Monthly Archives: April 2015

How I Paid Off $10,678.28 in 8 Months

My thermometer is full!
My thermometer is full!

I’ve found a lot of inspiration from other’s debt-free journeys, so this is mine.

When I started my job in September 2014, I owed $10,678.28 on my student loan. That was my only debt, but it weighed heavily on me.

I graduated 10 years ago next month with $19,125 in debt (plus interest). Between graduate school and unemployment, I had 5 years of deferment, of which I took complete advantage.  That means it took me 5 years to pay down my debt which is longer than I would have liked, but half of that payoff has been in the last 8 months.

When I accepted my current job last fall, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to pay more than the minimum payments on my loan. On paper, that was all I could afford. But with single-minded focus, I was able to find the money needed to pay almost $1,000 a month.

I really didn’t expect to have it paid off that quickly. I made my debt thermometer with the stretch goal of having my loan paid off in December. Turns out, that wasn’t much of a stretch.

Including interest, I paid $10,865.27 in 7 1/2 monthsSo how did I do it?

$1092 – Regular monthly payments (if that’s all I had paid, I would still owe almost $10k!)
$3000 – Savings which I emptied out to finish paying off my loan
$1732.38 – Income earned from working overtime
$1350.37 – Extra paychecks. I get paid every 2 weeks, but I budget for 2 paychecks/month. The bulk of those 2 extra paychecks went to my student loans.
$1085 – Tax refund. I don’t recommend saving in the no-interest bank of Uncle Sam, but not working for several months isn’t factored into the tax withholding tables so I had extra withholding coming to me.
$938.16 – Extra income from working a non-standard shift (since I prefer these hours, it’s definitely a win-win)
$465.96 – Work bonus
$391.61 – Cash gifts I received
$353.64 – Redirected money from over-budgeting 
$254.51 – Redirected money from my “Buy Little” month
$136.19 – Money from credit card rewards (don’t worry, I pay off charges as soon as it hit the card)
$58 – Income from odd jobs
$7.45 – Interest on my savings account

When I compiled this list two things stood out to me:

Every little bit counts, and

I could have reasonably been justified to spend any of this on other things. While I haven’t completely deprived myself, I have largely chosen to deny instant gratification in order to accomplish this larger goal.

It was worth it to be free from debt. I can now choose to do other things with my money and let interest work for me, not against me.

So I celebrated by creating a new set of thermometers. Maybe I should aim for completing these 7 months before my stretch goal date as well?

savings thermometers

Wills: A Public Service Announcement

5599532152_c5b5772620_nOne of my 2014 New Year’s Resolutions was for Riley and I to create a will and health care directive. Perhaps not the peppiest of goals for a new year, but hey…death comes to all of us, so we may as well be prepared for it.

Finally, in December, we got to work.

This was a task that was long overdue.  Although a will is a good idea for anyone at any stage of life, having two young children to consider was definitely the impetus that got our ball rolling.

This post is publishing the day after the sixteenth anniversary of my mother’s death.  Losing my mother at the relatively young age of thirteen has offered me insight that many my age do not have, including insight into death:  my mother’s will was grossly out-of-date, and she had no health care directive, and that’s never a good thing.

Fortunately, our family had no issues with anything during her illness and after her death, but as an adult, I know how lucky we are to be able to say that.  Wills offer a level of protection to what (and whom) you leave behind, and a health care directive is an additional gift you can give your loved ones during an especially difficult time.

The question remains:  why am I sharing this PSA about end-of-life issues on a blog about stewardship?

I would argue that the wise and responsible use of your gifts should not-and does not-end at your death.  Completing a will ensures your money, your possessions, and your dependents are cared for in a manner befitting gifts from God–which is what they all are.

Go get a will.  Do an advance directive.  Don’t wait all year long like Riley and I did.  It’s time and money well-spent.

Photo by Ken Mayer

Book Review: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

world_withoutIn light of Earth Day this week, I wanted to share some thoughts on The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

I recently listened to this book. It stood out to me in a list of audio titles available because it has an intriguing line of thought: What would happen to the world if all of mankind instantly disappeared?

