Thursday, September 14, 2017

What Should We Do With Our "Extra" Money?

It's crazy to think about it, but at this time last year, we had nothing in our savings account.

Well. Full disclosure: we didn't have a savings account.

We just had our checking account, the balance of which perpetually oscillated between a couple thousand dollars and nearly zero, depending on which bill was due when, how many late fees we'd accidentally accrued, and what impulse buy seemed like a good idea in the moment.

In April, we finally started saving. Our initial goal was to set aside $1000 for emergencies, a stopgap that would allow us to diligently follow our debt repayment plan even if the famous Murphy were to take a poop on our lives. So we earmarked a hundred dollars or so per paycheck to the emergency fund. Much to our surprise, we met that goal within a few months.

Now our savings is growing. The pace of growth was slow at first, but it's picking up speed thanks to our new side hustles. Fortysomething and I have agreed that any money generated via side employment should go straight into the savings account. But once it's in there, what to do with it?

We have three options:

(1) Keep the cash in savings and watch it blossom. This option appeals to me. A lot. I love the motivation that comes from watching our balance balloon. Having substantial savings at hand would also make us feel more secure in the event that something more catastrophic - such as a job loss - were to transpire.

(2) Put that cash to work and throw it at debt. The idea here is to set aside all of our "extra" money and make a monster debt payment at the end of each month (in addition to the $1600 we already allocate for debt). The obvious benefit of this is that we'll be able to pay off our debt faster. 

(3) Establish sinking and holiday funds. We currently have neither, but with our car begging for new tires and my parents begging us to visit them at the holidays, we need both.

Option #2 was our original choice. We just want to get out of debt, and the more money we devote to that goal, the faster it will happen. Eventually, though, we realized that the sinking and holiday funds are more pressing priorities. We do need new tires - in reality, we're overdue - and we do want to spend time with family, something I don't want to put off even though it requires purchasing pricey plane tickets for holiday travel. Debt repayment is important. It is not, however, everything.

Now, BEHOLD: our Holiday Travel/Sinking Fund:
  • New tires: $1000 (could be less than this, but I'd rather over-estimate)
  • Annual fee for Thousand Trails (more about this in a future post): $500
  • Air travel for three: $900 (my parents will contribute to airline tickets)
  • Gifts for 8+ people: $200
  • Activities while on trip: $250
  • TOTAL: $2850
Once the savings account hits $3850 (emergency fund + sinking fund + holiday fund), we'll put any money in excess of that towards additional debt repayment.

I keep reminding myself that while we're paying off debt, we also have to live our lives.

We have to strive for happiness and stability.

We have to avoid blowing our threadbare tires on the highway.

This savings fund will help us achieve all of those things. After that? Watch out, debt. We're coming for you.

Disease Called Debt

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Season of Side Hustling

Y'all, I am 1.5 weeks into side hustling, and let me tell you: I need more hours in the day. Not that I'm complaining (much). The side hustle - an online teaching gig - will allow us to purchase new tires for our car and fund a holiday trip to see family. Moreover, my students are engaged and motivated, and I get to talk about science, my favorite subject. It's a fruitful opportunity for a variety of reasons.

But seriously. More hours. I need them.

Here's what my day looks like right now and pretty much what it will look like through December:

6 AM: Wake up, stumble around the kitchen in a daze for 30 minutes while getting absolutely nothing accomplished (to put it mildly, I am not a morning person), slug coffee, finally pull it together, make child's lunch, drink more coffee, make own lunch, get dressed, panic about not being able to find keys/shoes/some other vital item that has mysteriously disappeared in the last 12 hours.


7 AM: Pour another serving of coffee into travel mug. Say goodbye to the family, walk 2.5 miles to work, usually reach railroad tracks just as train is starting to pass through, curse train for next six minutes, speedwalk the rest of the way to office so as to avoid being late.


7:50 AM: Arrive! Beeline for the bathroom and change into fresh, unsweaty shirt before coworkers catch a whiff of any unprofessional odors.

8-Noon: Work, work, work, work, work.


Noon: Lunch! Cram food into face while reading personal finance blogs.


12:30-4:30 PM: Work, work, work, work, work.


4:30 PM: Walk home (uphill the whole way, of course). Get sweaty again.

5:20 PM: Arrive home, say hello to fellow exhausted family members, go for a run, take a shower.

6:30 PM: Make dinner per meal plan devised earlier in week. Sit down to eat with The Kiddo and Fortysomething. Sometimes converse. Sometimes share in communal catatonic silence.

7:30 PM: Log into online classroom. Participate in discussion forum. Answer questions. Post announcements. Grade.


