Tag Archives: budgeting

Sometimes I Wish

Sometimes I wish I had spent less on Dr Pepper, movies and eating out when I was in high school. Maybe I could have used that money to offset the cost of college.

Sometimes I wish I had studied engineering or computer science in college. Maybe I could have found a higher-paying job in STEM than I have now.

Sometimes I wish I had studied the law after my bachelor’s degree. Maybe I could have used a law degree to serve the underprivileged.

Sometimes I wish I had started saving earlier, instead of living paycheck to paycheck. Maybe I could have bought a house by now.

Sometimes I wish I had moved to Colorado sooner. Maybe I could have had more time to enjoy this beautiful state where I so obviously belong.

Sometimes I wish I had started to aggressively fight my weight as a young(er) adult. Maybe I wouldn’t have such an uphill battle to fight.

flowers on the side of the pathSometimes I wish I could take a leave of absence from my job. Maybe I could hike my state from one side to the other.

Sometimes I wish I could quit full-time employment. Maybe I could support myself off an urban homestead.

But I can’t live in the “what ifs” of these wishes. The cloudiness of discontentment will keep me from seeing the beauty of where I am now, and the blessings that God has given me on this path, not the ones I didn’t take.

Instead of focusing on what I could have done, I must focus on making the best decisions today that will get me where I want to go.

The Art of the Staycation

A highlight of our recent staycation was the zoo!
A highlight of our recent staycation was the zoo!

It was spring break for Bean recently.  After some tears upon realizing she would not be in school for a full week and a half (parent-teacher conferences were a couple of days before the break), she inquired what her classmates and beloved teacher were doing.

I happened to know:  they were going on vacations.

And not just any old vacation–some of these trips were quite exotic.  I should not have been a bit surprised when the first question out of her mouth was this:

“Well…where are we going on vacation?”

I had to break the news to her that not many people are able to take vacations over spring break; perhaps someday we will be able to, but Daddy’s work and the family budget mean that we cannot go on vacation. But I emphasized that didn’t mean we couldn’t have fun.

And boy, did we have fun.  That’s one of the perks of having a staycation in a major metropolitan area–we had lots of fun opportunities available to us, including the aquarium, the children’s museum, the zoo, and grandparents coming to visit for a couple of days.  The days blew by.

Here are a few generic staycation tips–may they work for you, too!

1.  Plan.  Just because you are staying close to home doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan.  Quite the contrary–you may need to purchase tickets for certain attractions, you don’t want to over- or under-plan, and of course, without planning, you cannot…

2.  Budget.  Staycations defeat their primary purchase of saving money if you don’t set aside a certain amount to use.  For our four main activities, we budgeted a total of $200.  Not bad, especially considering where we went, and compared to a typical vacation for a family of four for the same length of time. (Hint:  Coupons helped!)

3.  Meals at home (when possible).  Along the same lines as budgeting, try to eat in as much as possible.  A meal out for a family of four can exceed $30 or more in this area, and that adds up if eating out for all three meals a day.  It may not be as much fun, but limiting your eating out to just a couple special meals can make a difference in the bottom line.

Got any staycation tips?  Please share them with me!  With summer vacation coming up, I’m eager to get a start on planning some fun family activities.

Celebrating One Year Debt-Free

A year ago this month, I paid off the last of my student loan.

Since then, my net worth has more than doubled, now at 85% of my income. More than the positive influence on my net worth, being debt free has provided a degree of flexibility and freedom that I didn’t have before.

For example, I flew back to North Carolina earlier this month. This is a trip that I’ve wanted to do for over a year, but I couldn’t justify slowing down my debt payoff to save for it. Now debt free, I can enjoy such trips without guilt.

Another benefit I see to being debt free is that interest is now my friend. As I was filing my taxes for 2015, I realized that this was the last year I plan on reporting paying more interest than I have received. (Well, at least until I get a mortgage. But I revel in being fully debt free for now.)

While I still practice a tight budget, I much prefer to see the balance of my saving accounts going up to the balance on my student loans going down. I can easily imagine each of those dollars playing their part in buying my dream urban homestead.

