Girls’ night in

Paint and wine studios have popped up all over and are extremely popular in my city. I first splurged on one years ago for a close friend’s birthday gift (Groupon, half price), and it still came to over $50 for the two of us, including a couple glasses of wine. We went to the studio, where the tables were all set up with blank white canvases on easels and aprons were available to protect our clothes. Paint tubes and brushes were laid out and a simple snack buffet sat in the corner. We also got our glasses of wine since they were part of the Groupon deal, otherwise glasses were $7-10 per glass. Then the instructor set up and the class began. We decided we weren’t super interested in painting the picture chosen for the evening, so we chose our own designs and looked them off our or phones. Maybe a little silly since part of the price we paid was for the instruction, but it was nice to have the set up regardless. We ignored everyone else in the studio and just painted and chatted for the rest of the evening. We had a great time, and since Groupon had a good deal on it, the price wasn’t bad for a birthday and night out and it was definitely worth the trip. 

Of course, after that evening I put the painting away into a closet and promptly forgot about it. We might live in a smaller house, but there are still places to hide things in storage, as I seem to find out every time I go through our closets.  A couple years later as I was setting up my son’s room (and purging our house in preparation of his arrival), I found the painting again and decided to put it up in his room. I figured the artwork was good enough for a baby’s room, and it was free decoration regardless. We’ll see if he still wants it up there when he’s 15 😉

My “masterpiece” on the right – my sister’s on the left

Since I haven’t been to one in person recently, I looked up the cost for the one closest to me, and I was shocked to see the price is $40/person and drinks are not included. While it’s a great time, and they cover the cost of the canvas, paints, and brushes, that is not a cheap evening. 

When that same friend’s birthday came up this year, she hosted a paint and sip night at her house for the second year in a row, instead of going out to celebrate. As we get older (almost 30 now, ha), I’m finding that more and more often my friends are interested in smaller, more intimate evenings at people’s houses instead of a loud bar or event, which means we’re able to have better conversation and deeper connections with the few people we do spend our time with. I’m not sure if this is true in general, or if I’ve just gotten lucky with my group of friends. I don’t see them as often now that I have a kid, but when I do, we tend to make the most of that time together. And it’s definitely the time and conversation that we’re looking for over what we do with that time. 

Before I headed over, I mixed up some homemade taco and creole seasonings and put together a gift bag along with some of the jam I had canned the previous week. Like me, she prefers homemade presents (she’s previously made me unpaper towels and cloth diaper wet bags – thankful to have a friend who can sew!). And she wasn’t the least bit surprised when I didn’t bring a birthday card because I hate them and never give them to people 😉

Homemade taco mix – refilled our jar at the same time
For the birthday party paint night, there were 5 of us who got together, so if we had gone out to a studio, that would have been $200 plus drinks (easily another $20/person, so $300+ total). Instead, we brought cheap bottles of wine and snacks from Trader Joe’s and had a better dinner than had we just eaten what was at a studio. My friend has a ton of paints and extra canvases, and she found a YouTube video that we could follow along for instruction. 
The best part about using a video instead of following along live is that you can pause and rewind when you get busy chatting and distracted from the actual painting. It took us a good three hours to get through an hour long video, and we had a great laid back time. Nights like these remind me how much I need ladies nights, especially since they happen so rarely now. 

The best kind of frugal nights are the ones where you don’t “miss out” by choosing the cheaper option but instead have an even better time and you just happen to spend less (or no) money. A night that cost us each maybe $20 (including dinner, drinks and supplies) was one I enjoyed and will remember way more than a night out to a bar that can cost exponentially more. Quality of the company and the confort of the location well outweighs a more expensive event. 

My final product

Comparison is the thief of (early retirement)

All you hear in the news is how everyone has so much consumer debt, student loan debt, mortgage debt, and that retirement is further and further away due to the economy/bad choices/etc.  Looking around at our coworkers and most of our friends, this seems to be mostly true. Lots of expensive cars, trips and toys on credit cards, and student loans that often didn’t equate to equally good jobs. The housing market in our area has exploded in the last few years and those who can think about buying are mostly pushing further out to afford a bigger home.

I graduated college at 21 and got married six months later. We bought our home at 23 at the bottom of the market, and my student loans were paid off at 24. My husband and I both work “career” jobs and don’t struggle to pay our bills or worry much about emergency expenses. When we compare ourselves to “most people” our age, we are doing amazingly well. We are comfortable and know most would love to be in our shoes. While we’ve made some good choices and stayed out of debt, this success has allowed us to get complacent. As our incomes have grown, we’ve stayed comfortable and allowed our spending to grow with them.

Taking a walk to the park on a laid back Sunday
And then I started reading online blogs about financial independence, and realized that maybe we could do a lot better. I had never really considered an alternative to the traditional work story, and we were comfortably within what we would need for that path. Until I realized that wasn’t the only path – MrMoneyMustache “retired” at 30, Frugalwoods became financially independent in their early 30s, and RetireBy40 beat that goal by two years. Since we’re in the last months of our twenties and a long ways off from financial independence, they’ve blown us out of the water. Comparison here isn’t the thief of joy, however, because they show what’s possible and what’s better than the story we’re usually told. I always do better when I have a higher benchmark to measure myself against, and only get in trouble when I start focusing on how much better I’m doing than others. There’s no use in measuring against someone who will be stuck working a job they hate until they’re 70 because I know that’s not where I want to be. Better to benchmark ourselves against those who reached financial independence in their 30s and 40s. We may not be ultra ultra frugal like some of these bloggers, but there is considerable room for improvement that can get us there well before the typical 65.

