Monthly Archives: November 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving cornucopiaThanksgiving is a great holiday in that it encourages us to think beyond ourselves, if only we take the opportunity.

Being thankful is a reminder that no matter how much health, wealth and family we have, it didn’t originate with us.

I think that is something that is particularly hard for us Americans. We’ve been raised on the “pull yourselves up with your own bootstraps” folklore so it’s hard to remember that even when we earn, we do so with the skills and materials that we have been given.

So I hope that you take some time this holiday to be thankful. I don’t mean merely counting and naming your blessings (though that’s good), but remember the One who has given those blessings.

And find ways in your every day life that you can share with others what you have, however little or much that may be.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo by Ron Cogswell

Rethinking Gift Giving: Amanda’s Take

unnamed (5)I’m pretty sure my basement isn’t the only one that looks like this:  a graveyard for forgotten toys and possessions.

I truly do love the holidays–both the reason behind the season, the music, and the family time.  I love giving small tokens of affection, and I love receiving meaningful, thought-filled gifts (my slow cooker cookbook ranks in my top five favorite gifts received!).  We are fortunate to have incredibly generous family and friends who love to give us things that we need and use often.

What bothers me is the “stuff” that invariably slips in, all too often in lieu of experiences or time spent with the gift recipient (guilty as charged!).

Yesterday, Ronnica discussed her principles on gift-giving–especially timely given that the holidays are just around the corner.  Please permit this mama to do the same.

Don’t go into debt.  To my knowledge, Christmas has not moved.  Budget accordingly throughout the year.  We budget approximately $200 each Christmas to buy gifts for approximately ten people–and yes, that includes our kids.  Do the math, and that adds up to $20 per person, meaning our kiddos do not wind up with any fancy gadgets from us.  More often than not, we don’t even spend half of that amount, either due to using gift cards earned throughout the year on points sites (more on that in a later post), or because we make the gift.  Which brings me to the next point…

Favor experiences over things.  If you must give a physical gift, then consider opting for the meaningful handmade variety.  Invariably after the holidays, I find myself going through the kids’ loot and purging those items that are inappropriate, impractical, or duplicates.  Opt for experiences (like a season pass to a museum, a dinner “date” with a child, or even a financial gift for a college savings fund–college IS an experience!) or homemade one-of-a-kinds, and you increase the chance of the gift not landing in basement somewhere, to say nothing of being appreciated AND used.

Focus on the meaning of the season, rather than gifts.  It is all too easy to forget the meaning of the season, and to focus on the shopping and preparing inherent with this time of year.  It’s important to remember that gifts do not make Christmas special; while we should remember those less fortunate year-round, Christmas affords ample opportunity to share with others.  Whether you are single, part of a young family, or retired, consider giving back this holiday.  Our family plans to take part in a community card-making session for an area nursing home, but I know other families who are serving at soup kitchens, churches, or giving other gifts they have to benefit others.  The Christmas season seems to have more chances to serve others than the rest of the year–find something that works for you!

And as for this picture…be sure to come back on Thursday, December 11 to learn about how I approached simplifying our (many) possessions.  Subscribe to our feed to make sure you don’t miss out!

Rethinking Gift Giving: Ronnica’s Take

Christmas giftsSince Christmas is fast approaching, we wanted to take some time to talk gifts. That’s what the holiday is all about, right?

I think almost all of us (even the Whos in Whoville) would agree that that is not the case. Yet our actions — and the commercials the last 3 months of the year — seem to indicate otherwise.

As I was researching to find out what the average family spends at Christmas, every story I found talked about the increased level of spending year-over-year as positive. I’m sure it is better for the economy for people to outspend themselves, but is it really good?

Americans estimate they’ll spend $781 at Christmas this year.* I budget $180.

It’s not about the numbers, though. If I had children, I’d undoubtedly choose to spend more. Gift giving is good: God is a gift giver, graciously giving us what we don’t deserve.

No matter how much you spend, Christmas is not worth going into debt over. Especially when you consider how many gifts end up in closets, lining Goodwill’s shelves or in landfills.

