Thursday, February 26, 2009

Almost halfway there!

In June of 2008, we stared paying down more than $20,000 in credit card debt. As of this week, we've paid off almost half of it! In my mind, that's a reason to celebrate.

Assuming we continue to pay down our debt at the same rate, we could be credit card-debt free by the end of the year.

We've been able to make this progress because we've...

-taken on extra work to earn some extra cash. Not always fun, but it's made a difference (probably the biggest difference out of all of these, to be honest).

-stopped going out to eat so much and started cooking more at home.

-put most money that's not earmarked for bills or other necessities towards this debt, instead of letting it sit in our checking account and tempt us.

-made smaller changes, like switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, downgrading to basic cable, and avoiding all the pretty home decorations at Target (*sniffle sniffle*).

I knew we could and would reduce our credit card debt, but I didn't know we could do it so fast. We're extremely motivated now!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The days of steel and granite

Remember two years ago, when every home improvement show on television was touting hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances, and granite countertops? Ah yes... the days of endless home equity lines of credit...

I, like many people with an innate obsession with how their homes look, developed something of a Pavlovian response (involving lots of drool) to the sight of modern home decor. When we moved into our condo last year, I informed my husband that as soon as we had enough money, we, too, would jump on the bandwagon. I envisioned deep, undentable hardwood floors running throughout the downstairs... rich, plush, stainless carpeting upstairs... stone tile in the showers... black gabbro countertops in the kitchen... a privacy fence around our postage-stamp-sized patio... and of course, the ubiquitous stainless steel army of dishwasher, stove/oven, and refrigerator. 

Obviously, I am from the Planet Clueless, because even if the economy hadn't nosedived, there's no way we'd be able to afford any of that. What was I planning to do - get a loan? Put it on the credit card? Probably.

The country's recent financial struggles, while frightening, are teaching us some important lessons about frugality, savings, and making do. One lesson I've learned is that there's nothing wrong with using something until you can't use it anymore. Our carpets are matted and kind of dingy, but they still provide a soft place for our son to play. Our kitchen cabinets - and some of the walls, and the old prefinished hardwood floor in the living room and kitchen - are dented in spots, thanks to said child's propensity for destruction, but they still do their jobs. The stovetop is scratched, but it still heats up just as well as it always has. There's a big crack in the lining of our freezer, but nothing's thawed out, so I guess it's okay for now.

We know we will use these things for as long as we can, and then - unless our home warranty buys us a replacement - we'll probably use them for even longer. In a way, it's a relief. I don't have to worry about making my home look perfect just because someone on television tried to brainwash me into thinking it's necessary.

I won't lie. I will probably daydream every now and then of Electrolux appliances and smooth, shiny floors, but I'll also try harder to be satisfied with what I have. And I'll remind myself of our long term goals, which don't really involve kitchen upgrades anyway.

To those of you whipping up dinner on your Formica countertops, wiping spills off your linoleum, and strategically hanging pictures over the imperfections in your walls - I salute you. 

Monday, February 23, 2009

Frugality isn't easy

At least, it isn't easy for us.

In the last few days, we've enjoyed the following:

-Lunch at a local restaurant.
-Dinner at Panera.
-A 12-pack of beer.
-A couple of bottles of wine.
-Lattes at Starbucks.

That's in addition to the money we spent earlier this month. Our February "fun budget" was blown by Valentine's Day.

Honestly, I wish I could say that this doesn't bother me in the least, but it does, a little. Money-wise, we're like yo-yo dieters: we manage to stick to the plan for weeks, then go on a binge. And once we start spending, it's hard to stop.

We could make some valid excuses. We didn't spend that much. We don't go out all that often, compared to other people. We're a lot more frugal than we were even six months ago. We enjoyed everything we consumed.

These statements are all true. However, what I'd like us to do is gain some consistency in our spending. Perhaps our current expectations aren't realistic. For instance, instead of planning to go out twice a month, maybe it's more realistic for us to have a casual restaurant meal once a week. Maybe we should plan on treating ourselves to coffee every Thursday or Friday afternoon, and get a little tradition going in that respect.

