Hope for the Financially Frustrated: A Review of More Than Just Making It

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Photo Credit: MrJamesBaker Flickr via Compfight cc

 

From the time we were first married, my husband and I always had a budget. In fact,we had to make a list of all our bills to prove we could pay them each month before my parents would agree to let us get married. We were very young and I had never really known a life of financial struggle. For the majority of our marriage we were just making it. Most of the time, it didn’t worry me much. We had each other and if something terrible happened (which fortunately rarely did) we had family nearby. Certainly we were a bit naive but we also had faith that if we honored God with our lives and our money that he would be faithful, and we always had what we needed, if not a bit extra. I remember what it’s like not to have any financial margin, and many ways, I’m still there.

 

 

Tomorrow morning, More Than Just Making It by Erin Odom will be officially released by Zondervan publishers. I had the opportunity to preview the book and share my thoughts. I wasn’t positive what I was expecting from this book. I was expecting some budget tips, though I know that wasn’t the primary purpose. But the best feature of this book is Erin’s incredibly encouraging story. Yes, she has found success after years of struggle but this is not a how-to book. It’s not a step by step guide on how to get out of debt and build a financially healthy life. But it is filled with encouragement on how to slowly crawl out of a financial hole, no matter how you got there.

 

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I really appreciated the chapter on creating more income, though not for the reasons I expected. Some of her suggestions were good ones. But I was especially drawn to her wisdom not to select a side business that doesn’t mesh well with your personality. There are many times I’ve been tempted to take on a side gig that I knew wouldn’t work well for my personality of lifestyle but I felt desperate. There are times to be desperate. But truly, we weren’t there. Our kids were eating. We were surviving. We just had mountains of student loan debt that seemed insurmountable. We couldn’t seem to build our savings without it being drained every other month by the next crisis.

 

However, Erin did inspire me to take a hard look at the financial state of our household. I redid my budget and managed to scrape a couple dollars from each category to make sure we have SOMETHING going into savings each month instead of spending virtually every dollar as it comes in, toward the goal of rebuilding our savings account after a lot of moving expenses at the beginning of the year. We even tried a No Spend Month. While that didn’t net us the large amount of excess I was hoping, it did help to fill a few holes in my budget and helped answer some questions about how much we really can do without.

 

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Most significantly, I feel inspired to try and expand my blog further. I’ve always been nervous about doing this. Because sometimes the words just don’t come. It seems easier to stay in the holding pattern of low readership and a trickle of income. I don’t necessarily plan to build a full time income or anything. But I need to start taking some major growth steps, some of which will eat into the tiny income that we are currently making and mostly need.

 

I’m also trying to get back on track with my book. I’ve been working for several (we won’t say how many) years on my Lenten devotional. My Advent devotional, As We Wait, came so easily that I thought a devotional for Lent felt like a natural extension. Except it hasn’t been easy, it’s been like pulling teeth and most days it’s easier to just tap out another blog post or get caught up in the general chaos of my life homeschooling with three small children and helping to run multiple church ministries.

 

 

This book also helped me recultivate gratitude on my heart. Too often I focus on what we are lacking or the size of our financial difficulties than on all of the good things. Earlier this year, we were finally able to move into a home that is better suited to our growing family. Even just three years ago that seemed impossible. I am able to continue to stay at home and homeschool my children, yes it takes great financial sacrifice to do this, but it is nice to have the option at all. I know not all families do.

 

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It has also renewed my commitment to generosity regardless of our circumstances. Many times over the years we have benefited from the generosity of others, whether it be personally or anonymously. Sometimes it was random money, other times it was an item at a time we needed it most. When things rare tight for a season it can be tempted to be less giving because it feels so difficult. But I think maybe those are the kind of times I need to hold much more loosely to what I am and realize that it all comes from God.

