Why Tips About Getting a Partner On Board Financially Will Help You If You’re Single

I’ve been plugging away at the Frugalwoods’ Uber Frugal Month Challenge, and one of the daily prompts is about discussing financial goals with a partner.  I am not currently in a relationship, but the writings on this theme have actually helped me in a very concrete way as I head down my road to financial freedom.

I’ve only begun to dive into the world of personal finance blogs, but there is a ton of supportive, encouraging advice to be found.  In just my recent readings, I’ve come across a number of posts about discussing finances with a partner:

 

Why exactly will these tips help me, a single mom of a young adult, get out of debt and onward to financial independence?

Because I’m up against 30+ years of a different mindset toward finances:  Myself.

It wasn’t until I started looking at my financial habits from a different perspective that I was able to truly identify ways I could move forward. It’s not that I didn’t want to change before now – but it was too easy to slip back into old patterns a time or two. Thinking about my financial goals as if I’m talking to a different person (and am a different person) has been crucial to the ease with which I’ve changed my former attitude towards “a coffee” here or “a new notebook” there.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome when talking with a partner about money is to just start talking about it.

For myself, thinking about my finances in vague terms and having a very general idea of what I owed wasn’t getting me anywhere. I had to sit down and examine every penny of my debt to see the true picture. This meant a good day of looking up online statements, writing everything down, and being a bit horrified as the numbers kept adding up. But as they say, knowledge is half the battle, and instead of a vague “pay off debt and be freeeee” idea floating about, I now had a very concrete number to begin to tackle.

I’m aiming for more of this, less of the timeclock punching city life.

It’s not enough, however, to just lay out numbers and hope for the best. It’s also not enough to lay out numbers and make a plan for killing the debt.  Figuring out why you want to be debt free or financially independent is key to being successful. Having a visible goal gives me motivation to slog through the boring times, after the thrill of finding a new project to tackle has worn away to a mundane routine. This has been the hardest piece for me in the past; I couldn’t see past the motherhood/scrimping/paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle I’d been in for some fifteen years. The reality of my son moving on with his own life gave me the push to really evaluate what I want out of my own life, and I realized it’s not punching a time clock 50+ hours a week for the next 25 years!

 

Among successful marriages and partnerships, checking in with each other regularly is a common practice. I actually think this is even more important when you are solo. There isn’t anyone else to pick up the slack or give you a gentle reminder that you’ve gotten off track a bit, and before you know it, you’re back in a hole. Last year I was pretty smug about my financial outlook — I’d managed to pay off all my credit card debt and had recently financed a vehicle (for the first time ever) which I was not happy about but it was a great rate through my credit union and was easily within my budget.I’d also refinanced my mortgage to a 15-year rate, dropping PMI and at 1.75% less than my previous mortgage but with a slightly higher monthly payment – also within my budget.

Over the course of the year, however, I was still spending as if I had the same wiggle room in my budget as the previous year. I started dating someone and didn’t pay attention to my food and gas expenditures climbing rapidly – we were both pretty frugally minded and enjoyed hiking and cooking from home, so I didn’t think twice about the impact it had on my finances.

The life-changing vacation that led me to really evaluate my finances.

Then my family had multiple medical procedures including one urgent surgery, and instead of really buckling down and looking at the true numbers, I let the credit card balance float while we were on vacation. In my head I thought it was maybe $1000 and I’d get that paid off no problem over the summer – my property tax refund would cover the amount if I didn’t. I was still sticking to my “regular” budget, but just the act of ignoring that one debt meant that by the time I actually sat down to figure out my plan for the year that debt had climbed to a LOT more than $1000. A lot. It was used only on vacation, and on nothing extravagant – gas, cheap diners, road tolls mostly – but holy crap, mindless spending adds up fast.

If I’d had a plan and checked in with myself regularly, instead of just assuming things were chugging along happily, I would have seen that pattern emerging much sooner and could have stopped myself in my tracks. I’m not dating at the moment and even though that external motive to spend money is now gone, I constantly have to make sure my internal motives are in line with my new ultra-frugal plan.

The reason I’ve stuck to my new plan for over two months now, through the holidays!, is that I check in with myself weekly. Once a month wasn’t often enough to truly evaluate my progress. This will likely change as my frugal ways become more of a habit, but right now it’s both necessary and fun.

For couples who are on very different ends of the finance spectrum, acknowledging those differences and making allowances for them is often successful. For me, this means that even though I’ve become Uber Frugal and have found it increasingly easy to say no to impulse purchases, I allow myself the room to Say Yes. Being single, my relationships with friends and family are my primary relationships (although I’m sure my pets disagree!), so making allowances in my budget for activities and time with people I love is an important piece of maintaining those relationships.

….his Say Yes To A Walk Plz face

 

Ok, so this advice so far isn’t so different from advice given to individuals.  What’s the big change in my thinking, then, that comes from reading advice targeted at couples?

I evaluate my decisions as if I am speaking with other people: my Past Self and my Future Self. 

This might sound a bit nuts, but it has been the biggest factor in my ability to shift my thinking to a goal-oriented mindset rather than constantly trying to make up for the past.

It’s made such a big difference to my emotional progress around handling money that I even label my debt in my budget as payments to my Past Self. I’ve made a commitment not to just do differently with my money this time, but to be different. I’m no longer a person that feels guilty she financed a car, because my Future Self will be able to pay cash from now on. I’m no longer a person that buys a fancy latte on payday as a treat, because my Future Self would rather work less and play more. I’m no longer a person that feels the need to live for the weekend, because my thinking is already shifting to my Future Self’s life unencumbered by a traditional workweek.

Thinking of my past choices as if they were made by a different person has also been helped by marriage advice:

Appreciate each other’s differences, even as you each change and grow in different ways, and be Gentle in understanding each other’s mistakes. 

