Friday, July 29, 2016

July 2016 Debt Update: $72,647.11


This month we dropped our overall debt balance by $451.89. It's what we expected, and on other fronts, we were grateful that no major unexpected expenses arose that might have derailed even this modest amount. That said, some months we have had other "expected" expenses which have dipped into our baseline savings, and even after an extra paycheck in July (we are on a 26-paycheck-per-year schedule) to replenish it a little, it is still not where I would like it to be. I've said in the past that we really need to account for every expenditure, but I can see that we are not, so that is what I would like to do this coming month.

Food

We came in under budget this month which helped us to increase our stock up fund a little. This past week it dropped a little when I purchased 50 jars of Smuckers jam on sale for $.99 a jar. The sale only comes once a year, but it's totally worth it when it comes to the savings. I have tried making jam this summer, but what I learned was that making larger jars lead to larger consumption, and the savings really weren't that different when I calculated them. This past month I also stocked up on natural peanut butter for $.99 a jar as well.

I blogged recently about how we ditched Amazon Prime, but I have to admit that I was curious about the deals that were available on Amazon Prime Day, and when I saw that they had the Instant Pot DUO60 (an electric 6 quart pressure cooker) marked down to $70 vs. the normal price of $120, I decided to use the free one-month trial on my account to purchase it with credit card points we had saved up. We pay off our credit card every month, but like to use it to accumulate points on purchases we would already make. Already I have enjoyed using it to speed up the process of meal preparation, and it's amazing for frugal food items like boiled eggs, beans, and rice. 

Birthdays

Our daughter turned two this past month, and we celebrated with a quiet dinner and homemade strawberry cake. I had saved up $25 for her birthday and got her one toy, while saving the other birthday money she received to purchase her fall wardrobe. We got lots of hand-me-downs for our boys, but there have been none for our daughter, so I try to get good deals on new clothing or find thrift store clothes. The thrift stores have not been that great for a complete wardrobe, however, and given that their prices are often $1-$2 per piece for very worn clothing items, I'd rather purchase new items for $3 a piece and then resell them later. 

So that's it for this month. Next month we will be heading to California to attend my husband's grandmother's 100th birthday before starting school. 

How did you do this month?

Monday, July 11, 2016

Is the frugal life boring? On making meaningful experiences with your kids when you can't afford Disneyland.




Have you ever worried that you or your family might be missing out on memorable life experiences when you're focused on paying off debt? This topic has come up recently for me, and it got me to thinking about my own family and whether or not we are jilting our kids of a meaningful childhood when we have to say no to certain activities because they are not in our budget.

Even though it is a simple question, it does not have a simple answer. Everyone's life situation is different, and everyone's values are different. For some parents, it may be really important that their kids get into competitive sports because they saw the value of athletics in their own lives. For others, it may be that they had fond memories of growing up going out to eat at a certain restaurant as a family and want that for their own kids too.

On our way to a Kansas City Royals game, courtesy of my cousin's generosity and some free tickets.

As an Air Force brat, I grew up in a fairly simple home that changed every few years. While we would drive down to Florida to see my grandparents and swim at their pool for a few weeks, generally speaking we almost never flew anywhere for vacation. Birthday parties were small, quiet family affairs with a yellow Betty Crocker Stir n' Frost cake baked in a cardboard box with chocolate frosting and sprinkles. All three of me and my siblings have birthdays in the same week, so sometimes we would just have one big celebration and cake and open our presents.

My kids have been blessed to have relatives who sometimes pay for us to fly out to California. We have paid for the tickets when we could afford it, but as the kids get older and are involved in more activities, we are realizing that we can't afford to fly out every summer if we want to be able to afford other things like swimming lessons, Awanas, and general items like clothing. Sometimes when our kids are invited to birthday parties at venues, they wonder why we can't do that too.

