Tips & Tricks for a Thrifty Camping Vacation

Camping is one of the best ways to vacation for less. Campsites are very affordable, even in beautiful, expensive-to-vacation areas like beach towns. A campsite offers a true room with a view, more space than a hotel room, and lots of fun, free or cheap activities for families right within the camp ground.

Of course there are other ways to vacation cheaply, like travel hacking. And we do some of that. But camping is good for the soul. And it’s especially good for kids.

There is a bit of a learning curve to camping. Here are the tips and tricks I’ve picked up over 16 years of tenting it.

  1. Grocery pickup: This year, I’m going to do something incredibly un-rugged, and I couldn’t be more stoked about it. I’m doing Walmart grocery pick up for my shopping while on vacation. I think this is a great hack for many travel scenarios. Pluses include: not getting overwhelmed, forgetting a bunch of stuff, and also making unnecessary impulse purchases while trying to shop with three kids and a husband. We’ll save time, and the last thing the kids want to do is go grocery shopping the first day of vacation. While I’m not a huge Walmart fan in general, order pickup is great for these scenarios, and it’s convenient that I can make the order ahead of time, modify it until the night before, and get things like diapers and camp supplies as well.
  2. Coffee: if you think I’m overzealous about camping, don’t get me started on coffee! I need it so bad, especially while sleeping in a tent with three children! There are lots of ways to make coffee while camping, but the easier, cheapest, and least breakable option for me is this $7 pour-over product. Walmart, give me some of those #2 filters while you’re at it. If you drink it by the pot, go for a percolator (non-electric) or inexpensive coffee maker (for electric sites).
  3. Glamping: on some trips, we have electricity. And let me tell you, we make good use of it. For these trips, we bring a small, old “hot pot” a.k.a. a simple electric kettle. We use this for all our water boiling needs–for tea, coffee (see above), oatmeal, ramen, and even for heating the baby’s bath water. And it significantly cuts down the amount of propane we use on our camp stove.
  4. Don’t unpack: We store a camping box or two in our garage, and they’re always stocked with our mobile kitchen, paper products, propane, and other necessities for camping. I also leave little things like a hat, quarters, a deck of cards, a laundry line, a rain poncho, hand warmers, and toilet paper in our duffel bag all year young. These could come in handy on just about any trip so why unpack them?
  5. Beach supplies: the beach is so much more fun when you’re well prepared. We’ve always brought a beach blanket (just an old ugly comforter that’s handy in our car all year for emergencies, picnics, and beach days). Since having kids, we’ve added this nifty beach umbrella to our stash and it is sooo worth it. It’s great to have a shady place to retreat–especially for pale folk like me and the kids. We also bring a puddle jumper, a basket of cheap beach toys, and a good mini metal shovel for epic sand digging. Lastly, I keep a swim bag with towels, swim suits, sunscreen, and goggles packed all year. It makes getting out the door (or tent) to swim so much easier.
  6. Meal swap: we often camp with friends, and usually team up with 2-3 other families to take turns making meals. This obviously reserves more vacation time for vacationing rather than cooking, without having to go out to eat. But it’s also great because it streamlines grocery shopping. We don’t need to buy a ton of different ingredients for different meals, only to end up throwing away extras at the end of the week. This high chair is great for trips because it folds up small and fits on any table.
  7. Packing list: I have a spreadsheet listing all the stuff we need to camp for a week, including grocery items and meal ideas. Though I tweak it from year to year depending on the kids’ ages and needs, it saves time not to start from scratch on my packing list each year.
  8. Road trip ideas: we download audio books, music, and movies for the kids ahead of time via library apps like Libby and Hoopla, and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. We also save by packing some snacks and sandwich stuff to augment the fast food stops (because we have to stop at Bojangles on our way south).
  9. Travel hack hotel stops: on our way back we stop at a hotel that we book using hotel points rewards. You can accumulate these by using credit cards, or if you stay at hotels frequently for work and sign up for a rewards program with a particular chain.
  10. Excursions: once a year we camp in Florida, and some friends have taken the opportunity to do a less-expensive, one-day Disney visit. It’s not the same thing as an extended stay inside the park, but it scratches the Disney itch while saving massively on accommodations. We have yet to take the Disney plunge, but Neil took our son to Kennedy Space Center last year, and there are plenty of other great tourist options within driving distance.