I am not the same person that I was 20 years ago — none of us are! Being able to grow and learn and change with a partner is one of the greatest gifts we have as humans. It was while reading a Frugalwoods post on their marriage that the concept of my Past Self really clicked. I can’t change the choices I made, but all those choices have led me to this spot right here, where I have some pretty amazing people, critters, and even “stuff” in my life. Historically, feeling bad about my decisions was a big percentage of my thoughts on my finances. But if I were hearing the same story from a friend (let’s call her Past Self), would I be so harsh and judgmental? Of course not! Past Self did the best she could, and sometimes didn’t, but that’s OK because she learned to identify patterns and thought processes that weren’t healthy.

 

He doesn’t dwell on the past. Just soaks up the sunshine today.

Forgiving oneself is often much harder than forgiving others. But to me, forgiveness is really just about truly understanding someone else. If we can have true empathy for someone’s actions that hurt us, and really know the why of their actions, well, forgiveness tends to follow on its own. We can acknowledge we were hurt and then move on, building a new relationship.

Looking at my Past Self objectively let me better understand the impulses behind my cyclical debt, and focusing on my Future Self and what her life looks like have both helped me better understand who I am right now. I can move forward, knowing that I made mistakes, sometimes more than once, but my relationship with myself and my money is different now.  

 

How about you? Have you read something intended for a different audience that led to a fundamental shift in your thinking?

Traveling on a Scratch Budget

I recently took a two-day road trip out of state to take my son back to school after winter break.  The last time we made this trip I easily spent over $600, on meals, my hotel stay, multiple takeaway coffees, and a few purchases at stores.  Every time I purchased gasoline on the way to and from I bought snacks and caffeine (licorice and trail mix have long been my road trip fuel) (OK and Pringles too).

This time, including all food, gas, hotel, and taking my son and his friend to dinner for $53, I spent $228.12.

Things I did differently this time:

I Brought My Own Food

I shopped my kitchen, and my food list for two full days and one night included dried nuts and fruit, canned tuna (brought a can opener), tea, bananas, and eggs.

Where the food-making magic happens!

Eggs?  Yep!  I’ve had an Instant Pot for a couple of years and it makes a great traveling companion.  I used it to hard boil eggs in the morning and have also used it for steel cut oats in the past.  On trips where I’ve stayed more than one night I’ve used it as a slow cooker and have had hot soup or chili after a day of winter hiking.  I have a large soft sided cooler that I normally use as a lunch bag, which can easily hold enough food for three or four days’ worth of perishables for hotel room cooking.

I brought my container of nuts and fruit with me throughout the day so I’d have a snack handy instead of mindlessly buying a granola bar or sandwich.

I Brought My Own Caffeine

I made coffee at home before we left – this seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve long used the excuse of a road trip to justify picking up a latte at my neighborhood coffee shop…. and any local shop I spot along the way…. and sometimes St*rbucks.  I had free hotel room coffee in the morning, then filled up my travel thermos with more free hotel room coffee before I checked out.  Using my thermos meant that even though I didn’t leave town until later that evening, my coffee was still hot for the drive home.

I Price-Shopped My Hotel With Google Maps As A Guide

I think many of us do this already, but in the past I’d just go with the cheapest offering on Priceline or Hotwire.  This netted me some fantastically low rates, but often meant staying in a suburb, necessitating driving in and out of the city for the event I was attending.

This time around I still used Priceline, but kept a map of downtown open in another tab – I could see exactly how many blocks each location was to the university campus where I’d be spending most of my time, and could see the parking options.  Choosing a hotel within walking distance of campus meant I could leave my car overnight for free and not pay for parking or driving, which saved more than the $15 difference in rates between downtown and the suburbs.

I Altered My Hotel “Spa Night” Routine and Savored the Morning

I don’t stay in hotels very often – I prefer camping – and in the past I’ve resented the cost when I’m coming in just to go to bed and then check out in the morning.  This year I’ve focused a lot on the abundance and, well, plain fun in my life.  I’ve made a ritual out of getting in to my room, running a bath, opening a newly purchased book, and sipping wine while surrounded by bubbles.

Ahhhh….

Since I’ve given up purchasing alcohol as part of the Uber Frugal Month Challenge, I brought tea from home instead.  I also brought a paperback my mom sent me for Christmas.  The ritual was just as luxurious and relaxing and felt so good after walking in the winter air.

My room was on a high floor, with a mix of building heights scattered around it, so I kept the shades open on the windows, waking to my alarm before dawn.  I started the coffee maker and pulled the armchair over to the window, marveling at the shadows of the buildings with older architecture and the sleek reflections of the moon on the newer glass-fronted buildings.  I sipped coffee and watched the sunrise, the shapes around me turning from black to blue to golden as the sun came over the horizon.

Cuppa coffee and this view…not too shabby….

My room was not booked “with a view” (this downtown has quite a spectacular one depending on location), but what I could see was still amazing.  Instead of dragging myself grudgingly out of bed after too little sleep and heading out to find a latte, I spent an hour watching the city slowly come to life, the empty streets starting to sporadically fill with cars, the changes in light, and appreciating the sheer wonder of the sun rising at all.  What a great way to start my day.

I Spent the Day Writing and Reading Without Spending a Dime

My son wanted to spend time together in between his classes, so I planned to bring my book and laptop to stay busy.  Historically I love spending time in a new coffee shop, scribbling notes, typing, and absorbing the scents and sounds of espresso machines and people studying and working and visiting around me.

I’d even planned to do so on this trip – there is a local small chain that roasts their coffee beans daily and has great ambiance.  Instead, I stayed in the campus center and made myself at home at one of many study areas.  I had my tea for the hot beverage crutch, but my son actually treated me to a coffee as the campus center served the local chain’s brand.  It was so, so, so good 🙂

Delicious brew and free wifi

The big temptation of being in the campus center is that I love bookstores and office supply stores.  I’d left my trusty journal at home, and I spent an entire day sitting within view of a bookstore full of notebooks and pens that were desperate to get my attention, looking all crisp and colorful in their window displays.  Between the support of the Uber Frugal Challenge Month community and my commitment to spending nothing on unnecessary items, I discovered the notepad function on my laptop and had fun exploring a different way to get my scattered thoughts into writing.  Posting in the community not only gave me suggestions, but just the act of saying out loud that I wanted to Buy Something Trivial showed the impulse for what it was.