Perhaps we want to be here full time when we’re 45 – I want the option to be able to decide
Reading stories of early retirees has also gotten me to realize that “retirement” doesn’t need to mean sit around and do very little with your time. I’ve started to consider what we might want to do and where we might want to be if we weren’t tied to a traditional job. While financial independence looks to be a good fifteen years out for us, it’s sparked dreams and ideas that look very different from what I might have otherwise imagined. Perhaps we will stay right where we are at and continue our careers. Or perhaps we will pick up and move to the islands once our son graduates high school. Financial independence means WE get to decide. Financial freedom to choose our own path.

Since learning about the financial independence / retire early movement, I’m sometimes upset with myself that I’ve “wasted” a decade in which I could have been making even better financial choices. I’ve always been careful with my money, but being ultra frugal hasn’t been my fallback. This means I’ve definitely spent more money and time on things that weren’t worth it. That is part of being human, though. Everyone can look back and see clearly what they could have done better. And I do realize that I’m taking control of this now and not waking up at 60 years old, still at my desk, and realizing I’m trapped with no way out. Instead of being frustrated that I’ve wasted years comparing against the typical consumer, I’m going to take this new focus and do the best we can now. When you know better, you do better.

Change your impact without changing your life (water edition)

Working in the green building industry, I’ve learned that most people don’t care that they are renting or buying a LEED Platinum residence, beyond the expectation of high quality that comes with it. The good news is, conservation and quality often go hand in hand, and saving water/energy/materials can also mean saving money. As long as the change is made, I care less about the reason for it. Quality/environment/cost savings, the outcome is the same. 

The average person in the US uses 80-100 gallons of water per day, and a lot of this is wasted simply by using higher flow plumbing fixtures, something that brings no value over a water efficient version. In the last decade, there has been serious improvement in low flow fixtures to the point where you can’t pick them out just by using them. Gone are the days of struggling to get your hair clean from the sluggish flow of your “green” showerhead. My mother is very particular about her showers, and she’s been perfectly happy with the low flow versions that are available now. Try them out, they’re great, I promise. And you’ll save a ton of water in the process without having to skip your shower. 

When we moved into our house, one of the first things we did was replace our two shower heads with Niagara Conservation 1.25GPM shower heads (there is also also a 1.5GPM (gallon per minute) version if you are really particular, but the 1.25 works great). We also replaced our two toilets with the ultra high efficiency 0.8 GPF Stealth toilet. A standard efficient toilet is 1.28 gallons per flush, and a dual flush averages out slightly lower than that, so the toilet we chose saves even more water than that. And really, all toilets work the same 😉 

Finally, we added 0.5GPM aerators to our bathroom faucets. Aerators spread the water out in tiny droplets so a lot less water comes out per minute without negatively impacting your ability to wash your hands or brush your teeth. We left our kitchen sink alone so pots full quickly. 

Once we made these changes, our water bill dropped significantly. The previous owners used an average of 1200-1600 cubic feet per month, and we lowered that to 600-800 cubic feet. Also, there were 2 of them and now 4 of us, so the savings was even more dramatic. 

Our bill this month (we get one every other month) is for 800 cubic feet of water, which is on the high side for us – Seattle has broken a record and we are currently at 53 days of no measurable rain! That being said, we’ve had to water our garden, so our water bill has gone up some, though not terribly because we reuse water where we can and only water once the sun begins to set (less evaporation to contend with) and mulch the garden heavily. 

Completely dead grass in August – only edibles get water

800 cubic feet = 5984 gallons of water. 

5984 gallons / 60 days X 4 people = 25 gallons per person per day (including washing cloth diapers for our son). 

Without making sacrifices to the way we live – we still shower regularly! – we’ve been able to cut our water use down to about 3/4 to 1/2 of the typical American household. In the winter, this drops to about 19 gallons per person per day. 

Our current water bill is $188.52. Even a conservative 25% increase to that bill would be an additional $47/month. (Some of the bill is a base charge so we don’t see a full 1/3-1/2 reduction in that cost). 

So what does it really cost to replace those fixtures? Not very much. 

  1. Two toilets: $169.20 x 2 = $338.40
  2. Two shower heads: $8 x 2 = $16
  3. Six pack aerators: $8.95

$363.35 + 10% sales tax = $399.69*

*these numbers don’t include a plumber to do the install, but they are all very simple change outs. YouTube is a great resource if you haven’t done it before. 

If you divide that $400 cost by the $47/month savings, you would have these fixtures paid off in 9 months. Since we’ve had them installed for over 5 years, we’ve saved a significant amount of money for very little effort – no lifestyle change required. 