That said, here are the principles I use to guide my gift giving:

Budget for Christmas throughout the year. I budget $15 each month for Christmas. This also allows me to spend it early when I find a good deal, since I don’t have to wait for a bonus or a special credit card offer.

Focus on gifts that encourage accumulation of experiences, not possessions. I love giving games, for example. This is something I want to get more creative with in the coming years.

Gifts that require your time are more valuable than those that require your money. One of my favorite gifts each year is reading  and recording books for my niece and nephew. I’m reading The Chronicles of Narnia for Bean and Roald Dahl books for Peanut, giving them a new installment each year. They’re still too young to appreciate it, but I hope they find it precious as they grow up.

Avoid gifts that require batteries, especially for kids. My niece and nephew get enough of those already; I want to stimulate their imaginations and grow their view of the world. Books are great, as are puzzles, blocks, art supplies and imaginative play items.

Try to have all your gifts ready by Thanksgiving. I’m not always good at this one, but I find the holiday season more enjoyable when this is done. Shopping early also discourages overspending, as I’m not just buying whatever I can find that works. For gifts that I buy, I love to shop online as I’m much better about considering purchases without the distractions of other shoppers and items.

Don’t give a gift just because you think they’re going to give a gift to you. Obligation gifts feel like obligations to both involved. Give gifts as an expression of love.

Tomorrow, Amanda will talk about how she and her family handle gift giving. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll find out what I’m getting for Christmas this year, right?

Photo by Jennifer C.

* “Americans’ Initial Christmas Spending Estimate Is Positive”, http://www.gallup.com/poll/178859/americans-initial-christmas-spending-estimate-positive.aspx .

Joint Book Review: The Millionaire Next Door

Personal finance is a huge part of stewardship.  Fortunately, books like The Millionaire Next downloadDoor:  The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko are here to help us in the quest for good use of our money.  It turns out, the truly wealthy have an important lesson to teach us:  living withing your means and living frugally can result in financial security.

After doing a groundbreaking study on how the wealthy of America actually live, Stanley and Danko come up with some surprising finds.  Although this book contains a large amount of data, it is definitely worth checking out.

Amanda’s Take

My husband and I share a love of audio books.  Unfortunately, that’s where the sharing ends…except where this book is concerned.

When Riley started listening to this book in the car on vacation, I found myself being sucked in.  While I found myself spacing out when the statistics were presented (the sheer quantity of numbers regarding millionaire habits is mind-boggling), the theme of this book really resonated with me:  living within one’s means rather than focusing on “keeping up with appearances” is what begets wealth and financial security.

A great deal of takeaways are in this book–such as those avoiding the purchase of “status symbols”, interesting investment strategies, and the like.  But as a parent, what hit home the most was the concept of “Economic Outpatient Care” (EOC).

EOC is the idea of older family members (usually parents) financially supporting their (adult) offspring’s idea of what they “deserve”; oftentimes this results in the recipients living in a spendthrift manner, unsuitable for wealth-building.  This served to reiterate the importance of teaching personal finance basics to children–you are your children’s first (and arguably the best) teacher!

More than anything, this book served to reiterate that, hard as it may be sometimes, maybe we really are on the right track after all.  While we are not wealthy, it was reassuring to know that we are not alone in the quest for financial security and being good stewards of our financial gifts.

Ronnica’s Take

I have no plans of ever being a millionaire. Of course, if someone gave me a million dollars right now, I would take it.

I do want financial security, but as I shared in my story, some of my best times financially (and spiritually) came from financial uncertainty. But I’m not going to pursue financial uncertainty.

My interest in reading this book is that I would like to get out of debt, save more and give more.

What stands out to me about The Millionaire Next Door is that it’s not about how you earn money that sets millionaires apart: it’s what they do with it when they get it.

I love that this book explains that many millionaires outwardly live like  those with less means. Decisions like buying cheaper cars and living in small houses are the very choices that let them save and invest. Instead of focusing on appearing wealth, they focused on accumulating that wealth, instead.