I hope at least one of these ideas helps you on your next camping trip! Wish us luck on our first trip with three kids, and please share your tips and tricks below!

Redeeming Money Book Review

In a world of Dave Ramseys and Suzy Ormans bossing you about what to do with your money, it’s nice to read a personal finance book that doesn’t make one single practical suggestion about what to do with your money.

It’s nice, and maddening. All at the same time. Paul David Tripp’s 2018 Redeeming Money: How God Reveals and Reorients our Hearts is big-picture, philosophy over practicality. It’s about a book about your relationship with money. And the only to-do takeaway is to consider what money reveals about what your heart truly loves. The intended audience is Christians.

But this isn’t just another Christian money book explaining Bible verses or defining stewardship (although it does). The real thrust is to get you thinking about the gaps between what you believe about money and how you live–and the why behind this breakdown. He looks at this from several angles, including how we spend based on how we view ourselves (identity); how we view this world vs. eternity, and the purpose we’re living for–our glory, or God’s glory.

Tripp breaks identity into four components. He says we’re creatures–not the Creator–and this is why we should view ourselves as stewards, not owners. We’re also sinners living in a fallen world, and this means that the tool of money is used in broken ways, and also that it cannot fix our broken world. He describes this as being sufferers. We can spend on comfort, convenience, and pleasure, but we can’t spend our way out of all suffering. Lastly, we are “saints,” i.e., believers and followers of Jesus can be changed by God’s power to use money in ways that are in line with God’s value and bring Him glory.

My favorite part of this book is how he relates money to satisfaction and eternity. We all want to feel satisfied, happy, content, and this drives much of our over-spending. If we could accept that complete satisfaction will not happen this side of paradise, we may be better able to reign in the spending whilst also investing in God’s eternal kingdom through generous giving.

Though he doesn’t make this connection, this point relates closely to the financial independence/early retirement movement. I’ve thought before about how for those who long for early retirement, what you really want is heaven. You want to be able to do productive, meaningful work with freedom, with ample resources, and without having to worry about significant time restraints. Sounds a lot like eternity to me.

My main critique of the book is that he used over-spending and debt as his examples of misuse of money, without talking nearly as much about the pitfalls of a wealth-building obsession (when that wealth is built but not over-spent). Being miserly, overly focused on saving/investing, or driving too hard toward financial goals such as debt payoff or retirement can be equally dangerous. These could have used more attention, even just as examples and illustrations.

The greatest strength of the book is that he tries to address the underlying problems, rather than just telling you to make a budget, save for emergencies, or invest in index funds. There’s a time and place for both types of advice, but dealing with the underlying issues of the heart will take you a lot further in carrying out practical steps.

Like all Tripp books, he belabors some points with excessive lists of rhetorical questions and redundant sentence structures. It’s annoying in a literary sense, but I keep coming back for more because his content is good. And best of all, he gets grace–hence the title. I like that he makes a play on the word “redeem,” which we use to mean make something useful out of something wasn’t. But it also has a financial sense: purchasing a slave’s freedom. His overarching, hopeful message is that God in his grace can take any person and any financial situation and redeem it if we will surrender our money and our hearts to Him. Maybe that doesn’t look like you get out of debt fast, or you retire when you want. But He can help us stop being enslaved to our longings and the spending (or saving) that comes with them.

What’s the best money book you’ve read lately? What do you believe is the connection between our money and what we love most?

Nothing Parties Like a Rental (Car)

To rent or not to rent?

To rent or not to rent a car for a road trip? As our annual 2000-mile road trip/camping vacation approaches, we’ve been crunching the numbers on car rentals.

For most of the last seven years, we’ve rented for the trek as part of our frugal approach to car ownership. We drive older cars and Neil does almost all the maintenance and repairs himself. So we usually rent in order to avoid the wear and tear of such a long journey. It’s a strategic move, carefully calculated to save money in the long run. And of course it doesn’t suck to enjoy a nice, new ride on vacation.

Yet our “new” van feels so luxurious and road-trip-ready, we both felt the itch to bypass renting this year. Reality check: our “new” van is actually 13 years old and has around 150,000 miles. Even if it were brand-new, would it make sense to drive it that far?

Here’s how we see it: if the cost of wear and tear on your vehicle is greater than the cost or renting (or even close), it makes sense to spare your daily ride and rent instead. How can you calculate the cost of wear and tear? The government currently pays $0.58 per mile which includes fuel. Subtract the cost of fuel for your vehicle and you have approximate wear and tear. Or AAA estimates around $0.61 including fuel and insurance.