Living in the moment (but don’t forget about the future)

Growing up in the Seattle area, our summers rarely heated up past the mid eighties, and anything over 80 feels sweltering. I quickly adjusted back to Northwest weather after moving back from South Carolina seven years ago and prefer temperatures in the mid 50s to mid 70s, so when the weather forecast rocketed up to close to triple digits for last week, I made a quick decision to escape to a cooler area for a long weekend. I had recently been told to take two days off work in the month of August (separate from vacation time), so this seemed like the perfect reason. My mother in law is even more sensitive to heat than I am, and since she watches our son Thursday/Friday, she was available to take a quick trip those days as well. We quickly made a plan to head up to the San Juan Islands, where the high temperatures stood at a much cooler  82 degrees. 

Smoky skies courtesy of Canadian wildfires

British Columbia Canada has had some bad wildfires this month and the smoke has engulfed Washington state (and we are still under an air advisory today), but the breezes kept the air reasonably clear for our visit over the weekend. It was wonderful to breathe clearer, cooler air for a couple of days and we were able to avoid the worst of the smog. There’s a chance of rain this weekend along with a bit of a breeze, so things should finally clear up by next week. 

Since this was a last minute trip, we had a very limited selection of places to stay and we booked a home for $1100 for 3 nights (including taxes, cleaning fees, etc) which is considerably more than we would normally spend, as we prefer to use our vacation money on food and experiences rather than the place we sleep. However, we were bringing my 82 year old grandmother with us, and we needed a comfortable place for her to stay. She’s very active and mobile, but is past the point in her life where she wants to camp or be without a working toilet, which is completely understandable. While we are usually very frugal when it comes to trips, having experiences with her is completely worth the extra cost. And per person, the cost of the home was not that bad considering we had 5 people along, so would have required two rooms had we stayed in a hotel. It was just a lot more expensive than our usual summertime campsite option of $10 – $50 per night. Bonus – we had a view of the water and access to a great rock-skipping beach directly across the street. 

View from the front porch

Other than the cost of the house, we spent very little over the 4 day trip. We stocked up on food at local farms and the grocery store so we ate almost all of our meals at the house or packed them to go. We spent our time at the beach, going on multiple hikes, exploring the awesome local library, and visiting the farmers market, all of which were free activities. Besides the house, we didn’t spend any more money than we would have at home, but definitely had a great time and got to explore places we’d never been before. We didn’t “miss out” at all by not spending more money. We don’t often go on week long vacations and prefer to take shorter weekend trips but more often throughout the year. By keeping the per trip cost reasonable, we’re able to do a lot of traveling and adventuring without hurting our budget. This also allows for the spontaneous last minute trip like this one when we know we can keep the cost minimal. We don’t spend money on television, cars, or “things” so we are able to allocate more of our budget to experiences and travel, which are worth it every time. We never regret collecting memories like we would things. 

Part of my feelings on frugality and long term planning is a focus on how to make the most out of every month and year instead of buckling down to the nth degree to reach financial independence a few years sooner. We are careful with our money, don’t carry any consumer debt, and put money away for retirement with every paycheck.  While it’s important to keep that goal in mind for the long term, we never know what tomorrow may bring. It’s important to find joy and adventure today. We won’t always be able to take my son’s great grandmother on hikes through the woods to a cliff overlooking seals sunbathing on the rocks. I don’t want to look back and wish we would have spent a little more money enjoying time with the people we love. Always take the trip (as long as you don’t put it on a credit card). 

Watching 20+ seals lounge on the rocks

Drops of water vs the garden hose

Looking ahead can be really inspiring when you look at what a small increase in your % of savings adjusts your timeline to financial independence. Per MrMoneyMustache, increasing your savings rate from 20% to 30% drops total years worked from 37 to 28. 9 years knocked off for a ten percent savings rate increase is pretty staggering, and pretty darn good incentive for looking to places to cut from your budget. While my goal of FIRE (financial independence/retire early) by 45 isn’t the super short time frame like some who have hit that goal by 30 or 40, it’s still two decades ahead of what is considered typical retirement age. Hence why now at 29 I’m feeling the pressure to make the best decisions I can to get us there. 

I’ve gotten a lot more focused on our recurring expenses in our budget these days, and I find I’ve gotten a good handle on the day to day mindless spending – no more $5 latte here, $10 scarf there. Saying no to buying clothes, shoes, and accessories over the last six months has saved a few hundred dollars since I’ve never a big spender there anyway. Coffee shops and work lunches are a much bigger weakness of mine and used to rack up a couple hundred dollars a month until I set myself a $150/month limit back in December and have gotten this number to a much more reasonable $50/month. Weekend breakfasts are now mostly spent at home instead of out at restaurants and (again, my weakness) coffee shops. If I’m not careful, I would probably live off coffee and pastries. 

Pastries at the farmers market. Yum.

Otherwise, I drive as little as possible, am very mindful of our water and energy use, and we have no consumer debt. Our lifestyle has very little of the typical consumer budget fat. We have one tv (given to us for free), don’t pay for cable, and don’t upgrade our phones until they are well past the need to keep up on work. 

