Tag Archive | family

The Hidden Luxuries of Camping

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

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

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

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

More on camping, if you’re interested:

Open the Door to a Lifetime of Vacation Savings

How We’ll Save $500 on Our Next Vacation

10 Fun Facts From Our Camping Vacation

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

“Please Un-entitle Me”

Writing a letter to my parents. What should I say?

Dear Mom & Dad,

I know you want what is best for me. You want to read to me as much as possible, take me on as many cool adventures as you can, and help me become the most successful, well-rounded individual I can be.

I know you want to race against the clock to find freedom before I’m too old to want to hang out with you. Before I’m too big to think you’re cool. Or maybe that’s not an option, but you want to make sure you’re as involved as possible. I think it’s pretty cool that you want that.

I know you want to teach me to work hard, to be resourceful and creative. You want me to learn things they don’t teach at school, like entrepreneurship and investing and how to DIY anything. And I’m sure I’ll thank you later for that.

You are saving for my college because you don’t want me to be stuck with the same debt you graduated with. You’re priming my resume by funding any extracurricular I choose. Okay, you drew the line at ice hockey. But you’re doing all you can to make sure I get good grades and good test scores, in hopes of stretching the college fund a little further.

Even if you didn’t have the money to do all this, it’d still be tempting to over-praise, over-purchase, and be overly-involved for me. I can make my own lunch and do my own laundry, okay?

You love me and you’re doing all you can for me. But please, watch out. As one of the wealthiest kids on the planet, I am at high risk for entitlement. In fact, it’s already happening. Between the participation prizes, the endless affirmation, the constant access to my grades, and all the attention you’re encouraged to give me, it’s almost inevitable.

I know, you’re frugal. You’ve told me no countless times when it comes to spending. You’ve taught me that money comes from hard work, and not to fritter it away. You didn’t do the epic themed birthday parties or annual Disney vacations or buy me designer clothing.

But you’ve also shown me that money is a Big Deal. Without it we couldn’t do all the awesome trips and adventures. Without it you’d have to be at work more, rather than with me. Which I love, but…

Please un-entitle me.

Let me manage my own schoolwork, forget my gym shoes, and not make the varsity team.

Take me to serve a meal at the homeless shelter. Encourage me to volunteer at the food bank. Have me visit handicapped adults.  Show me how good I have it, and that I am not the center of the world. Nor the center of your world.

I can’t be the center of your world. That’s too much pressure. I could never live up.

Model to me that success is not what matters most in life—at least if success means promotions or net worth growth. Show me how to succeed at truly loving other people. Teach me that money should facilitate that end.

Teach me how to be a good friend. One who is loyal and sacrificial. One who can help in practical ways, but emotionally as well. Raise me in community.

Don’t just teach me frugality, or how to earn a lot of money. Teach me how to give generously.

Don’t just teach me how to sell, teach me how to care. I need to see people not as obstacles or tools, but with compassion and empathy.

Don’t just teach me how to be happy, teach me how to be content. Every problem I’ve ever encountered has been so first-world, I have little tolerance for suffering. Don’t be afraid to let me suffer a little. Let me fail.

Don’t just teach me how to be polite, teach me gratitude. Not just the pleasantries of saying please and thank you, but a deep attitude of realizing I deserve very little, and have very much.

You can read me all the books, take me to all the countries, play all the sports with me, and still miss the most important part of me: my heart.

It would be such a shame if you tried so hard to raise a productive, well-rounded human, and I still turned out self-centered and entitled. The odds are against you. The culture unwittingly supports this most dangerous outcome.

But you know how to go against the tide. You don’t like to fit the mold. You wouldn’t be where you are if you didn’t have a counter-cultural streak. I know you can do it. Please un-entitle me.

Love,

Your kid

How have you combated entitlement in your family? 

 

For more on fighting entitlement, please see my friend’s blog, Entitlement Monster, and the book The Me, Me, Me Epidemic.

 

Too Much Fun: Summer on the Burbstead

Our summer was too much fun. It’s my favorite season, and we try to swim, camp, garden, and travel as much as possible without over-doing it. Lest we seem like ascetics after our post on wants vs. needs, here’s evidence that we have plenty of fun around here.

First, some updates on our burbstead goals:

Our garden was a success. So were the chickens. We just picked apples today, and made some into caramel apples. The wood pile is well stocked with free wood for fires this fall and winter.

