Behind the Scenes

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Recently I finished paying off one of my remaining two (at the time) student loans. I wanted to celebrate in a big way, so I brought my debt payoff chart out to the backyard and burnt it in the fire pit. The video brought me the most comments on Instagram and the most daily views of this blog of anything else I’ve posted so far.

The day you finally get to burn those loan documents or that mortgage is a HUGE day and I’m so grateful for everyone’s words of encouragement and congratulations. But I do want to remind people who may be struggling, or just starting out on their debt free journey, that the one big day is the result of. So. Many. Small days. So many small choices. There were so many little things going on behind the scenes of that video that were the reasons I was able to pay off $3,200 in 30 days.

So this post is all about “behind the scenes,” so show that it’s not all sunshine and bonfires and precipitously dropping loan balances over here. When I was new at this whole debt paying thing, it was nice to think about getting that “Paid in Full” letter, but like.. what do you actually DO to get there? This is what we DO.

We don’t have huge incomes, we didn’t hit PowerBall, no one died and left us an inheritance. And none of those things have to happen for you either. What we do have to have is determination, a goal, and patience.

Get on the Same Page, Make Goals, and Make a Budget. Everyone in the house that has the power to spend money has to be on the same page with saving it. Jeff knows my game plan: pay off my loans from smallest to biggest, then tackle his smallest to largest. He supports me, me encourages me. Every month when he finishes paying the bills, he lets me know “Babe, we have $xyz left over in the joint account, how much do you want me to send you for your loans?” Or “I got my tuition reimbursement” or travel expenses approved or whatever it may be. We review our budget frequently and make adjustments as we go along (read how we made our budget here). It just wouldn’t work if one of us was pinching pennies and the other one was buying a new iPhone or trinkets and trifles off of Amazon.

Just… No.  The most effective tool we use to reach our goals is just saying no. No I don’t want to go out to eat, no we can’t buy that new toy, no we don’t need a new car. We won’t go on vacation this year, or to Great Wolf Lodge or Davis Farmland or Six Flags. We absolutely will not be at Disney World or on a tropical get away. My kids don’t have a trove of brand new clothes and a hundred pairs of shoes every season and nor do we. We won’t be doing swim lessons and soccer and tee ball and dance class and karate.

Find Free Fun. All these No’s seem like a life sentence of boo-riiinnggggg, but we have plenty of fun. During the summer we use Jeff’s veteran status to go to Blue Star Museums free of charge. The Highland Street Foundation in our state sponsors Free Fun Fridays, where local zoos and parks have one day that is free of admission. We also play outside, set up the kiddie pool and have a “pool day,” go to local playgrounds, have movie nights, set up play dates, visit the lake in town if its not too busy, or do art projects. I might plan a cupcake decorating day or a make your own sundae night and include the supplies into the grocery budget. Kids have fun wherever they are. You don’t need to whip out the plastic to enchant their youth.

Priority 1: Food. I plan the meals and the grocery list for two weeks and buy our groceries from the discount grocery store Aldi (read my other posts about grocery stores here). Actually, edit that: I TRY to. Food (also include here personal care items and household supplies) is the thing that changes the fastest and is the easiest to either reign in or to go completely out of control.
In summary of my other posts, my perfect plan is to 1.) plan out all three meals and snacks and school lunches and all supplies for two weeks, 2.) make the shopping list from that plan, 3.) search for online deals or coupons to get this cost down as much as possible, 4.) try to get as much as I can from Aldi or generic and clearance items at Walmart, 5.) stick with the plan over the two weeks using my meal plan and keeping that actual piece of paper handy to remember what the plan is.
If everything goes perfectly, we don’t get any take out or fast food items.