We read a lot of blogs about saving, frugality, and simple living, and while I've learned a lot from them, I don't think we can just do what works for those people. We're learning that we aren't ready to make consistent cuts to every small luxury, but we can't indulge in those small luxuries every other day. We need to figure out what works for us so that we can consistently save over the long term.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Sometimes, what with the economy being as damaged as it is and the job market being so uncertain, it's easy to get discouraged and wonder whether we will be able to transform our sailing dream into reality. We have the spirit and the determination, but ultimately, a lot of it will hinge on whether we have the means to do so. 

One of my friends is always talking about the importance of visualization. Visualization, she says, is the first step in shaping the future we want. So last night, Trent and I tried it for ourselves. We sat down for half an hour, and in that time, each of us wrote out a description of what a day in our lives will look like seven years from now. We started with a basic scenario: we're in the Caribbean by that time. On this day, our plan is to sail a short distance from one island to another.

Here's part of what Trent wrote:

"I woke this morning because the sun hit my foot. We left the sky view open last night to get a breeze and because we could. We have been doing things lately because we can. We sailed to this small little island a few days ago. We had a blast swimming and fishing and just taking it easy but we thought it was time to move on. Mainly because we could. We didn't set an alarm because there was no need. It didn't matter when we got up and more importantly we knew our son would be up trying to catch dinner. It wasn't so much that we wanted to eat a fish, it was just that he wanted to catch one. He also knew that if he caught dinner it might be a special treat for him next time we were in port.

Anyway, I felt the warmth hit my foot and slowly got out of the rack. Sure enough as soon as I got topside there was our son, trying to catch a fish and watching the locals go by on a boat that looked like it could sink at any moment. He said he already had breakfast and didn't need anything. This was fine by me, as I wanted to go back below and start the coffee. Although we were not at home, the one thing we had everywhere was coffee. Susanne and I needed it to start the day and I wanted to get some going before she got up as a treat to her. She had been up late updating our blog for our friends and readers."

And here's part of what I wrote:

9:30 a.m.: Get underway. There’s a decent breeze in a direction favorable to our destination, so once we’re clear of really shallow water and reefs, we turn off the engine and put up the sails (have already forgotten the technical term for that). Our son does the sail handling, Trent steers, and I oversee navigation.

10 a.m.: Assuming all is well, I clean up the cabin a bit. When he’s not handling the sails, our son takes pictures and reads a little.

Noon: I make sandwiches and pour sodas and pass them around.

2 p.m.: Arrive at next, nearby island. We anchor the boat in a good spot (I’m sure I will one day learn what a “good spot” is) near the island and carefully stow away the sailing gear.

3 p.m.: We take the dingy over to the island and check it out. There’s a public beach, so we go swimming. We meet some other cruisers there and invite them over for dinner.

4:30 p.m.: We pick up some local fruit at a roadside stand and take it back to the boat. I start making dessert and a salad.

5:30 p.m.: Cruisers come by, and we invite them on board. They’ve brought some fresh fish. We use it to make fish tacos. We have drinks, food, and conversation. They’re really nice. We plan on keeping in touch and perhaps doing some passages together.

All in all, it was a fun exercise. I was surprised at how similar some of our ideas were; it's nice to know we're on the same page. Our personalities were obvious, though: Trent emphasized more solitary activities; I emphasized social activities. It's true that one reason I want to do this is for the opportunity to meet a lot of people from various backgrounds.

It'll be interesting to look back on this in a few years and see whether we succeeded in "putting foundations under our castles in the air."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Valentine's Day: What's the Damage?

Honestly, I think Trent and I both find Valentine's Day a wee bit annoying. Is it a day to celebrate our love for one another, or a day to needlessly spend money on flowers, chocolate, cards, and dinner simply because society tells us everyone else is doing it, so we should, too? 

...Ahem. Not to sound jaded or anything.

