Friday, December 4, 2009

Three months later, I'm back

Obviously, I haven't posted here for several months. The main reason is that we've had an insane number of big-ticket expenses lately, and I just wasn't up for talking about them. They drained our savings account and prompted us to re-evaluate our sailing goals.

Basically, we've decided that as much as we love sailing and as confident as we are in our belief that we'd love the liveaboard lifestyle, sailing will have to wait. I don't know how long, but for the next five or 10 years, it's not going to be a pressing goal. What we've learned is that sailing is extremely expensive, and the boat is just one part of that. Boats need places to live. Boats need parts and repairs. Boats have to meet certain government standards and requirements. We started to understand the oft-repeated assertion that boats are essentially drains in the ocean.

We've also learned that we aren't willing to give up everything to save for this dream. We like to travel; we like to explore new places. Are we going to stop doing that for five or 10 years in the hope that we might be able to do it by boat? Apparently, the answer to that question is no. For New Year's, we're going to New Orleans with some of our friends, and next June, all three of us are going to celebrate Trent and my 10th anniversary with a trip to western Montana (a special place to us, as that is where our son was born). I am excited about these excursions, and I don't feel guilty about spending money on them. I grew up taking yearly roadtrips with my parents; those are among my happiest childhood memories. Those adventures were learning opportunities. I want the same for my son. (We've been careful to pay for these trips with money we actually have.)

Like I said, we've had a lot of unexpected expenses in the last few months: dental work to the tune of $3000, a water-damaged wall, a broken sink, a broken toilet, an ER visit for a deep gash to the forehead, visits to the doctor, increased health insurance premiums, etc. etc. etc. It's been discouraging, but I think we're back on track.

That said, despite the obstacles, we're still on the right track. I am happy to report that while we've used our credit cards, we've paid them off in full every month. We still have a cushion in our emergency fund. We're now documenting each and every expense. Our credit scores have increased. Our school loans have decreased (albeit by only a small amount). We've been contributing ~15% of our income to our 401Ks. Trent found a new contract gig and a side gig, too.  

I like writing about money and finances, so I'm going to start writing here again. Some of our goals might have changed, but what hasn't changed is that we're still dedicated to pursuing financial freedom.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Living aboard - a question

Like many young couples (30 is still young, right?), our lives are full of job obligations, parenting, and financial strategizing. Beneath the surface, though, runs our desire to cut the literal and figurative docklines and go sailing. It's something I think about every day. It's what motivates us to work hard, play frugally, and spend wisely (well... usually).

We talk about selling this place in 3-4 years, purchasing a boat, and living aboard. From my landlocked vantage point, I get the impression that we should be able to manage it, especially if we either buy the boat outright or put a big down payment on a loan. As long as we have Internet access, we should be able to keep the jobs we have now, meaning we won't lost any (or much) income. We wouldn't have a mortgage or the house-related expenses, though of course we'll obtain plenty of boat-related financial obligations.

When it comes to money, I sometimes overlook the finer details. I'm often overly optimistic and fail to realize it until I'm drowning in unanticipated expenses. So I'm just trying to get a better sense of whether our plan is really feasible.

A couple of questions for those of you who live aboard: how much do you spend per month on marina fees? What do those fees include? And - do you think you spend less living aboard than you would if you lived in a traditional home?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

We work hard for the money, do-do do-dooo...

I've slacked off on posting lately not for a lack of things to say, but because I don't have enough time to say it. This August has consisted of work, work, and more work. I think we're somewhat overcommitted right now, job-wise, and yet I don't think we can afford to cut back in any area; one of Trent's highest-paying contracts ended for good a couple of months ago, and now we're playing catch-up. 

We've put our son in daycare 20 hours a week (which he absolutely loves, by the way - that in itself makes it worthwhile) so we have time to tackle our work and do it well. Ideally, we'll be able to make more money even with the daycare expenses than we would if one or both of us let some of our other contracts run out. We'll try this until December and then re-evaluate.

I truly enjoy my job but I do wish it paid more. I've stopped calculating my hourly wage. It's too depressing. Every now and then, I scrounge around for some possible alternatives on the job boards, but I don't see anything that appeals to me or for which I am qualified.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

One week spending diet

We're on a mandatory one-week spending diet until we get paid again next Tuesday. Thanks to a slew of recent bills (health insurance, cable, phone, etc.), student loan payments, and my dental work (which I did pay off as planned), we have little cash left in the checking account. That makes me uncomfortable. Usually, I like to see it pretty well padded because Bank of America is very sneaky about how and when they post transactions. Sometimes I feel like they WANT to catch us off guard and see us go into the red.

We won't be going out to eat, nor will we do any full grocery runs. We'll wait on paying the water and electric bills (they won't be late, but normally we send in our payments right away). If worst comes to worst and we don't think we're going to make it on what's in the account right now, I'll transfer more over from savings - but I really do not want to do that. 

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Membership Perks

Today I discovered that Capital One charged me a $59 "Membership Fee." Wow. So glad to be part of the Capital One club.

My balance on the card *was* zero. Really, this was too kind of them.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Part I of II: If you don't have health insurance

To say that I have an intense interest in the current healthcare debate would be an understatement. My stake in this issue developed from my own not-so-good experiences with the U.S. healthcare system. When I discovered I was pregnant with my son, I didn't have health insurance. It was the first time in 27 years that I let my coverage lapse. My company didn't offer insurance to its employees, private insurers wouldn't touch me with a 10-foot pole after I checked the "pregnant" box on the application (because if you're applying for private insurance and are pregnant, pregnancy is essentially considered a pre-existing condition by many insurers), and we made too much money (read: lower middle class income) to qualify for state aid. We paid for my prenatal visits out of pocket ($5000). We also paid for an emergency c-section and a three-day hospital stay (more than $20,000). The bills poured in for months.

I now have a much better understanding of why medical expenses often go hand in hand with bankruptcy. I also understand how stressful and, frankly, horrifying it feels to not have coverage when you need it (keep in mind that in 2007, more than 15% of all Americans lacked health insurance coverage, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).

Therefore, given the timeliness of the issue and my passion for it, I'm writing a two-part post on what to if you have no insurance (Part I), and how to obtain and make the most of private health insurance (Part II). I won't address employer-sponsored health insurance, but some of these tips may apply to that situation, too. I also won't address prescriptions because that could be a post in and of itself. Please keep in mind that this is not professional advice, nor is it comprehensive. All I can offer are homegrown suggestions that have sprouted from my own experiences. Feel free to comment and provide your own perspectives and advice.

So - What do you do if you have no health insurance? 

People without health insurance generally fall into two categories: people who don't have it because they don't want it/don't think they need it, and people who don't have it because they can't get it (36% of people who applied for private insurance were denied because of pre-existing conditions, according to a recent national survey). These tips apply to both situations:

1. Have an emergency fund in place, just in case. If you're not yet saving for a rainy day and you don't have health insurance, start hoarding now - even if you can't set aside all that much at one time. It's amazing how fast your savings will accrue if you contribute consistently to that fund. If you have a health emergency, you'll be able to pay at least part of the bill right away. In turn, that may make your care provider more amenable to a reasonable payment plan.

2. Find a family doctor who isn't a member of the Insurance Company Puppet Club, and see this person every year for a preventative physical and a women's/men's exam. I think some people would disagree with this piece of advice - because physicals can cost a couple hundred dollars, and you can get them on the cheap at clinics (see below) - but think of it this way: it's beneficial to have a doctor who knows your health history and, over time, grows to care about you as an individual, not just as a paying client. That doctor could serve as an advocate for you if your health takes a turn for the worse.