I’m anxious to take the next step in my financial plan: buying my house, but I know that I will best be served by preparing first. If I do, I should be able to be permanently debt free in less than a decade after I make that large purchase.

Visiting the beach debt-free doesn't keep it from being a rainy day.
Visiting the beach debt-free doesn’t keep it from being a rainy day.

How It Works: Saving on Electricity

energy usage chartI don’t spend much on electricity. Since I moved to Colorado, I’ve not used more than $30 worth of electricity in any given month. While I’d love to have solar panels one day and get that down to $0, I’ll continue to seek to cut my energy use for the sake of both my wallet and the environment.

This is how I’ve kept my electricity bill low:

1. Trade out any provided light bulbs with energy-efficient ones.

In the last 2 apartments that I have had, I have unscrewed existing light bulbs and replaced them with my own CFLs. Then, when it’s time to move, I just switch them back.

I have saved particularly in the bathroom, where regular CFLs replace inefficient vanity bulbs. When you do this, make sure you do the math: you probably don’t need to fill every light socket, as a 26W CFL gives off the equivalent light to an 100W traditional bulb.

If you’re scared of CFLs, jump straight to LEDs. I’ll eventually replace my bulbs with LEDs, but I’ve never had one burn out yet.

2. Use natural light, whenever possible.

I do my best to do my chores during the day, so I don’t have to use any artificial light. A big part of this is considering a home’s sunniness when you are choosing where to live.

3. Turn things off when they’re not in use.

This is an obvious one that we don’t do enough. For me, this includes turning off the microwave clock display, flipping off my power strip when I leave the house and not using more lights than I absolutely need.

I know it’s weird, but I just don’t have lights on in my house, unless I absolutely need them. If I’m sitting in my “spot”, I really only need light when I’m reading. I have a night light in my bathroom, which means I only have to turn on those lights when I’m showering.

4. Store your emergency water in the fridge.

If your fridge isn’t always full, store a few gallons of water in the back somewhere. The US government recommends storing 3 gallons of water per person for emergencies. To save money (as well as space), mine are in the fridge.

Liquid holds it’s temperature better than air does, so my fridge heats up less every time I open its door than if I did not have that water in there.

I’m sure you could do the same with a freezer, if you had the space there. Just make sure you pour out some of the water so that it does not expand out the top as it freezes.

5. Designate a baking day.

I do all my baking and the majority of my cooking in one day. By baking and cooking things in my oven back to back, I save energy by not having to warm up my oven each time.

What ways have you found to save electricity?

Everydollar.com Review

everydollar appIn the last month, I’ve gotten hooked on listening to Dave Ramsey again (this time in podcast form). I’ve  found his Total Money Makeover to be instrumental in my early forays into saving.

One thing that Ramsey’s team has done is create a free website and iPhone app to help people budget. His budgeting philosophy which I’ve followed for years is to give every dollar a name: you decide where each dollar will be used before you receive it. This website is aptly named EveryDollar.com.

I have been able to successfully create these “every dollar” budgets in Google Sheets. Still, I thought it would be interesting to check out the Every Dollar app to see if it would be more useful.

The first thing that struck me when I logged in to the site for the first time was how pretty it was. I can create graphs in Google Sheets (and sometimes do), but they would never be as pretty, easy or interactive as what you can see on everydollar.com. I just wish that you had graphs to compare month to month (though to be fair, this is my first month using it, so there may be some features that have not yet been unlocked for meeverydollar).

Another helpful feature is that you can create “funds.” I use these for my Freedom categories (like saving for my bi-annual insurance bill) and my various saving accounts. It did confuse me at first, but I quickly realized that I did not need to record actually putting money into these funds, just the expenses out of them. This can be a bit confusing if you’re like me, and fund them throughout the month as the money comes in, not at one time.

In addition to the budgeting features, the website tracks your progress through the baby steps. I’m on baby step 3b, which isn’t on there, but it would be really exciting to see progress through baby steps 1-3.

The biggest down-side is that because of the link to the baby steps, you can’t remove “debt” as a category. I worked hard to remove debt from my life…I don’t want it in my budget.