Jaded or not, we did go out, and we did spend some money in the process. Here's a fiscal breakdown of the evening and whether it was, in the end, really worth it:

Babysitting, three hours: $36. Our babysitter is a wonderful person, although we don't see her all that often now that we're going out less. Our son loves her, and she knows what she's doing. She's not the type of person to call us in the middle of dinner just because he's been crying for two minutes or doesn't want to go to bed. Plus, she knows CPR. She gives us peace of mind. Verdict? Worth it.

Dinner: $30. This included a 20% tip. We made use of a $10 off coupon. Our meal consisted of bread, salad, pasta, and soda. The food was good, and so was the service. Verdict? Worth it. 

Coffee and dessert: $8. We had a coupon for a free coffee at Panera, so we stopped by after dinner. Earlier in the day, we'd purchased two cupcakes from our favorite local bakery; we enjoyed those with wine when we returned home. The coffee and conversation were worth it. The cupcakes were good, but at almost $3 a piece, they were also expensive. Verdict? Kind of worth it.

Wine: $18. Having lived in coastal California for a year, we've developed an appreciation for a good bottle of wine. Usually, though, we shell out just $5 for basic Pepperwood, Penfold's, or Crane Lake. This time, we splurged on pinot noir. We opened it, let it air for a few minutes, and eagerly took the first sip. Silence from both parties. Then, "...This is okay. But definitely not great." "Yup. Unfortunately, I completely agree." No complexity or subtlety in that bottle. Verdict: So not worth it.

Total cost of Valentine's Day date: $92. Chance to spend time together, sans child: Priceless. I'm joking a little, but we hadn't had an opportunity to go out alone in six weeks. We value the now-rare hours we don't have to share with anyone else. Next year, though, we'll keep the date, buy a much cheaper bottle of wine, and bake our own dessert. It'll be just as fun and just as romantic, but perhaps a little more frugal.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Is this *really* going to work?

Last night, while we were on a Valentine's Eve date (with coupons for $10 off dinner at Buca di Beppo and a free coffee at Panera), Trent and I discussed whether we will really be able to save up, buy a boat, and sail in 5-7 years. We decided that yes, it's definitely possible, with the following caveats:

1. We'll need to buy a used boat (we've always know this; new boats are extremely expensive, often sporting price tags much higher than the cost of our house).

2. We'll need to do a lot of our own work on the boat. We might not be able to make every fix or improvement ourselves, but we should be willing to put in the elbow grease whenever possible. We should be ready to learn.

3. We'll need to alternate between working and sailing so that we can generate income. Right now, a six-months-on, six-months off schedule looks like it might be doable. We'd top up the cruising kitty, then head out again for a set period of time, then return to earn some cash, etc.

4. We need a realistic sailing plan. Forget heading off to Tahiti. Who knows? That might happen, but such a trip takes funding and skill we don't yet have. However, a trip down the Intercoastal Waterway, followed by a few months in the Florida Keys, later followed, perhaps, by time in the Bahamas and then the Caribbean - that's doable. Baby steps.

5. Unless the housing market improves significantly in the next few years, we'll probably rent out our house. That would allow us to maintain some landlubber security without the burden of a monthly mortgage payment. 

Henry David Thoreau famously said, "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." It might take us a while to build that foundation, piece by piece, but I'm convinced we can do it if we maintain focus over the long term and channel our resources appropriately.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Debt - A New Plan of Attack

As we're unsure how our job prospects will look later this year, we're making a push to pay off our remaining credit card debt. It's important to us to get rid of the balance to avoid further interest rate hikes. Besides, the money we're giving the credit card company could be going into our cruising kitty. Presently, our emergency fund isn't huge, but it's decent for our lifestyle. We're going to keep contributing to it but at a somewhat slower pace.

We do contract work and get paid by a few different employers. Our paychecks are irregular and scattered about. Sometimes we get three in a week; sometimes we go for a month without pay. Given this situation, and given that anything in our checking account should be used for expenses, here's our new debt-reduction plan:

-The night before we get a paycheck, we'll write down how much is left in the account.

