Friday, August 25, 2017

August 2017 Debt Update: $59,456.19

We've had much cooler temperatures this August than in summers past, and I wonder if that's why the summer has felt like it's flown by - I can't believe that fall is already on its way! Anything that makes the time go faster and the debt get paid quicker is great in my books, though!

This month our debt finally dropped below the $60,000 mark. It's still only about a third of what we started off with, but still, it's something! 

Expenses this month
We traveled this past month to my sister's place in Texas for a family vacation. There were a few expenses like gas and some eating out associated with that, but overall we stayed within budget for our trip. 

My husband also sorely needed a new pair of shoes - his other ones were stained with grass stains and ripped in many places to the point he couldn't really wear them out in public. We were all set to buy a pair at a Buy-One-Get-One sale and then I found the same pair for $39 on Amazon, so we were able to buy just his shoes without having to get another pair. 

We started homeschooling about 2 weeks ago, and pretty quickly I realized I had made a mistake with the math curriculum I ordered for one of my sons. It just wasn't clicking with the way he learned, and so I needed to make a few more purchases to round out his curriculum. I wasn't really planning on spending more on homeschooling at this point in the year, but I also didn't want to lose a year of his math education to a curriculum that just didn't work.

Discouragement, and how I dealt with it
I won't lie - even though we dropped beneath the $60K mark this month, I also struggled a lot with discouragement. Part of it was due to a few house and car issues that cropped up this month - our shower had been leaking in the back bathroom and we have to do a few repairs associated with that, and then our car's power door stopped working. All of the discouragement flooded in, and I struggled with thoughts like:
  • What if we never get out of debt? What if something major happens each month that keeps us from making our payments?
  • I'm so tired of being "poor." I'm tired of not having enough money for clothes, of questioning every dollar that goes out, of having a super-tight food budget for a family of 6, and I'm tired of not having the money to work on house projects that we'd like to do.
My husband patiently listened to my frustrations. In some ways, it has been hard and exhausting. We've either been in debt-repayment mode or living-on-a-tight-budget mode for the entirety of our 11 years of marriage. There has never been a time where we could just "take it easy" and put major money into projects that are our choice instead of debt that is our obligation. Life has often felt like we are just surviving.

After awhile, though, I found perspective again. I reminded myself that while it's frustrating that about $1,200 of our paycheck this month went to debt, that much of that payment was our choice. We do have flexibility in what we spend, and we are making a tough choice to put that money toward the debt, month after month. I also realized that I was perhaps becoming a bit too hyper-focused on how much debt we had. After all, we could only pay what we could pay in a given month, and I realized how blessed we are to be able to put any extra money toward it. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Best (and Simplest) Homemade Ranch Dressing

I've always loved the classic taste of a good homemade ranch dressing. The bottled ones just don't cut it, even those with the label of the maker of my favorite Ranch dressing seasoning packet. I used to use the big bottle of this seasoning from Sam's Club, and then found affordable packets at Aldi.

These worked just fine, but one day after reviewing a few recipes I tried making ranch without the packet, and you know what? It tasted even better than the packet-based dressing! And the best thing is, it's pretty simple!

Here is what you need to make your own:

The Best Homemade Ranch Dressing
1 cup of buttermilk (I like to use homemade)
1 cup of mayonnaise
1 tsp dried dill
1 tsp powdered garlic
1-2 tsp dried parsley (or 1-2 Tbsp fresh minced parsley)

Mix all ingredients together and let chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes for the flavors to blend.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Frugal Friday: 10 things I did to save money this week