 

No matter where you are in your financial journey, you will find encouragement in Erin’s book. If you have a spending problem or an income problem, have survived hard times or are only just now coming into difficulty; there is hope for you. If money is so tight that you can’t even think about purchasing this book, then try going to your local library and requesting that they purchase a copy. If you have the means, consider purchasing a copy for a friend that doesn’t and ask that she pass it on to another friend in need when she is done.

 

There is hope for a better future, not because of any magic formula or special method but through trust in Jesus and a little bit honesty and logic as we assess our financial lives. Someday, we will be more than just making it.

Read the first chapter here!

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I received this book for free in exchange for my review but my opinions are my own. This post may also contain affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

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The No Spend Month: The Results

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Photo Credit: sniggie Flickr via Compfight cc

 

Last month I shared that our family would be embarking on a first time ever no spend month. I was excited to see how much we could save by not spending money on anything unnecessary this month. I decided it would be helpful to keep a record of all the things I didn’t buy that I normally might have.

 

Things I’ve said no to this month

30% off at LLBean (this was so painful they NEVER offer 30% off, though I realized later that it’s good until September, but I’m still going to think about it carefully).

$.99 for a Beatrix Potter audible deal

A new coffee maker (I smashed my carafe the day after declaring no spending month, I’ll buy a new one once I’ve replenished our savings account and set aside money specifically for it).

Impulse Items at Target

A summer sale at Elegantees including a top I’ve been wanting and waiting to go on sale.

30% off a dining bench from Target online that I’ve been wanting for the kitchen to increase our seating.

Prime Day! There were so many things on sale on Prime day. I did in fact manage to live without every single one.

Coldstone Creamery BOGO coupon

Honestly I stopped tracking about halfway through the month. Mostly because I got used to saying no. Now that we are back to relatively normal spending habits, I am trying to keep a lot of what I learned in mind. Now before I make a purchase, I try to ask myself some key questions.

 

Do I Need This?

I truly hate asking this question because the answer is almost always no. Unless we’re talking about basic foods or necessary repairs (like a broken hot water heater or furnace). This forced me to realize how much I DON’T need that I’ve grown used to having. Essentially wants that have disguised themselves as needs.

 

Why Do I Want This?

Sometimes the answer helps me realize that I’m feeding an unhealthy habit or planning too far ahead. (I’ve discovered that planning too far in advance can be a form of control, lack of trust as well as a scarcity mentality that I try to avoid). Something pretty and new for myself may lift my mood for a moment or two but eventually I’ll be sorry. But if an item is going to add long term value to my life and make my life easier or more streamline in a specific way, then it might be worth considering.

For example: our kids have more water bottles than they probably need. However, I have a system where one is in use and one is being washed. That way I’m not quickly scrubbing a dirty cup before running out the door in the morning. I bought myself an extra laundry basket recently. Could I have done without it? Yes. But having an additional laundry basket means my daughter can have her own and not share with her brother (with whom she shares a room). Since we are working on her being responsible for her own laundry, this will help facilitate that process.

 

Is There Something Else I Can Use Instead?

When my 2 year old wanted a smoothie and I realized we no longer had any intact straw sippy cups, I was tempted to just jump on Amazon and order a new one. But instead I decided to try sticking a stainless steel reusable straw like my big kids use, into the open hole in the top of the straw cup. In this case, it actually worked. I still have to watch to make sure he doesn’t throw it, but there is less spilling than with a completely open cup. Sometimes, when we decide we aren’t going to buy something, it forces us to be more creative and resourceful with what we do have.

 

Is There a Less Expensive Option?

When an item must be purchased, I’m teaching myself to ask if there is a less expensive option. Sometimes, paying more for quality is worth it. (I’m also a big proponent of ethically produced goods so, at times, I am willing to pay more to know that the people who make my stuff are being appropriately treated and compensated for their work). Sometimes, the urgency of needing an item means you have to pay whatever it costs now. Other times I can afford to wait for a better price or consider a different option. Maybe I can purchase second hand or even borrow from a friend. Maybe there is a simply a less expensive option available. (A manual can opener vs. an electric one for example).

