So, What Happened to Us?

I suppose it’s rather ominous that my last post was over a year ago and detailed how me and my family were jumping into a brand new life and starting a business with just a few month’s savings. It’s been a busy year and I’m to jump back into blogging, but should probably provide some update on where we’re at first. Bear with me because we’re going to cover a lot of ground very quickly!

Well.

Our estimate of savings needed was correct! Exactly, terrifyingly correct. Just as we were reaching the bottom of our savings, the business hit critical mass thanks to the amazing efforts of my brilliant, hard-working husband. In the past year he’s turned a fledgling solo practice into a sustainable, stable business. And as I always suspected, he’s so much happier working for himself that every sacrifice to get his business rolling was 100% worth it.

Small space, big view

We spent the last year living in a small basement apartment. Despite its flaws the price made our financial goals for the year possible, and it was in an absolutely beautiful location. We were very lucky to enjoy this beautiful view every day for a year, and it made the inconveniences of a tiny apartment much more manageable!

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Bub enjoying our back yard last fall. We were so lucky to live in such a beautiful location!

Did I mention we had a baby?

Meet Jonathan (AKA Kid or Baby J), born in March 2019. He’s been happy, healthy, and HUGE (compared to our first-percentile Bub, at least!). He even started sleeping through the night at two months! (that’s about 18 months faster than our first!) The Bub loves him and has been a wonderful big brother. This, more than anything else, is the reason I’ve been absent from blogging. Moving, starting over in a new town, starting a business, and caring for a toddler was a piece of cake – but add in morning sickness, and it became a bit much.

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Photo credit goes to my amazing doula, Kara Jo Prestrud of Birth Made Beautiful

Where are we now?

We moved to a house in May (renting), and are pretty settled in after a few hiccups (turns out a new baby and a move are a bit hard for a toddler). We’ve been enjoying having a home office for The Husband, a proper kitchen for me, and lots more space for kiddos to roam inside and out!

What’s with the new name?

I’m back and hoping to continue blogging more regularly. I’ll be making a few changes to the blog – still writing a lot about frugality and simple living, but broadening my subject matter to include more on motherhood, books, and other interests. I’ve named it Very Good Mom Blog because I wanted to convey the quality of my work without seeming flashy (also because I love Parks and Rec).

I’m excited to be back!

(I know I covered a lot of BIG things very quickly here! So, if you’re interested in more details on anything or curious about some things I didn’t touch on, please feel free to send me a message or leave a comment!)

The Fitbit of Finance

Whenever I’m wearing my Fitbit one of two things happens. I either feel very motivated to be more active, or I just start believing my day-to-day life counts as exercise. In the first instance, I’ll start taking the stairs, taking far-off parking spots, and going on long walks with Little Guy; the Fitbit pushes me to do more and be more conscious of my fitness. However, there is a basic amount of walking required for existing and for me it’s around 3500 steps; so in the second instance, I get to the end of a lazy day and instead of feeling like the lump I was, I look at the Fitbit and think, “Wow, I got 3500 steps today without even trying! I’m basically Usain Bolt.” Getting credit for my existence tricks me into thinking I’ve exercised when I haven’t.

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Hiking with Little Guy! (not pictured: Fitbit on left wrist)

Budgeting is the Fitbit of finance. A budget can be insanely motivating. I know once we started budgeting with YNAB, my spending habits changed dramatically. It was like playing a video game and everything I didn’t spend in was like bonus points. I make a veritable sport out of spending as little as possible on groceries. I strategically plan meals based on cost of ingredients and make a detailed grocery list, then shop at the cheapest grocery store around with Todoist and a calculator. (Yes, I’m the geek who uses a calculator in the grocery store.) I often send The Husband a text to brag if I’ve had a particularly good week. “ALL OUR GROCERIES FOR $27 THIS WEEK! GO WIFE!”calculater

But just like the Fitbit, budgeting has its own dark side. Setting a budget can feel like a license to spend up to that amount. Where we really fell prey to this was when we were still eating restaurant meals regularly–we would impulsively go out to eat on the pretense that there was plenty of room in the restaurant budget. We’ve greatly improved since then, but this mentality still plagues me at times. For example, maybe I have a lot of “room” left in the grocery budget after picking up all the necessities, so why not splurge a bit in the Aldi Finds aisle? Just like patting myself on the back for 3500 steps, this defeats the purpose of the budget.