  • Made homemade yogurt and buttermilk, chicken broth from a free rotisserie chicken we got, and baked two loaves of bread
  • Purchased enough milk and eggs for two weeks because the prices were so low ($1.77 for milk and .47/dozen for eggs)
  • Accepted some homegrown tomatoes from our neighbor
  • Opened up the windows in the morning and turned off the lights to save on electricity
  • Had new internet installed which will be faster and almost $15 cheaper per month
  • Purchased two new pairs of pants for $5 each on clearance, and they were my favorite brand! Normally they are about $15/pair, so I saved almost $20. I am spending some of my set-aside birthday money on clothes, and was glad that I could use some of it on something else now.
  • We got invited to two birthday parties this month. I wasn't sure what to do for gifts, and was planning on going to one store, but there were police everywhere on the street I needed to take and the only way out was to go a different direction. I ended up going to a different store and found quite a few toys on clearance (as well as the pants I mentioned above). I felt like God was providing even in the inconveniences of life!
  • Researched different pairs of shoes for my husband online. He is in sore need of a new pair of running shoes. He tried some on at a store that was offering a BOGO offer, but we waited and when I got home I thought to look up the pair on Amazon. They were just slightly more than they would have been if we had done the BOGO plus the coupon, but now we don't have to buy an extra pair of shoes to get the deal.
  • I worked a little on our health insurance discount activities. We have to complete a number of activities in order to get a $40/month discount on our insurance for the upcoming year, as well as earn $1000 for our HSA this year. 
  • I got out some of my cookbooks out that have recipes from other parts of the world. I am trying to gather more recipes with humble, simple ingredients and less meat. One cookbook I love is called More with Less.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Samuel Smiles on the Art of Living: Cultivate a seeing eye and feeling heart

*This is part of a series I am writing on insights gleaned from Samuel Smiles' book Thrift. Even though he wrote in a different century, I find many of his ideas worth discussing and applying to modern day life. If you are struggling with a tight budget, I hope this series encourages you!

"It is not wealth that gives the true zest to life, but reflection, appreciation, taste, and culture. Above all, the seeing eye and feeling heart are indispensable. With these, the humblest lot may be blest. Labour and toil may be associated with the highest thoughts and purest tastes. The lot of labour may thus become elevated and ennobled. . . Scarcely have you passed the doorstep of your friend's house, when you can detect whether taste presides in it or not. There is an air of neatness, order, arrangement, grace, and refinement, that gives a thrill of pleasure, though you cannot define it, or explain how it is. There is a flower in the window, or a picture against the wall, that marks the home of taste. A bird sings at the window-sill; books lie about; and the furniture, though common, is tidy, suitable, and, it may be, even elegant." - Samuel Smiles, Thrift

If you judged the message of our world by the catalogs that arrive in the mail, the posts you see on social media, or the ads or shows you see on television, you would think that in order to have the good life, you must be financially wealthy. Certainly many homes and lifestyles could not be obtained without money. But the real question is, are they the only ones worth living? Could you have a beautiful, satisfying, meaningful life even if your income never got any better than it is right now?

This is a question I have been asking myself lately. The whole point of this blog is to chronicle our journey to get out of debt. This will put us in a better financial situation (hopefully), but I think I would be missing a lot if I thought that this was the whole point of life. Or that life only began when we had a good, reliable income and no debt. It would certainly be easier in some ways, but I agree with Samuel Smiles that the "humblest lot may be blest" with a seeing eye and feeling heart.

Some David Austin roses from our garden this past spring. I spray painted a small Ball jar gold and have used it repeatedly for different arrangements.
There are many drawbacks to technology and the Internet, but one benefit they do provide to those who are tight on income is access to a world of beauty and education. You can watch a lecture series on the meaning of music, learn about art and download pictures from some of the world's best museums, check out classics from your library and commit to working through them with the help of a book like this one, or teach yourself code and learn how to organize your pantry.

In short, the ability to cultivate a seeing eye and feeling heart are not limited to those with money to spend. While it may not be within the budget to get a season pass to the Philharmonic, you can listen to a multitude of symphonies online (and even watch them).