I love “what if” books: that’s why I like science fiction, alternative histories and dystopian books. I suppose this is a sort of “alternative history”, though Weisman is making no claims that our disappearance will happen or how…merely speculating what would happen if it did.

A few things stood out about this book:

1. The book kinda comes off as if we should all commit mass suicide. I seriously doubt this was Weisman’s intent, but the things we’ve done to this earth (and will continue to do so, unless we make massive changes) are quiet horrific.

2. Things aren’t as permanent as they seem. The real-life examples of how quickly nature reclaims land is humbling.

3. I never want to use plastic again. That’s an exaggeration, but I do want to continue lessening how much I use (and reuse and recycle what I do have). While the book didn’t provide any new to me information, it was good to hear again the amount of plastic that is mucking up the oceans (and land).

4. I want to do a better job of living with the land (not against it).

While I don’t really think that this earth will go on without us, listening to this book was a good exercise in thinking through the repercussions of our actions.

It’s Earth Day!

It may be flat--but the prairie found in my state still deserves some attention on Earth Day!
It may be flat, but the beautiful prairie found in my state still deserves some attention on Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day!

I don’t know about you, but despite seeing this holiday on my calendar year after year, I didn’t know much about it.  In doing the research this blog post necessarily required, I learned a great deal–I urge you to check out an in-depth history of this “hippie holiday” here.

Several ways to honor the Earth Day holiday are mentioned at the aforementioned site, including installing solar panels, or organizing a community event–neither of which is in my realm of possibility at the moment.

So what’s this Striving Stewardess going to do to celebrate?

First, I will probably take out the recycling, like I do every Wednesday.  Since the kids like to help, I will likely take the opportunity to impart a bit of environmentalist education–they are, after all, the future of earth care.  Weather permitting, I want us to spend as much time as possible outside, appreciating and learning about the earth we have been entrusted with.  (Bean has recently discovered earthworms, so observing them will likely feature in the festivities!).

If so moved, I may even send off a letter to a political representative, urging more environmental action.

Some food for thought, taken from earthday.org, as you prepare to roll up your own sleeves for Earth Day 2015:

Do something nice for the Earth, have fun, meet new people, and make a difference. But you needn’t wait for April 22! Earth Day is Every Day. To build a better future, we all must commit to protect our environment year-round.

File that under “Truer Words Were Never Spoken”!

Joint Book Review: The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard

story_of_stuffThis month’s book selection is The Story of Stuff: The Impact of Overconsumption on the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health-And How We Can Make It Better by Annie Leonard. In this book, Leonard shares the results of her investigation into the entire consumer process: extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal.

Amanda’s Take

As with many of the books I pick up, Leonard’s fascinating read, The Story of Stuff, was preaching to the choir.  Of course lines like, “What I question is not consumption in the abstract but consumerism  and overconsumption” (p. 145) resonate with a latter day hippie.   Naturally talking about the terrible environmental and human tolls that come with our Stuff strikes a chord with someone like me.

What truly made this book different than others in the same genre, however, was the element of hope and the fact that realistic solutions were offered.  Rather than focusing strictly on the negative aspects of Stuff (and trust me, the negative aspects of something as seemingly simple as a shirt are incredible), Leonard offered up examples of hope, as in the case of the increasingly scarce resource of water; she highlights an international coalition of activists, known as “water warriors” who are doing their best to ensure that water is recognized as a basic human right (p. 19).

Stuff also offers viable alternatives to current methods.  For example:  providing examples of various companies that have have implemented closed-loop factories, “which continuously recycle all the water they use” (p. 19).

All too frequently, books about environment and consumption harp on the negative, rather than providing actual solutions and reason to hope and persevere.  The Story of Stuff gives the straight story, but also gives ways to solve these major issues, and reason to hope for our future.

Ronnica’s Take

We all know what “stuff” is. I have too much of it, and you probably do too. But where does it come from? Where does it go when we’re done with it?

Reading Story of Stuff was helpful for me to start a deeper consideration of the repercussions of my consumer actions. Of course, I knew that there were dark secrets hiding behind the shiny, plastic-wrapped items that I buy at big-box stores (and later throw away), but to be honest, I was okay with being ignorant.