Getting ready for the annual Cow Appreciation Day's free meals at Chick-Fil-A
The truth is, we do have extra money in our budget, but we're trying to put as much of that towards debt right now so that we have a chance of being debt-free when the expenses really start stacking up in middle school and high school. We set aside a modest amount for birthdays and Christmas, but my husband and I have not bought each other presents for any holiday or birthday since the first year of our marriage (and we're celebrating ten years this August).

I don't feel like we are depriving our kids, though, because ''meaningful experiences" have a different meaning for me. Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, did not go to Disneyworld, and yet look at the volumes of books she wrote about her life on the frontier. To me, a meaningful childhood is filled with creative activities, learning skills that will serve you well in life, learning how to serve others, and most importantly, spending time with people.

My son's Darth Vader embroidery
I am glad that we have had the chance to take our kids to the California coast, but even if we didn't, I wouldn't feel like they were lacking in any way. The gift of a simple childhood and being content with small pleasures is a very big gift indeed.

Who's to say what they will remember? I went to Disneyworld many times as a child because my grandparents lived near there, but one of the best memories I have of my childhood was from fifth grade making homemade valentines with my mom for school. My mom helped us design templates of Care Bear bodies that had the different bellies, and to this day, that is one of the highlights when I think about growing up. I think it was because it was a cool craft, but also because my mom was there with us as we made them.

I hope that my children understand one day that we were trying to do our best on a limited budget. I hope that they remember things we did together, even if they didn't cost that much money.

Monday, June 27, 2016

June 2016 Update: Total Debt of $73,099.17





Hey everyone! I am sorry for the Internet absence - for a week or so we had no access to our home computers as our only power cord for two laptops had finally died. Since we didn't have Amazon Prime, I found a new source - eBay, and while it took slightly longer, I was happy to get a brand new generic power cord for $13, compared to an Apple brand one for $80.

There is not much new to report here, which can sometimes be a good thing! We made a $465 payment toward our loans as always, and had a few expenses related to home needs (new hose, homeschool books, annual bar registration fees, etc.) that ate a little into our savings.

This past month we scaled back a lot on homeschooling. I often do lessons during the summer because the heat makes it not that fun to be outside, but I was feeling burnout myself, and with the kids in swimming lessons and one of our sons in baseball, it just felt like it was time to take a break for a little while.

I was able to save a lot of money on homeschooling curriculum by visiting the annual used curriculum sale in early June in Kansas City. This is a highlight of the year for me because the deals are so good. Take a look at what I bought below:



All of these books came to under $100. One of them was a curriculum that sells for $120 alone online. Shopping at used curriculum sales and library book sales or thrift shops has enabled us to stock our home library with high-quality books. 

The other exciting thing that happened this month was that my husband found out he would be getting a raise beginning at the end of July. We didn't know if this would happen or not as his employer (the government) is having a bit of a budget crisis right now, and are thankful for the modest increase. We will use August's extra amount for some pressing wardrobe needs for him and maybe something else, and then begin adding to our loan payments in September. I will post an updated version of our budget in September once it changes.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Meet my new favorite frugal recipe: Lebanese Lentils and Rice



Awhile ago I glanced at a big 25 pound bag of lentils we had downstairs as I was bringing down laundry. In the spirit of stocking up, I had purchased this bag of lentils and yet here it stood, more than a year or two later, still about 3/4 full.

I like beans and rice. It's not something we eat every day, but we can actually go through a 10-lb bag of pinto beans in 4-6 months. But for some reason, when I think of lentils, all I can usually think of is soup, and as the weather warmed, and I didn't really want to eat 25 lbs worth of lentil soup, I began to search the Internet for other recipes.


One recipe began to pop up in many different versions. It was mujadara, a Lebanese dish that consisted solely of lentils, onions, rice, oil, and a few spices, depending on the version of the recipe. For some reason it seemed to be a good thing to try one day in the middle of school and dealing with my kids since we were low on bread for lunch. I wasn't sure it would turn out great, or if it would be bland and mushy, but what I was pleasantly surprised by was the result of these four or five simple ingredients - a fluffy, savory mixture that had a deep complexity of flavors and texture. I followed the suggestions to add a yogurt sauce as a condiment which provided a tart counterpoint to the salty-sweet caramelized onions and spiced earthiness of the lentils.