I didn’t learn how to can because we were able to keep up with our tomatoes. I helped with the prep for Neil to preserve 16 jars of salsa, as well as making several large batches of fresh pico de gallo. Neil and his brother canned two pecks of jalapenos into sweet-hot slices also known as cowboy candy.

peppers-2

The remote garden was unsuccessful. We just got too busy to take care of it, and it was a very dry summer for us. Maybe next year we’ll build more raised beds or give our community plot proper attention.

We didn’t catch a swarm of bees. Maybe our bait box was too small. We can try again next year. The beauty of the burbstead is that everything is small scale, the learning curve is gentler, and we don’t have to spend much to pursue these fun, productive, kid-friendly hobbies. We also fit in lots of suburban fun which wouldn’t be possible if we had more ‘stead to attend to.

Here’s is a sampling of our activities this summer:

Went on two vacations! The first was to Western New York, i.e. the middle of nowhere. It’s beautiful farm country. It wasn’t our first choice destination, but we didn’t plan ahead well, and still had fun. We visited two different Great Lakes beaches, saw the “Grand Canyon of the East” at Letchworth State Park, went to a war aviation museum, and spent time with the two families we rented a place with.

Our second vacation was a “YOLO” move. Our son will start kindergarten next fall, so we decided to take advantage of off-season prices and four free airline tickets and enjoyed a week near St. Pete’s Beach, FL. The kids were excited about flying and the weather and water were perfect. Until Hurricane Hermine blew in.

Neil's hurricane selfie.

Neil’s hurricane selfie.

Neil had the brilliant idea to purchase an annual family pass to a local museum for $56, because it offers reciprocal relationships at hundreds of attractions across the country, including several near St. Pete’s Beach. It was well worth it just for that week, though we’ll continue to use the pass elsewhere.

Went to two waterparks. We were offered free passes by our generous friends who got them from a work conference. The normal price for one adult is $70! The kids had a blast. The second was a local, much smaller place that we visit once a year. I made the mistake of showing my son in the lazy river, and he wanted nothing to do with waterslides after that.

Celebrated birthdays—three out of the four of us have birthdays within three weeks. We had a family party for our son’s 5th featuring pizza and water balloons. Throwing a Pinterest-worthy party is just not my thing.

Went swimming. My son took his first swim lessons after falling off the dock on our first vacation. We tried to get in as much water exposure as possible without purchasing a pool pass. We visited three free library events at a nearby pool and visited a local lake twice. And of course swimming at the beaches on our vacations. Neil’s sister, who lives nearby, had a pool put in near the end of summer. We were granted a “pool pass” and swam there several times.

Camped four times. We camped with our church Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, Neil went on a men’s retreat, and also camped out with our son one night. We want more camping, though. Camping really opens the door to affordable travel and recreation. We may squeeze in another trip before it cools off here.

Went to a conference.  I’ve been going to the Xenos Summer Institute, a Bible conference, since I was 17, and Neil was going there before we ever met. It’s one of the highlights of the year, and my mom graciously agreed to babysit so we could absorb 2.5 full days of teaching and practical training.

Went to two family weddings. Plus some bridal & baby showers, and Neil’s grandpa’s 99th birthday party!

Went to four funerals 🙁 With another this week. Each one hits home how important it is to live for real worth. Money is just a tool.

Watched a lot of Olympics. Go USA! I was useless the week gymnastics was on.

Went to the zoo. We have a pass to the local zoo—we split it with another family so it’s $50 for the year. We buy one every other year since the 13-month pass gets us through most of two summer, plus one off-season.

Road the local scenic railroad. Tickets are almost $20/person, but if you bike the parallel trail one way, you (and your bike) can ride back for $3. Bikes and trains are two of my kids’ favorite things so this activity is always a hit.

Were visited by two out-of-state family members. My dad and sister both came into town this summer, separately.

I’m always a bit sad for summer to end, but I’m enjoying the more structured routines of fall, as well as the seasonal festivities that are especially fun with little ones. A trip to the apple orchard, hiking, pumpkin carving, and campfires are all in our future.

How was your summer? What do you look forward to in fall?

What Would You Pay for Sports?

Tandem surfing competition we happened upon in Hawaii--so cool!

Tandem surfing competition we happened upon in Hawaii–so cool!

This fall will be a great quarter for children’s sports programs as Olympic hopefuls register in droves. Participating in athletics fosters many positive qualities in children, but greatness comes at a cost. Watching the Olympics has left me wondering: how far would we go for our children’s success in sports?

I’m not delusional enough to think we are raising a future Olympian. Yet I did gymnastics for 8 years, at no small cost to my parents. You don’t even have to be good at sports for them to get expensive, so it helps to think through your parenting approach to extra-curriculars.