I was blessed to be able to visit the National Gallery of Art, but many of its images are also available for free download.
Our home is nowhere near Smiles' description of an abode of "neatness, order, arrangement, grace, and refinement," but I find myself often thinking about these aspects when I am left with a desire to improve my home with very little budget to work with. So let's break these ideas down a bit and think about how they could be applied to a low-income situation:

Neatness and order
No matter what I have, tidying up a room, a drawer, or clearing off a cluttered table always makes me feel better. It costs nothing but time, and pays huge dividends when you can see signs of a well-ordered home. It's like a visual hug that makes you feel like everything is going to be okay even on a rough day. Organizing a closet or drawer removes frustration in my daily routine and allows me to better spend my emotions elsewhere.

If you are feeling frustrated by your situation today, I would like to challenge you to do one simple thing - go clean or organize something that has gotten out of order. Maybe it's a emptying out a purse, a room, doing those dishes that are staring you down, or starting a load of laundry. It may seem mundane and boring, and the last thing that you would want to do, but might be the very thing you need. You can make it more interesting by listening to music or a riveting podcast (I like this one). The world would like to tell you that you deserve a better-performing washing machine or a new smartphone, but I will tell you that having a well-ordered home will probably do more for you and not cost you a single cent.

I was planning on covering arrangement, grace, and refinement, but I think I will save those for the next post in this series. Until then, if you have thoughts on Samuel Smiles' observations, I would love to hear them!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Samuel Smiles on the Art of Living

Have you ever read Samuel Smiles? If not, you should. Smiles was a Scottish writer who lived during the Victorian age. He longed for government reform but eventually began to write books for the individual, believing that a nation could rise no higher than the level of its people. I have read his book, Self-Help, several times, as well as one I'm going back to right now called Thrift. All of these are available for free through Google books and sometimes Amazon Kindle.

There are so many gems in Thrift which are worthy of mention, but today I'd like to focus in on a passage from a chapter entitled, "The Art of Living."

"The Art of Living deserves a place among the Fine Arts. Like Literature, it may be ranked within the Humanities. It is the Art of turning the means of living to the best account, of making the best of everything. It is the art of extracting from life its highest enjoyment, and through it, of reaching its highest results.

To live happily, the exercise of no small degree of art is required. Like poetry and painting, the art of living comes chiefly by nature; but all can cultivate and develop it. It can be fostered by parents and teachers, and perfected by self-culture. Without intelligence, it cannot exist.

Happiness is not, like a large and beautiful gem, so uncommon and rare, that all search for it is vain, all efforts to obtain it hopeless; but it consists of a series of smaller and commoner gems, grouped and set together, forming a pleasing and graceful whole. Happiness consists in the enjoyment of little pleasures scattered along the common path of life, which, in the eater search for some great and exciting joy, we are apt to overlook. It finds delight in the performance of common duties, faithfully and honourably fulfilled."

I would like to start a series on a few different ways that Smiles continued to define as the Art of Living and apply them to our modern day lives. As someone who is living on a restricted income, I find his ideas surprisingly applicable to our own situation and hope others will too.

Until my next post, I'll leave you with one more inspiring quote he included in this chapter:

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

An updated budget for the rest of 2017

This past month my husband received a very small raise, and we decided to apply it toward debt instead of creating new categories in our budget. I've really been trying to practice contentment more often, telling myself that what I have today is enough. Doing this has allowed me to tackle even more areas of our budget and ask if there's a way we can do more with less.

Here is what we're going to try:

Take-home income*: $3,575

Tithe: $474
Christmas/birthday gifts: $25
Mortgage + security system: $713
Water, sewage, garbage: $75
Natural gas: $60
Electricity: $87
Cell phones: $52
Internet: $40
Gasoline: $40
Groceries/toiletries/diapers: $335
Registrations: $15 (this goes toward our annual car registration fees and Sams Club membership)
YMCA: $34 (we are switching to a single membership in September if possible)
Life insurance :$50
Auto Insurance: $62
Student Loans: $1,235
Auto Loan: $294

A few comments:
The biggest cut we will be making is to our food budget. Previously I had it set at about $420 including toiletries/diapers, so this is a cut of about $85. We also have to pay sales tax of over 9% on food here, so I am not sure we will be able to do this, but I'd like to try it out and see if I can be even more intentional with how I shop and how we use our groceries. I still feel like I have room to improve in this area without compromising the health of our family. But if it gets to the point that we are going over budget month after month, I may have to up it just a little. I'm hoping that I can make this work though with a little creativity and better organization.