9 PM: Start watching a show with Fortysomething. Give it my full effort. Get halfway through the show; start falling asleep. Discover that Fortysomething has also crashed out.


10 PM: Usually drooling onto my pillow by this point.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I keep reminding myself that sometimes we need to sacrifice short-term comfort for long-term goals. Historically, I haven't been too adept at this: my need for an immediate panacea to momentary discomfort/boredom/inconvenience is one of the reasons we're in so much debt. I'm committed to changing my perspective. For the next few months, for this season, I'm going to do what it takes to honor the future.

But I'm sure all of you other side-hustlers can attest to the fact that it isn't easy.

Tell me about your side hustle. How do you fit it into your day? How do you manage your time?

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Our Approach To Plant-Based Food Budgeting and Meal Planning

Some of you savvy folks have caught on to the fact that we're a plant-based family, meaning that we mostly* avoid eating meat, fish, and dairy products. We adopted this lifestyle last year when we realized that reducing the consumption of animal products is one of the most effective ways in which individuals can help cut greenhouse gas emissions. Fortysomething and I both have backgrounds in Earth Science. We've seen the reams of data indicating that atmospheric temperatures are rising and that human activity is the main culprit. Eliminating most animal products from our diet felt right for us, especially when we also considered the health benefits.

Quinoa salad: Always a winner
That said, I want to offer the disclaimer that I'm not here to convince you to go vegan. There are other blogs for that. If you're interested in giving up meat, you'll try it; let me know if you want tips or recipes. If you're not interested, a lecture from an Internet stranger isn't going to do anything other than piss you off. Sure, I'll encourage you to consume less meat and point you to this short TED talk on the benefits of being a "weekday vegetarian," but... what can I say? Changing the way you eat works only if you're really sold on making that change.

Vegan deep-dish pizza
The real purpose of this post is to share our approach to budgeting and meal planning for our plant-based diet, per a reader request. On a weekly basis, here's what that looks like:

(1) Like most of you, we set a weekly food budget. For the last couple of months, we've allocated $150/week for groceries. I know most other personal finance bloggers spend less than that, but for us, $150 is what keeps everyone fed and happy throughout the week, including The Kiddo, who never really stops eating. Our food budget allows for some treats, too, like popsicles and wine. I'll argue that treats are important: they prevent impulsive visits to Starbucks or the local brewery.

(2) I make a weekly meal plan. That plan is fairly loose for breakfast and lunch. We typically have cereal, toast, and/or fruit in the morning, depending on what each person is in the mood to eat. For lunch, Fortysomething and I enjoy leftovers from the previous night's dinner, and the Kiddo has a sandwich, apple, and crackers.

Weekend breakfast, featuring the most important food group: COFFEE
Dinners vary from week to week based on what I'm interested in making, whether I've found any new recipes to try, and how much time I'm going to have when I get home from work. I aim to come up with meals that feature real food, are fast and easy to prepare, make good leftovers, and don't require overly expensive ingredients. Risotto that requires truffle oil? Not happening.

(3) I create a detailed grocery list featuring plenty of produce. As much as possible, I focus on fresh ingredients rather than packaged foods. Obviously, fresh foods are healthier than their processed, boxed, frozen counterparts, but generally, they're also less pricey. Frozen meals, frozen pizzas, and vegan treats tend to be painfully expensive. As tasty as they are, it's usually not worth it, especially given how minuscule these products tend to be. So while we do buy some processed foods, such as vegan meatless crumbles for our nachos and crackers from The Kiddo's lunchbox, we try to limit ourselves.

In short: to be a budget-minded plant-eater, SAY YES to fruits and vegetables, SAY NO to most processed goods.

I like to divide my list into Produce, Dry Goods, and Cold Foods because
it makes grocery store navigation a little more efficient.
*PAUSE: Before someone looks at the list above and calls us out, I want to be totally upfront and acknowledge that the three of us are at various points on the vegan--meatlover spectrum. We're not true vegans, which is why I prefer to refer to our diet as "plant-based". Fortysomething eats only vegetarian/vegan foods at home, but he'll eat animal products if we go out to eat (rare these days) or if he encounters free barbecue. The Kiddo always has a turkey and cheese sandwich for lunch, and he can't say no to sushi, salmon, or macaroni and cheese. As for me, I'm almost all in... Almost because if you give me a cheesy pizza straight from a wood-fired oven, I will not think twice about consuming it.