Is it possible to find a doctor who isn't squeamish about caring for someone without insurance? I think so, but you may have to do some hunting. Ask friends for recommendations. Look at doctor reviews on the Internet. Call around and see which office seems most accommodating. There are a lot of doctors out there, and you'll find someone who's happy to work with you. When you do visit this doctor...

3. ...remember that the price of health care is not set in stone. Actually, it is set in stone for a lot of people with health insurance: the prices are often determined in agreements between the insurance companies and the care providers. But if you don't have health insurance, you can haggle - for a lower price, for a no-interest payment plan, or both. When I had my son, the hospital took a significant chunk off the bill because we paid most of it up front (with the help of a loan from my parents). I also negotiated the cost of my prenatal care. Recently, my dentist's office allowed me to set up a no-interest payment plan that I can manage - meaning I don't have to rack up any additional credit card debt in order to get my teeth fixed.

It can't hurt to ask about your options. Don't forget that health care is a business, and if you don't like the service you're receiving, you can go elsewhere. It might take time and energy, but making some calls to different providers and telling them what you want and can afford could save you some big bucks in the long run. No-one should make you feel they're just doing you a favor by deigning to see you.

4. For run-of-the-mill illnesses and health care needs, consider using a discount clinic with affordable "menu pricing." These clinics are cropping up all over the country: in grocery stores, in malls, and even in airports. We visited the Little Clinic at our local Kroger store when our son came down with a persistent cough. A visit to his pediatrician would have cost more than one hundred dollars, and the doctor couldn't see him the same day. A visit to the nurse practitioner at the Little Clinic cost $60, and we didn't even have to wait. Clinics like these also offer physicals and immunizations (including flu shots) at a decent price. 

5. Take preventative measures. We can't choose our genes and we can't always control our environment, but we can control what we eat, what we weigh, and how much exercise we get. Studies have shown that maintaining an ideal weight/body mass index, eating a proper diet, and exercising all lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, and other major illnesses. 

6. Research advocacy groups and health care programs in your state and county. If you get really sick and can't afford your bills, where will you turn? Based on my own experience, I'd say that depends on the state in which you live. For example, here in Tennessee, the CoverTN program helps individuals who can't get health insurance elsewhere. There's assistance available, but you might need to do some investigating to suss out all your options (consider starting with your state and local government websites). This is where having a good doctor who cares about you can come in handy - he or she can likely recommend programs for which you may be eligible. 

7. Don't put your finances before your health. Your health is more important than money! If you experience chest pain or if your child is running a 104 fever that won't come down, don't put off going to the emergency room because you're worried about the cost. You are worth more than your bank account. You are not a pair of shoes or a new coffee table; you are not expendable or optional. You and your family deserve to get the medical attention you need. Worry about the money later.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


I'm so excited! I just found out I've been invited to take part in a paid "leadership opportunity" at work. This means our income will increase - not by much, but every little bit helps. Moreover, it means I'm doing a good job, and that makes me happy. I generally like what I do and I take pride in it. Being recognized for my hard work feels very gratifying.

Bonus to an already thumbs-up day: Trent surprised me by ordering Confessions of a Shopaholic through Netflix. :-)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Goodbye, emergency fund

Not really goodbye, per se, but I transferred a large portion of our emergency fund over to our checking account yesterday when I realized there was no other way to pay off the dental work in short order. I want to have that all taken care of and paid off by the end of this week. I cringed as I made the transaction, but reminded myself that this is why emergency funds exist. At least we have one, even if it's looking a lot skinnier now.

Random medical/dental bills aside, there are a few regular payments that always take a significant chunk out of our account. The biggest ones:

-Mortgage ($1550 a month)
-Student loan payments ($730 a month between the two of us - I LONG to get rid of these)
-Health insurance ($400 a month between the three of us)
-Cell phone bill ($110 a month for both of us... This seems really high, but I do love my iPhone and being able to access the Internet anywhere I go.)

Other expenses include car insurance, gas and electricity, water, home owner's association dues, cable/Internet (we cut back here a few months ago and it's been well worth it), and our Netflix membership. None of these seem unreasonable.

Clearly, there's no getting around the mortgage or the student loans, and I'm not willing to ditch the health insurance. We do continue to look for ways to cut back in other areas so that when emergencies arise, we don't have to scrounge around for cash to pay for them.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

First the bad news

July and the beginning of August saw us saving less money than we did earlier in the year. Several factors contributed to the slowdown:

1. I started my tooth repair marathon. Yesterday I had a $1000 crown put in; next Friday, I'll have four cavities filled to the tune of several hundred dollars.

2. About two weeks ago, I began to experience short-lived but regular episodes of sharp chest pain. After several visits to the doctor, two EKGs, a comprehensive blood workup, and a test in which I was forced to down a strange mixture of antacid and local anesthetic (yuck - not a drink I recommend ordering up at the local bar), I was diagnosed with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) and put on Nexium. The Nexium costs $162 a month even with my insurance co-pay (I'm working on finding a less expensive alternative).

Anyway, the medical bills definitely caused some hemorrhaging from our bank account.

3. We've been a little less frugal lately. I wouldn't say we're being wasteful - no shopping sprees or anything - but we've been going out to eat more than we were a few months ago. We need to get back to planning out our meals at the beginning of each week.

4. One of our major contracts came to an end. We've found replacement work, but it requires more effort and better time management.

The good news is this:

1. I'm developing a healthier diet to help quell the acid reflux. I'm working on cutting out most alcohol and fatty food. I've already lost some weight as a result. By the end of the year, I hope to achieve my ideal body mass index.

2. I now know that acid reflux catalyzed the formation of my recent cavities. By changing my diet and maintaining good oral health, I hope to avoid expensive dental visits in the future.

3. We haven't taken anything out of the emergency fund (yet).

4. At least we *have* work. I don't always love my job, but at this point, who cares? 

5. Although our savings account is stagnant, we've continued to put money into our 401Ks via automatic deposit. Automatic deposit is the best thing ever. Without it, I doubt we would have saved as much as we have.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

New blog

I've been on a hiatus from this blog because, well, I don't really know what to say. Financially, the exciting, making-big-progress part of our plan is over, and we're in the boring make money-save a little money-make money-save a little money phase. As for sailing, aside from our intermittent involvement with the local yacht club, we're in a holding pattern there, too. Sometimes I wish we lived close to the coast and had our own house so that we could buy a cheap little boat, park it in our driveway, and sail it on the weekends.

However, I have started a new blog about the day-to-day aspects of being a working mom. It's called WAHMyhood. I love writing and want to be able to blog on a daily basis; I'll have plenty of fodder for frequent entries about motherhood, working, and juggling multiple responsibilities. 

I'll still be writing here, too. We're still very much invested in our sailing dream and want to have a record of our progress. The posts will be more sporadic, that's all. 

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Late July craziness

I have been busy lately with work, getting one of my teeth fixed (goodbye, $1000), baking (one day last week, I spent eight hours in the kitchen and made a massive dinner of homemade veggie casserole, focaccia bread, fruit salad, salad with sunflower dressing, and blueberry pie - for me, that was the equivalent of a cooking marathon), cleaning (I tend to make a big mess when I cook), and trying to figure out why our two-year-old erupts with massive amounts of energy 20 hours a day (I even read a parenting book - and I'm usually not a big fan of such things).

This summer has been very hot and blazingly sunny, and I am looking forward to autumn and winter, when we can spend time at the park without melting. The combination of heat and UV radiation makes us reluctant to head outside, even though that's the best way for our kid to blow off some steam.