That’s what I want to do, too. I don’t need flashy clothes, jewelry or cars to feel like I’m wealthy. I’d rather just have money in the bank.

Ronnica’s Story: Recent Years

Last week I shared how the impetus for me to get serious about caring for creation was reading Jonathan Merritt’s Green Like God. My journey to financial health doesn’t have as clear a beginning, but a few milestones along the way are very obvious to me looking back.

While I was in seminary , I worked at a small non-profit that focused on financial counseling and education. During my time there, I had plenty of opportunities to learn about personal finance, as well at to help others who were worse off than I was. Some came into our office with credit card debt mounting greater than their annual income, while others were facing legal action due to years of unpaid taxes.

I’m thankful for the practical experience I gained while working there, as well as the stories I witnessed. I was still financially insulated by being in school, so the knowledge I gained came at a valuable time.

After graduating, I stayed on at the non-profit, going full-time and greatly increasing my income. Still, I lived as I had in school: paycheck to paycheck. I had to start paying back my student loans, but I was unable to pay more than the minimum as I was spending every other dollar of my paycheck.

Unfortunately, I got in the habit of using my credit cards for everyday expenses. While I had every intention of paying off the balance in full each month, once I reached a month where that was impossible, I was stuck. I don’t believe I ever carried more than $1000 in credit card debt at any given time, but it took me over a year to pay off.

Getting laid off in 2011 was perhaps the best thing for me financially. It forced me to reign in my spending, with only my severance pay tiding me over until my next paycheck, whenever that would be. I learned to trust more in God’s faithfulness and timing during that struggle as I had $131 more than I needed by the time that next paycheck did come.

During my unemployment, I made the decision to move to Denver to help start a church. The timing of the new church allowed me over two years to save up before I would move. So when I started working again, I kept myself mostly at my IMG_0686unemployment budget, socking away the rest. This allowed me to save up 6 months’ living expenses as well as moving expenses. For someone who never had more than $1000 in savings previously, this was a big step!

My move to Denver was this past May. I was very thankful to have that savings, as I was without a job for 4 months. Now that paychecks are coming in again, I’m again sticking to my no-job budget so that I can I put every spare dollar to paying off my student loan.

That’s where I am today, less than two years out from being debt free, Lord willing. I look forward to walking the journey towards  better financial health with you all.

Amanda’s Story: First Came Love…

My world changed for the better when little “Bean” was born in December 2011; life IMG_0431became even better when her brother, “Peanut” came along in late 2013.  I finally found my calling in life — being a stay-at-home mama — and with it, discovered what is really important.  (Hint:  it wasn’t money or the typical consumerist lifestyle.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me back up a couple of years.

I met Ronnica’s younger brother, Riley, during my last year at KU, although we didn’t really connect until after graduation (probably because he was my boss…but that’s another story for another blog!).  Meeting Riley made me want to be a better steward(ess) of my finances.  That’s probably why the summer before we got married, I held down two jobs in an effort to knock out as much of my student and consumer debt as possible.

We both brought a significant amount of debt into the marriage, but were upfront about it with each other from the get-go, and mapped out a plan of action for getting it paid off ASAP.  I knew that I ultimately wanted to be a stay-at-home mother, and with that in mind, we had to put an aggressive financial plan into action before kids arrived on the scene.  While there have been times we miss having a second income (I have wished we lived in a newer, nicer, bigger house MANY times), for our family, the constant theme has been priorities.

Financial fitness has been a priority for us, but so too has living mindfully, living an environmentally-conscious life, living a minimalist lifestyle…really, just living out our values as much as we can, to the best of our abilities.  We have become more concerned about the examples we are setting for our children, as well as the larger legacy we are leaving behind for future generations.

I have come full circle.  I have finally come to the realization that absolutely everything I have is a gift, and a temporary one at that.  I don’t want to fritter away the time, talents, money, and life I have been entrusted with, so I strive to be very intentional in all that I do. This is absolutely easier said than done, and is a continuous learning process…but aren’t we all works in progress?