 

Did I enjoy my no spend month? Not really. It was hard. I didn’t like it. But I did learn a lot about how I purchase things and why. We didn’t save as much money as I was hoping. But we also stayed on budget and took some internal inventory of what we already own, and what can potentially be sold to fund other things we want (like a new kitchen light fixture that actually gives light). I’d like to do it again and some of the ways I determined if a purchase was a need will become a regular part of my decision making.

 

Have you ever tried a no spend month? What did you learn?

 

My No Spend Month was inspired by More Than Just Making It, the new book by Erin Odom scheduled to be released on September 5. I’ll be talking about it more in the future and you’ll see quite a bit about it on social media, but until then, check out the fantastic preorder bonuses on her site.

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Preventing Frugality Fatigue While Trying to Get Out of Debt

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Photo Credit: Glikò via Compfight cc

For most of the last six years, we haven’t had a regular line item in our budget for things like fun or eating out. This can be a tough way to live and can result in what I call “Frugality Fatigue”. My definition of frugality fatigue is when you have been living very leanly for a long time. Your definition of leanly and long will probably vary. For us it means a basic pre-paid cell phone (no smart phone), no cable. Periods of time without a streaming service like Netflix as well. Rarely eating out, and mostly just not buying things that aren’t necessities (by which I mean food, some clothing, rent/mortgage and utilities).

I remember my husband once told his classmates this when he was in college and they looked at him like he was crazy. How do you survive without buying things you want? Well, it isn’t always easy. Sometimes it makes us feel resentful or bitter. When that happens we are more likely to make a poor choice, like buying things we really shouldn’t. Is the smartest thing always to pay off debt or save any extra money? Yes, absolutely. But sometimes that $25 credit card rewards check doesn’t feel like it makes much of a dent in a very large debt (like student loans bigger than your yearly income), and it can make a small effort to relieve frugality fatigue. (I should note however, that if you are carrying a balance on your credit card, points or rewards should be immediately applied to the balance. If you carry a balance, any interest you are paying more than outweighs any small rewards you are earning to using the card.)

Because I’ve discovered that it’s unrealistic for most people to never get a pizza for five to ten years while they pay off their debt. Yes, it may be the “best thing” to do. But most of us are human. Frugality fatigue will kick in at some point instead of getting a pizza once every month or two, we might decide to splurge on a week long cruise to the Bahamas charged to the credit card and then paid off over the next year at 14% interest. Better to create small kinds of “luxuries” in your life than to get frustrated and make large, poor choices that have long term impact.

I know there are those in the debt free/frugality financial movement who disagree with me. That’s fine. But after 12 years of mostly living in frugality mode, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to cut yourself a little bit of slack.

For some people this means a weekly or monthly pizza. For others it means keeping the pricey smart phone or a daily latte. I think it’s OK to have a couple of things like this in our lives, as long as we count the cost. If you can, do the math. Use an excel spread sheet or an online debt calculator. Figure out how much giving up those daily lunches with co-workers or that unlimited cell phone data plan will actually save you. Then decide, is it worth it?

The problem is when we think we “need” all of these things. Instead of just one or two luxuries, we classify them all as needs rather than wants. It’s OK to enjoy something and want to make it part of your life. But if you can’t pay your bills every month or can’t get the debt paid off no matter how you try, it’s time to more closely examine those quality of life items and decide which ones will stay and which will go.

Choosing to take responsibility for your finances isn’t always easy. We’ve built a culture based on the concept that we should be able to have whatever we want, whenever we want it, regardless of if we can afford it. But the reality is, it comes down to math. Everything has a cost and we will pay it one way or the other. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have fun things in our lives; but it does mean we have to be conscious of how we spend our money, especially if we are still paying off debt or trying to build a savings account to protect us from future emergencies.