Being tempted to purchase something gave me the chance to practice saying no to myself, and also resulted in a better appreciation of my usual routine of writing on paper.

I Said Yes To Dinner At a Restaurant

I treated my son and his best friend to dinner before I left for home.  I ate a good-size snack beforehand, so I kept my order to a salad.  All of us stuck to water, and we had a great time talking and telling stories about Christmas and college roommates and crazy things our dog has done.

I Avoided The Snack Traps

Brrr. If I could’ve filled my tank without leaving my car, I would have.

I filled up my gas tank before I left my hometown, and then immediately upon arriving in my son’s college town (it was nearing empty).  This ensured I wasn’t stopping midway to be tempted by candy.  On the way home I stopped once to fill up and use the restroom, but ignored the food offerings and had no problem going back to my thermos and fruit/nut mix.  It probably helped that the air temperature reading in my car was -10F the whole way home; I didn’t want to get out of the toasty cabin any more than I had to 😉

Overall, it was a combination of knowing that I had $0 budgeted to spend on fluff, and planning ahead for my food and beverages, that kept me on track. 

 

Have you traveled with a frugal outlook?  I’m sure there are lots of great tips I haven’t yet thought of!

December Reflections and a Gentle Reminder

Family portrait fail…. cat got bored, dog got curious, people were too busy laughing at the futility of getting dog and cat to sit nicely in proximity to each other 🙂

December was a month of spendy spending.

The majority of outflow was already budgeted for but a chunk of overtime on one paycheck led to a couple of impulse purchases that could’ve easily waited.  I’d increased my holiday food budget after going over plan at Thanksgiving, and went even further over plan in December.  Part of this was due to a last minute (as in Friday 12/23) request to have some of my son’s friends over for Christmas day and dinner that resulted in grocery/small gift shopping at 4pm Christmas Eve.  I wouldn’t trade that choice for anything, however, as I’m an introvert that rarely hosts and it was an absolute ball!  One of the biggest reasons I want to reach financial independence is to be able to choose time with my loved ones over my budget every time.  It was so much fun to cook for more than just me/kiddo, and my already-planned simple menu was vocally appreciated (just another reason I love spending time with this group of people!).

Alright, on to the numbers!  First up, bills:

My lower water usage in the winter is reflected in my bill.  Because I’d planned for December to be a larger-than-usual spending month in other areas, I was still able to pay more toward my debt than the minimums.  A pleasant surprise!

 

Now ‘fessing up to the grand ol’ internet what I chose to spend my hard-earned money on over the month:

I’ve included my 2016 monthly averages as a check for myself — 2016 was out of control for spending without paying attention in some months and July alone led to me researching frugal living ideas.  On one hand my misstep is a good thing because it led me to a whole online world of personal finance where before I’d been happily settled in the minimalist/simple living gardens of the internet.  On the other hand, my spending rate was by no means sustainable!

  • Groceries —  $284 was spent on December 23rd and 24th alone!  Eek!  Aldi was out of quite a few things on my list including a meat cut that ended up being quite pricy at the third store I went to after discovering many close by 4pm (hello katscratch!).  Aside from the main dishes, that were gobbled up within the day, snack foods have kept us going for the past week and provided New Years Eve snacks, so my ineptitude in planning for teen appetites on the small bites side worked to my advantage after all 🙂  Without surprise-hosting for both holidays I would’ve spent approximately $180 less by my list but it was so fun having people over that would’ve been on their own – I’m pretty sure we collectively saved money by eating together and definitely created more Christmas cheer and New Year’s optimism!
  • Pets — One bag of cat food.  Dog is still going strong on his giant Costco bag.  Last year’s average was affected by end-of-life expenses for one of our kitties.

    My trusty winter steed!
  • Bikes — Um, yeah, I spent quite a bit on winterizing my son’s mountain bike for my commute usage.  Studded tires, bar pogies made by my bike mechanic, full coverage fenders that had to be custom-fit, ski goggles with a clear lens, and platform pedals (my son is a clipless pedal rider; I am decidedly not after months of trying).  All of which I waited to purchase until I knew I’d get proper usage, and all of which were researched and will last years and years.  It’s actually been fun riding in icy and snowy conditions and the tires made all the difference on our group ride this month – a nice night with no wind but freezing rain that caused more than a few spills among the group (but not me!).
  • Auto maintenance — One pair of Bridgestone Blizzak snow tires for the front.  I was going back and forth about these but after being called in to work on a weekend and not getting there for over an hour due to slipping on side roads, I took the plunge.  These also will last years and years…. I held out last year but ended up renting a car with 4WD to drive to my kiddo’s college in January so the expense will be worthwhile.  My auto shop is amazingly honest and fair-priced, always giving different options including used parts, so I went with their recommended tire for my vehicle.
  • Gasoline — Three fill-ups.
  • My spending — Replacement of two items: a coffee grinder (I’ve been without for months but pre-ground coffee is starting to bother my stomach) and ski goggles.  The initial goggle purchase fell under my commuting budget but I LOST them loading my bike onto a bus rack and found a pair half off after Christmas.  I’m going to try riding with the stock (not clear) lenses.  I feel pretty dumb not even noticing mine went missing, but they made a world of difference in cold and wind where my glasses were fogging up like crazy.
  • Family/Friend Funtimes / Say Yes! — $29 for dinner out with the kiddo, $53 for a fatbike rental for kiddo on our group ride (these rides are SO MUCH FUN), and $76 for board games and puzzles at our favorite store.  The latter is already providing many returns 😉
  • Everything Else — gifts, including last minute items for holiday guests, cards, and pre-purchasing a particular gift for a friend’s birthday next summer.
  • Kiddo’s Expenses — includes all his food, transportation, and school expenses plus entertainment spending.  This month included a new pair of shoes.