I am reminded of a particularly difficult day, about two weeks into new motherhood.  As I recall, I had spent much of the day overwhelmed and in tears.  For whatever reason, I was remembering the remarks people had made before Bean was born, about how I would no longer have time for myself or for my pursuits, and about how things would change, and not always for the better.  My wonderful husband was on paternity leave (thank goodness!), and calmly said, “Amanda, it’s all about priorities.  You make time for what you feel is important.”

Of course, he was right, and since that day, I have been continuously striving to be a better stewardess, and I look forward to sharing this journey with you!

National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, it is a great time to be reminded of how fortunate
many of us are:  many of us can count good health among our blessings, many among us have plenty of food in our pantry and roofs over our heads, and many can even afford the occasional splurge or two.

For many in our midst, that is not the case.  According to Feeding America, an alarming number of our neighbors live in poverty or experience food insecurity.

  • In 2013 alone, nearly 20% of children under age 18 lived in poverty.
  • Over 15 million children live in food insecure households.
  • The numbers are not much better for seniors:  9.5% live in poverty.

These numbers provide only a glimpse into the reality that too many people face on a regular basis.  Homelessness is also an increasing issue facing many in our nation; as the National Coalition for the Homeless points out, “Recent studies suggest that United States generates homelessness at a much higher rate than previously thought.”

It can be easy to be disheartened by such staggering statistics, but it is important to focus on what can be done.  When I was in college, I had the opportunity to take a community leadership course as an elective.  The biggest takeaway for me was the sentiment, “But why (is this the case/does this happen)?”

With this question in mind, I think it is helpful to consider the root causes of poverty and homelessness.  Why are people homeless?  Why are people hungry?  Taking major issues and addressing their causes in bite sizes can make a bigger positive impact and is less overwhelming.

Certainly major events and issues like foreclosure, poverty and mental illness play a role in homelessness.  Poverty and economic hardship may also play into issues of hunger.

So what can we do?

National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week takes place November 15-23.  We urge you to check out events that are taking place nationwide.  Even if it is not in your power to give financially, you can help to educate and bring awareness to those in need.  Hunger and Homelessness is not a problem unique to the United States; it is a worldwide pandemic.

This Thanksgiving, we at Striving Stewardess urge you to consider giving the gifts you have to be a blessing to others.  This is a key component of stewardship.

How It Works: Life Without Cable

When my husband and I first started dating, we spent most of our time together watchingunnamed (3) TV.  (My defense:  the programming a person gravitates towards can tell you a lot about their values!)  Riley had recently purchased a gigantic TV, had a wide array of channels from which to choose, and a DVR to record the shows that couldn’t be watched immediately.  For my part, I spent every waking minute I wasn’t working or otherwise engaged watching TV.  When I think about how much time and money was lost to watching mindless programming that served no purpose, I cringe.

Which is why, five years ago, we decided to cut the cable cord.  We haven’t looked back since.

Although originally a financial decision, it’s a good thing we don’t have cable anymore, because other forms of media have tried to fill the void; were TV included in our media repertoire, I don’t think anything would get done in our family! Netflix, Facebook, smart phones and the internet in general all seem to conspire against my endeavors to be a better steward of my time.  In today’s plugged-in world, it is a challenge for me (and for many others, I’d wager) to simply turn off a device and just “be.”

For our family though, the TV does not serve a central role in our daily life.  Bean is the only child who watches it, and even then only for an hour a week…usually!  (Berenstain Bears
is her current favorite program, and it’s hard not to cave to her pleas of “Just one more!” from time to time!).  I like to think a lack of TV has helped both kiddos in developing their imagination and ability to entertain themselves.  With commercialization permeating every aspect of childhood, it is also nice to be able to stave that off, if only for a little longer.  We also aren’t tempted to buy as much stuff because we don’t see any commercials!