Our van gets around 22 miles per gallon. If gas costs around $2.20 right now, we’ll spend about $0.10 per mile on fuel, leaving $0.48 per mile of wear and tear. So that’s:

$0.58 – (Price of gas per gallon/miles per gallon) = price of wear and tear per mile.

Multiply that by the total number of miles for your approximate cost of driving your own vehicle.

Or if that seems too rich, take a highly conservative estimate of $0.25 wear and tear per mile. Maybe you won’t spend as much on vehicle maintenance because you DIY. Or maybe your own car gets way better gas mileage than what you’d rent. Even with the more conservative figure, it rarely makes sense to drive your own vehicle on very long trips.

For our van, we’d put somewhere between $500 to $960 worth of wear during a 2,000 trip. We can definitely rent a car for less than $500 for our 10-day trip.

While renting a car sounds like an extra and unnecessary expense, it can really reduce the cost of car ownership throughout the year (and over the life of the vehicle). And if you DIY, you’ll also be spreading out the impact of the time you spend working on your vehicle. Breaking down on a long trip is always inconvenient–but much more so if you’ve got to stop and fix your own vehicle, rather than just swap out one rental for another.

And of course it’s quite a luxury to drive a newer vehicle that’s loaded with features. It makes vacation a little more fun. Plus we enjoy not needing to give it a deep cleaning and oil change immediately upon returning from camping and driving 2000 miles with little kids!

How can you save on the cost of renting? We’ve found that renting an SUV is much less expensive than renting a minivan. Until this year, we’ve fit into an SUV. This year with 3 kids plus camping gear we’ll have to splurge on the minivan rental. But using a Costco discount we were able to rent for $420–still coming in under the conservative estimate of $500 cost of driving our car.

In the past, we’ve saved by cashing in travel rewards from renting cars for work, or collected rental car company coupons throughout the year (also from work). Like so many things, it’s best to shop around, look for coupons or promotions, and book in advance.

Our camping vacation is rather expensive and inefficient in many ways, but our $420 vehicle rental (the most we’ve ever spent) is still cheaper than flying 4 people to our destination. And driving means we can bring all our camping gear, and our camp site cost for the week equals 1-2 nights in a hotel in the same city.

We do hope to be able to fit in an SUV again in a couple years when we’re not bringing a pack n play, stroller, infant carrier, and high chair along. We’ll see if we’re ever able to downsize again!

Have you ever considered renting a car to save money? Do you have any trips coming up?

Finding Our Way Back to Frugal

What was your New Year’s Resolution? Did you break it yet?

I didn’t make any this year, but I do see the value of getting back into healthy habits after eating too many Christmas cookies, staying up late, or spending more than usual during the holidays.

In the same way, we put some of our normal frugal habits on hold surrounding the birth of our third child. There were take-out pizzas and Great Clips haircuts. I bought more convenience grocery items than usual. I bought retail clothes when I didn’t have time to sift through secondhand. We turned up the A/C (it was 95 degrees the week she was born) and used the dryer rather than hanging clothes. Our entertainment spending increased during Neil’s babybatical when he took a month off and treated the older kids to epic fun. And recently when the kids were home sick or for snow days, I enjoyed using Walmart grocery delivery–when free delivery was available, but I still tipped and spent a little more on certain items.

Do I regret any of this? No! But just as it’s easy to keep eating too much sugar well after the holidays have passed, it’s easy to forsake frugal habits forever. Thus a busy time when conveniences are necessary can slide into small-scale lifestyle inflation. And while some increased expenses are par for the course with a growing family, I’ve felt like it’s time to return to some of of our former habits.

Will we retire early by hanging clothes or making homemade yogurt? Hardly. Or budget, let alone future plans, do not rely on the small savings from these tasks. I will gladly abandon them again as needed. But to me there is something healthy and hearty about not losing sight of the types of little tasks that added up to getting out of debt, and getting the investment ball rolling.

Admittedly, I have the time to do some of these things because I’m a STAHM. If I only had a couple hours at home with my kids each day, you better believe I’d spend more on convenience. But if I have the time, and I’m not focusing on career or income right now, it makes sense to save money where I can. It’s also a great way to model throwback thrift for the kids and get them involved. I mean, how many kids know making yogurt or bread is even a possibility?