The Price

Those Olympic athletes have arrived at their destination though unimaginable hard work, training, and talent. Their journeys have also been fueled by lots and lots of money. That doesn’t mean they’re all from wealthy families, or that only the wealthy make it that far. Sponsorship, equipment donations, or fundraising can help defray the costs. But even normal participation in childhood sports costs a pretty penny as coaching, equipment, travel, and fees all add up over time.

It’s not just sports where the costs can escalate. It could be music (my parents are musicians, so I should know), art, theater, or any pursuit involving professional lessons, specialized equipment, and other ongoing costs.

Though I naturally wish to divert all discretionary funds toward college, I also want my kids to participate activities that interest them. Endeavors like sports and music teach discipline, teamwork, and sacrifice. They will use parts of their brain school might not engage.  And they can establish a degree of health and fitness that carries over into adulthood.

There is incredible value in extracurricular activities, but that does not mean they’re invaluable—i.e., I will not pay any price for them. For example, we would never go into debt for sports. We will not jeopardize financial goals we’ve already determined, like how much to save for college or give to charities. Those are our family boundaries; what are yours?

The Pain

The high cost of elite achievement isn’t just monetary. My 8 years of moderate training left me with nagging back, wrist, and elbow problems. Had I trained at a higher level, the damage would most likely have been worse.

I remember my dad wanting me to quit gymnastics once I reached a higher level, because he was afraid of injury. At age 13 I dislocated my elbow and chipped a bone, requiring surgery. The long-term effects of the injury have been minor, but I’ll never forget having a bone reset.

Major injuries aren’t the only cause for concern. Pediatricians are reporting increasing rates of overuse injuries. Kids are training longer, harder, and more frequently and sustaining injuries unrelated to any specific incident such as my fall.

Why are kids so prone to over-training? One factor is the hope of scholarships. With college tuition skyrocketing, parents and kids alike are looking to sports as their meal (and tuition) ticket. Even if you’re not counting on this, other parents are, which makes the sport more competitive.

In the end, lots of time and money is spent on what’s essentially a gamble. Whether the child will be good enough, want to continue, and will avoid injury is harder to predict than index fund growth. I’m placing more hopes for covering college costs in a 529 than a sport.

The Time

In a culture finally noticing our need for simplicity, parents’ schedules are jam-packed with shuttling kids to and from activities. Even if your family follows the conventional wisdom of one sport per season per kid, that can mean three different activities if you have three kids. Multiply that times 3-5 practices a week and forget side-hustling, or simplicity. You’re an unpaid Uber driver.

While sacrificing time for your kids is normal, revolving your entire lives around sports schedules needn’t be. I hear stories all the time of family members missing milestone events like baptisms and weddings because of children’s sports practices.

Madeline Levine’s studies in The Price of Privilege found affluent children to be at high risk of developing emotional disorders and risky behaviors. Some reasons include being over-scheduled by their parents, not learning to manage free time (because they have none), and being pressured to succeed in too many areas. We want our children to try their best, but we don’t want to pressure them into success.

The Antidote

Here are a few parent-approved tactics for reclaiming your time and money from sports.

  1. Set limits ahead of time. One extracurricular per season per kid is a good starting point.
  2. Take a season off. Summer may be a good time to lay low. Off-season allows for other activities such as travel, trips to the pool, or playing with friends.
  3. Let the child choose. Just because you were an all-star football player doesn’t mean Johnny wants to be one, too. Wait until kids are old enough to express an interest in an activity. With rare exceptions, your kid isn’t going to get a huge leg up in sports by starting at age 2 or 3. I’ve heard of 2 year olds in teeball. What? They just learned how to walk!
  4. Encourage backyard sports. Go shoot some hoops, play catch, or turn cartwheels with your kid to give them low-key sports exposure. When they have friends over, have some basic sports equipment like a balls, bats, and mitts so they can play with the neighborhood kids.
  5. Stay local. Stick with local, not traveling teams, if you’re trying to limit the cost and time associated with sports.
  6. Ask for recommendations. If you don’t want your 5-year-old in a Dance Moms scenario, wearing obscene amounts of make-up and developing an eating disorder while you defuse cat-fights in the waiting room–get a recommendation!

I admire and respect Olympians immensely, and I can’t imagine how  amazing and supportive their parents must have been. I also can’t say what I’d do if I ever found myself in their situation. But for now, I hope my kids can gain the benefits of extra-curriculars without paying a high price in areas we value such as relationships, volunteering, and unstructured play.