 

I spent a lot of money this month.

You spent WHAT?!?! And no dog treats?!

If I wasn’t a diehard YNAB user that looked at last year, looked at my current hobbies and needs (namely cycling), and put money aside for the past four months, I would not have been able to make my spending work this month.  I wouldn’t have been able to easily absorb the impulse spending on guests and games, and I probably wouldn’t be starting the new year without adding to my debt.

It’s OK to be gentle with myself that I spent a lot of money, because my spending made my life better.

My hobby spending led directly to great conversations with new friends on our group bicycle ride as well as bonding with my kiddo both during the ride and  cycling in the snow on our way home.  Other than the disappointing spend on replacement goggles for cycling, every line item I reviewed was in line with my priorities to first and foremost Say Yes to time with those I love.  The goggles were in line with my priorities to not freeze my eyeballs or fog my lenses to the point I can’t see at stoplights, so I suppose that’s still a win 🙂

It’s OK to be gentle with myself for my missteps last month, because I learned a lot and loved even more.

A few months ago I would have looked at my spending and felt incredibly guilty, then probably even more anxious over how in the world I’d gotten so close to digging myself back into a hole.  But looking back at this month?  I feel grateful that I only had to experience the sensation of snowflakes in my eyeballs one night so far.  I feel exhilarated at the idea of continuing my monthly group bicycle rides, and inspired by the long-time cyclists that have taken my very-novice self in as one of their own.  I feel absolutely smitten with cycling in the dark and snowy icy roads when nobody is out, even though I’m only riding to the train station.  The early hours are magical and I get to experience them by feel and sound and smell, warm in my winter clothing and gear, where last year I was miserably still in my cold car, half asleep and resenting the hour.  I spent two holidays at home with people I care about, laughing and eating and telling stories, and not a hangover among us.  We ate some darn tasty food and played some delightfully fun games.  I am loving my life and am finally at a point that going over budget won’t destroy the rest of my finances.

It’s more than OK to love my life right now even though I work more than I want and spent more than I want.  I’m living a relatively easy life in a fabulous city with fabulous friends, recently turned strangers into regular cycling buddies, and have a loving family.

Looking back at my numbers over the course of the year, I made some huge blunders but learned a LOT and now have a concrete plan for the future.  What a great end to my year!

The best part is that my calendar tells me I get to try again next month!  It’ll be even better this time around because I’m getting crazy frugal with over 8000 other Frugalwoods’ followers, so the future is looking pretty great.

How was your December? Your year? Are you making drastic changes or fine-tuning financial choices for 2017?

Frugalwoods’ Uber Frugal Month Challenge

Part 1 of my Challenge homework helped me work through the mental and emotional aspects of my financial goals.

Today I get into the nitty gritty!

Step 2 per the Frugalwoods’ challenge guideline post:  Review Spending.  I review my spending a few times a week through YouNeedaBudget — I love the clean look of the software and have figured out over the years how best to use it for my particular habits and needs.  I am not yet at a point that I can forgo a budget so YNAB has been invaluable.  I’ll post December’s spending (it was a lot, eek) after I close out the year in not-so-frugal style.

Step 3: Categorize Expenses 

Monthly fixed expenses

My health insurance is payroll deducted along with my retirement contributions.

My water usage is higher in the summer while my gas/electric are higher in the winter.  Internet is by far the cheapest and most reliable (I’m very lucky to live in a neighborhood with fiber optic).  Cell phones include pay-for-usage data which we rarely need.  Debt payments include student loans, an auto loan, and a boatload of medical bills.

Monthly average spent through 2016

Bicycles were newly acquired in 2016 so the spending from here on out should be less.  Groceries include household items such as toiletries and kitchen doodads as well as all food.  My spending includes all the cafeteria breakfasts and drive through coffees I mindlessly indulged in for the first ten months of the year!  Vacation was a life-changing trip that my now-adult kiddo and I will both always cherish so I’m ok with those choices even though I still have considerable debt.  Kiddo categories include all of his spending:  on his car, school expenses, food, clothing, entertainment and so on.

Step 4 — What can I eliminate entirely?

  1. salon visits — my eyebrows will take over the world!
  2. alcohol for home consumption (currently $20-30/month)
  3. bath/grooming products other than bar soap, toothpaste/floss
  4. DRIVING when I’m not on call
  5. Things I eliminated in November 2016: buying meals at work, buying coffee out just to buy coffee, going to shows (music), Netflix (it ended two days before the Gilmore Girls reboot and I didn’t restart my account!), driving without combining errands, any clothing that wasn’t directly related to winter biking necessities, haircuts for the kiddo, and mindlessly shopping at spendy food stores without making a meal plan for the week.

Step 5 — Substitutions

  1. salon: I’ve been waxing my eyebrows, not prettily, but good enough for all the men I know and most of the women 😉  NO HAIRCUTS will be easier than it sounds because my head is covered at work and this time of year is covered everywhere else outside my house as well.
  2. alcohol: Tea instead of wine.  I loooooove my wine, in the winter especially, but it will be good to take a longer break than the weekdays I usually take ‘off’.  I’ve noticed this last year that wine consumption affected my bicycling if I was doing a long ride the next day, so I’ll have to evaluate this line item for a number of reasons at the end of the challenge.
  3. grooming products: I have a shampoo bar that should last me the whole year (I use it every couple of weeks; otherwise I just use water).  Once my current lotion runs out I’m going back to straight coconut oil because it works much, much better.  I mostly use lavender oil instead of deodorant so my deodorant will last all year (it definitely took several months for my body to acclimate to this! but was a huge benefit while bikepacking for ten days last July).
  4. no driving: This will be a major mental challenge for me!! I do drive on days I’m on call because my response time would be too long if I was called back on my way home.  I’ve been bicycling to the transit station but during our week of subzero temps I happened to be on call every day so I haven’t actually ridden below 0F yet.  In the spirit of No Driving, I will forego my shop-on-the-way-home rule and will only drive straight to work and straight home, and otherwise bicycling for commuting and errands.
  5. My previous cuts will continue.  I’m getting better at meal planning and am looking forward to a month without food-centric holidays to see if my spending estimation is on track.