In other words, it was delicious, and it wasn't just me who devoured them. One of my sons went back for seconds that day, and as I continued to experiment with spices in a second and third version, all of my sons would sneak bites as they passed through the kitchen while my toddler made motions for her own dish.



I love the flavors of the dish, but even more so, I love the way four simple, humble ingredients like lentils, onions, rice, and oil can be transformed into a dish that stands on its own. That said, it is also a good side paired with some grilled chicken kabobs and a mango lassi :).

Lebanese Lentils and Rice (inspired by this recipe by Aarti Sequeria)

recipe notes: this recipe uses only two onions, but because they are caramelized and break down to a much smaller amount, if you have a third or even a fourth onion, use it - you won't be sorry, and you'll have less guilt when you eat half the bowl of caramelized onions before you add them to the dish!

Also, I like to use a skillet that is large enough to both sautee the onions as well as hold the entire dish in and that has a good lid to seal it as it cooks the rice and lentils later.

Ingredients:

1 cup of brown lentils, washed and picked through for stones
1 cup of white, long grain rice
2 medium onions, sliced into 1/4 inch half-moons
1/3 cup of vegetable or olive oil
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp turmeric (optional, mainly for additional golden color)
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 cups of water

Directions:

Cover the lentils with two inches of cold water in a saucepan and bring to a boil, cooking until almost done for about 25 minutes, then drain.

While the lentils cook, saute the onions over medium-low heat for about 20 minutes until they become golden-dark brown (but not burnt) and sticky. Remove the onions from the pan and set them in a bowl. Add the rice to the pan over low heat and saute for 2-3 minutes along with the spices, being careful not to burn the spices. Add most of the onions back in, reserving a few tablespoons for garnish, and then the lentils, stirring well to combine. Add 3 cups of water and salt, again mixing everything well. Give it a taste to see if the salt is right - it should be slightly on the too salty side before cooking as the lentils and rice will absorb some of the salty flavor. Bring the pan to a boil, and the lower the heat to low, cover with a tight fitting lid, and cook for about 30 minutes or until the rice is finished. Stir to fluff up and serve.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

8 reasons we cancelled our Amazon Prime Membership




I love Amazon, perhaps a bit too much, but recently we decided to not renew our Prime Membership. When we were in law school it was a no-brainer, as my husband only paid $39.99/year for the student membership. Then it went back to the regular $79, and now it's jumped to almost $100. While that's not bad monthly, I began to think about why we had it and if it was worth it to have it for the whole year. For now, it doesn't seem to be worth it, and here's why:

1. It makes it too easy to order things.
If you're trying to not spend money, you should be trying to make ordering things more difficult, just like you wouldn't be stocking your freezer with ice cream if you were trying to lose weight. The process of buying things at Amazon and having them delivered in a couple of days is so streamlined and painless (generally a good thing in retail) that it's too easy to put things in the cart and order them. While it may sound weird to some people, I kind of like the idea of having to wait until I reach a minimum $50 order for free shipping. Having to wait for a while forces me to think about what I want to purchase and whether I really need it.

2. Some stores will price match Amazon.
I wasn't aware until recently that stores like Toys R Us and Target will price match Amazon if you show them the price. I haven't tried this myself yet but have friends who use this policy regularly to save money there. It doesn't take care of the fact that Toys R Us doesn't always have the selection Amazon might have, but it does make it easier to save money.

Walmart also has an online price match policy with Amazon, and in an article at I'd Rather Be Shopping, apparently they don't match Prime prices because you have to be part of a membership club in order to get those prices. I was puzzled by this, as being part of Prime is more about the shipping, not the prices you get.

3. I often find better deals for the things I need at other online retailers or through used sales.
I purchase a few things at Amazon that are cheaper there than at other places, like vitamins and some sewing supplies. But for homeschool books, one of my favorite resources for new purchases is Rainbow Resources. Their prices are almost always the same as or cheaper than Amazon.