How has your family approached sports? Any advice from seasoned parents is welcome!

Pretend to Be Grown Up–with Epic Spreadsheet Share!

I guess I'm a grownup now!

I guess I’m a grownup now!

Back in college I always joked about how I couldn’t wait to be a “real person.” You know, someone with a degree, a job, and even a family. I’ve “arrived” at my youthful definition of adulthood and found there’s much more to it than I once thought. It’s impossible to capture the essence of maturity in one blog post, but here are some steps that have been part of my journey.

1. Make a financial spreadsheet. I’ve always been a saver and planner, but for years the numbers were just swirling in my head, or floating around on bits of scrap paper. Then my husband Neil, an engineer and Excel-lover, made an epic spreadsheet that’s tracked and motivated our financial goals for years.

The spreadsheet helped us visualize the progress of short-term goals like saving for a down payment or a baby . It’s also how we budget and track our net worth, retirement accounts,credit card rewards, and more.

Not sure where to start? Plug your numbers into our 9-page sample spreadsheet. (The numbers are fake, the formulas are real.)

2. Give money. It’s all too easy to put off charitable giving until we feel more financially secure. Regular giving will never feel easy, as we’re all prone to increasing our expenses along with our income. If you give a little when you have a little, you’ll be more likely to give more when you have more.

3. Volunteer overseas. We each traveled separately on an international mission trip and found it very worthwhile. We are so grateful for the opportunity, as it truly changed our perspective and deepened our sense of purpose. Of course, you don’t have to cross borders to help out. The step outside my comfort zone wasn’t quite as large during domestic service trips, but they were still profound experiences.

4. Pay off debt. Many people our age are still nursing student loans, while adding credit card debt, car loans, and mortgages. While we can’t control the cost of college or the borrowing choices we made as teenagers, we can move forward by taking debt payoff seriously.

Debt is a major source of financial stress, so why add more of it to your life? Get your numbers into our sample budget spreadsheet and explore the possibilities—could you cut from areas like entertainment, travel, or clothing to get out of debt faster? Is there are any way to the lower the top three expenses of housing, transportation, or food?

5. Max out retirement accounts. In your 20s and 30s, retirement feels far away, almost mythical. Perhaps that’s why 40% of millennials don’t have a plan for retirement. Yet it’s so important to temper enjoying the present with planning for the future.

Even before your debt is completely out of the way, it makes great sense to start investing because an early start allows compound interest to work its mathematical magic. We struck a balance of investing 15% of our income while aggressively paying down student debt. After that we increased our rate of investing.

6. Have kids. Raising children is so hard at times, but it’s softened my heart unimaginably. And while most sources say kids cost a pretty penny over the long run, having them also motivated us to get our financial act together more than ever. Read about How Having Kids Has Improved Our Finances.

7. Make time for friends. Often as people marry and have children, friendships fall into the background. As a mom of little ones, I completely understand the draw to hunker down and just try to survive! But there is no time that you need your friends more than as you enter the new roles of spouse and parent. While we don’t go out with friends as much as we did before babies, we continue to see them at church, invite people over for dinner or coffee, and plan fun little outings with other families.

8. Dream big. I can be pragmatic to a fault. Case in point: when a curly-haired cutie asked me out to lunch on the second day of college, I answered dryly, “I already ate.” (We’ve been married ten years now.)

If I just slog through the details of daily life without a bigger purpose in mind, I’m at risk of only doing what others expect of me. And that’s very dangerous for both my finances and my soul. Dreaming big helps you clarify your motivation for any grownup action items. We’re much more likely to follow through on steps that fit into a bigger picture.

We also find ways to incorporate elements of our dreams into life today. That’s why we’re Rocking the Burbstead!

Sometimes I can’t believe the college girl who turned down a lunch date is now a “real person” with a family, an IRA, and a financial spreadsheet. None of those inherently comprise adulthood, but they’ve been part of my journey. What about yours?

What’s on your grownup checklist? What is your next action step toward a bigger goal?

Do Less, Be More

india sunset

As expected, January has been replete with inspiring lists of habits or resolutions to improve one’s life. But about a quarter of the way through a list of 50 Habits for Better Living, I quickly deflate from inspired to defeated. Despite how reasonable and valuable any of these suggestions might be, no one can do them all. And no one should.