Basically, all I want to do is lounge around, eat yummy food, drink something citrusy and refreshing, and... hmm, that's about it.

One piece of news: we did join our local sailing club. We're going to alternate going to the meetings; our son isn't old enough to come along yet, so one of us needs to stay home and hang out with him. Trent went last Tuesday night, and I'll get to go this Tuesday night. In addition to getting a chance to sail, I hope we'll be able to meet some people who know stuff about navigation and fixing things, and who enjoy sharing that knowledge.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A second opinion saved me $1832

Last week, I wrote about how I received some bad news about my teeth on the same day we paid off our credit card debt. My dentist's fancy new x-ray equipment apparently detected four cavities absent from the more archaic x-rays taken in January. In addition to the fillings, he also decided I needed two crowns at more than $1K a pop, and that I should replace two of my old silver fillings with resin-based composite. The total cost of this treatment plan came out to a whopping $3535.00. No amount of Novocaine could dull the pain of that bill.

Not entirely sold on everything he'd proposed - especially the part that involved replacing the silver fillings - I decided to seek a second opinion. I made an appointment with another dentist in the same practice. Today, in a consultation for which she did not charge me, she spent 20 minutes peering into my mouth and reviewing my x-rays. Her determination: while I do need one crown, the other one is, at this point, unnecessary. Moreover, the old fillings are in good shape, and there's no need to fix something that isn't broken. She then helped me prioritize which remaining issues to address first and which ones we can tackle in a few months. Clearly, she will be the person I trust with my teeth from here on out.

New total treatment plan cost: $1703. It's still expensive and still financially painful, but it's $1832 less than the first proposed plan. 

I spoke with the office manager about the best way to pay for these procedures, since my insurance won't cover it. She suggested Care Credit, but although it sounds like a pretty above-board option, I have no intention of going back into credit card debt. When I explained this to her, she assured me the dentist will allow me to pay off the balance in a couple of installments. I think we'll be able to make that work.

I'm glad I didn't assume that the first guy was the All Knowing, Never-to-be-Questioned God of Dentistry. I'm glad I sought the advice of another expert. This is the first time I've asked for a second opinion, but it won't be the last. From here on out, I will take a more proactive approach to my health care. Doing so could be beneficial to my well-being and to my wallet.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

We got to go sailing!

A couple of days ago, Trent and I contacted a local sailing club and asked if we could tag along at an upcoming event, just so we could see whether we might want to join. They said yes - very exciting! - so last night we left my son with his grandmother and headed up to the lake for a "Learn at the Helm" session. This program matches novices with experienced sailors and their boats, thereby giving people a chance to crew on a variety of vessels.

Trent and I ended up on two different boats, which was actually good in terms of experience/learning. His boat was nice because it was similar to the ones we used in our sailing class last year. He said he felt pretty comfortable on it. I ended up on a 37-foot, brand-new Beneteau that looked like it belonged on the ocean, not on a small freshwater lake. It was a little weird because everything was automated and/or super easy to use. Press a few buttons, pull a few lines, and voila, the boat is carving through the water with the sails up. There were five other people with me, plus the owner, and I think everyone else, like me, was terrified of doing something stupid and destroying the thing. It was so pretty, though. I'd love to have a boat that size. It had a master cabin, a smaller cabin, a great little kitchen area with refrigerator and stove, a navigation desk, and a bathroom with shower... Sheesh. I could live on something like that! 

Trent really wants to join the club, and I think we will. That way, we can practice on some of the motorless club boats. There's no other way we're going to get experience on a regular basis. I'd really like to purchase a small, trailerable boat (17-23 feet) of our own. If we had our own little boat, we could go out there whenever we wanted to and practice without the anxiety that comes with someone more experienced coaching you along. Every time we go with someone else, they'll say, "Don't worry, do whatever you want, I'll just sit here and enjoy the view," and then they'll proceed to share advice and tips for the duration of the sail. That might work for some learners, but it doesn't work for me. I learn by trying things out myself and making mistakes.

I think we could buy in at a good price right now, but we won't, because 1) we don't want to pay a slip fee, 2) there aren't any slips available anyway, 3) we can't park a boat in our condo complex, and 4) our car can't tow anything. Basically, in order to get a boat, we'd have to get a new house and new car first!

We'll see. The fee to join isn't too expensive - about $160 for both of us - and I know we could get a lot out of it.

P.S. Congratulations to Lisette and Bill for winning the giveaway! 

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Revolutionary Road (and my first giveaway!)

This summer, I'm reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. Trent and I watched the movie (starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) a few weeks ago.  Then Trent heard on a Slate podcast that the book is even better, so we checked it out at the library. 

There's something disturbingly familiar (that's how I feel, anyway) about the themes in this book. It's about a young married couple, April and Frank Wheeler, who - despite their once passionate determination to travel and act and live life outside of the norm - somehow find themselves raising two children in suburbia. Frank works in the city, and April stays at home with the kids. They feel out of place in a pretty, perfect-lawn-and-garden world in which everyone else seems comfortable and content. 

The novel is set in the 1950s. To be honest, I thought the author had written it only in the last few years. I was surprised to discover it was first published in the 1960s. The themes seem modern. Some issues span decades, I guess.

Frank and April's story brings up some questions that I think a lot of us ask ourselves, though perhaps we don't share them with the people around us:

Do we choose the nature of our lives for ourselves, or do circumstances and expectation channel us into them?

How many adults, despite appearances, feel uncomfortable with the status quo of their lives? How many adults make an effort to change that?

Is it selfish to try to buck societal norms? 

Is bucking societal norms really that difficult - or is that an illusion? Do we create imaginary barriers in our own minds, ones that prevent us from exploring as far and wide as we're actually capable of doing?

Personally, I think a lot of the things that seem impossible really aren't. We're just entrenched in our current situations and bound by a mountain of debt, stuff, complacency, and/or other people's expectations.  That doesn't mean we can't pull ourself out of the trench or overcome the mountain; it'll just require some work. For instance, the idea of buying a boat, living on it, and seeing part of the world that way seems kind of far-fetched from where I'm sitting right now, but really, what will it take? Money (definitely a big obstacle, but not an insurmountable one if we plan ahead), research, patience, a willingness to learn, and time - and that's about all. That's why I'm so convinced we can make it happen.

Anyway, that's what I'm doing/thinking about on my summer vacation.

*  *  *  *  *
On a somewhat unrelated note, I've decided to have a giveaway - first because I think it'll be fun, and second because I'd like to have a better idea of who's reading this blog. Nothing fancy, but I'm giving away two new WRAP-N-MATS wraps. My sister-in-law purchased one for my son last year, and it's perfect for wrapping up sandwiches. It encourages both frugality and "green living." 

To enter, just reply to this post, include your name and e-mail address in the comment boxes, and answer the following question:

What book would you recommend others read this summer?

The giveaway ends on Tuesday, July 7 at 7 p.m. Eastern Time. I'll choose the winners at random and announce them on Wednesday morning. You must have an address in the U.S. in order to enter.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Oh, the irony (but first, a celebration)

Early yesterday morning, Trent and I paid off the last of our credit card debt. 

It is gone. GONE! And it's never coming back (well, except for the maybe 100 dollars in interest that we'll have to deal with next month). 

Trent's most recent paycheck was higher than we'd expected; apparently, we'd misunderstood the pay schedule issued by one of his employers. What a pleasant surprise. Deleting the last chunk of debt felt amazing. Refreshing. Freeing. Ahhh.