When To Cut a Car Loose: The Trials of Vehicle Repair on an Old Car

When is it no longer worth repairing an old car? I know the obvious answer would be, when you can afford a new one. We currently have two vehicles, both on the older side and with over 100,000 miles. Our primary vehicle is a 2000 Buick Century that I inherited from my grandmother’s estate in 2004 with only a few thousand miles on it. This car has needed mostly routine repairs like tires, and brakes aside from a major transmission rebuild and a broken windshield (the result of vandalism) four years ago. But the little stuff as started to go. The front windows no longer rolled up and down and after over a year we decided to have them repaired, only to have the back two fail days later. Then the air conditioning system needed repair. We still aren’t sure of the level or expense of repair required, and if it weren’t for our small children we might consider doing without.

Our secondary vehicle however has been going down hill more severely of late. This is my husband’s to and from work car, a Chevy Lumina from the early 90’s, now also with over 100,000 miles. Now we bought this car for $1,500 and then put another $1,000 worth of repairs into it in the first year. It has a large dent on the driver’s side door that was there when we purchased it, but it doesn’t affect the car in any way and my husband doesn’t care about the aesthetics of his vehicle. Since then I’ve lost track of what it has needed; never more than $400 or so of repairs at the time so we just keep it going. Every year when it comes time to inspect it we set a price limit on what we can afford to put into it and each year the repairs are manageable. We’ve considered becoming a one car family, but when I ran the math I concluded that we would hardly save any money at all once you factor the extra gas to ferry my husband back and forth to work on the days I need the car and the loss of our multi-car discount on the car insurance. Basically we would only be saving the cost of registration and inspection each year. But this year was different.

The Lumina had some kind of gas leak that was killing the fuel economy, bringing it down to 10 miles a gallon. Our fuel budget was destroyed. The starter had also been slowly failing, almost stranding my husband on several occasions. So this year we took the car in for a free estimate before getting it inspected. Repair cost came to around $400 so we decided to get it repaired one last time. But after the repairs had been made some major problems were discovered during the inspection, so that the total cost of repairs and inspection now rose to at least $900. Since we already owed for the initial repairs our choices were to make the necessary repairs for inspection or say forget the rest and cut our losses, finally ditching the car after making a $400 repair. Again, after much frustration we decided to just follow through with the additional repair and hope the car gives us a few more good years.

The most frustrating part about all of this is that we have never been able to save much for vehicle repair and replacement. We have a small monthly budget for basic maintenance and repair, but with our vehicles being older they usually require more than we have budgeted and force us to dip into our emergency fund. As a result we have very little saved for a new vehicle and each time a major repair comes around for our existing vehicles, it eats up what little we have saved. Part of me wants to dump the second car and put whatever small amount we save by having only one car into the new car fund. But the money would likely be eaten up by additional repairs needed for the Buick given the addition use. So it looks like both our old vehicles are staying with us for now and hopefully we’ll be able to reallocate some funds to start saving for a new vehicle soon.

Think You Can’t Afford Cloth Diapers? Think Again

My newborn daughter napping in her cloth diaper

Cloth diapers are easy and inexpensive. That is not a sentence most people would understand. Just three years ago I wouldn’t have understood it either. But now as I prepare to cloth diaper two children, it is truer than ever.

When we began trying to get pregnant with our first child, my husband and I were looking for ways to save money. I desperately wanted to stay home with our child, but the numbers didn’t look good. In the dozens (if not hundreds) of articles I read on saving money with babies I found a few references to cloth diapers. But I was baffled. I remembered my mother had used cloth diapers when we were young (prefolds and plastic pants), but I never seriously considered them for myself. Just a few weeks and many hours of research later I was almost completely sold. The cold hard numbers were hard to argue with.

$200-$1,000 for cloth diapers.

$40 for 3 dozen cloth wipes

$40 for 2 washable diaper pail liners

$45 for a heavy duty diaper pail

$1,200-$3,000 for disposables. (Assuming $600 a year for two years.)