I don’t want to be ignorant anymore.

One of my favorite parts of this book was when Leonard talks about the GDP. I’ve long been uncomfortable with using the GDP as a sign of the country’s economic health. That’s like judging my financial health by the number of times I swipe my credit card.

While I feel like I still have a long way to go in researching the life cycle of my stuff, Story of Stuff was a great place to start. I want to keep refining my consumption and disposal habits not only for my good, but the good of others.

How it Works: Fair Trade

“Fair trade” seems to be all the rage lately, but if you are like me, that doesn’t necessarily mean a full understanding of the term.

I first became acquainted with fair trade through our church, which sold a few fair trade items once a month when we first joined.  Since this was B.C. (Before Children), I didn’t see a need for coffee.  Plus, the goods seemed grossly overpriced, so I didn’t pay much attention and certainly never bothered to buy anything.

As seems to be my trend, fast forward a few years and not only do I have a huge appreciation for the dark caffeinated beverage (splash of milk and dash of coconut oil in mine, please!), but I also have become more interested in the idea of fair trade.

So I decided to do a little research.

According to the simple definition found at Lutheran World Relief, “fair trade” is just “a trading partnership that seeks greater equity in international trade.”

Seems “fair”-ly simple (sorry, couldn’t resist!).  Help farmers earn a living wage, help strengthen communities (fair trade policies ensure that labor laws are more closely adhered to, and provide an opportunity for farmers to invest in their communities), and help the environment (through sustainable practices encouraged by fair trade), all while I get my daily dose of caffeine?

Yes please.

And did you know that the term fair trade applies to more than just coffee?  It can apply to everything from chocolate to tea, and–get this!–eco-palms for Palm Sunday services.  Impressive!

I love my coffee, but I also love to put my values in action, and fair trade is a good way to do that.  It may be more expensive, but considering all that it benefits, it seems like a relatively simple way to do my part.

Five Reasons Not to Complain about Paying Taxes

1040 tax formApril 15: you know what that means, or at least you do if you are in the United States. Today is the day that our income taxes for 2014 are due.

For several years when I lived in North Carolina, I worked at a free income tax preparation office. People’s reaction to tax day were varied: while some were happy to file their taxes (yes, those were most likely getting a refund) others did so begrudgingly. For me, the “tax season” rarely ended on that day: I would have late filers (some several years late) year-round.

During those years, I heard enough complaining about taxes to last me a lifetime. So, here’s five reasons not to complain about paying taxes:

1. Your taxes help those in need plant a garden to feed themselves. Did you know that those who receive food stamps through SNAP can use their food stamps to buy seeds?

2. The national park system preserves 84 million acres that might otherwise be destroyed for the resources they contain.

3. There are over 42,000 miles connecting us to our loved ones and friends through the interstate system.

4. More than 21 million children each year have been helped academically by being provided free or reduced-priced breakfast and lunches.

5. Your tax dollars help warn you and your neighbors about severe weather. We lost 47 people in the US last year to tornadoes. Doubtless that number would have been much higher without a warning system.

While we might be able to agree these are good things (and hey, there are probably some that wouldn’t agree), there are likely federal programs you don’t agree with. Express your disagreement by voting, writing your congressmen or even protest. After all, the federal government is designed to protect our freedom of expression, too.

Photo by 401(k) 2012

Healthy Snacking

Full disclosure:  it’s tough for me to snack healthy.

This flies in the face of my own personal conviction that healthy eating is the ideal, especially in a family with young children.  I have found it possible (if challenging) to do healthy meals on a budget, and with a bit of preparation and planning is fairly easy to implement.

Meals are easy.

Snacking?  Not so much.  For example, I don’t know what it is about naptime and bedtime that makes me crave sugar (honestly, it’s probably a good indicator I’m tired), but that seems to be the time I cave into my unhealthy yearnings the most.  I also love to bake–another strike in the healthy eating endeavor.

I’m trying to make eating healthy snacks more of a priority for me, so have been keeping my eyes out for healthy snack recipes.  The requirements are pretty basic:  healthy, cheap, and easy to make…in that order.