Step 6 — Reduce Spending

I have been pretty good about making my lunches for the week ahead, and I eat the same thing for breakfast every day, but I could automate more of my meals.  I have health issues that require skipping many of the economical meals I lived on in past years, but I am confident I can keep my grocery bill lower than before.

I turned my thermostat down to 60 in November and came home to the dog and cat snuggled up on the couch several days in a row (they are not usually that friendly).  I’ve since settled at 68.  My house is smallish and well situated to take advantage of passive solar warming when I’m home.  I moved my bedroom from the coldest room in the house to upstairs where it’s toasty, saving me from using the oil-filled heater as often as I have in years past.

Step 7 — Insource

For my Christmas gift, my kiddo is going to teach me how to change my own oil.  I adore my car shop, but routine maintenance is, well, routine.  I’ve learned how to clean and lubricate my bike, which is even more important in salty road season.

Step 8 — Examine Your Habits

I plan to look up my utility usage and see if things like lowering the thermostat a little more will make a measurable difference.  Most of my spending impulse habits have been mitigated by making cuts in November, and things just not being an option (like buying coffee out just to get coffee) is definitely working.  I do need to start bringing more snacks to work so I’m not as hungry and cold by the time I’ve biked home.

Step 9 — Plan Ahead

Meal planning is by far the biggest impact on my week.  I do need to be a little better about having snacks on hand both at work and during my commute.  I’m starting to get the hang of eating before heading out for social events.  YNAB has helped me plan ahead for occasional expenses.

Step 10 — Buy Used or Cheap

I don’t foresee needing to buy anything in January but I’m no stranger to thrifting.  I’ve started keeping my receipts and snapping photos of prices at stores so I have a better idea of what’s really worth getting at Costco (McCann’s Irish steel cut oats at the moment!).

Step 11 — Banish Excuses

Done!

Bonus step — Say Yes

As outlined in my previous post, I’m making a conscious, intentional effort to say Yes to the good things in my life this year, especially when those choices involve people I care about.  This means I likely will spend money a few times this month — post-bike-ride libations, snowshoeing, and probably the first theater movie I’ve seen in a few years.  My newly formed frugal muscles will keep these things to one beer and fries (rather than a few and a meal), snowshoe rental but bringing my own coffee and snacks (rather than eating out before and after), and Star Wars at a theater that lets us bring in coffee cups (I don’t need snacks but I do need a warm beverage lest I fall asleep.  Even during Star Wars).

This also means that tonight I’m saying yes to reflecting on my year and making plans instead of spending money at a show; I said yes to going to the mall with my kiddo today but ate beforehand (AND avoided getting coffee even though my brain was quite insistent); I said yes to buying board games that are at this very moment being enjoyed across the table from me; and I said yes to staying overnight in a hotel when I take my kiddo back to school so that we can spend time together the following day.

I’m looking forward to the coming year, and I’m excited it’s starting off on a frugal foot!

Happy New Year!

 

Saying Yes and a Challenge for the New Year

I’ve never been one to make a list of resolutions at the end of each year, but I do like to embrace the the time from the solstice through the calendar new year as a fresh start and a time to reflect.  My new commitment to writing here to keep myself accountable, however, has led to being quite enthused about setting finance goals for 2017.  After tracking my spending for a year, and really looking closely the past few months, I feel like I finally have a handle on the good and the bad of my money habits.

The Frugalwoods’ Uber Frugal Month challenge came at the perfect time for me — and did all the prep work that I’d been musing over for several weeks, by outlining specific steps to identify goals and set plans.  My first step is to figure out why I’m doing all of this in the first place (aside from paying off debt!).

 

My biggest reason to aim for financial independence and at least partial retirement in the next 10-15 years is to have more time for all the things I love to do.  Right now I spend approximately 46-52 hours per week related to my job when I’m not on call, and in the winter I find it difficult to do more than laze about reading and drinking tea on my days off from work.   I am passionate about the work I do, but if I were part time I’d be more likely to be equally passionate about house projects, gardening and canning, bicycling, and scheduling time with my family and friends more than twice a year when our calendars miraculously align.

I would like to be financially independent so that I can visit loved ones without agonizing over my budget.  Most of my family lives across the country from me, as do many of my friends.  While I don’t anticipate ever being a person who jumps on a last-minute flight to attend a birthday party in another state without having planned ahead, I would like the flexibility to make planned visits happen more frequently.  My parents’ age is also a motivation for me to attain financial independence, as I would want to be there if anything were to happen that required assistance from myself or my brother.  Right now this would mean taking a formal leave from my job, which would be unpaid after I used up the paid time off hours I bank each year.

Now that I’ve identified for myself the longterm goals to inform my choices, it’s time to break down specifics for the challenge.  From the Frugalwoods’ goal setting prompts:

Why am I participating in this challenge?

I’m hoping to better define my frugality muscles.  I’m hoping that my cutbacks in the past couple of months lead to new ideas and habits of frugality that I haven’t yet discovered.  The challenge itself is aligned with goals I wanted to focus on anyway, but the camaraderie will be a huge boost.  The motivation of following along with Mrs. Frugalwoods’ emails and with other participants will be great fun!

 

What do I hope to achieve?

Finding new savings in my monthly budget will help me pay off a larger chunk of debt, and may lead to ongoing savings.  I’m anticipating the challenge will provide continued enthusiasm for my financial and personal goals.  Admittedly I’m still in the honeymoon phase of frugality, but starting the year with a fresh mindset and a concrete outline will certainly help.

While my longterm life goals were touched on above,

What are my ten year goals?