Still, that’s a minor impediment to a very slick and useful site. If you’re new to budgeting or just want to try something new, I’d definitely recommend checking it out. The beginning of a new month is the perfect time to do so.

I probably will continue to use my Google Sheets, if only to keep track where each paycheck is going, and not just where my money is going for the month as a whole.

Before I Buy a House

house on a hillLast year I made a big deal of getting debt free. Paying off my student loans was one of the biggest financial achievements of my life.

My next financial goal is to save up 6 months of expenses as emergency savings. I only have 4 months currently, but it won’t take me much longer to save up the last 2 months of expenses. Once I have my emergency savings where I want it, I will be formally working towards homeownership, something I wish to obtain by the time I’m 40 (within the next 7 years).

A couple of jobs ago I did some housing counseling. This was during the housing market crash and was eye-opening. I couldn’t tell you how many people I met with that were entirely upside down in their house. On top of that, most of them also had thousands of dollars of credit card and other debts and were often unemployed or underemployed.

That experience makes me very cautious about buying a house. It doesn’t scare me off entirely, but I am aiming to have a 20% downpayment. I can’t protect myself from all financial uncertainty, but I can wisely choose to make preparations now that will put me in the best possible place when adversity happens.

In addtion to a sizable downpayment, I want to have two other funds in place before buying a home. The first is I am calling my “Big Bad Wolf” fund.

My “Big Bad Wolf” fund will be a separate emergency savings account (my bank allows me to create up to 25 different savings accounts, and name them)  with the intent to cover expenses like a new hot water heater or roof. These types of expenses will come, but it’s just a matter of when. (This is essentially an extension of my freedom fund.) I’ve set a seed amount for this fund to be $5,000, with the intent of continually paying into it monthly so it stays funded at this level.

Finally, (and this is the fun one!) I want to have a house upgrade fund. This will be the money that I can use for planned upgrades. Because I know that whatever house I will get will not fully meet my wishes, I want to start out with $1,000 in this fund. I imagine most of that will be going into the garden and some new furnishings. This fund can be depleted, but I’ll allow myself to put money in it each money to continue to make the improvements that I would like. Once I have my place, I’ll estimate the types of upgrades that I would like to do and on what time schedule and balance that against my desire to have my mortgage paid off in 15 years or less.

Will I have all this money in hand when I make my house purchase? Probably not. These are personal goals, not requirements. When I have some of it in hand, I will start to look for mortgage assistance programs that I may qualify for. The market itself will also dictate when I may buy, as right now I’m paying in rent about the same amount as I would pay for a mortgage for a house twice the size of my apartment.

How are you working towards your long-term goals?

Photo by Kevin Saff

Groceries Update

My trusty grocery sacks.
My trusty grocery sacks.

As has been mentioned here on more than one occasion, groceries are one area of our budget that we have a good amount of control over.  As the primary grocery shopper in the family, I am always on the lookout for new ways to cut costs but still keep some semblance of nutritional value.

To that end, I wanted to give you a little update on two modifications to my grocery shopping habits–while one has worked remarkably well, I am still on the fence about the other.

First up: being more flexible with how often I go shopping.  For the longest time (we’re talking years), I stayed true to grocery shopping every two weeks.  Any longer than that and we ran out of fresh produce and dairy, and any shorter than that was a scheduling inconvenience.

These bananas fell victim to my "old" way of shopping.
These bananas fell victim to my “old” way of shopping.

For the last couple of months however, I have only gone when I needed to.  Sometimes that’s once a week, and sometimes that’s longer than three weeks.  I make it a point not to go for one tiny thing, and still continue to go by the grocery list. But if we need, say, diapers and milk, I won’t hold out–I go out and get what we need, plus whatever is on the list at that point in time.

What I’ve discovered with this modification is that I wind up spending less because I’m not as focused on stocking up on things we don’t need for the immediate future.  We also waste a lot less because I’m not as determined to stretch the food for longer periods of time (which meant that produce often went bad before we used it).  The verdict:  I think I may keep doing this…it’s working well for us.

Also, we have paid for some groceries using cash.  A quick search for how to save money on groceries will invariably point you to the cash-only route.  While I love how this method forces me to stick tightly to the list and all but eliminates impulse purchases, I find that I am a bundle of nerves when it comes to checking out, because I am fearful that my cost estimates are off and I won’t have the right amount of cash on me.