Food has always been our biggest monthly expenditure after our mortgage and childcare, but we’ve recently started to get that back in check with the typical solutions of eating at home and buying in bulk. The recent changes are really just corrections back to the way we lived when we were first married and broke. After the intense focus of buying our house and paying off my student loans, we relaxed and allowed some of the typical lifestyle creep, though we always kept it in check compared to our friends. 

We generally put money into savings every month and are hurriedly paying off our small real estate investment. However, by reigning in the mindless spending and excessive eating (and drinking) out, we’ve had a couple of really great months for savings of an extra $500-$700 over what we’ve been used to seeing, which has felt fantastic. The sneaky $5, $10, $20 purchases over a course of a month really do add up. I’m definitely kicking myself for allowing so much money drain through our fingers through the years, but there isn’t anything to do but look forward and do better from here on out. 

So in terms of cutting expenditures and living frugally and mindfully, we have done really well recently and have seen some decent savings bumps because of it. Unfortunately, we also have some large projects around our home this summer. Now that we’ve been in our home over six years, we’re starting to look at some typical home maintenance/repairs. Thankfully we bought a one story starter home so it’s manageable for us to do all the work ourselves. Unfortunately, big house projects still aren’t cheap if you do them yourselves. 

Summer projects:

  1. Paint exterior of the house. Just the paint and painting supplies alone cost $750, and that was with a discount and already owning some of the supplies. In comparison, though, the cost to hire this out would cost upwards of $6000-$10,000 in our high cost area. 90% DIY discount is well worth it, even contending with a toddler who likes to paint himself instead of the walls. 
  2. Fence replacement. While we don’t live on a “big” lot by county standards, we do have a 1/4 acre, which is large for our area, and we love it. However, this also means we have a very long area of fence along our backyard, which backs up to a wooded park. This gives us a completely private backyard and the feeling that our property is much larger than it is. There are trails through the woods, so it’s important to have a solid cedar fence to preserve that privacy, but that fence is now old and falling apart in places. Since we have two large dogs, our backyard needs to be securely fenced in and this isn’t something we can put off one more year. It’s actually something that should have happened a year or two ago, but life got overwhelming with a new baby and the fence hasn’t been replaced yet. Almost the entire fence (back and two sides of our yard) will need to be replaced sooner than later, but we’ll do sections at a time to keep it from being overwhelming. The total cost of this project will probably be about $5,000 to do it right so it lasts a good 30 years. I haven’t calculated what this would cost to contact out, but likely 2-5X the cost. 
    Temporary fix with scrap lumber at the very worst sections so they don’t fall down
  3. I haven’t had to do ANY repairs/maintenance on my car since I bought it two and a half years ago beyond oil changes, so it needed a little love. Last week I paid for new brakes, tires, an oil change, and a few small incidentals, which cost be $900. The tires were the priciest bit, but I definitely could have saved some money if I had done the rest myself (I have changed my own oil in the past and my husband has done brakes). That being said, we are in the middle of a number of other DIY tasks, including the ones listed above, and I decided my time and effort was best spent focusing on getting those completed before the end of summer, so I spent the money on a mechanic. They are a fair, local shop and I’m well taken care of there, so I’m happy enough to take my car there. If I worked fewer hours and had more time in my week, I might make a different choice, but for now, it’s money well spent. 

When I started writing this post, I was feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by the fact that we’ve been doing great at reducing small expenditures but the big ones seem to keep multiplying. We had one really great month followed by a really expensive one. It feels like we’re focusing on stopping drops of water and then getting inundated by the garden hose on full blast. By writing the list down, though, I’m realizing that all the big expenditures are house and car maintenance or upgrades (we are also expanding our back patio – pouring the concrete ourselves) and they’re part of ownership, plus we are saving a ton of money by doing all of the work on our house and yard ourselves. I’ve been frustrated by spending (and planning to spend) a few thousand dollars without really doing the math to realize how much it all would cost to contract out. Almost all of it is required maintenance for a home, and if we want it to continue being a lovely place to live, we have to put the money and effort into it. Too many homes fall into disrepair and cost a LOT more money to fix later on. We’re putting the time and money into it now so that we don’t pay for it later. And we aren’t taking out a loan to pay a contractor to do all the work for us; we’re paying for it all in cash – and credit card reward gift cards to Home Depot. Now if only our credit card rewards included the auto shop 🙂

Why running the numbers is so important: when my assumptions are completely wrong

Before I got pregnant, I went car-free for my commute a few days a week on average, though looking back, I should have done it a lot more. My office has moved since then, but it was 4.3 miles away at that time. I switched up my commute between walking, running, biking, and the bus, depending on how I felt that day, and I’ve biked in both the rain and snow. I did drive often enough as well, as my job required me to drive during the day relatively often, and on days I had somewhere to be soon after work (usually the gym or meeting up with a friend). 

Part of my incentive to drive less was that I drove an older car (1996 Buick Century), and while it was in pretty good shape, it had started to get to the age and mileage where I knew it would start needing more work done. The less I drove it, then the longer I would be able to drive the car. There was a clear financial benefit to leaving it parked and using other ways to get around. 