Utilities and stuff. The idea is pretty easy, the less you have to pay in bills, the less of your income goes to utility companies, the more you have left over to service your debt. We keep the heat at 62 in the winter. We have window unit AC’s that are only on during heat waves and are only on as cool as 70. Some days I feel like all I do is follow people in and out of rooms and turn off light switches. And sinks. Some of this stuff I’ve written before in Little Things.
The best thing we’ve ever done for our monthly bottom line is cancel our cell plans. Yup. We don’t have cell phones. Weird, right? Except it saves hundreds of dollars a month. When I tell people this they get this terrified look in their eyes. “What do you mean you don’t have a cellphone??” Recently I asked the receptionist at my optometrist’s office if I could use the phone. “Um… for what purpose?” she asked.
I still have my iPhone and I use it on wifi. Exactly zero of our dollars go to Verizon or AT&T or Sprint or whatever. At one point I loved my phone. I had totally fallen into the consumerist trap. They told me I NEEDED it and I believed them. It was hard giving it up but I’m so happy I did. And now I fell like I could live the rest of my life without the latest gadget.
Not long ago I was at a party and heard someone totally freaking out about the new phone they had just gotten. Like completely 100% FREAKING out about how amazing it is. It was clear this person wanted everyone to jump right on board and tell her how they have no idea she survived without it for so long. I couldn’t help but feel sad for her. The phone is over $800, or about the same as a month of rent.

Do it (all) Yourself. We don’t have a staff over here. Theres no housekeeper “helping me out” one day per week. There’s no baby sitter so we can go out on a date night. There aren’t any personal training sessions. There’s no hair stylist, no waxer no manicurist. If the kids were old enough for sports, there wouldn’t be any private coaches or trainers multiple times per week. If something in the house needs fixing, we fix it and if we don’t know how, we learn. If a button falls off or a new shirt (or even an old shirt) gets a tear, I fix it. Am I a pioneer woman? Not even close.
A while ago I read an article written by someone recounting how their grandparents lived on basically nothing. Part of it spoke about repairing things as soon as they were broke, not tossing them in a junk drawer to be forgotten, and keeping things in clean working order. These efforts reduce your want for things and keep you on budget. I tried to find it but I can’t remember the name. The tone of it was really simple and inspirational.
A huge part of us staying on track with debt repayment has been learning how to do basic things ourselves. Jeff learned how to do all of our basic home repairs, and some big remodeling projects. He also changes our oil right in the driveway which has saved us consistently. I’ve developed a basic understanding of hand and machine sewing. I can reattach a button, repair a small hole, add a hem. I even made Sam a pair of sweatpants out of green fleece when I refused to pay rush shipping for a Halloween costume. Instead of throwing that buttonless shirt in the donate bin and buying a new one, or doubling the price of the pants by rushing them to the house, we keep everything “in-house.” You can do it too, I promise. Check out YouTube for how to and beginner videos. Be resourceful. And have a little faith.

There are so many things I could write about here. Family finance in a culture of consumerism is a complex animal. Spending without regard to our income is part of our norm now. Friends and relatives will look at you like you’re crazy for being on this journey, and spending for the fun of it is part of our fabric. When we first started it took a lot for me to be able to examine each area of our spending and deem it necessary or extravagant. It’s ok. Good things take time. As does scrapping everything you know about managing money and starting fresh. These points are a good start, and I’ll keep writing. From behind the scenes.

Little Things

I’ve been working on this post for a few months trying to collect all of the ideas I incorporate into our daily life that have minimal effort but can save you some money.

It’s not all about big huge sacrifices that can effect you financially. There’s a million little things you can do everyday that don’t seem like much but can add up over the course of a month or a year. Not to mention that starting off with the mindset of reducing your bills and saving money can have way further reaching effects in your finances than the immediately apparent numbers as listed below.

Line Drying Clothes

The Saving Energy website estimates that the average dryer uses 3.3 kWh, and that one kWh costs about 11 cents. So counting that out, line drying a load of laundry saves 36 cents. Seems like nothing, so let’s march it out.

I do four loads of laundry a week. Line drying in the northeast is really only feasible from mid-April to September. So we’ll say 24 weeks.

24 weeks x (36 cents per load x 4 loads per week)= $34.56

Cool right? That’s like a free tank of gas a year. In warm sunny places where it’s hot and sunny year rounds, it’s more like $75.