4. We have a great library system that will often order a book we want if they don't have it.
When we first moved here five years ago, the first thing we did was to check out our county's library system, and we were in awe as we walked through the doors into one of the nicest libraries we've ever known. Not only does our library have all of the latest DVD releases and many New York Times Bestseller books, their children's wing is amazing, and they have purchased about 90% of what we requested so far if they didn't already have it.

5. I don't really need more ways to watch television.
We've had Netflix before, but when we were in law school Amazon Prime made sense because it was cheaper annually than Netflix and we really didn't need two streaming video services. Now we find that with Roku as well as a Mohu Leaf Antenna, we have access to shows on PBS and a few of the major networks. Do we really need more ways to watch television? If our income is so tight, I'd like to think that it would be better to use that free time to start a side venture or work on some home improvement projects and DIY skills through Youtube tutorials.

6. I would like to use the $100 a year for something else, like a tool or wood and supplies so that we can build furniture.

The monthly breakdown of Amazon Prime is not terrible, but over a year, it adds up to a decent amount of money. What if we just put $9.25/month in our savings account to put toward a new tool for the kitchen or home? And with free plans on Ana-White.com, you could build a number of pieces for $100.

7. I can still get free month trials for the times I need them, or <gasp> order from Amazon and wait a little bit longer.

When I thought about why I like to use Amazon Prime, the main reason was that there are often better prices around Christmas time when we're ordering gifts for our children. We each have an account with Amazon, and on mine, which I haven't used for awhile, I have an offer for a free month's trial which I could use during that time. For other times, like birthdays, it really isn't that hard to either price match at a local retailer or hit the minimum $50 order.

8. This leads me to my final point - I just learned that Amazon Prime now offers a monthly option for $10.99. This is more monthly than you would pay if you subscribed for a whole year, but I like the idea of paying $11 once a year (say, around Christmas) and ordering a number of things we'll need for the year rather than doing it a little at a time. And, saving $88 by doing this would give me more to spend on stuff I might actually need.

What about you? Do you have Amazon Prime? What are your thoughts on trying to live without it?

Friday, May 27, 2016

May 2016 Debt Repayment Update: $73,548.60 remaining


This past month our debt balance dropped by another $450 or so to land at $73,548.60. Now the not so fun part of that is that we put $750 toward our loans (around $63K currently in student loans, and around $10K in auto), which means about $300 went just to interest alone. Sigh. The hardest part about paying off loans or taking on any major change you want to make in life is that at the beginning, it doesn't always feel like you are making that much progress. That said, we are grown-ups and know that this is part of the deal. The good news is that we are closing in on paying off $20,000 of our debt hopefully by the end of this year. Many people would be thrilled that they had paid off $20,000 in two years, or saved up that much. I try to keep that in mind as we still have a hefty chunk to pay off.

Dental work - again!
We had a few other hiccups that weren't related to debt-repayment. I had put off going to the dentist for awhile, and finally a tooth pain prompted me to go. I usually don't get cavities, and this time I didn't have any either, but I found out that a molar had cracked and I had to get a crown put in.

I don't know what it is about dental work, but I was really stressed about the process. I'm a minimal-medical-interventions sort of gal. With labor, I was not stressed at all, and I had three of our four children without drugs. But having a pesky cracked molar dealt with really bothered me for some reason. So far I have a temporary crown and will get the permanent one put in around a week and a half from now.

The good news is that we can pay for it with our HSA, and we have steadily been contributing to it so that we have more than enough to cover the repair for now. I look back on the financial decisions we've made the past few years, and one of them that I'm definitely glad about is to fund our HSA. It gives us such peace of mind in medical emergencies to know that there is something set aside.