Here are a few things I recommend for avoiding this pitfall:

 

  1. Think of your budget as your 3500 steps. Meeting the budget is just existing–it’s when you come in under budget that you’re getting financially fit. Make a budget that is challenging but realistic. I could say I’ll spend $10 a month on groceries, but it’s not going to happen and my budget will be shot once I go over. But $250 a month is just the right balance of reality and challenge–I usually beat this number, but I can definitely stay in bounds. Think of those leftover dollars at the end of the month as your bonus points.
  2. Find your motivation. Budgeting was a challenge for a long time because we didn’t have a meaningful goal driving us. Sit down (with your spouse if you’ve got one) and figure out your Master Plan. For us, it was our move and The Husband’s solo practice. For you it might be buying a cabin on a lake, traveling more, or getting out of debt. Whatever it is, you’re going to need it to sustain a budget and build savings. Start thinking of every dollar you spend as a dollar you’re stealing from that goal. Take those bonus points and put them in a savings account for your goal. Watching your dream get closer as the numbers grow will be addicting.
  3. Keep up. There are lots of awesome tools out there to track your spending–Lifehacker has list of reader favorites. Find one that works for you, link up your accounts, and keep it up-to-date so you never think you have money available that you don’t.

Your Fitbit and your budget are excellent tools for physical and financial fitness, but they can encourage a false sense of security and accomplishment. What are your tricks for avoiding the trap?

A Peaceful December

Saving for our move has made this December a bit different for us. The Husband wrote last weekend about spending less during the holidays and how it’s reduced stress, and I whole-heartedly agree (also in his post, you’ll see an adorable pic of Little Guy with our Christmas tree). Besides the reduced stress, living frugally this holiday season has made Christmas shopping more thoughtful–and thus more enjoyable.

Our gifting budget is smaller than usual, especially for each other (I’m normally ready to spend our entire savings showering The Husband with gifts). Knowing this, we started thinking about gifts really early. We wrote down everyone we would get gifts for and started brainstorming ideas. I followed items on Amazon to await a good deal and checked out used options like Facebook resale groups and Abe Books.

I love giving gifts so I generally just get everything I think someone might enjoy and end up with a heaping heap of disposable novelties. Fun stuff, but with little lasting value. Do you know what it’s like to buy someone a million gifts and still feel it’s not enough? This year, the limited budget and advanced planning forced me to put careful thought into each gift and make sure it was just right. As a result, I feel great about every gift and am so excited to give them. 

I shopped the local baby resale for Little Guy’s gift, an activity cube which is about $60+ new. I lost out to someone quicker several times, but with patience and some haggling I snagged one for $30. It is in like new condition, and Little Guy will never know the difference! I’m bad at hiding so he’s found it several times, but at least I know he likes it! 

With all this forethought, I am actually nearly done with Christmas shopping. I know, I hate me too. Unlike past years, I got there not only early, but also without anxiety and stress. I only went out shopping  twice, and got most everything online. I do not miss my usual last minute shopping frenzy.

The frugalized Christmas shopping experience made the whole process about doing something kind for the people we love, not about consuming. Our focus has been on the people we’re giving to–what they want, what they need, what would put smiles on their faces–not on spending X-amount of dollars, and it has reignited the joy of the season.

(Oh, and another auxiliary benefit of a frugal holiday season? I’m baking ridiculous amounts of homemade cookies! They’re cheaper than holiday-themed Oreos, and baking is a fun Christmas-y activity that doesn’t require going out. Plus firing up the oven warms up the house, which is great since I now keep our thermostat at approximately Siberia° most of the time. WIN-WIN-WIN!)

Frugal Reading: Before the Hunt

I am a little bit obsessed with books – my house is literally overflowing with them. I have a way of just accruing books without really trying (see #5 below!), and lots of strategies for getting books cheap or free. I love owning, but there are lots of other ways I consume books on the cheap as well.