TV has become a treat for us.  We subscribe to Netflix, so I can have my fill of obscure documentaries and Riley can watch his sitcoms.  We check out DVDs at the library.  Riley games.  We have family movie nights on occasion.  We have over-the-air channels that carry local news and public stations. Radio has become our friend.  All the while, we haven’t felt deprived and have saved time and a good chunk of change too!

Although each family is different and there are certainly exceptions, I think that, for many, a no-TV life could do wonders.  Imagine what could be accomplished if just one hour were shaved off the average American’s weekly “regular programming”!

Ronnica’s Story: The College Years

Last week I shared about how my growing up years helped shape my views on the environment and personal finances. Today, I’ll talk about my school years, post-high school graduation.

I went to college at the University of Oklahoma. Those were some of my favorite years, and as they are for many people, they were the years that most helped me define who I am as an adult.

Ronnica_college_blondeMy interest in environmental issues waned while I was at OU. Living in the dorms, I still wasn’t paying (directly) for my own electricity or water, so there was no drive to conserve. I even stopped recycling, finding it too inconvenient (the recycle bin was in the same place as the trash shoot…I’m not sure how that made it inconvenient).

Though I hate that this was the case, the fact that I was getting serious about my faith also kept me (at that time) from focusing on environmental concerns. If you had asked me, I may have told you that there were more important things than caring for creation. More likely, though, I would have given you a funny look. Liberals were obsessed with the environment, and I was certainly not one of those.

The bigger problem was that environmental concerns (whatever you may have called it) were simply not discussed in my evangelical college ministry or in my church. The same was true when I graduated and moved to seminary in North Carolina.

It wasn’t until after I graduated from seminary that my eyes were opened. Reading Jonathan Merritt’s Green Like God was probably the biggest influence in moving me back in the right direction. Here was someone who had the same seminary education as I had, yet he had found a better way.

Suddenly I realized what now seems obvious: of course God cares about how we use and care for his creation.

I wish I could say my actions changed right away, but they didn’t. I did start to recycle my Diet Dr Pepper cans (though this time, it was decidedly inconvenient, as I had to haul them to the dump 20 minutes away). I tried (and failed) to eat less fast food.

I begun a journey to consume less (though I still have a long way to go). I tried to drive less–not just to save money, but to burn less gas.

My financial habits needed another catalyst before they started to get in better shape, which I’ll share about next week.

Amanda’s Story: Part Deux

Last week, I gave a glimpse into my childhood.  Now, let me transport you back to FH000008the more recent past:  my college years.

I went to school at the University of Kansas, where I earned what many would term a “useless” degree in a subject I adored:  a BA in English.  Although my college education may not have bestowed upon me a job that pays a great deal of money, it did give me the tools to think critically and expanded my horizons even further.  It was at KU that I felt a part of something larger.  Although a huge school, I loved making it smaller; I felt like I was an important part of a community.  While at KU, I was exposed to the ideas and viewpoints of 25,000 other students and instructors, which proved beneficial to my intellectual development…but not so much to my pocketbook.

It was while at KU that I maxed out my first credit card…and more would follow.

This wasn’t exactly helpful, given that I didn’t hold a job until my senior year, and even then, I was only working twelve hours a week.  Call it entitlement, call it laziness, call it being immature, but due to various scholarships and a gift from my late mother, I simply didn’t see a need to work.  It was way more fun and a whole lot easier to spend money than to save it, let alone give it.  It was a lot easier to buy unnecessary things (usually involving food or books) with a credit card in my possession too.  Hey, virtually everyone I knew was racking up a boatload of debt…why not join in?

Although I had a lot of financial maturing to do, I grew a lot in the arenas of health, wellness, and the environment.  I experimented with veganism, albeit very briefly.  I walked everywhere, both out of concern for my health and for the environment.  I lived a minimalist lifestyle when it came to furnishing my apartment.  I spouted a lot of stewardship ideology…but never really walked the walk.

I graduated in 2007.  Three years later, I was married.  A little less than two years later, I became a mother, and then things really started to change!  More on that next week.