Turn Down (or Up) the Heat

According to the I Will Teach You to be Rich blog, turning the thermostat down one degree takes 3% off your heating bill. So if you drop even 3-4 degrees, thats approximately $10-20 per month depending on where you live.

Also under this heading is air conditioning, which according to How Stuff Works, consumes 2,000 kWh per year on average, or about $220 using the same 11 cents per kWh.

We have a super old (about 200 years old) house that’s drafty and has high ceilings. We keep our thermostat at 65 in the winter. When we were renting a utilities included apartment… it was more like 72-75. It was an adjustment to cool it off at first, but this is way easier for me than losing the AC. I hate being hot. I’d rather put on a sweater then sweat even a little bit.

Turn Off the Lights

I feel like I spend half my day walking around my house shutting lights off. Its a habit left over from my childhood when my parents (especially my dad) would freak out if a light was left on when you aren’t in the room or if there were too many on in the house at once.

I also hate the yellow glow of incandescent bulbs. I just don’t get why lights have to be on in the daytime when we have perfectly good sunlight for free.

Using the number we’ve been using at 11 cents per kWh, running a 60 watt bulb for five hours a day can cost over $12 per year. Typing that out I just got up and turned out four lights burning in the house. In rooms I’m not even sitting in. FOUR. Two were in the same room. And its 9:30 am on a perfectly bright although overcast day.

So working the math backwards from how much something costs to how much I can save with my efforts (because I’m all about that), if my daily light killing walk throughs can prevent all four of those lights from being on for not as much as 5 hours a day, because that seems like a lot, but lets say one hour per day, I’d save about $10 in one year. For really nothing. Would you use a $10 coupon off your grocery bill? Of course you would. You can play with energy usage math here, at energyusecalculator.com.

$10 is $10 all day.

Get the Last Drop of Detergent

This is another one I remember from growing up. Having poor parents can really pay off later in life lol. My mom used to get so mad at how much detergent was left in the jug that wouldn’t pour out on its own and refused to throw it away. And when you really think about it, look down into the bottle next time you do laundry. There’s no way to get ALL the liquid you paid for, and according to ConsumerReport.org, 7-16% of what you bought can be trapped in the bottle to be thrown out!

So the brand used to calculate this difference was Tide, lets do some math. I get tide at Walmart (one of the few things I still buy there), and a 64 load jug costs $11.97. 7% of that is 83 cents, 16% is $1.92! I typically go through a bottle a month, sometimes more. But lets say that at 1 bottle per month, with the max of 16% lost in the bottle at the tail end, I’d be losing $22.98 a year. That’s two whole jugs of detergent!

Would you grab up a deal for 2 FREE bottles of Tide? Of course you would. How do you get it? Just rinse out your jug when you think its gone. Thats it. Fill it with hot water and you’re good for another 1-2 loads.

Let’s add up all of our (minimal efforts) for an entire year: So if we line dry our clothes for 24 weeks in Massachusetts ($34.56), turn our thermostat down 3 degrees ($10), our off our lights for an hour per day in rooms we’re not even in ($10), and make sure to use up all the detergent trapped int he bottle ($22.98), we’ve saved $77.54.

$77 bucks for doing basically nothing, right back in your pocket. Whats better than that?

Our (Stupid) Boiler.

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I hate this thing.

Aside from the fact that it’s way down in the dark dirty basement, the thing is a relic.

Recently, looking to maybe buy some replacement parts and patch the thing up before we replace it, we discovered that it was most likely made in the 20’s (yes the 1920’s) and the company that manufactured them has been out of business since the 60’s. So in reality, its nothing short of a miracle that it even works at all. And though I don’t have any cold hard numbers, I imagine its not super green or efficient.

Note: The structure of our house was built in 1832 (as far as we can guess based upon the earliest paperwork we can find on it), but because it didn’t have plumbing, it wasn’t considered a proper dwelling and deeded until 1850.