I thought it would be fun to write on my favorite frugal reading hacks (I’m a blogger now, so that means I get to call my strategies “hacks”). Before getting into the where, I will go over the how. Here are some basic rules to live by that will make you a better bargain book hunter.

  1. Keep a list of your to-reads, and have it with you always. I like to use Goodreads to keep track because all the info is right there from author to ISBN. I can accessit  from my phone anywhere to review my to-reads or add a book. I take advantage of custom shelves and have a “to buy” shelf for books I’m most eager to acquire.  In the past I’ve used Google Keep or a Moleskine that fit nicely in my purse. Whatever works for you, but if you’re writing down your list don’t forget to include the author. That was always my mistake.
  2. Embrace used. Personally, I prefer a used book to a new one. There is just something about giving that book another chance to be read, imagining who read it in it’s past, and taking in that old book smell. Every used book has a story that you could be a part of. When I was choosing a book to read on my trip to Paris last year, I picked up a used copy of Emma I’d purchased years ago and flipped through the pages. You know what I found? A train ticket from the Gare de Lyon in Paris for a bookmark. This book had already been to Paris! A new book could never be that cool.

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    This book has been to Paris twice!
  3. It helps to be into the classics. Great, cheap copies of classics are everywhere, even brand new. Most are in the public domain, meaning there are plentiful free ways to consume these books, some of which are excellent.
  4. Constant vigilance! Once you train yourself to be on the lookout, you’ll find there are used books everywhere.
  5. Don’t hide your bibliophilia. People give me books all the time, both on special occasions and completely spontaneously. When I was pregnant, I had a separate shower from each side of the family and they both came up with the exact same theme–baby books–and sent practically identical invitations. That’s because everyone knows I’m crazy about books. I had a coworker who gave me her books when she was done reading them even though they weren’t books I would like because she thought I could sell them at Half Price Books and get something I would like. When people ask what I want for Christmas, you can bet I have a slew of books on my wish list. And besides gifts, friends always send me tips if they discover a used book sale, or a clearance sale at CPH.org. If your love of books is well-known, they basically fall out of the sky.

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    A bookish birthday gift!
  6. Budget for books. Let’s face it, I’m going to buy books whether I’ve budgeted for them or not. Planning for a bit of book spending means you won’t have to starve just because you found a book you simply couldn’t leave behind. And setting some limits helps you be discerning about what you bring home. I always get very excited in bookstores and pick up a billion books, but I pare it down to keep my spending reasonable. This also helps me bring home only quality books I’d actually read.
  7. That leads nicely into my last point–just because a book is cheap (or even free!) doesn’t mean it’s a good value. I may find a book I’ve been looking for at a garage sale for a quarter but, on inspection, find it has obnoxiously narrow margins, tiny font, dog-eared pages, and the like. I would rather hold out for quality. Do you hate holding large hardcover books? Is that movie cover paperback just not as attractive as the original cover art? Do you hate it when a books has writing and underlines all over? Then you might not want to bring books like that home, because you are unlikely to enjoy reading them–or read them at all. I used to bring books like this home all the time because it was free or cost ten cents, but they just became clutter in my home. I often bought a second copy of the same book because I found it more aesthetically pleasing. Know what you like in a book and don’t settle for just anything with pages.

Because I could tell my post was going to get ridiculously long if I went into detail on all my favorite frugal book sources, I will be splitting it up into a series and periodically highlighting one at a time.

 

Surrendering a Salary, in Perspective

It was easy to make the decision to stay home with Little Guy from an emotional standpoint–it’s what I always wanted, and I knew it would make me happy–but the math had me second guessing. Looking at my salary, it felt like giving up so much–but it wasn’t as big a financial blow as it seemed at first glance. Though we definitely come away with less, the lifestyle changes create savings that soften the blow. Here are just a few of my biggest savings from staying home.

Taxes

I’ll get this obvious one out of the way. Taxes cut significantly into take-home pay. There is a certain sticker shock of giving up your salary, but factoring in taxes keeps things in perspective.