I am a person who has always resented having to articulate a 5- or 10-year plan.  It’s not at all a surprise, then, that I’ve floundered about for 15 years with minimal growth in my retirement savings.  Based on my current spending needs, in ten years I would like to be fully financially independent but will at least be close (15 years is my outside goal based on several calculators).  I think being flexible and able to adapt to sudden life changes is essential to emotional peace, but unless something radical happens, this is a very concrete and attainable goal.

In ten years I would like to have the choice to retire, depending on healthcare options for my ongoing medication needs (primarily allergy and asthma related).

In ten years I would like be able to perform most of my home’s routine maintenance and repair projects myself.

What about my current lifestyle might prevent reaching these goals and what can I do about it?

Not saving enough!  I am committed to sticking to an aggressive savings plan and feel that flexing my frugality will become easier as new habits are formed.

I also don’t wish to let my newfound frugality focus negatively impact my relationships.  So far my close friends are very supportive, but this has the potential to backfire if I allow money to become an excuse for not participating in events.

I’m going to focus on saying Yes more, to social opportunities with my friends and family.  This sounds counterintuitive to spending less, but I’ve never been a social butterfly and it’s too easy for me to turn down a loud cafe when I have delicious coffee at home.  The tipping point for me was being invited by my son and his friends to the mall before Thanksgiving…. I declined, then realized I’d just passed up an increasingly rare chance to spend time with young adults I truly love having in my life.  I made a commitment to myself to say Yes in those circumstances, even when it means I’ll end up spending more money than I would on my own.

Say Yes….

Aside from being a really great Elliott Smith song, Say Yes will be my undercurrent for the coming year.  I find it so much easier to embrace changes in my own habits when I can frame them in terms of what I gain rather than what I lose.  For example, starting in October I committed to creating an early-rising morning ritual, getting up at 4:30am and leaving to bike to work around 5:30am.  I’ve tried this many times in the past, but the only time I was able to make rising before I had to a habit was when I worked out at the gym before work with my carpool partner.  This time, instead of dragging myself out of my warm bed and resenting how dark my windows were and how tired I was, I started thinking about looking forward to making a cup of coffee, that I would get to enjoy while sitting with the cat rather than sipped at stoplights.  I take the time to absolutely savor that cup, noticing the warmth in my hands, the steam rising, and my favorite morning smell of roasted coffee beans.

I’ve started rephrasing the stories I tell myself.  Instead of thinking “Ugh I wish I didn’t have to work so early tomorrow,” I have actually written down, “I am looking forward to my morning coffee and the quiet of predawn, and I will awake refreshed and rested!”  I’m telling myself Yes, and after 20-odd years of struggling to get up in time, I’ve embraced and now love the quiet meditation on my day that starts me off in a peaceful, pleasant mindframe.

Several years ago when I had to do a restriction-based food trial, I found that looking at the foods I could eat was vastly more useful than thinking about the things I couldn’t.  Because of seeing those six weeks as a learning opportunity rather than one of deprivation, I greatly improved my cooking skills as well as my health.  Now I find myself saying Yes to choosing to feel healthy and whole rather than saying ok to the frequent cookies and candy in the break room, and it has gotten easier every time.

Other ways I am saying Yes include enjoyment in sitting down with my notebook and my favorite cooking websites to outline my meals for the workweek; saying HeckYeah to invitations to go bicycling even when it’s icy and cold outside; taking transit through the middle of my bike commute to keep my lungs happy in the winter air; and saying Yes, I have enough and I am grateful for the things I have.

I’m looking forward to starting the Uber Frugal Month challenge!  Later this week I’ll outline the specific tactics I have planned.

Are you joining?  Is January a time for you to “reset” or do you update goals throughout the year?

Why Does Santa Only Bring Presents to Rich Kids?

This was a question my preschooler asked from the backseat after we’d volunteered decorating Christmas baskets to hold donations.

He wasn’t asking for himself, even though he would get one present from his parents and another few from his grandparents.  As a non-churchgoing family we chose to limit presents from the beginning and focus on the spiritual parts of the winter season that, to me, are magical and grounding even though we don’t belong to a church.

When he was very young, it was obvious my kiddo was quite literal in his interpretation of how the world worked (he is now an engineering student so our instincts were right!).  If we visited the mall he turned away from people dressed as cartoon characters; they weren’t real and he didn’t like their giant heads.

I can’t remember exactly how we landed on the idea of not introducing Santa as a gift-giver, but it definitely made sense to us.  I grew up with Santa, and have delightful memories of ripping off paper to see what he brought.  As new parents, however, we didn’t want the holiday to be about Stuff.  We included Santa in our Christmas stories, but he was just that, a story of one way that Christmas is celebrated in our wonderful diverse world.

We chose to live in the middle of a city that is both racially and economically diverse, and took advantage of our location to explore different cultures whenever possible.  We didn’t have a lot of money but helping those in our community has always been important to our family, so we volunteered for organizations that allowed young children to participate.

One of the earliest volunteering opportunities we had was decorating holiday baskets to hold donated items that would be delivered to clients.  After a couple of years we started adopting a basket, which was especially fun as we could “match” with someone who had a cat and a child, just like us.  We shopped from a list of hoped for items, most of which were necessities but the organization always requested people list items just for fun as well.

The first year we adopted a basket, my son was delighted to get our list assignment, and he had many questions over the following days.

“Are we going to Target?  I think we should go to Target.  Do you think this boy would like Hot Wheel cars?  Is it ok to give him a Hot Wheel car that I really like? What if we get more presents that what it says, will he have to give one to someone else?”

“What’s a crock pot?”

“What if our presents don’t fit in the holiday box?”

“Do you think his cat likes crinkly balls too?  Will his cat be sad that he doesn’t get very many presents?”

“Mom…. I think it’s more funner to get presents for my boy because I know he will be happy.”

“Mom?  If my boy’s family doesn’t have money to buy him presents, because the dad is sick, what if they don’t have money for the doctor?”