My trusty old Buick covered in snow

Two and a half years ago, just before I had my son, I bought my 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid off my parents  for a discounted price (my dad wanted a “safer” car for his first grandbaby – i. e. one with more airbags). Since then, the only maintenance it has required is oil changes and new brakes / tires. The car was paid for in cash so there’s no loan payment to be calculated as part of the cost (I’ve never had a car loan in my life, and I hope to keep it that way. There’s nothing I hate more than throwing away money on interest).  Because my maintenance costs have been so low, and the car gets an average 35+ MPG, I didn’t think there was much savings to leave it parked for the short trips (especially if I was then paying to take the bus). Plus, life got much more complicated with a small child in tow who needed to be dropped off before work. My husband works early and long hours, so I do the drop off/pick up most days, though he does take him on Wednesdays. Our days are busy enough as it is that I hadn’t felt up to the task of looking for an alternate way to commute, let do an analysis of the real cost of busing versus driving to work to better inform my decisions, but since it is one of my goals for this year, I figured I should finally get to it. 

I now run to pick up my son at daycare on Tuesday afternoons and we bus home together, and then I run the 6 miles to work in the morning. I leave my car at work Tuesday afternoons and then drive it home on Wednesdays. I find that I actually haven’t lost out on any quality time on those days, as I’m now not wasting any of that time shuttling myself to different places, but instead I’m actively either working out or spending quality time hanging out with my son. He also LOVES riding the bus, and asks daily if it is a bus day, so I have extra incentive not to skip a week. He’s great at getting us to ride the bus on the weekends for the same reason. Even though it takes longer, his joy in taking the bus makes it an enjoyable trip. 

Waiting anxiously for the bus to arrive, transit pass in hand
Now to get down to the numbers. I’m going to focus on my current Tuesday/Wednesday alternate commute, since I have that set up already. My mother and grandmother watch our son on Wednesdays and my mother in law watches him Thursday/Friday, so those days look different. Having family childcare part of the week makes a HUGE difference in our monthly expenses ($735/month for two days a week versus $1425 if he were at daycare full time – a reasonably affordable option for our high cost of living area). Not only does our arrangement cost a lot less, but our son gets a special bond with both his grandmothers and great grandmother that is irreplaceable. We are so lucky to have the set up we do. We do have to shuttle him to different places because of it though, so I’m working on dropping the car one day at a time. 

  • Distance to daycare: 5.5 miles 
  • Distance to work: 2.9 miles
  • Total distance: 8.4 miles each way 

Using AAA’s 2016 calculation of driving costs, how it breaks down:

  • AAA considers a Camry a “large sedan,” but since it is a hybrid, it seems that using the “small sedan” option is more accurate (57.4¢/mile versus 75.8¢/mile). 
  • I don’t drive a ton of miles each year, so the per mile cost is slightly higher (using AAA’s 10,000 miles/year option. I average under 1000 miles a month so this is pretty accurate). 

57.4¢/mile x 8.4 miles x 2 = $9.64 per round trip. 

Peak bus cost: $2.75 (children under 5 are free) 

Weekly savings from ditching my car just one day a week: $6.89. (If I were to use the “large sedan” category, this number goes up to $9.99). 

Time to park this gas guzzler more often!

If you had asked me last week, I would have said I was running and taking the bus for health reasons and to lessen the amount of gas I use in a given week. I wouldn’t have thought that it would also be saving me money. Turns out, not driving just one day a week saves me $27.56/month. Not bad for something that is actually brings more enjoyment in my life. 

My mother in law watches my son at our house on Fridays, so that’s the next day on my radar to work on ditching my car. The numbers look a little different since I would then head straight to work. 

5.5 miles x 57.4¢/mile = $3.16 (savings of just 41¢ per trip, since I would be busing both directions). I would also have to leave my house half an hour earlier, so it probably isn’t worth doing because I would miss out on the leisurely Friday breakfast at home I enjoy with my son and mother in law currently. That being said, the numbers do look better if I were to bike just one way ($3.57 savings and I would only have to leave 10 minutes early, plus get a workout in). 

I unfortunately got rid of my bike when we cleaned out our carport a few years ago, but considering it was too small for me (I got it when I was 10 or 12 years old) and a mountain bike, a replacement makes sense anyway. While I haven’t started looking yet, I think I may end up with a bike again. I actually really dislike biking as a past time but will put up with it for a car free commute. (Though this may be more because we live on the top of a hill – if I didn’t have to bike back up at the end of a work day, I might feel differently). Perhaps I will start looking around for an affordable bicycle – it wouldn’t take too many trips to make it pay for itself, and paying for one would be incentive for me to use it and get my money’s worth! 

Microlending and the intention-action gap 

I don’t know if it’s because I’m turning 30 this year, or because my son is getting older and I’m getting some time back in my life, but I have been looking deeply at a lot of areas of my life. While I may not have a “before I turn 30” bucket list like I’ve seen from a number of people, I do want to begin this new decade of my life with intention. 