-The next day, assuming that the paycheck is sufficient to get us through the next round of bills, we'll take the amount that we wrote down the night before and put it to the credit card.

To me, there's no point in leaving excess money in the checking account. A checking account contains funds meant to go to the mortgage, our bills, school loans, etc. Anything extra should be placed elsewhere.

This plan might seem a little odd, but I think it'll work. I'll feel great once we make that last credit card payment. I hope we can do it by the end of the summer (and then we can start focusing more on our school loans - hurrah!)

Friday, February 6, 2009

How achieving an ideal BMI will save us money

Lately, Trent and I have started a campaign to lose weight. This isn't part of a flimsy, short-lived New Year's resolution; our only resolution was to continue saving money and paying down debt. And it's not because we want to look better or fit into the clothes we wore when we were 18. Neither of us is obese. We just have a little extra poundage on our frames.

No, we want to achieve an ideal Body Mass Index (BMI) in large part because we think it will save us money in the long run. That's why we've been on a slow (very slow), steady weight loss trajectory for the past three or four months.

First, what is BMI? It's basically a way to measure the amount of body fat you're carting around. It takes into account your height as well as your weight, which of course is reasonable because a 5' 5" 30-year-old who weighs 220 pounds is more overweight than a 6' 2" 30-year-old who weighs 220 pounds. There are BMI calculators all over the web, but the one I like is the National Institutes of Health BMI calculator (hey, might as well go with a credible source). People with BMIs less than 18.5 are underweight. Those in the 18.5-24.9 range are on target. People with BMIs between 25 and 29.9 are overweight, and those with BMIs over 30 are obese.

All of which you probably already know. So what's my point? And how does this relate to money?

Well, scientists have discovered there's something of an ideal BMI within that normal range of 18.5-24.9. The ideal BMI, according to some studies, is between 21 and 22 (Matsuzawa et al., 1990). This is associated with lower risk for cardiovascular disease (Ashton, Nanchahal, & Wood, 2000). According to the World Health Organization, "...approximately 58% of diabetes and 21% of ischaemic heart disease and 8-42% of certain cancers globally were attributed to a BMI above 21 kg/m^2" (World Health Organization, 2009, para. 16). 
So, WHO experts, what you're saying is... my BMI of 24, while decent, isn't ideal? And it puts me at higher risk for horrible illnesses that cost thousands of dollars to treat? Hmmm.

Other studies have measured the correlation between BMI and medical expenses, and the results are pretty astounding. According to a 1997 study, women with an ideal BMI have annual health care costs that are 6.3% to 36.1% lower than average; men who have an ideal BMI pay 3.6% to 18.2% less per year for health-related expenses (Heithoff, Cuffel, Kennedy, & Peters). 

Sign me up for that plan, please.

Saving money on health-related expenses isn't just something we want to do, it's something we need to do if we want to maintain a decent savings account. Our employers don't offer health insurance, so we buy our own, and pay what seems like way too much for basic preventative services like a yearly physical, immunizations, pap smears, and the like. We'd be shelling out a very high deductible if one of us got really sick. We don't want to go without health insurance (the last time we tried that, I got pregnant, and we paid $21,000 for a C-section), and we know we can't prevent every health scare, but it's clear that we need to take matters into our own hands and do our best to live as healthfully as we can.

What we've done so far to reduce calories and lose weight:

-Cut down on going out to eat. If we do go out, we try to make healthy choices. (Bonus: we save money!)

-No more sugar-laden Starbucks lattes. For a few years there, I was justifying my coffee addiction with the argument that I need my calcium, but there are cheaper, healthier ways to meet nutritional needs. You know, like milk. (Bonus: we save money! Cha-ching!)

-Exercise almost every day. We're runners (well, okay - very slow joggers), but we also like to walk a lot, and we work out with our Nintendo Wii Fit. In my book, anything is better than nothing.

-Ramp up the fiber and veggies. I started purchasing frozen broccoli (talk about inexpensive) and incorporating that into a lot of our meals. It's healthy, but it's also filling, thereby reducing my desire to go back for seconds.

