Wednesday, April 26, 2017

April 2017 Update: $62,565.22



Hey everyone! Not much new here to report - this month our debt dropped to $62,565.22. April was a busy month for us involving two back-to-back weekends where we were out-of-town and then a visit from our in-laws. As regular events wind down for our kids we will be gearing up for baseball.

On the financial side, we had signed up our son for a more competitive baseball team, thinking that the higher registration fee would cover a uniform as well. How wrong we were! We began to hear from others that the fees would eventually be almost double the registration once the uniform, parking, and admission fees were accounted for. It still seems crazy to me that you have to pay to watch your own child play baseball when you paid a great amount just for him to play in the first place! But at some point we were informed that the team would be disbanding due to a coach accepting a job in another state, so we were able to get a full refund and decided to enroll him in a less expensive league. I was grateful for the reprieve we got from that experience and will be much wiser next year.

In May baseball will be starting for two of our sons. It will be interesting to see how practices and games work out given that we are still a one-car family. Thankfully our city is not that large and you can get anywhere in about 15 minutes.

My vegetable garden is also starting to pick up and I will be transplanting many of the seeds I started a couple of months ago. I hope to get some pictures of that up here soon!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Our frugal garage entryway makeover

It's been awhile since I posted on home projects, and one reason for that is that between homeschooling and keeping the house going, it's not easy to find extra time to work on my long list of ideas. We've finally finished one of our entryways, though, and today I'd love to share it with you!

This entryway comes off of our attached garage, leading into the kitchen/family room. Before we re-did it, it was a nondescript blank space and dumping ground for whatever people didn't put away. Sometimes we would have an old small shoe shelf there, but for the most part, it was a very sad space.

Here is what it looked like before:


And here is what it looks like after:


Much better, right? I had envisioned a mudroom-style entryway with a small bench, and since shiplap is in right now, we did a faux shiplap treatment using strips of 1/4 inch plywood underlayment. I designed and built the upper shelf myself for about $8 in wood, and the bench came from this plan at ana-white.com. You can't tell from looking, but the shoe bench also has a hidden compartment for storing things like hats and gloves (a big need here in the Midwest!).

I added the chalkboard by spray-painting an old mirror that was left in our home by the previous owners. It was a cheap mirror that warped your body, so it wasn't really worth saving. I sanded down the darker stain to give it a more distressed look and my husband nailed it in. The magnetic chalkboard/organizer on the left wall is from Ikea.com. I purchased it a long time ago, but they still carry it for about $15. It has been such a useful piece, and now that it's in this new location it's perfect for hanging our keys and sorting mail that comes in.



We initially did the shiplap, hooks, shelves, and bench as well as painting the doors, but once all of that was done, the linoleum floor looked really bad (not that it looked that great before). To give you a backstory on why there is linoleum upon linoleum here, when we first moved here this room was carpeted. We took out the carpet a few years ago because of cigarette smells coming out of it, and I was concerned about taking the top linoleum up because the bottom linoleum is original to the house and could have asbestos.

I had seen several tutorials on Pinterest about painting your linoleum, and figured that the cost of porch paint and a stencil was cheaper than buying a new rug and easier to clean. I have been very happy with how it's held up so far. We did have one part come up when we pulled off the painters' tape, but the rest has shown no chipping or flaking.

The cost to makeover this entryway was around $66 give or take. I didn't keep all the receipts but am pretty sure this is a close figure. I also used a birthday gift card I received to offset some of the expenses.

Before, this area was not only an eyesore, but also lacked function for a family of six that needs somewhere to put their coats and shoes. Now, not only do I love looking at it, we actually use this space. For less than $70, it is a change that was definitely worth the expense!

Monday, March 27, 2017

March 2017 Update: $63,392.90


Hey everyone! It's time for the monthly check-in on how we are doing. This month we saw a big step forward thanks to getting our tax return. Our total debt balance dropped to $63,392.90. Even though my husband got a raise last year, our tax return was similar to the previous year's because along with the raise came an increase in our health insurance premiums, and because those are deducted, our taxable dollars were about the same. It's a little frustrating to think about how our raises are being offset by health insurance premium increases, but I won't complain around tax return time :).

This spring season has been filled with many expenses, and while we are tracking what we spend and making sure we planned for it as much as possible, I've also realized that for the next few months our extra savings will be going toward things that need to be dealt with now vs. later, like garden purchases or baseball/swimming lesson fees. I made a budget for our extra income that we are not putting toward debt and am tracking how much we are spending in each category, such as homeschooling, home improvement, clothing, and more. 