Childcare

Without doubt our biggest savings. One-third of my monthly pay would have gone directly into childcare–and my childcare was particularly cheap! There was a cooperative daycare basically on campus where I worked–monthly service hours required of parents kept costs low. Were this not the case, it might have been up to half.

Commuting

My workplace was about twenty-five minutes from home. That adds up at the pump. We also had to have two cars. Now my husband’s job is walking distance from home, and I work at home. We sold our second car for a little extra cash and thus save monthly on car insurance. Plus, having just one car and driving it mostly around town keeps maintenance costs to a minimum.

Convenience

This is a big one that seems like a small one. We have drastically reduced our convenience spending. I am not a morning person at all, and I am exceedingly forgetful. That means I often didn’t have time in the morning to make lunch, and even when I did think ahead and pack leftovers, I would forget them…a lot. I worked directly above a cafeteria, so I always had convenient, overpriced food to rescue me on these days. Then I would get home hungry and tired, and I didn’t always feel like cooking–so we went out to eat, or picked up Little Caesar’s (so temptingly close to us). These days, my husband watches Little Guy after work while I cook dinner. They get some quality time together, I get some alone time to decompress, and all three of us get delicious, healthy home-cooked meals. (Bonus: We are both home at lunchtime, so we can’t forget lunches anymore!)

Groceries

I could probably write 2000 words on grocery savings alone, but I’ll keep it short for now. When I was working, my husband did all the grocery shopping, but I did all the cooking. I rarely made time to plan meals and write him a list beforehand, meaning a lot of guesswork on his part. Often, we had to change plans because I didn’t have everything I needed, or food would go to waste because I didn’t know we had it or didn’t have a plan for it. Also, as stated in #4, I often came home too tired to cook and we would go out, and the planned-for meal would sometimes go bad before we got to it. Now that I’m doing both the shopping and the cooking, we never get more than we need–I have a plan for everything I buy, and I don’t scrap planned meals to go out to eat. I have time to shop mindfully, and even go to different stores to get the best prices.

Laundry

Our apartment, to my great chagrin, has no washer/dryer. Our favorite laundromat offers half-off washes on weekdays, but we didn’t have time or energy to take advantage of this deal. And we hated using our precious nights and weekends doing something so time-consuming and lame as laundry, so we put it off as long as humanly possible every time. Sometimes we bought new clothes (ahem, underwear) just to put off doing laundry, or at least under the reasoning that having more clothes would make it easier to put off laundry at some future date. We both had too much clothing, and spent too much on clothing. Now I always take the laundry on a half-off day, and get away spending a mere $2.50. My schedule makes it easy to make it out once a week, so no more wardrobe padding. (I have culled my wardrobe down to a small capsule wardrobe, which I’m crazy about–but that is another subject for another day!)

Pumping and formula

I haven’t had the best luck with pumping. I worked for a short time after my maternity leave, and it was a nightmare. I was constantly frustrated at not getting enough. I’m almost certain that I would have had to supplement with formula, which is very expensive. There also would have been pumping costs like replacing valves, getting flanges that are actually the right size, and extra bottles and/or disposable pumping bags.

Pick-me-ups

I was never really happy in the nine-to-five life. At work, I always felt that my time would be better spent with my husband, my baby, my cats, my books, my guitar, my kitchen, my you-get-the-idea. I was fine with the job itself and never felt that finding the “right” career would fix the problem. I never dreamed of being a “this” when I grew up. I dreamed of other things–the friends, family, husband, children, hobbies, travel. I always knew that there was more to life than work and that is what I dreamed of. I needed regular pick-me-ups to deal with my my less-than-fulfilling lifestyle. Hard day at work? Let’s go for drinks. Forgot my book for my precious lunch-time reading? Pick up a new one at the campus bookstore. Late getting home because I had to risk my life driving through a snowstorm to get to and from work, which I didn’t even want to go to in the first place, but didn’t want to waste a vacation day because then I couldn’t take my summer camping trips? Order pizza, the good stuffed-crust kind. Because I deserve it. I bought too much nice clothes, so I could feel good about my looks at work. I bought lots of expensive tea, so I could enjoy a luxury at my desk. I bought lots of expensive gifts for my husband for special occasions because I lacked the energy and time to do things on a daily basis that would mean much more to him than gifts (his primary love language is acts of service). An unfulfilling lifestyle leads to unnecessary expenses and lifestyle inflation. It just does.