I drove to my 9 a.m. dental appointment with a smile on my face.

Then Mr. Murphy (of Murphy's Law) reappeared. It's uncanny how fast he heard our good news. He was quick to step in and do his thing: My dentist - who recently acquired a fancy new piece of x-ray equipment that can pinpoint even the teeniest of enamel defects - looked at my x-ray films and announced I'd need thousands of dollars in dental procedures, none of which is covered by my insurance. "What a bummer," he said before shaking my hand and leaving the room.

(Yeah. What a bummer. Is that how rich, well-insured people view situations like this? Must be nice.)

I left the dentist feeling depressed. Talk about raining on my no-credit-card-debt parade.

Anyway, I could lament about how much this stresses me out, how much it's going to cost, how irritated I am that this stupid new technology is only serving to emphasize the fact that am a genetic loser on the tooth front, and how much I hate the U.S. private insurance system. But I'll spare you - at least, I'll spare you today. No promises for the future.

Instead, I'll simply say that I'm going to get a second opinion (and that if you know of a good, nice, caring dentist in the Nashville area, please let me know) and that I will be paying for this work in cash, even if I have to space it out over a period of two years.

And today? Today I floss, brush, rinse, and then celebrate, because getting out from under the thumb of the credit card companies is certainly cause for celebration.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Boats on the brain

If you were to peer through a window into my mind right now, you would see a lot of boats bobbing along in the current of my thoughts. Most of them would be monohulled, between 32 and 45 feet in length; many would be full keeled. You might see a few catamarans, too, although I doubt we'd ever get one (they're beautiful, but they're expensive). Cape Dories and Island Packets would dominate the fleet.

I've been spending a fair share of time drooling over ads for used sailboats and pondering the possibility of attending a boat show sometime in the next year. Meanwhile, Trent's been at the library, checking out books by young sailor Jesse Martin and venerated single-hander Joshua Slocum. We've been reviewing the budget, calculating, and projecting; we've been working and saving and paying off debt. Both Trent and I are 100 percent dedicated to making the journey to the future we want to achieve, which is to purchase a boat, live on it, and sail the East Coast (and maybe beyond). We are no longer thinking in terms of if we will achieve this, but when we will achieve it, and how. Just because it's an unusual way of life compared to the way most Americans do things doesn't mean it's an impossible, unsafe, or stupid goal, so we're not going to listen to such doubts.

Trent and I have never been the kind of people who come up with an idea and take years to implement it. Usually, we act pretty quickly. Finances have definitely set the pace for the implementation of this plan, but we'll see where we're at in 2011. Maybe we can get this show on the road/in the water sooner than we'd initially thought. Meanwhile, plans for the next year include doubling our savings (at the least), sailing on our local lake, and perhaps signing up for a one week coastal cruising/bareboat class down in Florida. 

*This reverie has been interrupted by a two-year-old boy who wants to slam every door in the house.*

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The ocean does exist after all!

We just returned from our four-day vacation to Destin, Florida. 

Hotel: four hundred some dollars. 

Food, gas, and other expenses: two hundred some dollars. 

Feeling the sand beneath my feet: priceless.

In other words, it was totally worth it, despite the cost. I have no regrets. The icing on the cake was that my son - who, last summer, changed the interior of our car forever by getting dramatically carsick at least four times - did not throw up. Pretty impressive, considering that it takes about eight hours to get from here to Florida. 

Dramamine: also priceless.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A good day

Some days are hectic, anxiety-ridden, and less than fun. In the last six months, I've had more of those days than I'd have liked. Because we're trying to spend less money, I haven't been able to make myself feel better by buying stuff the way I used to. But today was a good day: balanced, focused, and satisfying. And frugal - or mostly so, anyway. 

Our day:

-Our son woke up congested, with a mild fever. We called our doctor, who told us he had no openings. Trent decided to go instead to The Little Clinic at our local Kroger store, where a nurse practitioner saw our son right away and diagnosed him with allergies. The visit was about $65, much less than a trip to the walk-in clinic we usually go to. Knowing there's affordable medical care around the corner is a relief in itself!

-My husband went to the library to work. I spent the morning and early afternoon coloring, playing cars, snacking on crackers and string cheese, watching an Elmo video, and looking at picture books with our son. I've had more uninterrupted time to spend with him lately, and it's been really nice.

-Trent came home, and I went to my little office (a desk in our bedroom) to get some of my own work done. Relaxed and refreshed, I knocked out my tasks in a couple of hours.

-Ate dinner: cheese sandwiches and carrot sticks!

-My neighbor, also a mom to a toddler, stopped by with her little boy and invited us on a walk. My day ended with a friendly, comfortable chat and some exercise.

I'm not a very "Zen" person (I'm more of a Type A personality), so when life decides to grant me a zen kind of day, I'm thrilled. :-) I feel like I accomplished a lot, spent quality time with my kid, met my work obligations, and had some time to myself, too.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Treat yourself to a free adventure story

If you're looking for an adventure story as compelling and entertaining as almost anything you'd find on the shelf at Borders, and one you can read on your lunch hour (or while pretending to work), check out a blog written by Zac Sunderland, who, at the ripe old age of 17, is close to completing a year-long sailing circumnavigation of the globe:

Even if you're not into boats or the ocean or that sort of thing, you might enjoy his journal. It's about tenacity, determination, optimism, and resourcefulness. Most of us could probably use a little inspiration and motivation in those areas.

As a side note, I'm impressed by his writing. It's pragmatic and engaging. There's a lot of continuity and interesting detail in his posts. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Observation and vacation

Observation: "Looking for Freedom" is the name of a David Hasselhof song. No offense to Hasselhof fans, but this disturbs me. Perhaps we should have done a little more research before selecting the blog title.

Moving on...

We decided to book the trip to Destin because I needed a break. Using Expedia (which is having some excellent last-minute hotel deals), we found a relatively inexpensive beach hotel that's received good reviews on Tripadvisor and booked a room for four nights. 

We'll try to stick to a budget while we're there. The hotel offers a free continental breakfast, so we won't have to pay for that meal. The rooms have refrigerators, meaning we can easily buy sandwich makings at the grocery store and avoid overpriced restaurant lunches. Knowing us, we will probably eat out for dinner, but we located a few nearby restaurants that aren't too costly (like Panera). In terms of activities, we intend to enjoy the beach, and that's about it.

To pay for it, I put the expense on my credit card, transferred money from the savings account to the checking account, and paid off the balance on the card. I'm pretty sure Suze Orman would disapprove of using emergency money to pay for a vacation. Sorry, Suze. I am not waiting until I'm 35 years old and have 8 months of expenses in the bank to go on a getaway.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

One year of debt reduction: A summary

Here's the promised post summarizing our credit card debt reduction progress of the last year (since June of 2008). I've also included some of the key tactics we have successfully used in this process.

Following is a graph showing our debt reduction. As you can see, we started out last June with upwards of $22,000 in credit card debt. Currently, we have about $2900 to pay off:

Here are the techniques and tactics that have most helped us up to this point:

1. Having a goal we care about. By far, this made the biggest difference. Before we solidified our sailing goals, we had little incentive to pay off our debt. We were meeting our monthly payments, and (at the time) weren't in danger of defaulting. When given the choice between using our money to pay off debt or using it to do something fun, we'd inevitably choose the latter. Our sailing dreams changed that.

2. Taking on extra work. Whatever contract offers we received in our line of work, we took them. This allowed us to designate our "extra" earnings for debt reduction.