And a flooding window well!
Another spending decision I've been grateful for this past month is our sump pump purchase for last spring's flooding window well. The water is not coming up from above, but rather filling up from below the well. We were disappointed to discover that our french drain, while keeping most of the water away from our house in this year's new wave of heavy rain, still is not keeping that well from flooding up, so we have the pump in there again. My guess is that there is broken drain tile somewhere beyond that well because it's designed to all flow around the house and out the sewer line, but for now, the pump seems to be managing the water and keeping our basement dry.

I am hoping to be posting more frequently this summer, so stay tuned for some posts in the next couple of weeks. School is slowing down a little, which gives me more time to write.

Below budget in our food again
I am grateful for the four-week food months. This month, we came in at about $70 under food budget which increased our stock-up fund to $129. Then my mother-in-law sent us a check for $50 for groceries after their visit to see us, so I'm putting that into the stock-up fund as well. This next month will have five weeks in it so I don't know how much we'll come in below budget, but I'm generally happy that we can stay at either budget or below budget.

How was your month? Did you have any financial successes or setbacks?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

April 2016 Debt Update - $73,998


Debt Update
It seriously feels like it was only a week or two ago that I posted our last update. I suppose that this is good in some ways - one more payment, one less to go! This month, our total debt remaining dropped to $73,997.67. These feel like the uneventful months of slowly making progress until we either get a raise or new source of income to make further progress, but even at the rate we are going we would pay off our loans several years ahead of time.

Our spending felt higher than normal - mostly due to some purchases at home improvement stores, some shoes for myself, canning jars, and some homeschooling purchases. We also had to pay for our airline tickets for an upcoming trip this summer (I will explain this one more in a later post). This meant that we went over our normal budget, but used savings from past extra paychecks to cover them. Now we need to be extra careful in what we spend until our next extra paycheck in July.

Groceries
Our spending on groceries was under, but again, not by as much as I had hoped. I took a stab at making my own homemade jam and it turned out well, but of course, it was so good that we now have an issue with our boys sneaking the jam and consuming half a jar the day after it was opened. There is something psychological about having extra anything in our house - it takes twice as much effort to remind people that just because it's there doesn't mean we can eat all we want.

It is nice, though, to have 10 jars so far sitting <hidden> in our basement for the month or two to come. I struggle sometimes with trying to keep our grocery bill so low for a family or six. It's been hard lately to find motivation to eat the same thing over and over, and I crave variety that isn't always affordable. Still, we're trying to stick to our plan and I will research new recipes in the next month to see if I can change up the menu affordably.

Dental Work
This past month my husband needed some dental work, but we were shocked by the price per filling even with insurance (his total for treatment will probably be around $600). This does not include some upcoming oral surgery he will need that will cost us even more (another $1000). Then the dentist referred him to the orthodontist for a different issue, just as our oldest son is finishing his braces treatment. We have money saved up in our HSA, so hopefully this won't cut into our debt repayment plan for now.

Saving at the pharmacy
Late in this month my son's eardrum was punctured (q-tip accident :(). We were prescribed anti-biotic ear drops that would prevent infection, only to find that the eardrops cost $155 after insurance (they would have been $250 before insurance). Seriously? I asked the pharmacist if there was a better alternative, and after consulting with my brother-in-law who's a doctor, we decided to call the doctor the next day to get a different prescription. The new drops, with the same antibiotic ingredient, only without an unnecessary corticosteroid, cost much less (around $38).

What I'm grateful for
In the course of writing about what went right or wrong with our finances, I'd like to mention a few things I've been really grateful for this month. We took all four kids to the dentist to get their teeth cleaned, and I was so grateful for dental insurance that covered their cleanings at our favorite pediatric dentist. When we were in law school, I had put the kids on the state's healthcare plan, and learned about how hard it is to find good dentists on that plan. Our dental insurance is about $18/month for our whole family, and we've got way more back than we've paid.

I am also grateful that my sister and her family are moving to Texas this summer. After almost a decade in Alaska, they have finally decided to relocate within an 8 hour drive of our home. This means more trips to see my sister and her family, and hopefully chances to reconnect with my other friends in Texas!

So that's it for this month's update - how did your month go?
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