If we decide to continue this grocery shopping modification, I am going to have to continue to carry my debit card on me, just in case.  This will be especially critical with larger purchases, at least until I become more confident in my math skills!

So once again, I am reminded that flexibility is a key trait to exercise, especially where groceries are concerned.  How do you stick to your grocery budget?

2016 Spending Goals

I’m an obsessive budgeter. I know exactly where each dollar should go, planning months ahead.

But until a few months ago, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to where my money actually went. If I went over in a category, I would find money to make up for it in another, which helps to cover up overspending.

So I’ve decided to use the best information I have to reconstruct what I spent in each category each month. In 2015, I spent $19,203.52, not include debt payoff, savings or giving.

Looking over my numbers, I’ve decided to set goals for several categories for 2016 to try to lower my spending from 2015 levels. While I don’t believe my 2015 spending was necessarily too high, I want to fight to keep it in control as I work towards my longer term financial goals.

Important note: I have not changed what I’m budgeting in any category. My budget still reflects what I believe I may spend each month, so will necessarily be higher than the numbers listed below for my goals. Any difference between actual  and budgeted spending will go towards savings (80%) and retirement (20%).

There are a few categories that I will not be setting goals in. This is what I spent in these categories in 2015:

Rent $10,903
Utilities $1,356.98
Insurance $765.34
Gas $750.57
Car (repair/registration) $589.75
Cell phone $548.22

Now for the categories that I am setting goals in:

Groceries
2015 actual: $2,026.04
2016 goal: $1,820

I’m actually pretty happy about this number, as it works out to just under $39 a week. Still, without Diet Dr Pepper and hopefully even less food waste, I should be able to trim it down even more. My goal reflects $35/week.

Ronnica on mountaintop
Views like this make traveling worthwhile.

Travel
2015 actual: $743.35
2016 goal: $1,400

Yes, this goal is going up! This is an estimation of what the trips that I hope to take in 2016 will cost. I already have some of it saved up.

Hobby
2015 actual: $625.93
2016 goal: $260

I spent a lot on outdoor gear this year as I have started to settle into being a Coloradan. I don’t have as many of those types of purchases planned for 2016, though I do hope to go to a few events.

Garden/homesteading fund
2015 actual: $319.60
2016 goal: $75

This is incredibly high, as I settled in to gardening on my balcony, and I don’t like it. I absolutely will not allow myself to spend that much in 2016. I should only need to buy a few seeds and possibly a few starter plants.

Eating Out
2015 actual: $281.98
2016 goal: $200

Though decent, this number can definitely go down since I’ve given up Diet Dr Pepper.

Gifts
2015 actual: $179.61
2016 goal: $120

I like blessing others, but I need to be more creative in how I do so to get this under control.

Clothes
2015 actual: $60.86
2016 goal: $20

I love this! Thanks to some generous Christmas gifts, I don’t think I’ll need to buy anything this year. I am setting a small goal for myself in case I need new tights or finally find the brown or navy skirt that I have been hunting for.

Christmas
2015 actual: $52.29
2016: $50

I’m happy with this number for 2015 as well so I’m only slightly lowering the goal for 2016.

I’m a competitive person, so I’m hoping by setting goals for myself, I’ll be able to spend even less this year!

Amanda’s Christmas Secret

69681668-3243-45d2-8de0-15cd197bc0dfI have a secret to share with you.

I went into this holiday season without a set budget for Christmas gifts.

So now that the big secret is out, let me explain.

I’m not proud of this tidbit.  Initially, I had a budget lined up (if little else), but that was before the recipient list widened considerably.

Due to many factors, there wound up being seventeen people on our Christmas list this year, and three December birthdays to plan for.  That is a whole lot of dough to spend, particularly if one is an “average” American.  Let’s just say we didn’t have several hundred dollars at our disposal.  (In that respect, I suppose our budget was, “As cheap as possible.”)

I briefly considered going the craft/homemade gift route, but realized I did not have the time necessary to create a thoughtful and creative gift.  Instead I opted to do one of four things for each recipient on our list.