These habits won’t make us rich, but they do keep us grounded. Viewing small things like a comfy thermostat setting, ordering a pizza, and going on fun outings as luxuries helps calibrate realistic expectations in both us and our kids. When holiday over-spending and over-eating becomes the norm in the new year, it leads to problems. The same can be true of seasons of increased spending if we lose sight of a thriftier lifestyle.

We’ll continue to stay flexible, choosing convenience when that supports our greater values of relationships and following God. And we’ll keep saving big with Neil’s DIY skills, and by avoiding major expenses such as car payments or a big mortgage. I hope these small savings support our overall mindset of avoiding excess, enjoying small luxuries, and building gratitude for the abundance we’ve been blessed with.

What are some frugal habits that you practice? Have you ever 

put them on  hold for a season?

Frugal Friends Don’t Let Friends…


“Friendship is the soul’s heaven,” according to Bronson Alcott, and it’s also a key to unlocking frugal synergy. Expensive friends certainly exist; they aren’t pretending to be poor and always invite you on expensive outings. Even frugal friends have their costs (weddings!). But a network of friends is invaluable, financially and otherwise, as friends can naturally share talents, time, and possessions with each other. Not to mention the many immaterial beauties of friendship. Here’s how to increase your financial flexibility with frugal friends synergy.

Frugal friends don’t let friends…

Pay for professional services. Don’t worry, I don’t let my friends drill cavities or deliver babies. But there are lots of skills you can trade for or discount among your comrades. For example, Neil took graduation pictures for a number of high school students we knew and charged only a fraction of typical studio costs. More recently, my brother-in-law shared extensive labor and expertise to help Neil DIY a major home repair project. It’s always good to know a mechanic, a computer whiz, a cosmetologist, a pastry chef, a remodeler, and people from any number of other fields since it’s cheaper to enlist a pal’s help than to pay a professional.

Of course you should always show appreciation for your friends’ time. Give a thoughtful gift, buy lunch, or offer your own talents next time they need help. Lending a hand is a great way to inflate your usefulness instead of your lifestyle. When you do need a professional, ask friends for recommendations.

Buy stuff they can borrow. Does every homeowner on earth really need to own a 15-ft extension ladder? Or pick-up truck? We lend and borrow tools, gadgets, and other special-use items among friends regularly. Currently we’re in possession of a friends’ electric smoker. Neil and his buddy even bought a bike tool set to share between them. It just doesn’t make sense for everyone to multiply the cost, storage, and maintenance of special use equipment. Borrowing is a great option to consider before buying used.

My girlfriends and I also lend everyday items like clothing (especially baby and maternity), books, baby gear, and special occasion shoes or accessories. All of the punjabis I’ll wear on my trip to India this summer are on loan as well (thanks!).

Being part of a community also opens opportunities for receiving free or friend-price items. Almost all of our furniture has come through our network of family and friends (and their network of family and friends). With hand-me-downs it helps not to be too picky; remember, life is not about your preferences.

Pay movers. When we moved into our home we didn’t have to rent a truck or hire movers because 25 people showed up to help! I’m sure if we were going farther than eight doors down we might’ve needed a truck. But we’ve always moved for the cost of pizza for our volunteers. And we’ve helped many other friends move. That’s how frugal friend synergy should work.

Pay babysitters. We spent less than $100 total on babysitting during our first four years of parenting, despite leaving the kids with sitters a couple times a week. We are very blessed to have help from family and many trusted volunteers from our church. However, much of the free childcare we’ve received has come through swapping with friends. For example, we have a date-night co-op where we trade off babysitting on Friday evenings. When we do need to hire a sitter, we’re happy to use references from people we know personally. (Update: Three years later, this has changed and we have spent more in this area, but the date night swap is still a great idea for many people.)

Over-spend on entertainment. While it’s fun to go to restaurants or movies with friends sometimes, we’re more likely to invite people over for dinner, a cookout, or a bonfire at our house. Hosting has its costs, but can often be done inexpensively when you shop sales, cook homemade, or ask people to potluck or pitch in toward pizza. Plus hospitality is a habit we’re willing to spend on.