It’s easy to walk away from January’s motivational posts thinking you just need some new habits to finally become a successful person. But let’s be honest. This advice isn’t humanly possible. If you added all these tips together, you’d need about 6 hours extra hours a day. One recent post suggested we: cut caffeine, get up 30 minutes early, and sleep at least 7 hours a night, while also spending more time reading, meditating, exercising, decluttering your entire home, adding income streams, relaxing?!, and 40 other ideas, all while limiting our to-do lists to 3 items per day. This article made many great points and unselfish suggestions, but….does anyone see the mathematical difficulty here? It doesn’t add up.

The real problem isn’t even whether it’s possible. Maybe some super-humans out there are rocking all 50 ideas. For the rest of us, we’re probably left overwhelmed and less focused than before.

This year I suggest we all focus less on what we should do, and more on who you want to become. I propose giving more attention to others-improvement than self-improvement.

For example, I’ve been itching to write this post for over a week, I’ve just finally gotten this far, and my son is begging me to play with him, at Duplo-creation gunpoint (see, not having toy guns doesn’t preclude shooting games). Though I don’t negotiate with terrorists, I do need to take my own advice, sacrifice my desire to post more often, and go be more Mom.

Goals Roll Out of Roles

Why do you want to do more? In First Things First, Stephen Covey suggests starting with a vision statement for yourself or your family, then defining your 7 main roles. Mine currently are: wife, mom, friend, home church leader, blogger, daughter, sister. I can tell you right now I’m not being a very good sister.

Out of your roles roll your goals. Covey suggests setting weekly goals pertaining to each role. I’ve never seen “talk to your siblings more often” on a list post, but I need to prioritize it, even though it will in some ways detract from my productivity–I have four sibs!

I also know that waking up earlier and going to bed earlier would have a negative impact on my marriage and some friendships, as well. If I got up at 5 am after hosting till 11 am and being up with my teething toddler once or twice, I am going to be a pathetic mess by dinnertime, and basically useless thereafter. That means I’d be less of the wife and mom I want to be as a result of putting doing before being.

I have set a “blogger” goal to read two books about the history of work. I’m not calling us to forsake all enrichment or activity, but to do more from a place of knowing who you want to become, and why.

“But you gotta make time for yourself.”

Yeah, I know. I “make time for myself” all the time, by studying the Bible, listening to podcasts, writing this blog, sometimes reading, enjoying friendships, and dating my spouse. I’m an introvert who could probably use a little more alone time, but I also chose to have two children and stay at home with them, so I’m going to weather this season of life with less-than-ideal portions of solitude.

I actually spent high school indulging my inner introvert, holed up in my room reading and writing, or practicing music and the solo sport of gymnastics. I even spent every spare moment of school with my nose in a book and rarely spent time with my “friends” outside of lunch period. And I was miserable.

Only since deciding to spend my life serving others have I found true joy and happiness. Trust me, I’m still super selfish in many ways, but to the degree that I’ve allowed my focus to shift to others, I’ve found great contentment. Of course my high school extremes were misguided, but any type of lifestyle devoted above all to one’s own interests, pursuits, and improvement is fundamentally off-track. We are social beings, designed to feel loved when we sacrificially love others. (This of course is distinct from enabling others or abandoning all self-care.) For this reason’ we’ve set out to inflate our usefulness in the world, instead of inflating our lifestyle.

Inside Out

Bottom line: what we do results from who we are, and not the other way around. Behavior change doesn’t last long unless it’s coming from changed thinking and motives. This is why New Year’s resolutions don’t usually stick unless we’re already internally motivated to keep them. New habits can be awesome and the reinforcement of repeated behavior can help you persist, but external change alone won’t make us the better person we all want to be.

In a blogosphere crowded with Type A over-achievers, we probably need to encourage one another to do less and be more. To relax. To slow down. To date your spouse. To play with our kids. To laugh and cry with friends. Listening to podcasts on 2x speed is a nifty idea but when coupled with 49 other to-dos and the frenetic pace of life so common today, it might be winding us all up for a meltdown. I’m the speed-read-on-the-treadmill type. I should know.

So next time you read a motivating self-improvement post about how to do more, first take a moment to consider who you want to be. Then act only upon those suggestions that serve your vision for being more.

Have you experienced the principle that deep change comes from within? What roles do you want to grow in this year?

Thoughts from India

india sunset

I just returned from India this weekend, and while my jet-lagged brain is struggling to form coherent thoughts, I wanted to share some highlights.

I loved the overall experience. The people we met were warm and interesting, the food was amazing, and our itinerary included many powerful experiences. Much of what I learned is more personal than personal finance, but I’ll try to share the most relevant bits here.