“A boy at my school said he is getting a lot of presents from Santa.  If Santa is real, how come he brings presents to kids with money?  If I believe in Santa will he bring me presents, and I can give them to kids with no money?”

“Do you think my boy believes in Santa?  I hope he likes Hot Wheel cars.”

 

Now, as an adult, my son has admitted that he’s glad we never lied to him about Santa (he definitely wasn’t gonna buy into the Easter Bunny!), and he and his friends are still the most empathetic, grounded, generous group of young adults I’ve ever known.

I truly believe that children are born connected to the wider world, the soul of humanity, and the spirit of the Earth, regardless of their spiritual/religious traditions.  Once they’re old enough to recognize differences, they are naturally incredibly generous.  It’s our parenting and our culture that slowly retrain the ability to identify with someone that isn’t like us in some way.  Gift-giving should be about making a connection with a fellow human.  Sometimes this means you see a coffee cup on vacation in the tropics that you know your friend will love (because there’s a very real looking ceramic roach in the bottom and she is terrified of bugs but will still think it’s hilarious) (ok so I was the recipient and I didn’t think it was funny at first but it’s pretty dang funny); sometimes this means you spend hours reading every birthday card in the store to find just the right words (my mom does this and we absolutely treasure the cards); sometimes this means you buy every kitchen item on a gift-basket list and then also the CD and sweater even though it’s more than you spend on the rest of your family; sometimes it means you give a boy a Hot Wheel car he didn’t ask for because cars are your favorite, most loved thing in the world and you want to share.

Santa, therefore, has no place in my giving traditions.  He’s too busy running a toy-building empire, flinging toys from the list into his sleigh, and eating a bazillion cookies to offset the caloric requirement of climbing in and out of chimneys all night across the world to know anything more than whether someone is Naughty or Nice.

I do acknowledge the pure magic of Santa.  I remember most of my presents from Santa better than those from my parents in my younger years.  But even more than gift-delivering, I find the usage of Santa as a behavioral bribe utterly abhorrent, for many reasons.  It’s bad enough that we tend to overindulge our consumerist cravings, but now in a season that is full of anxious, stressed adults; loads of sugar; and a lot more driving to and fro than usual, we make exclamations like, “If you keep fighting with your sister, Santa won’t bring you any presents!”  And even worse, to my mind, is using the recent Elf on a Shelf to make the threat and remove ourselves even further from empathy (as a coworker recently showed a group of us; I was appalled but everyone else thought it was genius.  It did cleverly rhyme, I’ll give her that).

To me, these actions not only fly in the face of my anti-consumerist leanings, but miss the point of celebrating at all.  Gift-giving should make you pause to reflect on the things you see are important to another person, and given in love.  During the winter holidays, gift-giving should be from the heart of your spiritual tradition while being respectful of the recipient’s.  Gift-giving should never be a contest and should never be about the Gift — but about the act of Giving.  Of thinking about what matters.  Of thinking about the people, because the connection in our mere humanity matters.

 

Santa hats on pets, however, I wholeheartedly support.  And Elf is required viewing in my home at minimum once per Christmas break!

November Reflections and December Goals

My goal for November was to increase debt repayment to $1300.  This includes student loans, partial car loan, medical bills, and consumer debt but not my mortgage.  This number also is half my biweekly take-home income.  My current plan has me debt free in less than 3 years and it will be amazing to free up 50% of my take-home pay for retirement funds!

Here are my November expenditures via YNAB screenshot:

First up, bills.

november-bills

Electric and Gas are on monthly budget plans; Internet is fiberoptic; Cell Phones are for two smartphones including data.  My Auto Insurance was up for renewal so I shopped around and saved 55% compared to my previous plan!  I paid six months in full and saved even more.  Amazon Prime was an impulse purchase last year but the kiddo has used it frequently for school-related items.  More recently I’ve used it a lot for Prime Reading and a bit for video and music.  We collectively decided this is a worthwhile expense for our family.

Next up, spends.

Debt Payment:  Met my goal.  It helps me judge my past spending choices less to think of these payments as a savings rate, hence the subtitle.

Groceries:  Three months in to the college year, kiddo and I have dialed in our individual grocery spending while we’re in different states.  This month showed me that when we’re both home and both hosting for a holiday we haven’t quite found that sweet spot yet.  I’m pleased we were close.

Pets:  One bag of cat food.  This is the first time I’ve bought the large size (compared to 1/3 the amount for $13-15), so hopefully it doesn’t get too stale for his palate.  The pup was switched to Costco’s grain free food last month, and I’m hoping the same for his food – he’s not even halfway through the bag yet.

Bicycle:  This year has been a spendy year for bicycles in my household.  I hadn’t ridden in years so am slowly acquiring gear needed for long tours, camping, and winter riding.  I’ve taken time to research each purchase and also made sure I truly love riding enough to warrant the cash outflow.  This purchase was at my local shop to replace a headlight that went missing — a must now that my commute is dark on both ends of the day.

Auto:  Thanksgiving break was the week of car drama in our household!  First a tire valve snapped when adding air to a low tire.  $30 at my neighborhood shop.  Then a rear strut mount broke, leading kiddo to buy an $18 heavy duty bond as a temporary fix to get home.  The shop replaced both rear struts and shocks for $395.  My vehicle is a 2008 Mazda 5 purchased last year (replacing a 2000 Mazda) that has overall been an excellent value, giving me the high gas mileage of my former car with the cargo space of a much larger vehicle.

My Personal Spends:  Took kiddo and his friend to dinner for $46.  They are seriously some funny, thoughtful young people and it was an absolute joy.  Bought snow pants and a very old made-in-England shetland wool vest for biking at a thrift store, $12.  Bought nordic skiing gloves split in between the fore- and middle fingers, a clearance reflective backpack cover, and REI brand wool glove liners for $14 at REI after a gift card balance.