Long runs are great for thinking

I’ve identified as Christian my entire life, attending church with friends in high school when my family stopped going regularly, but I’ve struggled with the church and a lot of what is done in the name of Christianity. I went to a liberal elementary school, a more liberal high school, and a very crunchy liberal arts university in Oregon, and I voted for both Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton, though I may not ageee with all of their policies. And I uncomfortably identify myself as Christian around very liberal friends, usually with a caveat that I’m very much nondenominational and I believe in Jesus and doing good. As an adult, I find myself drifting in and out of regular church attendance and generally frustrated overall with how most Christians act these days. I’m now back to semi-regular church attendance right now, meaning I may go for two or three weeks in a row and then take a month off. 

The first church BBQ I’ve ever attended

For the first time though, I’m reading more to do with Christianity than I have in my entire life. Thanks to the college friends I still connect with occasionally on Facebook, I stumbled upon Rachel Held Evans and her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master’ where she dissects the Bible’s commands and tries to “live Biblically” to the letter while running commentary through her more progressive worldview. She speaks out publically for “the least of those,” and honestly tells of her struggles with faith. She’s also hilarious and I found myself laughing out loud while I read her book. I’ve since read all of her other books and haven’t been disappointed. Reading her thoughts made me realize that maybe there are more awesome Christians out there than those I know personally that seemed to be anomalies. 

Little man likes to listen to the music in the “big room” before heading off to the church nursery

From Rachel Held Evans, I continued on and found Jen Hatmaker. I finished reading 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, and it was exactly what I’ve been searching for. She writes about reducing consumption, caring for the earth, and loving people in the best way possible. In seven consecutive months, she takles food, clothes, things, media, environment and waste, spending, and busyness by severely limiting each. In month one, she eats just seven foods in order to clear space and to acknowledge how much of the world consumes so much less than what we’re used to. 

In her book, she also writes about Kiva*, a microlending nonprofit agency. 

From their website: 

“Kiva is an international nonprofit, founded in 2005 and based in San Francisco, with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. We celebrate and support people looking to create a better future for themselves, their families and their communities.”

I’ve heard bits and pieces about microlending for at least a decade, but I never pursued it. Giving is something I’ve never put down in writing as a goal, and because of that, it doesn’t happen near as often as I think it should. Between reading Jen Hatmaker and a Rachel Held Evans in between financial independence blogs and forums, taking care of others seemed to be glaringly absent from most discussions about personal finance. Those of us fortunate enough to be chasing financial independence are so far ahead of most of the world, and most even in our own country. While there is certainly choice involved, here are many, many people whose circumstances aren’t anywhere near enviable. There is a definite privilege in chasing the idea of early retirement and financial independence that tends to get ignored. The more I spend and save with intention, the more I am drawn to also making sure that we don’t forget “the least of these.” Year end goal #6: be intentional about charitable giving is about being cognizant of how good our situation in life is and how even a little can make a huge difference in the lives of others. 

The sermon at church last week was about the intention – action gap in our lives. I’m definitely guilty of this as the next person. My life and time is so filled up with things and busyness that I have a whole laundry list of good things I’ll look into someday. The difference between hearing about a food pantry that needs supplies to actually dropping off a trunkload of food. Going forward with intention means making the space in my life, and my pocketbook, for important things outside of the scope of my little world. 

I made my first micro loan today through http://www.Kiva.org to a farmer in Central America. $75 might not make a huge dent in my personal finance goals, but it will make a real difference in his and his family’s lives. Being intentional with my money means I can make sure that $75 goes toward a positive cause instead of in $5 and $10 coffee shop visits. 

*Kiva loans do not pay out interest to individuals, so this is really a “donation,” not a money making opportunity. 

What to do with a 1/4 cow: Korean ground beef

Step 1. Visit a farm and get to know the farmers who lovingly care for their animals and the land they graze on. 

Step 2. Order a 1/4 cow and, once delivered, completely fill your chest freezer full of said beef. 

Step 3. Thaw the first two packages of ground beef – packaged just 10 days ago – to make a quick, tasty weeknight dinner. 

Packed this month. Can’t get better than that.
Since we purchased the beef in bulk, our price per pound was considerably less than the $7 listed on the package, but even that is a great deal considering we pay that amount for generic organic ground beef at the grocery store. While eating a vegetarian diet would be cheaper and generally easier on the planet, I live with two carnivore males who would revolt if we didn’t eat meat regularly. Honestly, I’ve never seen a 2 year old love meat as much as my son. And I enjoy it as well, though I do go meat-free for the majority of my breakfasts and lunches. However, I am conscious about how we can be the best consumers possible, so I focus on buying in bulk and supplementing with wild game. 
Pinterest had yet to make its debut when I got married at the ripe old age of 21, so I never used it for planning my wedding like many of my friend since (which probably helped keep our wedding costs down quite a bit!), but I do find it really helpful for looking up recipes both for dinner and for canning/pickling. We had just gone through pounds and pounds of ground venison to clear out the freezer in preparation for the beef we just picked up, so I wanted to do something different than some variation of tacos or meatloaf, our two main stand ins. Enter in Korean ground beef and rice bowls courtesy of The Recipe Critic

Short form of the recipe, with tweaks by me:

  • Sauté 2lbs ground beef (hooray! Using the first of our bulk purchase), 1 coarsely chopped red bell pepper, and 4 large garlic scapes right out of the garden. 
  • Mix 4 tsp hot chili oil (we didn’t have any sesame oil, and I think the chili oil gave it great additional flavor), 1/2 cup soy sauce, 1/2 tsp ground ginger, 1/2 tsp white pepper (I always use white pepper for Asian recipes, but black would be fine), 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper, and 1/2 cup brown sugar. 
  • Add sauce to ground beef and simmer for a half hour while your rice (1.5 cups) cooks. 
  • Eat over rice and garnish with green onions and sesame seeds. 
So tasty and so easy!