I had the privilege of meeting a child we sponsor, and his mother. I didn’t know his mother was coming, or that she was his mother at first. She spoke a little English and was translating for us. Since they send translators from the children’s homes, I thought she was a caretaker there. She was blatantly mothering him throughout the meeting, and at some point I asked if she was his mother. When she said yes, the meeting suddenly became even more emotional. As a mom, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be find yourself unable to provide your child’s basic needs. She kept saying “very thank you” over and over. Rather than feeling like I’m so great for helping out this family, I felt very humbled. I don’t deserve the many blessings and advantages that allow me to help them. And although I don’t know the exact circumstances of their family, it’s safe to assume that forces outside of their control have contributed to their financial situation.

Meeting my sponsored child. Literally a hot mess.

I was able to tell women that they are valuable in God’s sight. This is not a predominant message in many of their homes. We spoke to groups of 100-250 women, mostly from rural villages. We also got to hear a few of the women’s testimonies. Some recounted tragic stories, but the overall theme was one of overcoming through faith.

Since becoming a mother, I’ve been trying to imagine a more global and historical perspective on marriage and motherhood than what I’m immersed in here in suburban America. While we can barely keep up with ever-changing car seat laws, Indians pile a family of five onto a small motor scooter and zoom off into traffic that looks like anarchy to the Western eye. I adhere to my children’s nap time almost religiously, but saw Indian kids sleeping on said scooters, and floors or tables anywhere. The heat must help—I could have passed out on the floor, too! Contemplating the arranged marriage tradition and hearing the stories of traveling pastor’s wives also shed light on how cultural my notion of marriage is.

Women's Conference

Women’s Conference

I didn’t miss much from home, except maybe toilet paper in public restrooms and being able to drink tap water. And there were a couple days that our schedule didn’t allow for a decent dose of after lunch caffeine. Turns out it’s really hard to stay awake while sitting for 10 hours in 95 degree heat! But I’ve returned with little taste for American food, and tried to recreate an Indian dish last night. I also didn’t miss Facebook, texting, or email. I’m sure the short-lived nature of the trip made it easier to get on without these. Of course, I missed my family and friends, though I never got homesick. I was able to call my family three times, including on my son’s birthday.

I also noticed that things didn’t have to be perfect. India is extremely diverse so I don’t want to over-generalize, but in the circles we were with, people didn’t seem to mind if the music wasn’t perfect, if the conference got off schedule, or if their clothes and sandals match or fit perfectly, for example. I’m sure a lot of this arises out of not having the option for perfection. They are used to the electricity going out regularly for brief periods (which is rough when your only cooling comes from ceiling fans). They are used to their kids wearing too small clothes we wouldn’t think of putting our children in, because we don’t have to. It struck me that I spend too much time trying to make my living room look perfect or my teachings for India perfect, when no one but me even cares. Striving to match our lives with the sleek, immaculate images of edited advertisements only wastes time and frustrates us as we fail to comply with impossible standards. I hope to take our principle that Life is Not About Your Preferences to a new level with this insight.

Yum!

We were completely pampered. I don’t think I opened a car door or poured a cup of coffee for myself while there. We experienced a much more service-oriented culture, which was sometimes hard for us self-reliant American to take. However, I also feel pretty triumphant for having flown on 13 planes in 15 days, survived two weeks away from my family, conquered the squatty potty, feasted on spicy foreign cuisine without digestive distress, and taught large groups through a translator in significant heat & humidity. Venturing outside my comfort zone built my faith and confidence, and I believe this experience has increased my flexibility and usefulness in many ways.

Seeing real poverty has only increased my desire to pretend to be poor, (tongue-in-cheek a la Proverbs 13:7) so that I can have more to share with the truly poor. And it’s given me new vantage points on living with contentment, defining necessity, and the depths of human creativity for making do, or doing without.

What have you learned from traveling? How do you strive for perfection in unnecessary ways?

How to Pay Nothing For School Supplies

school supplies

This doesn’t have to cost you anything!

Years ago I unwittingly stopped at Walmart the night before the start of school. It looked like the set of a B-list horror film. Hoards of red-eyed parents slogged through aisles of Hello Kitty notebooks and their cheaper neon graphic counterparts. I questioned whether I should even have children if this scene awaited me, but concluded Walmart was no place to make major life decisions.

This weekend is tax-free back-to-school shopping in our state. Buyers beware: don’t overspend just because you’re getting a 7% discount. If you received a 7% off store coupon would you consider it a great deal?