Periodically it coughs itself awake for long enough to heat up enough water for a 7 minute shower (in the heart of winter its more like 3 minutes) or to fill up a bath for the kids. All other times, we get to treat ourselves to a room temperature shower or to a half an hour process of boiling water on the stove top and dumping it into the tub to wash the children.

For four. Long. Years.

Personally, I’ve had enough. Mama likes a hot shower in the winter.

Every year on New Years Eve we set financial goals for the year. This year we put “replace boiler” on the list. Obviously we could have done this at any point. We could have thrown it on the credit cards years ago. Or maybe taken out a small loan, used home equity. But that’s not what we’re all about anymore. Three years ago we resolved that all major purchases would be done with cash. Hence the budget etc etc.

So now that it’s almost October, the pressure is on to get this thing in. Its getting colder up here and I don’t know if I can do the whole take-a-bath-like-Laura-Ingalls-Wilder thing for another year.

But luckily, I have a plan. I call it Operation October. Mostly because Sam’s “favorite month” is October and he’s been talking about it for weeks.

Basically it entails zero spending. Nothing. Tightening up the belt so that nothing additional is spent all month, just the basic necessities. Utilities, mortgage, groceries. No take out, no special trips, no tokens or toys for the kids. I do plan on visiting Old Sturbridge Village this month because I take pictures of the kids there every year, but luckily its free admission for us because Jeff is a military veteran.

All month I plan on posting about how we’re doing, everything we’ve spent and tips to avoid spending, as some of us (this family included) might benefit immensely from using this “button down” technique for a month or more to help turn our finances around. Let’s go!

7 Things You Can Do to Save Money This Week!

Paying off debt and taking over your finances is a lot of work and sometimes, it can take a while to see a payoff. But a lot of us are short on cash NOW and need to make changes right away to even survive the month. Others need instant gratification to get motivated.

Here’s a couple of things you can do right NOW to stretch this week’s paycheck.

Cut Your Cable Bill

Utilities are a killer, but if you rank them from most to least important, cable is on the bottom in my opinion.

As long as you’re not locked into a “bundle” plan where it will cost an arm and a leg to change your package, call your provider and drop your package by a tier or two.

Check out the differences in package price from Comcast:

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Dropping your package by even one tier could save $10/month ($1200/year). Dropping to the lowest package could save you up to $54!

Cancel a Subscription

After my first two babies I used Weight Watchers to lose the extra weight. The app on my phone was so convenient, but also $20 a month. Now that Ben is six months old, I’m back on Weight Watchers, but I’m using an old school book and slider system that an old friend gave me and still losing weight just as fast.

There are a million subscription services now. TV ones like Hulu, food delivery ones Like HelloFresh, product ones like Birch Box, Bark Box, the list goes on and on. Nothing against any of these services, I even used to subscribe to Citrus Lane in my more frivolous days, but if you’re seriously strapped for cash, using savings or credit cards to pay for necessities, this is something you can easily cut without a huge change in lifestyle.

Picture a bucket full of holes and you trying to keep as much water in as possible. The holes are your bills and debts and the water is your hard earned money. The object is to plug as many holes in the bucket as possible. You do this by cutting unnecessary spending and using this extra money to pay off debts.

Return Something

A month or so ago I bought three oval picture frames that I was *convinced* I was going to use. Whelp they sat on top of the dryer for weeks. This month I was going to cut it close on our grocery budget and had to drum up some extra funds. Good thing I remembered those frames! I returned them (without a receipt even), put $17 back in our account and two nights worth of suppers in the freezer.

Just because you’ve bought something doesn’t mean you have to keep it forever. If you have a relatively recent purchase and are running short on cash, return it!

If you don’t…

Sell or Consign Something

I do this all the time with old kids clothes and toys. Find a consignment shop or a pawn shop that pays cash up front (instead of waiting until they sell the item). My favorite is The Children’s Orchard. A lot of places will give you a cash offer on the item and offer you a certain percent more if you agree to take store credit instead. This is how you can walk into a store with a box of old clothes and walk out with new items without even opening your wallet! OR, how you walk out of a store with more cash than you had when you went in.