This recipe made enough for the three of us with enough leftovers for me to take to work (my husband works construction with an appetite to match and my toddler eats more than my grandma, so portion sizes in our house look a little different than average). It was a quick meal to have on a weeknight and one we will definitely make again. 

Little man is always so proud to show off the garden harvest

We planted garlic in with our raspberries 4 years ago and because we’ve never been good about pulling every last bulb out of the ground at the end of the season, it’s spread like a tasty, tasty weed. 

Garlic taste testing. Turkish Giant is the tiny one on the end ??

Any recipe I can load up on garlic during the summer is a great one because we have such an abundance in our garden. Growing up, my husband would take tubes of garlic paste and eat them straight, and he now snacks on fermented black garlic with our son on a regular basis. And I’ve previously been known to grow 10 different heirloom varieties at a time and have garlic tastings at the end of the year, so you could say that we love our garlic around here. Bonus that it comes out of our yard and eliminates one more item from the grocery store. We may only have a 1/4 acre, but we do our best to make it count. Any meal that comes mostly from local, humanely raised meat and produce out of our garden is a good one in my book, and this is one I will definitely make again – and enjoy again for lunch tomorrow, of course. 

Marrying young was one of the best financial decisions I’ve made so far

Growing up, if you had asked me about marriage, I would have told you there was no way I would be married before I was 30. I had too much to do with my life before I was going to “settle down,” nor did I expect to find someone I wanted to spend that much of my life with. Life doesn’t always go as you expect it to though, and I found myself engaged and married at 21, almost a decade sooner than planned. 
My husband and I met at 14 and had a summer fling that ended soon after we started high school. We stayed in touch occasionally, but we weren’t close. High school graduation came and I went off to college and he to Marine Corps boot camp. He deployed, and we started talking more frequently via email and Facebook, and continued to do so once he returned. We found ourselves both single the next winter and the tone of our (now phone calls) changed, and when he came home on leave, we were inseparable. 

My first trip out to visit. I squeezed in a 4 day weekend mid semester so I wouldn’t miss any class.

I was in my final semester of college and set to graduate a year early, and suddenly I found myself researching jobs in South Carolina instead of near home or school. A few months into dating (and one long weekend trip out east), I found myself preparing to move across the country at graduation. 

At a friend’s wedding a few months before we got engaged
Straight out of college and he out of the military barracks, our apartment expectations were quite low, so we were able to find an affordable 2 bedroom and eventually moved in a roommate to drop the cost even more. $575/month split 3 ways ways affordable even to me on a below minimum wage naturalist internship (but I did end up finding a second job a month in to cover my student loan costs as well). After living together for a month and a half, we got engaged, and planned the wedding for 4 months after that. 

This was pre-Pinterest, and my one friend who had gotten married had also been to a military man, so I was able to keep any desires of a fancy wedding in check. While even now I wouldn’t want to blow a ton of money on a large wedding, I probably would have seen that number slip up quite a bit just from lifestyle creep. Some things wouldn’t have changed though – we got married at my parents’ house and “catered” via Safeway and Costco (the Marines made it so we couldn’t count on a specific wedding date and put down a non refundable deposit, so that made the decision simple). I borrowed the bridesmaids’ bouquets from that same married friend who would be my matron of honor (who just recently celebrated her 8th anniversary!) which kept the cost and waste down, in addition to being gorgeous. My mother in law made my dress, my aunt made my necklace and earrings, and my other aunt and cousin made the cake, and that same cousin took the photographs. 


My parents offered us $5000 toward the wedding, with the caveat that they would write us a check for anything that hadn’t been spent at the end (we of course took that challenge and got a $1500 check, which we put toward a future home down payment). We had a wonderful time and didn’t feel that our wedding lacked for anything – except maybe a huge bill after the fact, which we definitely didn’t miss. 

Cabin in the woods we spend our 5 night honeymoon. Bonus – deep discounts for traveling in November!

We opened our first joint bank account on our honeymoon and deposited all of the cash wedding gifts we received into a savings account that we would not touch until we bought our house a year and a half later. By having a shared goal (and having married a spouse who was frugal by nature), we were able to buy well before anyone we knew, aided by the availability of a VA loan thanks to my husband’s military service. Having two people instead of one early on kept our costs low per person and definitely gave us an advantage over most of our friends and gave us a reason to save instead of spend. 