To that end, I wanted to share my two secret weapons in this battle:  avocados* and Greek yogurt.  Put in any recipe (or eaten by themselves) and you have a winner.

unnamed

I found this recipe recently in the free magazine Eating Well and knew I had to share.  Paired with raw veggies like baby carrots, it is the perfect snack (or small meal!).

Avocado-Yogurt Dip

1 ripe peeled pitted avocado

1/2 cup nonfat plain yogurt (I use plain Greek yogurt)

2 tablespoons chopped onion

1/3 cup packed fresh cilantro (I don’t use this much–personal preference)

1 tablespoon lime juice

1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients in a food processor.  Process until smooth.  Season with hot sauce to taste, if desired.  Serve with crunchy vegetables, pita chips or pretzels or use as a sandwich spread.  Serves 8.

As a final note, I need more healthy (and cheap) snack ideas.  Got any?  Please send them my way!

*If you are new to the healthy eating game, I wanted to give you a tip I wish I’d had when it comes to avocados.  Avocados defy logic in that you’d think you want a firm, green one with which to cook, but that’s not the case.  Ripe avocados can be a dull green, and should be soft, rather than firm.  

Cooking in Bulk as a Single

I can recall the very moment that I realized I like to cook. I was in my sophomore year of college and a friend with an apartment had me and a few other friends over who also lived in the dorms to make dinner.

Of course, I didn’t get too many opportunities to cook those 4 years in the dorms at OU.

Though I’ve long since moved up and out of the dorm to a series of apartments, I don’t always cook as much as I might like as I live alone. I love cooking for others (I need to be more bold in inviting people over!), but I also want to make more of my own meals from scratch.

Making a single meal for one person from scratch is incredibly time-intensive.

Thankfully, modern technology makes it easy to make and preserve meals. After all, large corporations make money making meals to freeze, why don’t I do the same? Instead of pulling out an overpriced meal with questionable ingredients, I could pull out a healthier, tastier homemade meal made at less than half the cost.

The current contents of my freezer, including burritos (in foil) and the last of my summer veggies (in jars)
The current contents of my freezer, including burritos (in foil) and the last of my summer veggies (in jars).

What have I found easy to make in bulk and freeze?

Burritos
Mini-meatloaf (made in muffin tins)
Beef stroganoff
Pesto (frozen in ice cube trays)
Individually wrapped patties or fillets (to cook on my George Forman. Though they can be bought pre-packaged, it’s often cheaper and less package intensive to wrap yourself)
Pizza dough

I only have the freezer compartment of my fridge for freezer storage, but it’s enough for me for now.

I also make some meals to heat up for lunches at work during the week. My favorite has been beans (or chili) with a carb like rice or corn muffins. Beans and rice feeds a large portion of the world, and there is so many options to customize it with different spices. So far I’ve added lentils, kidney beans and black beans to the mix and I hope to try even more.

What do you make in bulk?

Bartering

barterpicLately, my sole experience with the art of bartering has been with my three-year-old to get her to do any number of tasks.

“Bean, if you do Task X, then Mama will do Task Y.”

I suppose there is a fine line between bribery and bartering, but there is a task (usually) completed in exchange for another, and no money is exchanged (yet).  This qualifies as bartering.  Which got me to thinking recently…

What if I try bartering in the grown-up world?

I have a few gifts I could share with others in exchange for one of their gifts.  Theoretically, not only would I be using the gifts God has given me, but I’d also be saving another gift (money).  Win-win, right?

This has required a bit more thought than I originally anticipated, and is still a work in progress.  Some ideas I’ve had:

Babysitting for babysitting.  I have several friends with small kids.  We all need time to do activities other than childcare (date night comes to mind!).  Since rearing small children is a specialty of mine, this would be the most practical option.

Teach piano for babysitting.  (Noticing a theme?) Alternatively, I have some friends with older kids.  Affordable music lessons are hard to come by, and I have some musical experience.

Garden produce for garden produce.  I don’t think this requires much explanation.  There’s always a bumper crop of cucumbers from our garden, but will be no tomatoes this year…why not make a trade?

I’m hoping to put this idea into practice soon…stay tuned!

Photo by T(h)om