Get lonely. An American epidemic of loneliness is in effect as we work extra hours, shuttle kids to extracurriculars, and zone out in the front of the TV in sheer exhaustion. Instead our family opts for building community. We believe close relationships, along with generosity, are a integral part of a good life so we make them a priority by setting aside several evenings a week for social and church gatherings (these two are often one and the same for us). We aren’t side-hustling during these times, but we also aren’t over-spending on recreational shopping or entertainment.

Whatever your faith or schedule looks like, don’t end up lonely at the top. Make time for friends. A good pal will offer their power tools, sewing services, and a listening ear. It truly pays dividends to have friends.

How have friends helped you save money? Share your examples of frugal friends synergy!

Why Everyone Needs to Think About FIRE

You’re never too young to plan for retirement. Okay, maybe 2 is too young.

We’ve been chiming in on the trending topic of Financial Independence/Early Retirement (FIRE) here lately. But what if FIRE is the furthest thing from your thoughts? Maybe you’re just making it. Maybe you’re retirement age, but with no end in sight. Or maybe you’re still in college, just trying to get through the semester. No matter what your phase of life or financial situation, you owe it to yourself to think about at least the FI in FIRE.

We’ve critiqued some of the philosophical/theological implications of the phrase “financial independence,” but we can’t argue with the math. We would all love to be as free financially as possible, right? While that might be far from your reality today, there are realistic steps everyone can take to work toward freeing up your finances in the future. Rather than focusing exclusively on the finish line of “financial independence,” we like to think of it as a continuum of increasing freedom, which we call financial flexibility.

The basic recipe for financial flexibility looks like less expenses and more passive income, especially from investments. The less money we need to actively earn via a traditional job/paycheck, the more options we’ll have. More options for taking opportunities that come our way. For changing careers or our reducing workloads. For family, travel, service, and charitable giving. And options for retiring.

Sounds great, but some common misconceptions get in the way of planning for retirement and/or financial flexibility. Are any of these holding you up?

  1. I’m never going to retire. Not with that attitude, you aren’t! But there are lots of real reasons people feel pessimistic about money. Overwhelming debt or other large financial responsibilities can make us feel like we’ll never dig our way out. Rather than getting defeated by the obstacles, try to focus on what you can do. At the very minimum, strive contribute enough to your retirement account to get your employer’s match. Otherwise, you’re essentially kissing part of your paycheck good-bye. More on next steps under #3.
  2. The stock market isn’t safe. We don’t believe true “safety” comes from any financial source. But as far as destinations for your retirement savings go, the stock market is where it’s at. While it certainly takes its dips, the roller coaster has steadily trended upward over time, generally at a rate of 7-8%. That’s far better than you’ll get in a savings account–and the only way to beat inflation. And the power of compounding interest really takes off over time.
  3. Investing is for the wealthy. I used to believe this, not realizing that investing is exactly how “average” people get wealthy. Investing slowly and steadily over the course of 20-30 years can get you where you need to be to retire without doing anything extreme. Start by getting that employer match. Next, work your way up to 15%. Got that down? Then see if you can max out your 401(k) ($19,000 per person per year) and IRAs ($6000).
  4. You never know what will happen. I used to feel like declaring a big financial plan was unwise because you never know what life will bring. If we set a big goal and didn’t meet it on time due to unforeseen circumstances, this would feel like a failure. Yet life’s unexpected nature is exactly why you should be saving and planning for the future. Yes, sickness, emergency, career change, or other surprises could dramatically modify your financial outlook. So why not be prepared? In addition to investing, get a good life insurance policy for both spouses, and long-term disability insurance.

What can you do today? It all depends on your situation. But everyone should consider the following potential steps toward increasing financial flexibility–and therefore freedom.

  1. Reduce debt. If you’re still in school, seek alternatives to paying for a portion of tuition, such as scholarships, grant, work-study, and summer/side jobs. And please, don’t take out loans to cover living expenses. When you’re out of school, resist the urge to defer loans unless absolutely necessary. Try to keep living expenses low at least until you’re done paying off those loans. And avoid consumer debt by starting an emergency fund of $1000, and then building it to 3-6 months’ living expenses.
  2. Spend less. I know it sounds obvious, but the less you spend, the less income you need. At the same time, the more you can invest for the future. You can also spend more on causes you care about, like charitable giving and pursuing dreams like travel, being home to raise kids, or entrepreneurship. There are a million and one ways to cut expenses, and it all depends on what’s worth it to you. Some of the top areas to cut are:
    housing (mortgage/rent no more than 25% of your income; get a roommate)
    transportation (try saving up for an older car vs. taking a loan),
    food (cook at home, pack lunch, pre-game restaurant outings).
  3. Learn about investing. If the stock market sounds intimidating or confusing, read about it in straightforward books like The Legacy Journey (see appendix) or The Simple Path to Wealth. The thing I love about investing is that we don’t have to spend a lot of time side-hustling to earn future passive income. We can build wealth without additional effort, simply by putting money in low-fee index funds (we use Vanguard) consistently over time.