3. Staying in touch with our credit card companies. When Trent's credit card company suddenly ramped up his interest rate, he took some time to develop an argument as to why this was unnecessary. He called customer service, explained the situation, and let them know why it would be beneficial to them to lower his rate. He was ready to transfer the balance to another card if need be. The approach worked, and they dropped the interest rate.

4. Doing some research and making cuts where we were willing to make cuts. With a little research, we found we could cut back to basic cable (which gives us access to many of the programs we like to watch) and save about $90 a month. We also researched our cell phone plan; after discovering we could get a special discount through one of our employers, we ended up saving about $16 a month there. We also cut back on going out to eat and expensive vacations (though we did decide to spend some money on a short summer getaway). We were not willing to do away with television entirely, nor were we (and by "we," I mean "I") willing to forego an occasional trip to the coffee shop. 

5. Being a little obsessive. We checked our accounts on a regular basis and tracked our progress. I know many people would say it's unhealthy to obsess about money, but obsessing about debt worked well for us. 

Just $2900 to go! I'm proud of how far we've come, but trust me, I'm not bragging. We have a long way to go; our student loan debt far surpasses our credit card debt. So... we've almost reached base camp, but we have quite a trek ahead of us before we get to the top of Everest. 

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Frugality bites

Yeah. I said it. Frugality bites.

At least I'm honest.

So let me get this straight. We find it necessary to pay upwards of $500 to fix the car, and hundreds of bucks for dental work, and about $400 a month for the most threadbare of health insurance policies, and another couple hundred bucks to figure out why the toilet won't stop leaking... but we don't get to go anywhere fun this summer because we've convinced ourselves that whatever money Murphy (of Murphy's Law) deigns to let us keep, we should save.

Boo. Boo, I say.

Last night, I was thisclose to spending $400 on a four-day trip to Destin, FL (who am I kidding... I can talk about staycations 'til the cows come home, but I'd much rather go on a "real" vacation). Luckily, I live with a responsible adult - aka Trent, my husband - who quickly said, "I'd love to go to Destin, but are you sure you don't just want to put that money into the savings account? You know, toward the boat we're going to buy one day?"


I'm still not sure the Destin trip won't happen, but at least I now know how to put the brakes on my Expedia addiction. 

I just want to see the ocean and feel the sand beneath my toes. Is that asking too much? 

My grandfather grew up during the Great Depression, and he never spent anything. Never traveled much, never bought himself new clothes, never updated his car. I respect the frugal way in which he lived. I even benefited from it: when he passed away, the money he left funded my undergraduate education. 

But it seemed like he never had any fun, and I wish he had. I wish he'd done something for himself. I wish he'd enjoyed himself more. I don't want to be like that.

On the other hand, I don't want to be like I used to be, either: a shortsighted spendthrift.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Just humming along

So far, the summer's been pretty uneventful: lots of work, lots of trips to the park, lots of visits to the public library, several excursions to Sonic during Happy Hour for half price cherry limeades. Last week, I attended a whirlwind, somewhat stressful professional development conference; I was very happy to get back home to my regular snail's-pace existence. 

If this is what a frugal summer without vacation is like, well, it isn't too shabby!

I've scheduled some time off from one of my gigs during the month of July. I'll still have work to do, but I'm hoping to get at least one day off per week. That should give me the opportunity I need to rest up and recharge for the rest of the year. I'm hoping to get some work done on our house (painting baseboards, maybe filling up some planters in our tiny backyard) and spend more quality time with our son.

At some point in the next week, I want to post a debt reduction update. It's been a year since we started our debt reduction journey. I'm proud of how far we've come and yes, I want to share it, along with some of the things we did to catalyze the process. Getting out of credit card debt isn't easy, and it doesn't happen overnight, but it can be done!

In the meantime, I'm curious... What are you doing this summer? Staying home? Going on vacation? Traveling? If you have any tips on fun, creative things to do with a high-energy toddler without breaking out the big bucks, please do share!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The sailing dream, a year later

I write a lot about debt reduction and frugal living, but don't be fooled. This blog is really about our dream: sailing.

A year ago, when we decided we wanted to reduce debt and save so that we could buy a boat one day, here's what I wrote in my journal:

Trent and I both love the water. He grew up swimming, fishing, and boating. I grew up decidedly on land, but when I spent a month on a tall ship back in 2004, sailing got into my blood. To this day, I get shivers when I think of sitting up on deck in the middle of the night and looking up to see the masts reaching up for the stars. I also liked a lot of the things that other people dislike about boats: the constant cleaning and maintenance, the lurching around in bad weather, the challenge of making dinner while your food is sloshing over the edge of the pan...

It would be so cool to do something so different, something that would allow us to travel as much as I want us to travel. And why not?

Although our devotion to this dream occasionally waxed and waned in the months following, we now find we're even more excited about sailing than we were 12 months ago. This is not normal for us. We usually move from idea to idea at breakneck pace. We usually live in the moment. We usually live for now, not for the future. But the sailing goal has such a strong hold on us that we're willing to give up a lot of the instant gratification we're so used to. Since June of 2008, we've paid off almost $19,000 in debt and surpassed our savings goal by 150%. We ramped up savings and frugal living in January. We've cut back on vacations (no vacay for us this summer), going out to eat, cable, home decorations, and book purchases. We've taken almost every job contract offer we've received. Though it's sometimes a major drag, we've basically changed how we live because we want so badly to achieve the sailing goal. That's how much we want it. 

Oh, and we learned how to sail, and we loved it.

We know we'll never have the money to buy a new, 70-foot yacht and sail off to Tahiti for the rest of our lives. However, we do think we'll be able to buy a used 32- to 40-foot sailboat in 4-5 years, live on it, and cruise down the ICW to the Florida Keys and maybe the Bahamas. We're hoping we can continue working online; this would allow us to basically dock for several weeks at a time, make some cash, and then move on. I'd love to try the live-aboard lifestyle. I think it would offer us the challenge we're looking for. We'd have to work together, all three of us, to overcome problems and obstacles and to live successfully. We'd have to be self-sufficient. Based on what I've learned so far about who our son is (high energy, can't sit still, loves being outside), I think this would really benefit his growth and development, too.

I know this will seem weird to some people, but it's just a different way of life, and we want to try it. It might be cramped, it might not always be comfortable, and it might not be as secure as a house on land. But neither Trent nor I feel especially comfortable in our current situation, either. We feel like outsiders in suburbia. Our house is little but cozy... There are a lot of things to do... People are friendly and helpful... yet we feel like we're not exactly in the right place. We want to get off the beaten path, if only for a couple of years.

So we're planning and preparing. It's going to be a long process. I'm learning a lot about myself and my family right now, though. I'm surprising myself, for one thing, by being able to work for a future goal instead of going for whatever I can get right now. I'm learning that the simpler life gets, the better it seems to get... Yes, I'd love a vacation, but I've also been enjoying those nondescript evenings at home with my husband and son, playing with cars or watching a movie. I've been enjoying baking my own bread and pizza. I've started reading more... I'd definitely slacked off on that, but now it's something I do when I have time to fill. I'm learning that buying stuff won't make me feel better. I'm learning to wait to make decisions, especially decisions involving our money.

So that's where I'm at with sailing. Basically, this is the thing that gets me up in the morning, and this is the thing that makes me want to sacrifice most of the "extras" I've always assumed I needed. I'm so excited about how far we've come, and I can't wait to see what we'll be able to accomplish toward this goal in the next year.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Charged twice!