Over the years we’ve traded off as main breadwinner, most notably allowing me to take the internship in South Carolina (which got me my first job once we moved back home) and later for my husband to go to school on the GI Bill and the GET program (Washington’s 529-like option that we won’t use for our son because it has so many limitations). 

Home purchased, my student loans paid off, and no consumer debt, we were able to think about having a baby well before most of our friends had even settled down (many still haven’t), and I got pregnant when we were both 26 and had our son soon after our 27th birthdays. Marrying at 21, we had time to get to know each other as a couple and set ourselves up in a good financial situation before jumping into the life altering decision to become parents. 

Our first family vacation when our son was 7 months old

While getting married young isn’t for everyone, and most people aren’t lucky enough to find their person before they’ve even entered high school, it has really worked in our favor. We will celebrate our 8th wedding anniversary this winter, and I’m thankful to have such a partner by my side when we enter our 30s together. 

What gets measured gets done (goals for the rest of the year) 

My dad always tells me “what gets measured gets done.” I find this is entirely true for me. When I was in school, I always did really well, partially because there were always set assignments that needed to get done by x date. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t often have those kinds of hard deadlines and accolades when you do well, unless you enforce them yourself. 

I’ve done a lot of reading about financial independence / early retirement, but I’ve never put concrete goals in place. I recently looked very generally at numbers and figured it would be reasonable to reach FI at 45 (15.5 years from now), but then didn’t drill down into the day to day details of how to get there. When I had a concrete goal (pay off my student loans), I really focused on throwing every last bit and could to get it paid off as fast as I could. It helped that it was an 8.5% interest rate so every day early made a noticeable difference. Since paying them off, I’ve been floating because I haven’t had an easy concrete goal to strive for, but it’s past time that changed. I just did the calculations, and we saved 22% of our household income last year, which means there is a lot of room for improvement. By writing these goals down, I will be much more likely to follow through and make them happen. My type A self hates to fail, sometimes to my detriment. 

Year end goals:

  1. Determine real milestones on the track to financial independence (FI). My husband does better with short-term planning, whereas I’m perpetually looking 5-10 years out, so I need to find a way to track that motivates us both. 
  2. Track husband’s work tools/supplies/clothes purchase diligently. I know we left some money on the table at tax time last year because some of this got missed. I’d like not to give the government more of our money than we absolutely have to. 
  3. Pay off remaining $4,950 on our real estate investment (we have a very small % ownership of a larger apartment community). 
  4. Begin next small real estate investment (payoff will start sometime this fall). 
  5. Research and finally decide on a 529 plan for our son. We know we do not want to use the Washington GET program and we live in a no income tax state, so our options are open. I’m leaning toward either the NV or UT 529, but I want to do a little more research first. The other option is to simply open a custodial investment account in his name instead, which is a lot more flexible long term. 
  6. Be intentional about charitable donations. This has been something I feel is lacking in our budget, and one I want to do better on. I’ve made sure this year to find at least one charity each month I want to give to, and I’m finding the more that I give, the more I think to give. While this isn’t going to help us reach FI, we are in such a blessed situation being born to educated families in the United States and need to acknowledge this better and help where we can. This also means finding a way to give with my time as well as cash. 
  7. Spend more quality time with my son to remind myself why financial independence is such an important goal and how it is already making my life better in the short term. 
  8. Continue running to work once a week and find a way to ditch the car more days a week. I also want to do an analysis of the cost of busing versus driving since it is less than 10 miles including daycare drop off (and 6 miles on the day my MIL comes to our house). Environmentally, taking the bus will be better every time, but at $2.75/trip, I’m not sure if it is financially. 

In writing down my longer-term goals, I realized my list of short term goals keeps getting longer and longer because they aren’t “urgent.” In order to push them up my priority list, I’m adding them here as well. 

Short term goals:

  1. Call insurance (USAA) to see if we can get a better home insurance rate. Maybe life/car insurance as well. 
  2. Open up separate credit card just for work purchases – there have been a lot lately and it hasn’t been the easiest to track, and I think we actually spend more money personally as well because our credit card balance is pretty high each month already (always paid in full though). 
  3. Find an affordable dental vet option for our dogs – they’ll be 7 and 6 this year and really need regular cleaning, but our vet charges $1000+ per cleaning. Ouch. 
  4. Move husband’s TSP and my old 401k to an active account so we have more control over their investments (both are just sitting right now). 
  5. Open up a new IRA (my old one is a grandfathered plan and frozen so cannot contribute more to it). Help my husband set one up as well and get auto deposits up and running.

Along with these goals, I need to keep focused on the little $5 and $10 purchases that sneak up on me and become big purchases over the course of the year (I’m looking at you, easy pick up work lunch). Lifestyle creep has gotten to me more than I would like to admit since the early days of our marriage – the military and part time retail don’t pay very well – and we found plenty of things to do and be happy with while pinching pennies. Now we’ve been pinching dollars and letting those pennies fall through our fingers. While I don’t expect our spending to get down quite to that level again because we’ve since added a number of pets, a house, and a child, we should definitely be saving more than 22% of our income. Here’s to heading into our 30s with smarter and more intentional choices in all areas of life. We’ll be happier for it.