What are your hang-ups when it comes to planning for retirement? And what step could you take today to invest in your future?

FIRE Safety

Maybe we’re not the best people to take fire safety advice from.

Although it presents less raw danger than a physical flame, FIRE (financial independence/early retirement) is not necessarily safe for the soul. So what is the stop, drop, and roll of the FIRE movement?

Fire safety is drilled in our kids at a young age. Even my preschooler can tell you what to do if you catch on fire: stop, drop, and roll. Kids have fire drills at school and on the bus, and are encouraged to plan escape routes for home. It makes sense that fire safety is a big deal, and that teachers and firefighters know how to make it memorable.

Even if you never plan to retire early, we all need safeguards against losing ourselves as we navigate money, work, and life. That’s why I believe we should all pursue financial flexibility; there’s no benefit to being enslaved by our jobs by over-extending ourselves financially. So, what’s the soul-risk in pursuing FIRE or even financial flexibility?

Last week we talked about Luke 12, where a man retires early and decides to live unabashedly for his own pleasure. The catch? He dies on day one of retirement. It’s a parable, so it’s meant to teach some lessons about relying on God, living for yourself, and the foolishness of putting all your hope in this short life.

And then there are verses like this one: What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? (Matthew 16:26). You could gain freedom from work, freedom from worrying about money, but lose yourself in the process. Even the popular blogger and early retiree Mad FIentist admits he fell into depression on the intense journey to FIRE (scroll down to Dark Times here).

Like money itself, FIRE isn’t inherently good or bad, it’s a tool that depends on how you pursue it and you use it. Here’s the stop, drop, and roll of FIRE soul-safety as I see it:

Purpose. Many people advise you don’t just retire from something, but retire to something. I believe this should mean more than projects, hobbies, or travel. Life is most satisfying when it’s lived for a bigger purpose. How will you connect your interests and talents with your values and purpose? Finding how these connect before retirement will help you find contentment and fulfillment when you leave behind traditional work.

Practice makes perfect. What do you dream of doing with your time in retirement? Makes sure you do some of that now! This will help you avoid living for the future but missing the present and make sure you’re living a useful life. And it will also hone your dreams and plans and you figure out exactly what your why is for retiring early. Here are some areas worth practicing:

Generosity. There’s no better way to guard the heart against greed than to give charitably and sacrificially. I’m not necessarily talking about extravagant gifts or buying your friends dinner. It’s great to be generous to those you know, but sometimes greater to help those you’ll never even meet. There are no end of good causes and reputable charities supporting them. Read more on the benefits of giving and how to find an effective charity.

Volunteering. Giving your money is not interchangeable with giving your time and talents. But both are undoubtedly important ways to make sure you’re not just living for you and losing your soul along the way. For us, this looks like volunteer ministry such as leading and teaching home group Bible study, serving as elders, and discipling new leaders.

Relationships. Staying connected with people along the way to FIRE is invaluable. Making time for the people in your life ensures you have a healthy family and friendships to enjoy your retirement or flexibility with. It’s part of living for more than yourself. And it also opens you up to the possibility of accountability and feedback along your journey to FIRE.

What else do you see as important for FIRE safety?

The Raging FIRE Debate (And Why I Think Everyone Is Asking the Wrong Questions)

The Financial Independence/Early Retirement is making national news left and right. It’s been featured in many major media outlets, from Forbes to PBS. The secret is out: more and more people are opting out of work in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, and they claim it’s really not that hard to do.

On top of all that, Suzy Orman has come out of retirement and stated no one should ever retire early, kindling a fierce debate. She claims there is no “safe” amount of money to save because you never know what will happen.

We’ve had our own qualms about FIRE movement, yet are on track to retire long before age 60. But the questions we’ve wrestled with are perhaps a bit different than the ones that get debated so often in this space.