I'm frustrated right now because we were charged twice for a major purchase we made not too long ago. Unfortunately, it's going to take a couple of weeks to sort it out, leaving our bank account a bit parched and an unwanted balance on our credit card.

Here's what happened: We decided to renew our contract with our pest control company. Pests are a major issue here in the South, and I don't want to worry about critters crawling around/eating our house, so part of our budget includes regular pest control service. Last year, we paid one fee to cover 12 months. This year, when we renewed, we asked if we could get a discount by renewing for 24 months. The company agreed and charged our credit card the agreed-upon amount. We paid it off. All set, no problem.

Two weeks later, they randomly charged our card again for the same amount! Being sleep-deprived parents who simply want to keep on top of their credit card expenses, we paid it...before realizing a short time later what had happened.

Long story short, the pest control company can't just undo the extra charge (because we already paid it), and it's going to take them two weeks to get us a check to reimburse us. I am not happy. We should have taken better care to identify the double charge in the first place, and we shouldn't have paid it - but it bothers me that these people were so lax in their accounting that they made the mistake (a financially big one, too - two years of pest control isn't inexpensive, at least not to us). 

Plus, we're paying for the car repair we needed last week.

When it rains, it pours. Again, this is why we have the emergency fund, but it bothers me to dip into it for something so unnecessary.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hi, I broke. Fix me. - Love, Your Car

Our nine-year-old Saturn surprised us last night, first by losing power to the A/C and radio, then by refusing to restart after we'd shut it off. We had to call in a tow truck this morning and have the car carted over to the dealership for repairs. It turns out the area where you insert the key (clearly, I have no knowledge of correct automotive terms) was all jumbled up and needed to be rebuilt.

The damage: $583, plus towing fees. Our insurance company will reimburse us for the towing. Good times. Why spend money on a summer vacation when you can shovel it all into your aging sedan? :-D

As we usually do for large expenses, we charged it to our point-earning credit card and will pay it off as soon as it shows up in our online statement. We may need to dip into the emergency fund, but hey, that's partly why it's there. At times like this, I'm reminded what a relief it is to have even just a little cash socked away into savings. Rebuilding the account is a lot less painful than paying interest to the interest-loving credit card companies.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How to save money at the coffee shop

Of course, the best way to save money at a coffee shop is to not go out for coffee in the first place. I just want to make sure you know I know that. :-)

Although there are a lot of fine, frugal folks with the fortitude to overcome a Starbucks craving, I will admit I'm not one of them. I've cut back significantly, yes, but I still go out for a caffeine-laden treat once a week or so. I enjoy coffee, I enjoy getting out of my house, I enjoy the free wi-fi at our coffee joint down the street, and I enjoy the atmosphere. I enjoy coffee shops so much that I even worked at one for several months. I can't see myself eschewing the experience entirely. 

When I do go, however, I try to choose the drink with the best value. Here's how you can keep the expense of your guilty pleasure at a minimum:

1. If you want plain coffee, make it at home. Why spend $1.50 or $2 for something that may have been burning away in the coffee carafe for an hour or more when you can make your own fresh brew at the strength you prefer it

2. Avoid the fancy drinks. Peppermint mochas, double tall vanilla lattes, salted caramel hot chocolates, Frappuccinos with espresso poured on top... These are expensive because of the syrup and extras that go into making them. Coffee shops do tally how much money each pump of syrup and each shot of espresso is. The more syrup and espresso in the drink, the more expensive it's going to be (and, in the case of the syrups, the more calories you'll end up consuming).

3. Stick with the simple drinks - they often taste better anyway. Small, plain lattes and cappuccinos and real macchiatos (shots of espresso with a dollop of foam on top) are probably your best bet, value wise. Because they don't contain the extras mentioned above, they cost less. They usually taste better, too. When I was a barista, there was nothing I liked more than to hear someone order a cappuccino. It put the spring back into my step as I worked the bar. Pulling the shot and foaming and freepouring the milk require some skill. A lot of baristas enjoy the chance to show off a little, and they'll put extra work into crafting your order.

If you want some flavor, help yourself to a couple (free) packets of sugar at the condiment bar.

4. Order small. Do you really need a medium or large? You'll save money by going with the smallest size. (Tip: It's not always advertised, but at Starbucks, you can usually order a short. It's 4 oz. smaller than the tall.)

5. Go local and save some dough. I used to be a Starbucks junkie, but then I discovered the independent coffee shop down the street. They charge 20 cents less on average per drink - it helps them compete with the chain stores - and brew a great Italian espresso. The quality of their product is better, too. Perhaps that's the case at your own local coffee shop. If you're going to spend, why not support a small business?

6. Bring your own mug. Most places will give you a 5- or 10-cent discount for doing so, and it's better for the environment than using a paper cup, plastic lid, and cardboard sleeve.

7. Make it a special treat. As a barista, I loved my regulars - the people who showed up once a day or even more. I couldn't help but wonder, however, how much money they were spending per year on their caffeine habit and whether they were even enjoying what they purchased. To me, it would get old. Instead of gorging on regular coffee outings, treat yourself once in a while and savor the experience.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Replacing paper towels with... diapers?

In our household, we've been getting a little too paper towel happy - burning through 12-packs of even the most absorbent paper towels at lightning speed (it's easy to do when you have a toddler who tracks dirt/apple juice/milk through the house). Not only was this habit expensive, it was also extremely wasteful. 

So we've decided to change our environmentally unfriendly ways and replace the disposable stuff with 3-ply prefold diapers, the kind you can find in multi-packs in the baby product aisles at most department stores. When our son was born, we received what seemed like a truckload of these things as gifts. We used some of them as diapers, some of them as burp clothes, and some of them to clean the house. For that last purpose, they work especially well.

Some benefits of using prefolds as cleaning implements:

-They're extremely absorbent, much more so than most paper towels or regular kitchen towels.

-They're great for wiping streaks off mirrors, spills off countertops, and fingerprints off the dishwasher/refrigerator/oven door. I also use them to clean the sink area in the bathroom; they do a nice job of polishing up the faucets.

-You can just toss them in the wash whenever you do a load of laundry. 

-You can use them over and over again. Their effectiveness actually increases the longer you have them (they work best after they've been washed a few times).

Because we'd been purchasing some of the pricier paper towel brands, switching to this cloth cleaning option should save us a significant amount of money in the long run (and maybe save a few trees, too).

Saturday, May 23, 2009

What a great present!

This past Mother's Day, I asked Trent not to get me anything. Holidays like Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, and Father's Day tend to irritate me. Admitting that probably makes me sound like the Grinch, but I think they put pressure on people to spend money when they don't need to. To be honest, it also makes me feel like I should expect presents... If every other mom I know receives something from her significant other and child(ren), I'd feel bad getting zilch.

In the end, Trent and our son selected a card and a bottle of not-cheap-but-definitely-not-pricey wine. Good choices, I thought. Then, today, a third surprise arrived in the mail, something I've been wanting ever since my son received one from his aunt a few months ago:

Thanks, Trent! 

This is a great investment, in my opinion. They're long-lasting and easy to clean. They eliminate the need to purchase plastic bottles (the bane of the ocean's existence). They don't make drinks taste funny, and they don't leach creepy chemicals into your water. They come in various sizes; the company even makes a stainless steel sippy cup for little kids. 

If you're looking for something less expensive, I'm pretty sure Target carries something similar. And of course, there are always thrift shops, garage sales, and Craigslist. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Ultimate Staycation

After numerous brainstorming sessions and several hours of searching for cheap travel, we've decided to just stay home this summer. As boring as this seems to me - because I love seeing new places and experiencing new things - it makes sense. We'll be able to save some money, and we'll be able to finally pay off the last credit card. Besides, we're working over the summer anyway; bringing my laptop to the beach doesn't sound like a good time.