One of the most encouraging things that happened this month was seeing how our most beastly loan, which started at over $30,000, is starting to be whittled away to a more manageable figure. Some people advocate a snowball approach, but it makes more sense to me to pay the highest interest rate first, even if the loan will take a few years to pay off. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February 2017 Debt Update: $68,505.35


It's already that time again! This post will be short and sweet - our total debt, including credit card, student loans, and a car loan, is down to $68,505.35.

While we were excited to see our debt go down again, we were disappointed to spend more than the extra amount we had coming in from my husband's recent raise. I did keep track of these expenses, which was an improvement, and almost all of them were necessary, but I am tired of spending money. I was motivated to return to our law school days where we tried to spend as little as possible on extras. We do make room to spend for things like kids swimming lessons (but on a scholarship), baseball, and annual memberships to the zoo and discovery center for quality of life, but beyond that, if there's a way we can do without it, we will try not to buy when possible.

So far I am excited about what our summer is shaping up to look like. As I mentioned above, our kids will be in swimming lessons and baseball, but another local opportunity came up for our family to learn more about farming (raising chicks, milking cows, pasture management, etc.) for free. A local family is training other families in these skills in exchange for watching their farm while they are gone. I'm super-thrilled to be part of the program, not just for the skills learned, but also for getting a chance to work with this wonderful family. We are also hoping to travel down to Texas for a week to visit my sister and her family and signed our kids up for one week of free Vacation Bible School as well. 

That's it for now! Spring will be busy, but I hope to be able to post pictures of my gardening efforts here soon!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

How our low-one-income family pays off $10,000 a year in debt



There are many days where I feel like we are not making progress fast enough toward our hefty student loans and car loan, but I realized recently that when you crunch the numbers, we are putting 28% of our take-home income toward debt each month. Even with the hefty interest we have to pay (it used to total over $3,000 a year - ouch!) we have still managed to lower our overall debt by $10,000 in one year. It may not be as exciting as the stories where people pay off triple this amount in the same time, but we will take what we can get.

You can read more about our current budget here, but as of this post, we only have about $3,500 a month in take-home pay to work with. Out of this, we tithe $422, so our working budget is really about $3,100. With four children, our family is classified as "low-income" according to the Federal guidelines of having an annual income of less than 200% of the Federal poverty level. It's tempting at times to throw up our hands and say it's too hard, but we believe that it is possible to make a significant dent in our debt each year even with a limited budget.

Here are 10 tips which have helped us knock off our debt:

1. Keep your expenses as low as possible (without killing yourself). You can see how we budget our paychecks here.

2. Take advantage of low income tax advantages and use as much of that tax return to put toward your debt.

3. Budget for expenses you know will happen so that you will not be caught off guard. We allocate the two extra paychecks my husband gets a year for other expenses such as home repairs/improvement, children's activities, clothing, and more.

4. Keep a list of wants vs. needs. I like to call it the "Ma Ingalls" approach, but essentially, it seemed that Laura Ingalls Wilder's family often did not buy something until they had the money for it, and then would stock up on as much as they could afford of that item. This was for financial as well as practical purposes - seasonally, certain things were more available at certain times of the year. Instead of the steady stream of consumerism we have today where there are sales every other day, it is important to look at what you or your family need and when the sale and funds line up, to purchase those items.

5. Consider becoming a one-car family. Our decision to do so has helped us to save on car insurance and gas as well as reducing our risk of auto repairs.

6. Track your progress. I created a spreadsheet  which lays out where we will be each month if we pay a certain amount toward debt each month. In the months where it feels like we will never get there, I always look at this chart to remind myself of where we will be if we just keep plugging along.

7. This goes without saying, but eating out, having cable, and paying for smartphones are three things we choose to mostly forgo while we are on this debt-repayment journey. It would cost about $100 for our six-person family to eat out a couple times a month, about that much for cable, and that much for smartphones too - saying no to these three categories saves us $300 a month!

8. Be intentional about how you spend gift money. I try to save up my gift money to purchase tools that will allow me to sew, do renovations and build furniture that would otherwise be out of our reach.

9. When you pay off student loans, if possible pay off the highest interest group first. We qualify for Income-Based Repayment for our federal student loans, and while we make a small monthly minimum payment that is evenly applied across all loan categories, we put the rest toward the loan group with the highest interest.