There’s no doubt in my mind that many people can save enough to retire early. I fully acknowledge that we don’t know how much the future costs. We don’t know exactly how much raising kids will cost. We don’t know exactly how much aging and health care will cost. And we don’t know what unexpected challenges or opportunities life may bring.

What I do know is that our income happens to be more than we feel is reasonably necessary to spend. And as we aren’t making an extraordinary amount of money or living an extremely frugal lifestyle, I imagine there are many, not all, but many who could save enough to exit early, too.

Our question about early retirement isn’t whether it’s possible, but is it good? Is it spiritually wise? Passages like Luke 12:13-21 should leave us wary of socking away so much wealth that we never have to work again. Give it a quick read:

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

A far as I can tell, the real problem isn’t that the man in the story was rich, or was able to retire early, but rather: 1. He thought he didn’t need God, and 2. How he planned to spend his retirement.

We’ve always hesitated to latch onto the phrase “financial independence” (the first half of FIRE) because we view ourselves as ultimately dependent beings. We are not in total control of our health, our opportunities, our circumstances, or even our aptitudes. This is not to say that we aren’t dynamic beings who are responsible for our choices We just aren’t the end-all, be-all of our existence. We also want to acknowledge that we have abilities and opportunities we didn’t deserve or earn. While highly valuing our ability to make choices that impact our lives, we simultaneously see our talents, intellect, employment, and money itself all as provisions from God.

So while I know people use FI to refer to a mathematical reality, i.e., I don’t need to keep earning money from work, we prefer the term “financial flexibility.” First off, it doesn’t declare an independence we don’t believe is possible. And secondly, it suggests a continuum along which we are always moving. We can have the same mathematical/financial goal as someone pursuing “FI,” but we want our terms to reflect our worldview.

Our other qualm with FIRE is how retirement is to be spent.  The common objections of “you’ll be bored,” “you’ll miss work,” or “who wants to golf all the time?” again fall flat for me. There are no end of interesting ways to spend your time outside of full-time employment. And I’m sure most early retirees continue to work at something, and often continue to earn money. People who are smart, talented, and hard-working enough to retire early probably aren’t decaying in front of Netflix or endlessly golfing.

The subject in Luke 12 has the hedonistic goal to “eat, drink, and be merry.” For those of us who don’t happen to struggle with gluttony, it would still be tempting to indulge in a different type of hedonism: self-improvement. This could look like learning new skills, a new language, reading, exercising, creating….but if it’s all about a better me, I’m still living a different version of “be merry.”

The sad ending of the Luke 12 parable is that “tomorrow you die.” And whether you live to 18 or 80, we all die some “tomorrow.” Human life is short, and it’ll be over before we know it. The only way to outlast ourselves is to live for eternity, for a purpose bigger than us. So by all means, we should invest in ourselves, but all self-improvement should serve the purpose of improving the lives of others.

So we only feel okay with RE if we use our freedom as a way to serve others. What will that look like? We’ll let God show us as the time draws near. Which is not to say we have no ideas, but if it’s going to service-oriented, we want to be sensitive to needs and opportunities as they arise. Next time I’ll talk about the key to pursuing FIRE without getting burned.

What are your qualms about financial independence/early retirement? Are they mathematical or moral?

He Became Poor

Photo by Neil Brooks

Christmas has me thinking about a man who pretended to be poor. He left the wealthiest kingdom of all time to become a simple tradesman. He left the most powerful social status to become a peasant. He left glory to be scapegoated, and left honor to be humiliated. He released the use of divine power to take the form of a helpless human infant.

You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)

He became poor so we might become rich. This phrase has haunted me this holiday season. What does it mean? The love, joy, and peace that comes from knowing Jesus cannot be surpassed by the best investment portfolio, the nicest house, or the most successful career. We owe our family, friends, health, talents, material provision, and so much more to the Giver of all good gifts. We truly have been made rich in every way by the One who pretended to be poor for our sake. He paid the debt we owed Him, that we could never repay no matter how hard we tried. He paid it at great personal expense–becoming poor, and giving His life.

This is why we write about pretending to be poor and sharing with the truly poor:

“He will make you rich in every way so that you can always give freely. And your giving through us will cause many to give thanks to God.” (2 Corinthians 9:11)

We are far from perfect at giving freely. But we will continually the beat the drum of generosity here and in our own lives because we’re forever astonished by the sacrifice Jesus made for us.