-Weigh ourselves every day. I know a lot of people discourage this practice, but weighing in once a week doesn't cut it for me. A daily weigh in serves as a regular reminder that I'm on the right track; it motivates me to keep making good choices.

So far, both of us have lost between 5-10 pounds. I have about 12 more pounds to go before I hit the Magic 22, but when I do, you can bet I'll work hard to stay there.


Ashton, W.D., Nanchahal, W., & Wood, D. A. (2001). Body mass index and metabolic risk factors for coronary heart disease in women. European Heart Journal, 22(1), 46-55.

Heithoff, K. A., Cuffel, B. J., Kennedy, S., & Peters, J. (1997). The association between body mass and health care expenditures. Clinical Therapeutics, 19(4), 811-820.

Matsuzawa, Y., Tokunaga, K., Kotani, K., Kobayashi, T., & Tarui, S. (1990). Simple estimation of ideal body weight. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, 10, S159-64.

World Health Organization. (2009). Obesity and overweight. Retrieved on February 6, 2009, from

Monday, February 2, 2009

The pros and cons of working from home

Trent and I have been working exclusively from home for the past three years or so. This is nothing we ever planned: both of us went to college and grad school figuring we'd eventually find ourselves in an office. The contract work we do fell into our laps, though, and now I think we'd suffer a bit of a culture shock if we found ourselves in a more traditional nine-to-five environment.

Working from home has several benefits:

1. You get to be at home...near your warm, comfy bed...and your nicely stocked refrigerator.

2. You can write very important-sounding letters while dressed in your purple rocket ship pajamas.

3. There's a perception of autonomy. We have supervisors, but we rarely see them. They're kind of the real-life versions of Charlie from Charlie's Angels: every now and then one of them will contact us (either as a voice on the phone or as words in an e-mail), issue a directive, and then vanish back into the ether. It's fun to pretend we're independent operators, at any rate, with no set protocol or requirements to follow. 

4. We spend a lot of time together as a family, and we have the flexibility to do family stuff during the day. Oftentimes we take an hour or two off in the mornings and go to the park or playground with our son. Sometimes we drive to a nearby city for lunch (less often now than in the past, of course, given our more frugal lifestyle). We've even gone on road trips to see our families, stopping late in the afternoon so that we have time to check our e-mail before the end of the workday.

5. It's environmentally friendly and frugal in that we don't use our car very much. On some days, we never leave the house. When we do, most of our destinations are here in town and less than two miles away.

But working from home isn't always a bowl of cherries, a vase of roses, or a highway of rainbows. Some of the cons include the following:

1. It's hard to work when your bed is so comfortable that you find yourself lying in it in the middle of the day for extended periods of time.

2. I won't lie. Our clothing is pitiful. Because no-one will ever see most of the things I wear, I don't feel bad about keeping items that are holey, small, or faded (or altogether falling apart).

3. Working from home requires a lot of sometimes-nonexistent self-motivation. Trent and I are both pretty self-motivated on most days, but every now and then, the fact that we don't have people breathing down our necks, telling us what to do and when, leads us to slack off and waste time.

4. We're with each other pretty much 24/7. Three people in a 1400-square foot condo... Sometimes, the place feels claustrophobic, especially when one of us is grumpy (me) or has a particularly stinky set of dirty diapers (that would be our son).

5. It can be difficult to meet people. Most folks go somewhere else to work, somewhere where there are other people and the opportunity for socializing (or at least some good old social drama). I miss seeing other human beings. Occasionally, I even miss the drama. That might explain why I practically wag my tail with excitement when I get an opportunity to talk to someone else in person.

Regardless, I think we're lucky to have this arrangement - not just because it's convenient, independent, and economical, but because it's a land-based version of what we hope our lives will be like in a few years. Ultimately, our goal is to sail on a budget and on a 35- to 40-foot boat, and most of the time, we'll be fending for ourselves. Our current experience will, I hope, help us develop skills that make our future endeavors more successful.