We had family pictures taken and ordered prints. With a coupon coupled with an amazing online sale, this turned out to be a really great idea.  The recipients of this gift (grandparents, etc.) are always appreciative of a personal gift…especially where our kiddos are involved. Bonus:  we got family pictures for ourselves as well, which were long overdue.

We gave a donation.  Using points sites, we were able to give charitable donations in the gift recipient’s honor.  Bonus:  it made us feel like we were contributing to something greater than ourselves.

We gave an experience.  Nothing says “Happy Birthday” like taking someone out to eat at a favorite restaurant.  Bonus:  the restaurant is a favorite of all in attendance!

We gave gift cards and cookies, or traditional gifts.  Although these were among the more expensive gifts on our list, for these recipients, gift cards were preferred gifts, and the cookies added a personal touch, as well as something to “unwrap.” We were able to choose our denomination for the gift cards, which helped keep costs down.

Our kids (and Riley) are the primary recipients of the traditional gifts.  To keep things simple, I adhered to the, “Something you want, something to read, something to wear, and something you need” gift-giving philosophy, so each kiddo is getting just four small gifts from us.  Bonus:  We get to see their little faces light up when they see their gifts. (Although they are very easy to please.  Peanut, for example, would be thrilled with just the wrapping paper.)

Each recipient has either already received their gift, or knows of it, or (as in the case of our kids) can’t read yet, so this post should not spoil anyone’s surprises. But I do want to share one more thing.

We spent around $250 total.

While certainly far below the national average, that is still a lot of money to spend in the span of just a few weeks, and I blame going into it without a Christmas budget.  Note:  there are a couple of gifts under the tree for me from Riley and the kids, and those are not factored into the total…because I have no idea what was spent (though Riley and I are on the same page as far as family finances are concerned, so I doubt it is a huge sum!).

Bonus:  now we know just how important budgeting is.  And this has also served as a great reminder of the true meaning of the season…and reminded me how important simplifying the holidays is.

Getting Away on a Budget

With a little research, I was able to find the hikes just perfect for me, like this one to Mills Lake.
With a little research, I was able to find the hikes just perfect for me, like this one to Mills Lake.

I’ve made no secret of my goal to spend as little as possible. This hard-fought frugality has allowed me to pay the second half of my student loans in 8 months.

While paying off debt only took me 8 months of hard work, reaching my pre-house savings goal is going to take me closer to 8 years than 8 months.

I will still continue to practice a disciplined budget with my long-term goals in sight, but in the meantime, I’m willing to make a few calculated splurges. One of those I mentioned previously is travel.

To that point, I took my first non-family trip since I moved to Colorado and spent two nights in a cottage near Rocky Mountain National Park.

It felt a little wrong to spend the money, but it was money that I had budgeted for this purpose. I’ve been wanting to take a trip like this for a long time, and it was wonderful to know that I could do so without guilt.

Keys to vacation on a budget:

1. Set aside money monthly toward your vacation goals. For me, I budget $22-159/month for travel (the actual amount depends on the amount I make that month). This averages to be about $90/month.

This cabin was everything I expected based on the reviews I read.
This cabin was everything I expected based on the reviews I read. It even was visited by elk!

2. Decide what matters to you. For me, that meant finding a place close to hiking. Eating out was not an important part of the trip, so I wanted a place with a kitchen so I could cook my own meals. Paying a little more for my cottage meant I could spend less on food and spend more time doing the things I wanted: hiking and reading. If you’re primarily interested about getting away from your daily routine, consider a staycation…only don’t answer your phone or email, or you may not be able to get “away.”

3. Don’t go if you will have to scrimp in areas you’ll be tempted in. If you love to try new food, don’t go if you can only afford to eat McDonald’s. You’ll either be disappointed or splurge, both that will be counterproductive to your revitalization. Delay your trip until you’ve saved enough to do what you really want.

4. Research, research, research. In the age of the Internet, we can all be our own travel agent. Read reviews to determine the best place to stay for you, not just the highest rated place. After all, people may be rating their experience on factors that does not matter to you.

I’m already looking forward to making a similar trip next fall!