Merry Christmas!

The Danger of Christmas


I love Christmas, but I’m also afraid of it.

I’m afraid our kids will feel entitled by all the gifts they receive. I’m afraid they will lose sight of the true meaning of Jesus’ birth. I fear it will reinforce their tendency to believe life’s all about them. I’m concerned they’ll turn into greedy over-consumers.

We’re committed to not over-doing the gifts, but we do enjoy making Christmas morning magical for our kids. Surely that will look different as they grow up, but at their ages, this doesn’t cost a lot.

We’re grateful to have relatives who are generous but reasonable (not over-gifters). But even one or two reasonable presents from a number of relatives, plus “Santa,” adds up to a fair amount of stuff. (I do see the toys as a resource to survive the long winter months ahead!)

I’m also tempted to fill the precious days off of school and work with fun holiday activities. There are more special events than we can possibly attend, plus simple pleasures like sledding, baking cookies, and watching Christmas movies. I want to be sure that helping others is prioritized in the midst of seasonal entertainment, and that will mean passing on some fun activities, even if they’re free.

We want to celebrate Christmas with special treats, gifts, and family activities. We also want our kids to learn generosity, empathy, and service. Here’s how we’re trying to combat the greedy, entitled, all-about-me mentality that kids (and all of us, if we’re honest) are naturally prone to.

“It is better to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

We first introduced this verse to my son when he was three. He replied, “That’s not true,” and refused to memorize it. We didn’t force the issue. Two years later he was voluntarily quoting it (sometimes to his sister) and trying to understand it. He asked if getting presents on Christmas morning is bad. I explained that both giving and receiving are good and fun, but giving is special because it helps others and can bring them happiness.

To involve our kids in giving, I encourage them to buy or make something for each other and their dad. Sometimes with their closest friends they might swap toys they already have or chip in toward a small gift.

“If you help the poor, you are lending to the Lord—and he will repay you!” (Proverbs 19:17)

Our kids live a strange existence in which all their needs are abundantly met. Without scaring them, we try to explain that not everyone lives this way. Some kids don’t get toys for Christmas; others don’t have enough food or even clean water. (Compassion International’s Explorer magazine was helpful for this.) We can’t solve all those problems, but we can share some of what we have with others. We use Dave Ramsey’s suggestion for give, save, and spend jars, and set a deadline in December for choosing a charitable destination for their money. This year they chose to give to a children’s ministry through the outstanding organization India Gospel League.

Two years ago I took my son to help out with a “Christmas with Dignity” store through a local ministry in a low-income neighborhood that’s home to many refugee families. The children work throughout the year to earn digital “dollars” by attending after school tutoring, completing homework, and participating in programs. With these funds they can shop at a Christmas store featuring a large variety of new, donated items. We volunteered with the set-up, which involved carrying lots of items down lots of stairs.

The store featured toys, but also many practical household items ranging from coffee makers to diapers to toilet paper. Friends who volunteer at the store noted how many of these items the kids choose over the toys.

Once we got through the explanations and he got to carry stuff around he got increasingly excited. He talked about the kids choosing from the different items. He was also bragging about how strong his muscles were getting from all the hard work. Maybe he still thinks it’s all about him (& his muscles), but I was grateful he had a chance to help others in some way. He left in an exceptionally good mood because he got to experience firsthand the joy of giving rather than receiving.

“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress…”(James 1:27)

A friend suggested that the kids from our church visit nursing home residents and sing carols. Yesterday we did just that. Yes, visiting people you don’t know feels awkward. And children aged four to seven barely remember the lyrics to the songs. But I hope our short little concert went a long way toward brightening the residents’ day, and showing our kids that they’re not the center of universe.

The book The Me, Me, Me Epidemic  includes some more great ideas for involved kids in both planned and random acts of service.

I don’t share these experiences because I have it all figured out, but because I don’t. My kids are more entitled and self-centered than I want to admit. So am I. The path to financial success is fraught with danger for the soul. But serving those often forgotten by society can be a great antidote to turning into a Scrooge.

I’d love to hear more ideas for promoting a giving attitude in kids at Christmas. What are some practical ways you’ve tried to teach generosity and service, especially during the holidays? How have you seen your children’s attitude toward giving change over the years? Or perhaps you remember how your own perspective changed?