For other types of items, sell it directly to a cash buyer. This has gotten so easy in the world of Craig’s List and Facebook yard sale communities. Just always make sure to watch out for yourself and make the actual sale in a safe place. Find a Safe Deal Zone near you. None close? Arrange to meet in the parking lot of a local police station.

Sell a Service

Use your spare time for spare cash. My best friend drives for Uber at night or on weekends if she needs to make ends meet. Jeff helps people fix their websites on Coppermine. You even get paid to do people’s grocery shopping and deliver the groceries with Instacart. I make crochet items and sell them. You can babysit, walk dogs or do housework for other people on Care.com or privately for people you know. Play to your strengths and interests.

Fast Food Challenge

This is one of our favorites for really tightening the budget. The challenge is not to eat any food that isn’t groceries. No coffee drive through, no lunch in the caf at work, no vending machines, pizza delivery, restaurants. Nada. Framing it like a “Challenge” in your mind and getting your partner on board is more motivating than just saying “oh boy, bagged lunch all week.”

To help resist temptation, I leave my debit card at home when I leave the house. Its just too tempting to get an iced coffee on the way to work and then cruise down to the cafeteria if the morning is slow or the lunch I packed isn’t interesting enough.

Just Don’t

Just don’t go to Target if that’s your weakness (it’s mine). Just don’t go along to the mall with your friends if you KNOW you can’t resist. Don’t cruise the clearance section looking to justify spending with “but it’s on clearance!” Don’t check your favorite deal sites (mine is Zulily. Love it.).

Take a walk instead. Or go to the library and borrow the book you were going to buy (they lend movies and TV series too). Take your kids to the local playground instead of some place that charges admission like a zoo or themed park.

What Do You NEED Really?

So commonly we hear people say it. They can’t pay bills because they can’t afford it. They don’t fill their medications because they don’t have the money. This is such a cop out. And I used to use it all the time.  The truth is, almost any budget has some wiggle room.

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There’s a huge wage gap in this country which is such an injustice. As unfair as it is though, it’s still a fact we have to live with until changes are made nationwide to fix it.

The first thing we did as a family to start taking control of our finances was to identify things we definitely need and things we can live with out. This came with a healthy dose of was really hard to deal with at first.

What do you NEED?

Spoiler alert: it’s a lot less than you might think. You need (for real):

  • Nutritious food
  • Water
  • Housing
  • Power and water
  • Clothing
  • Transportation
  • Toiletries
  • Communication

That’s basically it. When you really think about it, people need very little to survive and be relatively comfortable. Notice some things that are not on this list.

-Vices

I don’t know about you, but cigarettes in my state are outrageous. After high school, I worked at a convenience store with a gas station attached. Then, a pack of good cigarettes was $5.15. Now, they’re over $10. March that math out. If you smoke a pack a day, that’s $70 per week, $280 per month. That’s enough to buy a nice car, which is exactly what Jeff did when he quit his 2 pack a day habit a few years ago. Plus, smoking is TERRIBLE for you, even in the short term. No judgement here, just pure finance.

Need motivation? Get a free cigarette tracking app for your phone like Get Rich or Die Smoking so show yourself exactly how much you save buy cutting out even a few cigarettes per day at first.

-iPhone 27, Unlimited Data with a 3D Camera that HASNT EVEN COME OUT YET!

The list says communication. You need a way to communicate with friends and family, make kid’s doctors appointments, call for help in emergencies etc. You DON’T need Internet wherever you go. You DON’T need to be able to update Facebook at your every convenience. You DON’T need the best and newest device you can get your hands on. All of these things are status symbols created by people looking to make a lot of money.

One of the first major things we eliminated from our swollen budget was our cell phone plans. Jeff still has his work phone at no cost to us, and I bought a $10 flip phone with prepaid minutes that I spend $20 on every three months. This was such a major savings, almost $2,500/ year. But also a major trauma. I loved my iPhone. The first month maybe was tough, but honestly now I don’t miss it. I kept my phone which can still text through apps like iMessage and Google Hangouts, and I can do everything but make phone calls in places that have wifi, which is pretty much everywhere now.