Anyway, here are our typical grocery store staples each week:
  • Produce: Apples, bananas, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, kale, spinach, onions, broccoli (the one vegetable The Kiddo is happy to eat), corn, potatoes
Apples are a favorite snack around here.
  • Dry goods: Cereal, bread, bagels (so many bagels), pasta, rice, beans, quinoa, pretzels, crackers for school, mac n' cheese, Bob's Red Mill Pizza Mix

  • Cold: Turkey and cheese for The Kiddo, popsicles, orange juice, almond milk, firm or extra firm tofu, soy crumbles, vegan "cheese"
(4) Before going to the grocery store, we check for online coupons. We usually save $15-20 this way. I'll admit that we don't do a lot of shopping around because... well... we don't want to. Is that un-frugal of us? Fortysomething and I hate getting into the car, driving to one store, dealing with people (INTROVERT ALERT), getting back into the car, shuttling to another store... We do occasionally purchase items online, though, if we know we can get a better deal.

(5) I review our receipts to see how much we spent, what cost the most, and how much we saved through in-store coupons. If something was pricier than expected, we avoid purchasing the same product the next time around.

And that's about it! I love the simplicity of the food we eat. I love that in our own small way, we're having a positive effect on the planet that provides for us. And I love that we can do it, and make delicious food, well within our budget. 

Seared tofu and kale-cabbage salad

Disease Called Debt

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Ushering Out August: An 8 Out Of 10

August was almost exactly as I expected it would be: exceptionally busy, a little boring - yes, apparently you can be busy AND bored at the same time! - and tight on cash. The Kiddo started at his new school. (Verdict so far: he likes it. This is the first year he travels from class to class each hour, and I think he's relishing the independence and big kid-ness of it all.) Fortysomething launched into his new job. (Verdict so far: it's exhausting - he's a teacher, so no surprise there - but he loves it.) As for me, work alternated between slow as molasses and 200 miles per hour. There's really no in-between with my gig. 

August views
Outside of work insanity, I struggled a bit with boredom this month. I'm used to filling my thumb-twiddling time with going out to eat or activities that have an entrance fee. I'm still acclimating to evenings and weekends where we're just hanging out at home, taking walks, or making a mess in the kitchen. In August, I realized that my tendency (one shared by many people, I think) is to combat feelings of emotional discomfort by buying STUFF.

For me, it's not so much physical stuff. I've never been that into material possessions. Rather, I am obsessed with THINGS TO DO, which frequently require money, and I often judge myself based on how much I've done. I have serious FOMO when it comes to experiences. Yet... How often do we just sit and BE? Not often, if you're anything like me. I'm sensing this will be an area of growth throughout our debt reduction journey.

Bottom line? Not spending was harder than I expected. Aside from one impulsive restaurant meal, though (more details below), we managed to hold back.


Our complete budget is shown at the end of the post, for anyone wanting to compare our intentions with what actually happened.

Where we were right on the money: We came in at $36 under budget this month, despite our payday constraints. I credit this to careful planning and penny-pinching. Particularly rewarding: we filled up at the gas tank only once, spent little on the Very Expensive Feline, and paid far less for school supplies and new school clothes than I'd anticipated. The school clothes were a big win for me. Thanks to a combination of thrift shopping and Target deals, the growing-like-a-weed Kiddo snagged several almost-new shirts, new pants, and a new pair of shoes for less than $80. 

Where we went over: The only categories in which we overspent were Groceries (we exceeded by 77 cents... I'm not even going to go there, because this mama's tired and a 77 cent excess is close enough) and Unexpected Expenses. Our August unexpected expenses included medication for a cold that refused to let up, a doctor's office visit, and some cleaning supplies. But I can't blame the excess $12 on any of that. No... What happened was that we made a last-minute decision on a Saturday afternoon to walk downtown, grab veggie sushi at our favorite restaurant, and chase it all down with some coffee. I figured, Hey, we have all this money we haven't spent! Let's go have a good time! The sushi was well worth it. I don't regret that. The coffee was a total waste - overpriced and overrated. Lesson learned. 

This sushi was worth it.


We threw $1600 at debt this monthand reduced our debt load to $73,939. Nothing monumental, but hey, we stuck to the plan. If you're interested in the details, check out the link to The Current Debt at the top of the page.
SAVINGS: We budgeted $150 for savings but were able to ramp that up to $200 thanks to savings in other areas. The savings/emergency account now sits at $1298.

I'd give us an 8 out of 10 for August budgeting and finances. For the most part, we did what we said we were going to do and kept our eyes on the long-term prize. I think, though, that we need to be a little more realistic about going out to eat. I know a lot of frugal people eschew restaurants and kind of consider it a badge of honor, and for the most part I'm on board with that... It's all too easy to overspend when going out. But we enjoy having a meal together and eating food we normally don't make at home. We also enjoy not going bonkers. Perhaps we need to incorporate one restaurant meal a month into the budget.