$160-$200 for disposable wipes ($80-$100 a year assuming two wipes per change)

$250 Diaper Genie refills ($125 a year for two years).

$35 Diaper Genie

(Neither of those numbers include the cost of pull-ups or cloth training pants during the potentially long potty training process. For the record, I have spent approximately $150 on cloth training pants which we have been using on and off for more than six months. Pull-Ups normally run $.30 to $.40 each. Depending on how many a day your child goes through, a six month potty training stint could cost $300 or more)

Now these numbers are averages based on typical cost in my area of the country. I also used averages because newborns use more diapers than toddlers and potty training age varies so greatly. Many children (including mine) do not potty train at age two. So you are still buying diapers for a while, increasing how much you spend. Some people I’m sure can use many fewer disposable diapers a day and perhaps always buy the store brand in bulk. Others always buy the name brand in the smallest package because they don’t have the money to buy in bulk or their children can only tolerate a specific brand of diaper. More eco-friendly disposables cost significantly more than traditional ones as well.

On the flip side, there are families that spend much less on cloth diapers than others. You can buy used, make your own or shop sales very carefully. Making your own cloth wipes can be a huge savings. Personally I find the cost of washing my own diapers negligible, but for some families expensive specialty detergent or high water cost can affect this number. Some cloth diaper families forgo the diaper pail altogether, instead opting for a hanging wet bag, which saves money over a diaper pail and reusable liners.

When first deciding on cloth diapers my husband was intimidated, even more so than I was. There were some very easy to use diapers on the market, but the more convenient the more expensive. One-size diapers lasted longer in theory, but what if they wore out or ended up being a poor fit for our baby? We’d be stuck with them. Many cloth diaper retailers offer newborn rental programs or sampler packs to let families try cloth for a very reasonable fee before committing full time. There is also a thriving online market for used cloth diapers, especially those that are almost new. Sometimes you can even sell your entire stash of cloth diapers when you are finished with them, helping to recoup some of the cost.

Personally I recommend a combination system. Buy a few diapers each month during pregnancy, taking advantage of sales or great prices on gently used products whenever possible. Try a couple of each kind: prefold, fitted, pocket, All-In-One, One-Size. The terminology can be overwhelming but most online retails have a Cloth Diaper Basics page and a glossary to help you learn the ropes.

As for my personal experience, the best bang for your buck is one-size pocket diapers and prefolds with covers. Newborns go through a lot of diapers. My daughter used 12 or more many days and she kept using 6-8 a day until she was well over a year old. We would have been spending way more than the average on disposables. Prefolds are inexpensive so it’s easy to have a large supply on hand and they wash easily with few problems. One-size pocket diapers are almost as easy to use as disposables (sometimes easier in my opinion) and while they are more expensive per diaper, the fact that they will probably fit until potty training helps to make up for that fact. How many times have you had part of a pack of disposable diapers go unused because your baby grew out of them too quickly?

Below are a couple of potential diaper stashes. There are so many other options out there included fitted diapers with covers, sized pocket diapers (such as FuzziBunz Perfect Size) and All-In-Ones. But for the sake of simplification I’m only featured a couple of options. (Prices reflect those of Cotton Babies rounded to the nearest dollar amount. Cotton Babies was one of the first cloth diaper retailers I discovered and still one of my favorites.)

Econobum

Econobum

$100-$150 to cloth diaper from birth until potty training.

This is a unique system of one-size covers and one-size prefolds created by Cotton Babies. This can be one of the cheapest cloth diaper options available.

$50 buys 3 covers, 12 prefolds and 1 wet bag. Recommendation is that you buy two and wash your diapers every other day. Personally I’d recommend either 3 Kits or purchasing extra prefolds ($6 for 3) and covers ($8.95 each).

My daughter sporting her Econobum diaper in the great outdoors
Indian Prefolds

Prefolds and Covers combination.