Instead, we plan to save up some cash for a work-free holiday trip in December. We know where we want to go and how much we want to spend, and we're confident we'll be able to afford it. It's something we can all look forward to.

A couple of weeks ago, Trent's dad visited. He really loved where we live, and he opened my eyes to the number of opportunities and activities we have available around here. We have parks, museums, decent restaurants, swimming pools, community events - much as one would find in any vacation destination in another part of the world. Granted, we don't have the beach, and granted, the temperature can be pretty miserable in August, but no place is perfect. 

If we keep our eyes open, we'll find things to do. We just have to put some effort into it.  

Monday, May 18, 2009

Jogging/Running: Fun, Healthy, and Free

For the past 10 years, my husband and I have been runners (well, joggers, in our case; neither of us is particularly fast). Through high school and into college, I never ran unless blackmailed or threatened. In fact, I hated running. It made me feel like puking on the sidewalk. The mile run test in gym class was a living nightmare for me, one I dreaded for 364 days out of the year. 

But during my sophomore year of college, my new boyfriend Trent suggested we hit the pavement. I was too blinded by love (and his good looks) to protest. During our first workout, I managed to jog for 12 minutes. I felt great. The next time, we jogged for 12 1/2 minutes... then 13 minutes... Two years later, we completed the Nashville Marathon together.

Running is a wonderful activity for a multitude of reasons. It's good for you, for one thing; your heart strengthens with every workout. It gets you outdoors. It can help you lose weight (or so I hear - it's never worked for me because I use working out as an excuse to eat). If you're a lone ranger, running offers solitary meditation. If you're a social butterfly, you can always find people who want to participate in group runs. It revs up your endorphins. During the gloomy winter months, a quick run can help you beat seasonal depression.

In my opinion, one of running's best attributes is that it is practically free. There's no cost of admission, no expensive equipment, no lessons needed. All you have to do is put on a pair of comfortable shoes and get out there.

I love to see people who think they'll never be able to run a mile work up to that distance or even more. Try it - it's not as scary or as taxing as you might think. For those just getting started, consider the following:

1. Set small goals. If you don't work out already, you're not going to be able to run five miles at eight minute pace right off the bat (if ever - and that's okay!). Maintain manageable expectations. Your first time out, alternate 30 seconds of jogging with two minutes of walking. Alternatively, pick an object in the near distance and run to it. Stop. Walk for a while. Enjoy the scenery. Then pick another object and run to it. Either way, don't stay out too long. You want to feel energized and motivated when you get home. Beating yourself into the ground during your first workout is a great way to ensure it's your only running workout.

2. Pace yourself. Remember, your goal is to build up mileage. There's no need to sprint. If you start off at a pace that seems too slow, you'll be able to work out for a longer period of time. Slow is good.

3. Realize no-one in the neighborhood cares how sweaty you are or how grungy your sweats look. Seriously, they don't. For a long time, I refused to run because I thought people would laugh at how I looked. I get the impression that self consciousness hinders other would-be runners, too. Realistically, the only thing most people will be thinking when they see you is, "Wow, I should exercise more." See? You can be that inspiration for others! 

4. Don't invest in fancy shoes right away. Okay, so I lied: running does require equipment, namely decent running shoes. Most runners will tell you they're more than willing to spend $100 on a pair of Asics or Brooks because well-designed shoes help prevent injury. But in my opinion, it's wise to see whether you're going to stick with this hobby before you drop that much money on footwear. If you're still building up to a mile, you'll probably be just fine donning a pair of $10 cheapies from K-Mart or Payless.

5. Get motivated - for free! A great resource for runners is the Runner's World website. There, you'll find training plans, nutritional advice, and stories from other people who have been bitten by the running bug. You may find the beginner's section particularly useful.

Now go hit the road!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Five of my favorite frugal-friendly things

1. Cheap wine that still tastes good: Penfold's runs at about $6 a bottle, sometimes less. And see how the glass looks kind of warped? Yeah. It was cheap, too.

2. Netflix: It keeps us out of the theater.

3. Cleaning supplies: Cheap and environmentally friendly! The combination of the two works especially well on plastic showers and tubs. I also use the baking soda to clean out the kitchen sink.

4. Dental floss: This cost me about a dollar. If I use it on a consistent basis, it'll save me hundreds of bucks in dental procedures. We have a bare-bones dental insurance plan, so this stuff is well worth it!

5. Inexpensive toys that entertain my son and promote exercise and/or learning: He received this as a birthday present about a month ago and has played with it every day since then. He thinks it's fun to bounce it off his parents' heads. Bonus: it doesn't scratch the floors. 

True, some of these aren't necessities, but for us, they're the financial equivalent of "healthier alternatives."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Jonesing for some spending

I don't know why, exactly, but yesterday afternoon and evening, all I wanted to do was spend some money - on food, on home decor, on a vacation. Okay, so mostly on a vacation. It's almost June, and so far, we have no travel plans for the summer. That's practically unheard of in this household. My fingers are itching to go to and book a getaway. Good thing our kid gets motion sick, or we may already be out a few hundred bucks... 

Right now, saving seems a lot like dieting: it isn't all that fun until you start seeing significant results. Until then, you feel deprived, irritable, and kind of at a loss as to what to do (since anything involving yummy food - or, in this case, fun spending - is out). Last night, I was like a dieter who just wanted a really, really, really big piece of chocolate layer cake. Today, I feel like a dieter who managed to overcome her cravings and avoid doing something stupid, something that would set back the whole operation.

We're not out of the woods yet. Something tells me I'm not going to be able to sit here all summer, basking in the humidity and clouds of mosquitoes. The trick will be to plan something fun, adventurous, and cheap; something close to home but new to us; something that will get our minds away from work and everyday life.

And don't say "camping." I hate camping. ;-)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

More money... but more worries

One thing that has definitely changed for me in the last two years is how I view and use money. Two years ago, I never thought about it. We'd get a paycheck, pay the bills, inevitably run out of cash, put some of it on our credit cards, make some more money, pay the bills, pay part of the credit card, run out of money, etc. etc. etc. In the back of my mind, I knew it wasn't an ideal way of handling things, but oddly enough, I didn't worry about it. I assumed it would all work out eventually.

Now, we're in a better financial position. We can pay our bills. We've established a bit of an emergency fund. We are a few months away from being done with credit cards forever ("just" $4000 to go...). We know what's in our bank account every day. We've started putting 15% of our earnings into retirement. All good things... but instead of relaxing into the knowledge that we've given ourselves a little financial breathing room, I worry WAY more about $$$ than I used to. I'm glad I'm more aware of how I spend/use/save money, but I don't think it's a good idea to obsess about it. Ever. Maybe I do it because 1) we have a child to provide for now; 2) what with the crappy economy, it wouldn't take much to plunge into financial ruin; and 3) I no longer have any illusions that anyone will ever step in and help us if we need it. I mean, maybe they would, but I don't count on that the way I naively used to.

It's amazing how much time an adult person can spend thinking about how he/she is going to provide for his/her family. What boggles my mind is that Trent and I do okay, and we STILL scrape by sometimes. How do people do it? My suspicion is that a lot of us don't have real financial freedom - that is, the freedom to not worry about how we're going to meet our financial obligations. 

Sometimes, I lie in bed and think about where we will be 30 years from now. Will we have affordable health insurance? Will we be eligible for social security? Will anyone our age be getting social security benefits?  Will we be able to help our son with his college education? 