10. Make a list of things you can do to improve your home that don't cost little to no money. Cleaning, organizing, and making small affordable improvements to your home can help you have a much higher sense of well-being.

How have you found success in taking on debt with limited funds? I'd love to hear in the comments!

Monday, February 13, 2017

How we refinished our coffee table



This has been a long time coming, but we are finally finished re-finishing our coffee table. And by finished, I mean, we will never re-do this table - ever again!

I won't mislead you and say it was such an easy job - straightforward, yes, easy . . . nope.

This is what our coffee table looked like after we had given it a makeover the first time. It came into our family as a Craigslist purchase for $25 when my husband was in law school. We had painted the top and bottom with a nice navy blue paint, and left the rope trim around the edge the original orangey-pine color. I really didn't mind the navy - I loved it at the time we had painted it, but after a couple of years of boys using it as a race-track and banging surface, it was beginning to look chippy in a bad sort of way.


The other reason I grew tired of the navy blue paint was because I felt like color schemes automatically had to coordinate with it. I like being able to change things up, and craved a more rustic wood-toned look.

I thought the job would be fairly simple and cheap (I already had Citristrip on hand as well as stain). I wasn't sure about what to do about the crevices around the edge of the top, but figured I would see what I could do as I went along. 

The Citristrip worked pretty well on the flat surfaces, but things got a little frustrating in the crevices. I moved the coffee table out to the garage to work on it when I could, but because we had one lone lightbulb out there and cold weather, I had a hard time staying motivated to work on it during the evening hours I had available. Eventually, I got most of the paint off, and started to sand it with our power sander. But even that proved to be frustrating, and eventually, I asked my husband if he would help. I was grateful that he didn't mind sanding (I hate it, by the way!) and spent a few hours on a weekend getting the wood down to the original grain.


Once we got it stripped and sanded, we moved the table down to the basement where I could work on staining it. Each step felt like a leap of faith - painting the lower portion white was not hard, just tedious with the rope trim and working over dark paint. Then came the decisions about stain. I decided to do an initial wash of Minwax Weathered Oak, followed by a mixture of Weathered Oak and English Chestnut. After that, I did a light wash of gray paint mixed 50/50 with water and made sure to wipe it off as soon as I painted it on, and then I did a final coat of English Chestnut on its own to darken it up a little. I finished it off with a couple of coats of Minwax Polyurethane finish in semi-gloss, didn't like the gloss or the brush marks, and then did a final coat of Minwax Wipe-On poly in satin. 

Working under the fluorescent lights made it hard to evaluate how the stain actually looked. I mean, what ever looks good under fluorescent lighting? But once I had done that last coat of poly I knew I was done with it, and we brought it upstairs this past Sunday.


Once in place, I was really happy with how it turned out. We have been living without a coffee table for a couple of months now, and it made our living room feel like a living room again. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

What the Super Bowl reminded me about the importance of saving



Before I begin, allow me to share a full disclaimer first: I did not watch the Superbowl this weekend due to a couple of factors. The main one is that we had planned to go to a Superbowl party to watch with friends, but then one of our sons started to get really sick with a cold. We weren't sure if it was the flu (it turned out to be RSV), but it was nasty enough to warrant us staying away from a place where other people's kids would be around. The second factor is that we could not watch at home because our television was broken by our kids a few months ago and we haven't replaced it yet.

Even though I didn't get to see the game, however, I heard it was pretty exciting and involved Atlanta having a lead over the Patriots which they then lost. My husband thought that Atlanta go too comfortable with their lead and didn't fight for the game like they would have if it were tighter.

As tax season comes upon us and many of us (including myself) will be getting returns, I realized that we all have tendencies to think like a team who has a generous lead when our financial situation is more comfortable. We are still in the throes of paying off debt, so most of our return would have gone toward student loans, but I had planned to set aside a little for extra expenses or maybe something we have been wanting and couldn't afford.

I soon realized, however, that it is very easy to spend money, and rather than give up part of our lead, I think we will be saving that extra money as much as we can. Unexpected expenses can sneak up on you when you aren't looking. Due to our son's respiratory illness and testing as well as a couple of doctor visits for my husband, we have already accrued well over $600 worth of medical expenses in the first six weeks of the year! We will pay for that with our HSA, but the experience reminded me that now is not the time to be comfortable when it comes to finances. Even though we have an HSA, we could have other expenses come up like car or home repair bills.

* Edited: Shortly after posting this, I went downstairs to do laundry and noticed that our sewer had backed up. Thank you, real life, for confirming my inclination to save!
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