Thankfully, back-to-school does not have to be a frenzied hundred-dollar endeavor. Since my kids aren’t in school yet, I tracked down tips from a seasoned mother of three, my friend Kathryn from Entitlement Monster. Her children currently span elementary through high school so she’s shopped the gamut of school lists. And she so graciously shared how she pays nothing for school supplies by scoring great deals and then opening a Supply Store where her kids pay for their goods at the price she paid. She also detailed the invaluable financial and life lessons her kids absorbed through this approach. Many thanks, Kathryn, for taking the time to share your awesome ideas with us!

But first, let me share my supply savings strategies, a la my 10-year-old self. Coming from a family of five and having read enough Little House on the Prairie to appreciate the principle “waste not, want not,” I would:

  1. Dig through our communal bucket of crayons in search of the essential colors in decent shape. Repeat this exercise for folders, notebooks, scissors, and paper. Then repeat on behalf of the little sibs.
  2. If this proved fruitless, I’d opt for the 16-count box of crayons instead of 24. Who needs gray and pink? It’s a marketing scam. (Obviously I’m not artistic.)

When these two tips don’t cut it, as I’m sure they mostly won’t, Kathryn’s ideas should do nicely.

1. Build a stash of school supplies. Kathryn keeps them in a chest. After all, anything in a chest is automatically more fun. Get the supply lists and start watching for sales/clearance. But don’t rely solely on back to school sales or limit yourself to what’s on the list. Inevitably the kids will run out of something or you’ll get a letter calling for more supplies mid-year. Take a picture of the list with your smart phone and refer back to it later if needed. Avoid paying full retail prices later in the year by stocking supplies throughout the year as you find good prices through these avenues:

  • Clearance or deep sales. Check large grocery stores, Target, Office Max, discount stores, etc. Scan for these during your normal errands.
  • Garage sales. Great for binders, backpacks, and sometimes brand-new supplies like crayons.
  • Backpack sales. Take the kids to pick one when they’re 75% if you don’t find them at yard sales.
  • In late July/early August, places like Office Max have “penny deals” where if you spend $5, you can get things like pencil packs, erasers, pens, rulers, etc. for just a penny. Don’t go there just for the penny deals, but keep a list of office supplies to replenish (like printer paper), or save errands you need to run in that area for this time of year.
  • Dollar stores are great for some higher-priced items that are hard to find sales on, such as headphones and antibacterial wipes.

2. Open the store. Before school starts, let the kids “shop” your stash with their allowance money earned from chores. In Kathryn’s house, “chores” means much more than cleaning your room. Her kids earn cash by regularly doing jobs like cooking dinner, doing dishes, cleaning the bathroom, or mowing the lawn. But what kind of parent makes kids pay for their own school supplies? Parents that wish to:

  • Teach kids to manage their money and make good buying decisions.
  • Motivate kids to take care of their stuff. If they can reuse last year’s backpack or other items, that’s more money they can spend elsewhere.
  • Show kids they don’t need the nicest, shiniest, or hippest school items. For example, Kathryn’s oldest child rocked the same backpack for 3 years, “and last year it was held together by duct tape. In rags, it finally gave up the ghost in June,” Kathryn recalled.
  • Teach kids that money comes from hard work.
  • Convey that money is not mainly for recreation or saving, but for meeting needs.

Check out this picture of her youngest child’s school list. Normal retail price would have averaged $60 including the backpack. Her total cost was $10.65.

$10.65 for child. $0 for mom.

$10.65 for child.
$0 for mom.

What if you over-stock? Kathryn says they donate surplus supplies that sit unused for too long. Many homeless shelters and after school programs distribute supplies donations to children in need.

If this system sounds daunting, remember that you can stock your supply throughout the year. Just start keeping your eye out for good deals on school supplies during your normal shopping trips and Hyou stash as you go. Kathryn’s children love shopping the store and have learned valuable financial lessons in a fun milieu.

What are you back-to-school savings tips? Do you have a system for teaching your kids about money?

Open the Door to a Lifetime of Vacation Savings

camping

Camping is sometimes called “pretending to be poor,” so it’s no surprise we love to camp. Spending time in nature with family or friends makes for an inexpensive and highly fulfilling vacation. Yet many otherwise frugal people haven’t tapped into the incredible on-going savings of camping. So we hereby issue the Pretend to Be Poor Camping Challenge: give camping a try! Spend at least one day & night camping, in order to open the door to a lifetime of frugal, fun vacations. And if you’re thinking “you couldn’t pay me enough to go camping,” you have to read on about all the proven personal and family benefits that pricier vacations fail to deliver.