Even if we save and scrimp and never purchase anything expensive ever again, will we be able to afford the future? 

It's scary. I worry.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sticking with it

Just a quick, personal update, since a couple of people gave me advice regarding my job dilemma: I didn't quit anything. :-) I'd say that's a sign of maturity; three years ago, I would have probably quit without a second thought. Maybe I've become more aware of how much my current decisions can affect me years down the line.

That said, I am still pretty displeased with the situation. As any working parent knows, trying to juggle a job (two jobs, in this case), a kid, a relationship, and a house, plus the ten zillion other little things life throws at us, is not easy. I feel like everyone is getting a piece of my time except me. Even when I do have "down time," I tend to be thinking about all the stuff I have to do in an hour, or later in the day, or later in the week.

What I plan to do this week is ask for some time off. I *think* my employer will be amenable to this; at least, the company was amenable to such things when I first signed on. If they don't want to allow me a break, I'll have to reconsider and go from there. But even a short breather from this one contract will recharge me and get me energized for the rest of the summer and the fall, too.

It's such a strange time... I'm thrilled to have these job opportunities, and they've really helped our financial situation... but I'm also completely overwhelmed, stressed out, and exhausted.

Monday, April 27, 2009

I do not know what to do... Is this a time to quit?

As I mentioned in my last post, I have literally - LITERALLY - not had a day off from work since the beginning of January. This is because I have two long-term contract jobs that are in the same field but that come with two entirely different sets of requirements. Keeping up with both of them is a challenge. I have little choice but to chain myself to my computer seven days a week. 

I know. I did this to myself. I chose to take on all this work. Has it been a huge pain? Yes. Has it been financially helpful? Very much yes; we're now quite close to getting rid of the credit card debt altogether.

Last week, when my workload was exceptionally high and we had guests in town for a visit, there were several times when I felt like I was going to have a panic attack. Being the Type A, high-anxiety person I am, I am no stranger to panic attacks. But I try to avoid them. I hate feeling like I can't breathe. I hate feeling all jangly and crazy inside. I found myself thinking, "This is not how a 30-year-old person should feel on a regular basis if she hopes to have a long, happy life."

I am working too much. But the working... is working. It's making the debt go away. It's allowed us to build up some semblance of a savings account for the first time ever. It's making me think, "Hey, maybe we could buy a boat one day..."

Here's the dilemma. I think all of us in this household would feel a lot more relaxed if I quit one of my jobs. It would allow me to spend more time with our son, and it would give Trent more time to get his work done (we don't put our son in daycare, so one of us has to watch him while the other works). I might even get a chance to read a book or paint my nails or get back into running or brush my hair. :-P On the other hand, this would reduce our income by 30-35%. It would put a major damper on savings. And while my other job has been very good to me over the last three years, it is not a guaranteed position. Neither of them are. These are contract gigs. Theoretically, they could go up in smoke, though at this point they're probably some of the most stable gigs out there.

Plus, Suze Orman has yelled at a lot of people on her show for quitting their jobs at a time like this, when the economy is so off kilter. Maybe Suze has some perspective that I don't. Maybe she is right. Maybe I just need to stick it out for the rest of the year, at least.

What would you do? Quit the job and live on a lower income (with the worries that a lower income could bring), or keep the job (for at least a few more months), despite the hassle and stress?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Back! And somewhat conflicted.

Though I'm not sure anyone is reading anymore.

I stopped posting for a few weeks because I got a bad case of This-will-never-work-itis. Several issues factored in:

1. Money. Money, money, money. Why is sailing so damn expensive?

2. Pirates. I admit, all the recent craziness with the Somalian kids with guns and the cargo ships and the French sailboats and all that freaked us out a lot. We didn't really have grand plans to sail around the world anyway (not initially), but right now, piracy seems to be on the rise, and not just off Africa's coast. We've heard it's also becoming more of an issue in the Caribbean, too. If it were just the two of us, we'd probably do our best to avoid problem areas and not worry too much about it, but with a kid, the prospect of doing something that could put him into that kind of danger seems stupid.

Again - I realize this isn't a problem everywhere. Maybe we were watching too much CNN.

3. Getting back to money, it doesn't seem like a particularly smart way to spend it. Boats deteriorate, and so does everything associated with them.

4. We've been busting our butts to work and save money and pay down debt, and it's been stressful. We've made major progress on the credit card front, but sometimes the good paychecks don't seem worth the fact that I am essentially putting in 4-8 hours a day, 7 days a week. I haven't had a day off since January 7.

So we started tossing around ideas like buying a farm in Montana or taking a couple of months at a time to see the world via planes, trains, and automobiles. These dreams are pricey, too, but not *as* pricey as going on a 2-3 year sailing adventure. They're more reasonable. If we work hard, we are pretty sure we could make these things happen in 5 years or so.

Here's the problem, though: I can't muster much enthusiasm for these alternatives. They just don't seem exhilarating enough (we're weird). What I've realized in the past couple of days - and Trent, too - is that this is one crazy plan we have to pursue. I'm not sure if we'll be able to do it in five years. We may have to push it to 10 to save our sanity. But we want to sail.

*  *  *

On the credit card front, we're about 75% of the way to paying them off completely. As soon as that's done, we'll start ramping up payments on our student loans (which I'm beginning to think are even more cursed than the credit cards). We've managed to put some money into savings, though much of it may disappear in the next two months; Trent's computer shows signs of being close to the end, and he'll need a new one.

Sometimes I just wish I could look into the future and see what happens. Is all of this hard work worth it - or should we be slowing down and enjoying life more right now?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

I love you, Suze Orman.

I do. I love her. Because we never get to go out on Saturday nights (well, we could, but we're often too cheap to get a sitter and too tired to wrangle our deceptively innocent-looking son at a restaurant), Trent and I see her on her show every weekend. I think it's a great program. She alerts people to things that they might not otherwise know - for instance, how to deal with debt collectors or how much to put into a retirement account during a recession etc. etc. Suze Orman is a financial goddess. Go Suze!

Still, sometimes I feel a little perplexed by her advice - namely, her advice regarding emergency funds.

Suze is a big advocate of having an emergency fund that contains eight months' worth of living expenses. Now, I don't want to get into our personal financial nitty-gritty here, but between our mortgage, our student loan payments, our credit card payment, grocery bills, gas and electric bills, monthly homeowner's association dues, and random stuff like oil changes and doctor's visits, let's say that we have minimum monthly expenses of $3000. 

Essentially, then, we're supposed to have $24,000 in an emergency fund.  

...No problem. We'll get right on that. 

But tonight, Suze suggested that people try to have a years' worth of savings in their emergency funds. The rationale is that the economy is terrible, unemployment is high, there are no guarantees, and so on and so forth. 

So that would ramp up our ideal emergency savings to $36,000. And that's just for the emergency fund. That's not for all of the other funds people talk about these days: college savings fund, car fund, vacation fund, holiday gift fund...

Honestly? By the time we save up $36,000, we'll probably have recovered from this recession and entered the next one. Kidding. When there's a will, there's a way. Currently, we have steady jobs; there's no reason we can't save. But still, for us, saving that amount of money is going to take a good long time. It isn't something that's going to happen by the end of 2009. Or 2010. It's just a little overwhelming. 

I'm curious to see what people think. Does a years' worth of savings seem reasonable? Am I just way out of the loop in terms of thinking that this is a lot of money for an emergency fund? Is everyone else way, way ahead of me? If so, did you start saving when you were, like, six years old?