No matter how much you love your gadget, free yourself from the status symbols, because you don’t need them.

– A Brow Game on Fleek with Fresh Acrylics

I’m calling out the ladies here but the guys are just as bad.

Basic toiletries are necessary. Even a simple make up routine. But you DON’T need biweekly professional beauty services and a vanity full of designer make up. I’m not saying that if these things are extremely important to you that you should let your image go down the toilet, but you shouldnt be spending money on fingernails that needs to be going towards one of the essentials, like housing or paying off one of your credit cards.

There’s a bazillion hours worth of YouTube videos you can use to learn to do these things yourself. Not confident? Track down a technical school with a cosmo program that will only charge for products.

– 2018 Gas Guzzler with TV’s in the Seats

Everyone needs reliable transportation. This doesn’t mean a brand new SUV for a single person. New vehicles are another status symbol and a huge rip off. A pre-loved, slightly older, solid transportation vehicle may not be a parking lot stunner but can save you tons of cash, from insurance costs to excise tax and loan interest.

For some people who live in places where it’s available, transportation could mean a bus pass. Then think of everything you’d save on gas, maintenance and insurance. Oh the savings!

One more thing, if you live in a snowy area like we do, “it’s great in the snow” is no reason to blow $30G on a new SUV. I’ve driven in 13 years of Northeastern winters in a compact sedan and haven’t been stranded yet.

-Jam Packed Walk-Ins

This is coming from a girl that once had not one but two credit cards handed back to her for insufficient funds at the checkout at Marshalls.

Of course you need clothing that fits and is in good condition that you like. But you don’t need closets full of clothes and shoes you never wore. Go on Pinterest and search for “Capsule Wardrobe.” Need something new? Hit up a consignment shop for big discounts. Bonus points: gather up some of the clothes you’ve never worn and consign them for store credit to shop for free!

-1500+ Channels

This is our latest project. We’re currently exploring new more affordable TV options. Currently we have a satellite dish that costs $70/month even though we have the most limited package. Most likely we’ll be switching to a small antenna for PBS (mommy needs the kids to have Wild Kratts), and some new PlayStation tv thing they’re offering. Antenna has an upfront cost for the antenna only and the smallest PlayStation package is about $30/ month. I’ll post more info about this when we make the leap.

Too traumatic? Baby step: Reduce your current tv package by one tier.

-A Cookie Cutter Center Hall  Colonial with all Granite and Stainless

HGTV sure is great isnt it? With all of those totally unrealistic expectations it can forge in the imagination such as “even if we go over budget, it’s only a few more dollars a month, we can afford that!” No. You can’t. And honestly, you don’t even want to.

If you’re looking for new housing, be realistic about what you can afford and then reduce it even more. No one needs five bedrooms and six baths. Don’t shackle yourself to a mortgage  you’ll have to work your fanny off to even stay current on. There is such a thing as being “house poor.” Find comfortable and safe housing until you’ve accomplished all of your other financial goals.

-A Large Almond Joy Iced with Almond Milk

That’s my Dunkin’ Donuts order. And one of my major vices. Fast food, restaurants and pizza delivery will kill your financial goals. Don’t believe it? Look back in your bank statement and add up how much you spent last month on food other than groceries. It’s a lot right? To underscore this even more, last year I gave up ALL food items that weren’t groceries for two months (no iced coffee and a bagel, no Happy Meals for the kids, no lunch in the cafeteria at work) and bought a new couch for the living room with the money I saved.

I’m also working on a post about how to save on groceries that I’m really excited about. We went from $1000-1200/ month on groceries to $650.

Taking control of your finances means that you realize that financial freedom is not a credit card to pay for your new phone and handbag. So many things we think we need are dragging us down. Take some time and do the soul searching to see what you really NEED and what you can get rid of. And free yourself from the status symbols because you don’t need ’em. ✌🏼️