A word of encouragement to non-campers: I never camped while growing up. I first ventured into the hobby as an indoorsy college student with no camping skills, came to love the experience, and have camped 3-4 times a year ever since. We even camped for a week with a two-year-old and barely-four-month-old, and had a blast. (Read about this crazy adventure in “Camping with Kids” on my mom blog.) If I can learn to like camping, so can you! And there are so many benefits for you, your relationships, and your children (if you have them).

Inexpensive vacation. Camping is, of course, supremely frugal if done right. For example, we camp in Florida during spring break and spend $107 for the site for the week. We couldn’t get a hotel there for one night at that price! We camp in a tent, have used the same camping gear for over ten years, and only upgraded to a larger tent because of our growing family. With the simple investment in a camp stove (about $50 new), you can shop at a discount grocery store and cook all your meals easily that way. Or cook exclusively on the fire. Read more about our $500 week-long camping vacation here.

Don’t have camping gear? There are many ways to come by it cheaply, and you don’t need a fancy camper, RV, or lots of accessories to have a good trip. Our family camping gear includes a tent, propane stove, air mattress (now that we’re “old”), sleeping bags, cheap camp chairs, and basic cooking implements. If you’re not ready to invest a lot in supplies, ask to borrow gear from a friend or family member. Check garage sales, Craigslist, and thrift stores for used items. You probably already have things like flashlights, bug spray, pots & pans, and old blankets in your home. On long trips we buy wood from Craiglist while there.

A sense of accomplishment. Chillin’ in nature is also rife with intangible benefits like the deep bonding between campers, the soul-rest of time in nature, and the fulfillment of learning skills or mastering challenges. Learning to pitch a tent, build a fire, and keep your children alive while pitching a tent and building a fire, all inflate one’s sense of usefulness. While camping may not be as easy as lounging poolside, it combines leisure and accomplishment in a most delightful way.

Closer families. Nothing has brought us closer as a family than the zany challenge of camping with two little kids. I know we wouldn’t feel the same sense of satisfaction returning from a resort vacation or Disney World. More than anecdotal evidence supports my closer-family camping hypothesis. Camping has been identified as a the number one predictor of family cohesiveness. It correlates with families who like each other, still spend time together even when the children are adults, and have close relationships.[1] Camping has also been linked to better grades for school children.[2] Ready to book a camp site yet?

It’s no surprise that camping is good for kids since every family member has to contribute. (Okay, maybe not the four-month-old.) Kids learn skills like how to build a fire, roast a hot dog, hike, fish, swim, and identify plants and animals. They’re also forced to play without high-tech toys or entertainment and develop adaptability. Many campgrounds offer free activities for kids, like scavenger hunts, nature walks, concerts, or dances.

If you’ve ever stayed in a hotel with young children, you might imagine the advantages of camping. The kids can run around outside during the day instead of being contained to a hotel in between sight-seeing. The germ content of dirt concerns me far less than whatever lurks in hotel carpet and bedspreads. I was worried about our kids being able to sleep in a tent, but all the exercise and fresh air wears them out & they sleep great, as many camp moms will testify. I can’t emphasize how happy our kids are while camping, even as infants. Our son loves talking about past trips and cries when daddy goes backpacking without him!

Let go of your standards. Camping forces us to let go of our often arbitrary rules for “civilized” life. I relish leaving behind the Internet and make-up bag for a weekend or even a week. I may have peed places other than the toilet, showered once all week, cursed in front of my toddler (about needing a shower), let the kids go barefoot all day, and helped my kid poop over a tree root. And Neil may have rinsed a poopy toddler sans swim diaper in the ocean. It’s all part of the fun if you can laugh about it.

Choose your challenge. The continuum of camping options allows campers to “choose their own adventure.” From wilderness backpacking to “glamping,” pick your desired mixture of leisure vs. challenge. Pitch a tent in your backyard if you need to ease in. Our city maintains a campground less than two miles from our home, which is perfect for short trips that don’t require much planning. Check out whether your local parks have camp sites available. Or camp to save on lodging near your next sight-seeing destination. Whatever you decide, just be sure to look up at the stars, enjoy good conversation around the fire, and don’t forget the s’mores.

What do you like about camping? Or what are your hang-ups?

 

[1] https://www.forestry.umn.edu/sites/forestry.umn.edu/files/MNForestryResearchNotes_201.pdf

[2] http://www.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk/newsandevents/nccw/get-kids-camping-research-results/