$300-475

Prefolds are fairly standard in price. Infant prefolds cost $1.50, Premium (the larger size) are $2 each. The difference between Indian and Chinese prefolds is mostly a matter of preference. I have used both and each works great, but I like the off white color of Indian prefolds better as it doesn’t show staining much. Diaper covers on the other hand have a huge range in price. My personal favorite are the Thristies and Thirsties Duo covers. Others swear by one-size covers like Flip and Kissaluvs. For the sake of argument let’s assume Thirsties traditional sized covers.

Chinese Prefolds

24-36 prefolds in infant size
18-24 prefolds in premium size
5-6 XS covers
5-6 S covers
4-5 M covers
4-5 L covers
2 packs of Snappis.

Snappi

Snappis are a great little item that is used to secure a cloth diaper instead of pins. These are not necessary, as a prefold can simply be folded and laid inside the diaper cover, but I personally love them. As I said, the over all price is based mostly on what covers you choose. Using a one-size cover could save money, as well as a two size cover such as Thirsties Duo wrap. Since covers can be reused until soiled or smelly, some people can get by with fewer in each size. As always, the number of times a week you do laundry affects how many diapers you need to have.

My daughter showing off her Thirsties Duo Wrap (Size 1) over a Prefold
Flip cover in Butternut

Insert and Cover System such as Flip from Cotton Babies

$164-214

The Flip system is another great invention from Cotton Babies that consists of an absorbent insert laid inside of one size cover. No pinning, no stuffing. Just lay the insert in the cover and snap on the cover. A similar product is available from Grovia or using Thirsties Duo covers and Duo Diaper inserts.

$100-$150 for two or three Flip Stay-Dry Day packs (6 inserts, 2 covers)
$24-36 for 12-18 newborn size inserts
$28 for 2 extra covers

If you can get buy with fewer inserts or covers this can be even cheaper. The newborn size inserts may also be unnecessary if your baby is a little larger.  For an additional cost organic cotton inserts are available as an alternative to the polyester stay-dry variety.

bumGenius 4.0 One-Size Pocket Diaper in Dazzle

bumGenius 4.0 One Size pocket Diapers

$407-$610

24-36 bumGenius 4.0 one-size

These are an incredibly popular one-size option, but obviously not the only ones of the market. The absorbent micro-fiber insert is stuffed into the diaper “pocket” and then removed before washing. This assures that the moisture is pulled away from the baby. The pocket also allows to extra stuffing for a heavy wetting baby. My toddler daughter uses two microfiber inserts and a hemp insert at night. The hook & loop version of these may need some refurbishing after a year or so. But the bumGenius refresher kits and some basic sewing skills make the process fairly easy.

As you can see, almost none of these options costs more than $500 with many costing much less. Obvious there are many variations and permutations based on brand and fit. Many people find that one-size products don’t fit until 8-10 lbs so they purchase a 2 size product such as Thirsties Duo Diapers (pocket diapers) or buy newborn sized All In Ones such as those from bumGenius. Some families prefer to have much larger stashes of diapers so they only have to wash twice a week, for others having enough to keep daycare regularly stocked is also important. There are other nifty gadgets that make cloth diapering easier such as Snappis, diaper sprayers, wet/dry bags for taking cloth diapers on the go, etc which are not included in these calculations because while they are nice to have they aren’t necessities. Bottom line: all of the above diapers are easy to use and much less expensive than purchasing disposable diapers.

I haven’t received any form of compensation for the content, but I am entering what I’ve written in a contest. If I win, I get a set of 12 bumGenius pocket diapers for myself and 12 more to give away to a commenter on this post. 

End of Year Budget Review

As we head into December, I am beginning my year end budget review. While I won’t finalize the results until January, this is the time when I take an “at a glance” view of our finances and see how we did sticking to our budget this year. It is also helpful to do this prior to the big year end shopping push. It’s easier to resist those year-end deals when I know what the cold, hard numbers for the year look like.