We are also spending less on gas. Again, I don't know how this will work out, and some months will be higher than others, but I'm hoping that it will average out to this much per month. My husband lives one mile away from his job and can walk or bike to work when the weather is good. I homeschool and often do not leave the house during the week except for a few evening activities. This is an area where we are trying to challenge ourselves to be even more conscientious about the gas and mileage we use.

I would like to cut out our YMCA membership entirely, but my husband really does benefit from having a place to go workout. We have had the family membership for over half a year now, and have used the pool as a family only a handful of times. I have not been once to workout on my own - I usually just prefer working out to videos at home. Because of this, I've asked my husband to change it to a single membership for now. This will save us $240 a year.

This past year we've been putting about $665 per month toward student loans. Now, because we are redirecting extra money from savings to debt repayment, we are hoping to put $1,235 toward the loans. That is almost double the amount we have been paying. Combined with the $294 that we are paying toward our auto loan, this means we are paying over $1,500 a month toward our debt. I am motivated to pay it off when I think about what a difference it would make to our budget to have this money freed up!

There will be some months where we can't put as much toward debt when we have some extra one-time expenses, such as paying for our kids activity fees, or the remainder of our trip to New York, or doing maintenance on our car.

I hope posting these numbers helps other readers get some insight on how our family is trying to hack away at this debt on a modest single income. We are blessed to have lower cost-of-living here especially in the real estate market and are blessed to live really close to my husband's workplace, but other areas have required intentional sacrifices. It doesn't happen magically or easily, but it is doable!

* We also pay health insurance premiums of about $275 per month for health and dental. It is a high-deductible health plan, so we also contribute $150 per month to our HSA. Additionally, my husband has to contribute 6% of his salary to the pension fund as a state worker. All of these expenses are taken out before we receive the take-home pay listed.

Monday, July 31, 2017

One Year Later: Living without Amazon Prime and what I learned

Last year I wrote a post on the reasons why we decided to end our Amazon Prime membership.  I thought it would be good to share what it has been like since then as it's been almost a year now since we cancelled.  We still do not have it, though we did purchase the monthly option for a couple of months when it seemed right to do so - I'll explain more below about those times.

So first, let's address the question of "Can I live without Amazon Prime?" Yes! These days, it seems that Amazon is doing it's best to become the extra, indispensable family member in your home. But it has a very limited place in our household. We have not missed it that much this year and have been able to work with the $25 minimum shipping requirement for free shipping by keeping things in our cart until we are ready to purchase that amount.

There were a few times we did decide to use Prime, though. The first was the period before Christmas, usually around November, during which many of the best deals happen and items are most available. I had learned from previous years that the later you wait to buy toys, the higher they will be in price.

Also, a little known fact that is in writing on Amazon's website is that if any of your Prime shipping items are late, they will add on one month of Prime to your account. With a month-to-month subscription, you can only enjoy this benefit for a month at a time. We had one purchase during November arrive late, and had our subscription extended by one month. If you had an annual subscription, you could do this up to twelve times.

The other time we decided to get Prime was when our son was fighting an ear infection and ear wax, and I needed some items quickly in order to treat him. I felt like the expense of the subscription was less than visiting a doctor.

I don't think we will be moving to Amazon Prime annually anytime soon unless the benefits outweigh the costs. I love the feeling of knowing we don't have to find another $100 in our budget every year for a subscription that is only worth it if we buy more stuff.
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