It’s not easy to give up a salary, but the loss is never as big as it seems. There is value–monetary value–in having a stay-at-home parent in a household.

Adventures in Insourcing: Bread and Haircuts

Inspired by my steep financial goals and my new favorite blog, Frugalwoods, I had some adventures in insourcing this past weekend. I saved almost $80 for the month by doing things I would normally pay others to do for me. Not bad! I will start with the simplest and end with my boldest move – a haircut from my husband!

First up, homemade sandwich bread! Carbs are my favorite food. So, we eat a lot of sandwiches, toast, and garlic bread in this household. I recently started attempting to make sourdough bread, and was hoping to (maybe, someday) nail a recipe and then make it every weekend instead of buying sandwich bread. The trouble is the learning curve for sourdough kept pushing this goal further and further into the future. And even my best intentions of experimenting on the weekends didn’t work out because of the time commitment of feeding, hand-kneading, rising, and baking a sourdough loaf. All the while, I was still spending every week on subpar, storebought bread. Then I had an epiphany–instead of waiting until some vague date in the future when I might, maybe, possibly perfect my sourdough, I could just throw together a loaf in my forgotten bread machine. I found a great, simple (CHEAP) recipe from King Arthur Flour, and it made us a great loaf for about four minutes of effort–two throwing ingredients in the machine, and two slicing the bread. I estimate this change will save me about $10/mo.

Minimal effort sandwich bread

Also in the baking category, I made a giant batch of sourdough English muffins. Around here, we are about as obsessed with breakfast as Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson, so English muffins are very near and dear to our hearts. I got the recipe from King Arthur Flour (they really do have superior bread recipes!) and halved it a few weeks ago with great success; the muffins looked and tasted as good–nay, better than–store-bought. This weekend I made the full recipe and turned out 33 homemade English muffins. I put enough in our cupboard for the week, and froze 26. That’s English muffins for a whole month! Estimated savings: $5/mo.

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English muffins rising, next to my “frugal rolling pin” (AKA bottle of sweet vermouth)

I used to cut my husband’s hair regularly, but I got pregnant and didn’t want to do anything at all, and then had a baby and didn’t have the time. But, in our new efforts to save, we decided to revive the practice. Dusted off the old clippers, and did a simple long-ish buzz cut. He looks great, we saved about $15, and Little Guy got some entertainment out of the deal.

Now for the big one–my husband cut my hair. Inspired by this post from Frugalwoods, I decided to take a hitherto unimaginable step (unimaginable not because I thought the prospect horrifying, but because I literally could not have imagined the idea on my own). My options up to this point were 1) tolerate my hair being shaped like a house and being a total nightmare to maintain, or 2) pay for my usual $50+ haircut (I always went to an expensive salon because I have curly hair, and the cheaper salons just don’t cut it right, so it was better to spend $50 on a good haircut than $25 on a bad one). Then I discovered this third option, the home haircut. My husband very bravely agreed to try it out. Worst case-scenario is I end up going to the salon afterwards, right? So, we half-read some tutorials, and I showed him what the stylist normally does to do the length and layering, and then we went for it. If my hubby decides to do anything, he does it right; he didn’t grumble or roll his eyes and he wasn’t timid about snipping. We worked together on a little face framing, and did make a little mistake there, but we just rolled with it–smoothed out the choppy, too-short block on the right and cut the left to match. No problem. At the end, he did a length comparison and touched up the crooked areas, and voila! My split ends are gone, I am layered up to avoid the house shape, and we saved about $50. Oh, and I’m completely satisfied with my haircut!

My haircut – totally not house-shaped anymore!

There you have it, $80 of savings in one weekend thanks to a little not-very-hard work, courage, and Googling. In the course of a year, I will usually get two $50 haircuts, and my husband about ten $15 haircuts; that makes $250/year savings on haircuts, plus about $150 a year on the bread and English muffins. That makes this weekend and its efforts worth about $400/year.