Kiddo Expenses:  He has no “allowance” or limit; rather, we have regular conversations about what his needs and wants are and what expenses are his priorities.  Back to car drama!  Kiddo has done nearly all of the work on his car himself.  His only request for Christmas was winter tires for $293 which we kept logged as his expense instead of a gift so we have an idea about his real costs throughout the year.  He ran into trouble getting one of the wheels off, then once that was resolved (after a couple minor tool purchases) he ran into trouble with the clutch.  He used items around the house to diagnose the problem and after yet another trip to the auto store fixed it.  He also purchased some video games online (deeply on sale), a few clothing items, and a few snack purchases while out with his friends.  Oh, and he bought a Christmas tree!  Our first non-potted tree in years, and it smells fantastic.

Note the kitty who also has been “enjoying” the tree. He may or may not be the reason there are no hanging ornaments 😉

I didn’t contribute to “Savings” as I am really wanting to obliterate all my debt categories as soon as possible.  I use this for vacation spending primarily.

I’m happy with this month and stuck to my plans when it came to non-essential purchases.

 

Looking forward, now that we’re in December and it’s fully winter:

I will spend quite a bit to winterize my bicycle and continue building my gear stash.  In the past I’ve left my house only for work and going out to music venues with alcohol to keep me from freezing during the concert.  I am often cold and have slowly accepted that yes, I do need to invest in clothing and gear that will keep me warm if I want to remain active outdoors in subzero temperatures.

My frugal rules for spending will continue: No coffee out, cook all my meals including for work, no entertainment spending.  The standing exceptions are one food outing with kiddo and his friends.  I’m considering making an exception for a newer neighborhood music venue that has a really great ethic and is important to people I care about.

I will likely buy something small for Christmas even though we’ve already purchased kiddo’s gift.

Looking back at last year, and car expenses aside, I’ve spent 60% less than what I previously thought was “normal” and a “tight budget”, so I’m doing well in terms of having changed my mindset and habits!

 

What about you?  Do you plan to spend extra for the holiday season or for winter in general?

It’s My Birthday! Birthday Fun on a Scratch Entertainment Budget

How can you have a birthday party without the hassle of invites or money or providing food?  Attend a public event and party with strangers!

 

My birthday has always fallen on or around Thanksgiving, and I am ridiculously introverted, so it’s been easy to forgo celebrations of the party type.  There was a year, however, in which I spent waaaay too much money on a “fancy” dinner that taught the kiddo and I we much prefer simple home cooking to noisy trendy restaurants.

Last year's spread with homemade strawberry-balsamic-jalapeno jam. Yum!
Last year’s spread with homemade strawberry-balsamic-jalapeno jam. Yum!

In my younger years I’d sometimes lament the fact that all my friends were out of town for the holidays, but embracing my solo nature has led to absolute delight at staying in with a book, a bottle of wine and some good cheese. And pumpkin pie! This has been a tradition for several years and doesn’t make a dent in the grocery budget since I typically have plenty of Thanksgiving leftovers to stretch a few weeks.

 

This year, my birthday fell on Friday and the kiddo was home, so we decided to join a bicycle ride open to all skill levels.  We met the group at a local brewery at 4pm, and received a gift provided by a local bike shop (Free Present!).  Rolled out at dusk and I was grinning the entire 11 miles to the break site — I was well-layered, there was almost no wind, and the 35F air was rejuvenating.  I’d only ridden one group ride prior to this, an introduction ride with a local bike club, so I found it incredibly fun riding in a gathering of 25+ people (Free Party Guests!), following taillights and riding in the glow of strong headlights along the riverfront.  I saw parts of my city I’d never noticed before, and a view of the skyline that glittered against the cloudy sky.

The bonfire site was nestled in a semi-secluded wooded section next to the river, with snacks and drinks hidden earlier (Free Birthday Drink!) and food donated by participants (Free Birthday S’more!).  Stories were bantered back and forth, and the atmosphere was relaxed with a lot of laughter.  After the site was cleaned up and the group readied to leave, fireworks were set off (Free Fireworks!).  The ride back was just chilly enough to feel special, and in full darkness the surrounding bike lights and a few bluetooth speakers made for a very festive ride  (Free Adventure!).

Bikes, Beers and a Bonfire!
Bikes, Beers and a Bonfire!

Back at the brewery, we each received drink tickets (Free Beer!) and congregated in an area of the bar.  The bartender, on learning it was my birthday, wouldn’t let me pay for my second beer or any other drink for my kiddo and his girlfriend (Free Birthday Drinks!).  The group was large enough to make chatting easy with no pressure to socialize, and everyone already had at least one common interest in cycling. I learned a lot of good winter biking tips from a few folks, and am pretty excited to attempt the next ride in December (Free Gift for the Future!).

Our total dollars spent: $5, in the tip jar.  Total hours of sheer joy at being alive and hearing laughter and bicycle rubber on pavement:  Seven.  I fell asleep with a smile on my face and woke up the next morning feeling so grateful for my family, my community, and having the rest of my life to look forward to — THAT, for me, is what’s really worth celebrating.

 

I am not a financial wizard.

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I’m not in tech or engineering; I’m not a high earner.  I didn’t even complete my bachelor’s degree.

I’m not in my 20s… nor my 30s….

I’m not married.  I am a mom.

I enjoy a simple life and strive to enjoy it more fully.  I have a job that, while I’d be happier working less, helps improve others’ lives in ways I find personally satisfying.

While I have found helpful advice and much inspiration in the online Personal Finance community, I find few stories that match my own and have discovered that tracking my own progress is the crucial step in figuring out what truly works for my life.  I strongly believe that my potential for wealth (both abstract and monetary) is driven less by ability to hustle, and more by my upbringing, thirst for knowledge, and desire for simplicity.

My goal is to reach financial freedom on a modest salary, while providing for my little family of one tax-deductible human and two four-legged creatures.  I won’t be retiring at 35 (at least, not without a time machine!), and probably not by 50, but the path I intend to carve out of the finance hillside will still lead me to one fantastic view.