwear and still feel frigid all winter.

Not to mention we went from spending nothing on childcare for the first four years of parenting, to paying a babysitter weekly during our home church, and sometimes for dates as well.

Speaking of dates? I produce 3 meals a day, nearly every single day, for 5 people. That’s over 400 meals a month. Someone please take me out to a nice dinner once a month; I need a break! A break that’s better than frozen pizza!

Recently, when my sister needed a ride from the airport at 5 am on my other sister’s wedding day, I paypaled her for an Uber. Because I am at the point in my life where I will pay for sleep.

All this to say, the value of convenience has gone way up for me in the wake of having three kids, plus a lot else going on. While I tried finding my way back to frugal post-baby, what I really found was the value of my time and energy. I’m too busy and tired to be bagging countless pounds of groceries and hanging 5 loads of laundry per week.

I doubt the minutiae of my laundry and cooking life is of much interest to you, but here’s the takeaway: what frugal looks like depends on the season of life you’re in. And of course, how frugal you need to be.

This also means that it doesn’t make sense to compare yourself to the “extreme frugality” accounts you might read about. Frugality is not a competition. Don’t feel badly if you can’t keep up with the Frugals. That said, it’s still great to get ideas, motivation, and inspiration from one another. And if there’s no or little cost upfront, it usually doesn’t hurt to try out a thrifty strategy to see if it’s worth your while.

Lest you think we’ve completely abandoned “pretending,” tune in next week for my thoughts on the most bang-for-your-buck ways to stay frugal when life is busy!

How have your expenses changed over time? What is your favorite convenience item or service?