Financial: Both Fortysomething and I have some side hustles lined up! My goal is to put everything I make into our savings account and set it aside for holiday air travel and gifts for family. Fortysomething's extra earnings will also go into savings, but we plan to use that to purchase new tires for our car, something we've put off for months. I also want to make a list of items that we need/want for the winter - like new boots and ice spikes for icy days - and start saving for those. You can find our current budget at the top of the page... or just click here.

Personal: I slowly ramped up my running in August, and I plan to continue doing so in September. Another goal: figure out how to juggle my day job and my side hustle without turning into the world's crankiest human being. Lastly, I'd like to find a hobby outside of work and running to which I can devote my energy and time.

My favorite park for running.

 August Budget: The Plan vs. Reality

State Farm
Student loans and credit cards
Thousand Trails
Gas in car
Netflix + Hulu
Sam School Clothes
School Supplies
Total Expenses

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Why I've Ditched My Car and Walk To Work Instead

This past April, I decided to stop driving the 2.5 miles to work and start walking instead. I eased myself into it, walking on some days and taking the car on others, depending on the weather, my mood, and how many times I'd pressed the snooze button that morning.

Walking accessories: good shoes and a large cup of coffee
Then my parking pass expired, and I faced a choice: pony up for a new pass, or dedicate myself to hoofing it, rain or shine? I made the leap and selected the latter. Now I walk five miles (about 1.5 hours in total) each day. It's a commitment. It takes planning, not to mention an earlier wakeup time and some trusty rain gear. But I'm finding it beneficial in a multitude of ways:

(1) I'm not spending money on parking or gas. A year-long parking pass at my work is nearly $450, which seems exorbitant given that it essentially means I'd be paying my employer for the opportunity to sit in my cubicle all day. No. (In the past, employees would avoid buying a pass by simply parking in surrounding neighborhoods, but now that the city has established a pay-to-park program - which I generally think is a good idea, despite its inconvenience for locals - that's out of the question.) Plus, I'm spending less cash at the gas pump. In the grand scheme of debt repayment, $450 isn't a lot - but every little bit helps when it comes to making our plan materialize. 

(2) I get daily exercise. I enjoy working out, especially running, but when life gets busy, it's one of the first things to go. By walking to work, exercise is incorporated into my routine and becomes non-negotiable by virtue of necessity. Do I want to get paid? Then I have to lace up my shoes and start hiking.

(3) I don't get stuck in traffic. You'd think this wouldn't be an issue in a small town, but it is. Few things are as frustrating as spending 30 minutes in the car when your destination is less than five miles away. That's exactly what happens here: between busses pulling over at every stop, parents driving their kids to school, and the trains bringing traffic to a halt every ten minutes or so, commuting here is nothing short of exasperating. Take it from me: being able to sashay past a line of cars snailing their way towards a stoplight half a mile down the road is a delightful experience.

(4) I'm being kinder to the environment. As an Earth scientist, I feel a particular obligation to avoid blasting greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere if and when I can. Again, it was one thing when I lived tens of miles from work and needed to drive. In this small town, though, it just feels wasteful, especially when we have access to miles and miles of sidewalks, urban trails, and bike lanes. 

(5) I get to take advantage of small town life. We moved to this community in part because it's not that big. You really can walk, bike, or bus anywhere you need to go. Small town = small commute. Why not take advantage of that, in true Mustachian fashion?

(6) I have time to transition into, and out of, a work mindset. On the way to work, I contemplate what I need to do for the day and prioritize those items. On the way home from work, I reflect on what I accomplished and try to process any feelings of frustration, stress, or worry. Walking helps me focus. It allows me to be more present in the moment.

(7) It gives me precious time in my preferred environment. A Twitter friend recently asked followers what they would do if they had the time and money they needed to do it, and my response was that I would spend all of my waking hours outdoors. In reality, that's not an option for me. My job requires that I'm inside, in a cubicle, basking under fluorescent lighting, for at least eight hours a day. My walk to work is my compromise, and it's one I relish.

Fellow commuter
Tell me about your commute. Do you walk? Bike? Bus? Drive? Ride a train? How do you use your commute? What would you change about it, if you could?

Disease Called Debt

What Should We Do With Our "Extra" Money?

It's crazy to think about it, but at this time last year, we had nothing in our savings account. Well. Full disclosure: we didn't ...