As is common for us, medical expenses was where we spent more than expected. We don’t have a flexible spending account associated with our insurance, so we set aside a certain amount per mouth based on estimates of yearly needs. I account for each family member’s well-care in addition to a certain number of sick visits. This year we were the closest to being on budget that we have been in a long time. Because we have chosen to opt for a less expense insurance plan for next year, we will be able to set aside more per month, though we will also be paying higher co-pays. Aside, from the co-pays associated with the birth of our son in March, (which we are saving for in a separate fund) we should do all right. But we will still end this year with a deficit.

The surprising thing about this year’s budget is how far over budget we managed to get on food. Usually we struggle to stay on budget for food, but the combination of increased costs and increased appetite of our two-year-old has definitely tipped the scales. I had two pregnancies this year which resulted in atypical food choices. We also lost some food during a power outage which needed to be replaced.

So in deciding how to allocate money for next year I have to look at how we spent our money this year, if we are pleased with our choices, and whether there are any expected increases for next year. For the most part, I think we made wise choices with our money. There is very little discretionary spending in our budget. We were fortunate to have a small supplementary income since I began working from home on a part-time basis. This allowed us to do a few things we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford including the occasional dinners out and a new mattress for our daughter’s room.

As far as expected increases, we already know that our mortgage payment will be going up due to increases in property taxes. (Don’t get me started on the ludicrous logic of increasing property taxes when the value of homes in our area is falling by the day). I’ve also been informed that we should expect an increase in per gallon water usage rates. Of course the big question as always is: where will the money come from? Like most Americans, we are hoping that my husband will receive at least a small raise next year, given the significant jump in cost of living our area has had. But I have to figure out how we will survive if he doesn’t get it. Our utility bills have been fairly consistent and we will probably end the year with a surplus. But we will have to be careful about our usage next year since I’ve had to siphon small amounts off of gas and electric to pay the increase in property taxes. I am also concerned about buying clothing for two children on our very limited budget. I will have to stick to essentials only and thrift store very carefully. I’m not sure how we will keep making do on our current grocery budget given how far off we were this year and the ever rising cost of food. Either we will need to see a serious increase in income or find much less expensive ways to eat.

As of now, we are going to make it next year but I have a long list of priorities if we do have an increase in income including raising our rate of debt repayment, increasing retirement savings, increasing the grocery budget (due to rising cost of food), and making sure we have more money available for home maintenance.

What budget areas have been your struggle this year? How are you hoping to change things for next year?

When Is It an Emergency: Financial Decisions from the Trenches

Thanks to frugal living and setting aside a portion of our tax refund we have a small emergency fund. I say small because it’s slightly less than two months wages. However, I also realize that it is better than nothing. I know that common wisdom says to have six months to a year of expenses stored up in your savings account to protect against the effects of job loss or major illness. But I struggle with setting aside that money to earn less than 1% interest in our savings account when we could be paying down 6.8% student loan debt. But whenever a windfall comes I try to put a certain portion, however small, into the emergency fund.

The struggle comes with defining what constitutes an emergency. Some things are obvious. Major unexpected car repair. Hospitalization bills. Loss of a job. But other things are less well defined. Travel expenses to attend a funeral. Purchase of palatable foods (however strange or expensive) during first trimester morning sickness. Unplanned clothing purchases when my daughter has a sudden growth spurt. (I’ve learned you can only plan in pencil when it comes to toddler clothing sizes). None of these is a true emergency, but for families with lower income, dipping into an emergency fund, if there is one, may be the only choice.

Two major examples from our own family come to mind. Last year, my husband had a relapse into his clinical depression. This required several months of clinical counseling. Without the counseling his recovery could have been delayed significantly longer or even stalled indefinitely. Therefore I considered it money well spent. But it meant dipping into our emergency fund for a few months. This year we have been debating whether to visit my husband’s family at Christmas. Last year’s visit was very difficult and emotionally crippling to my husband, especially in his depressive state.

We used to visit several times a year, but in the last few years the visits have been reduced to a single trip in the month of the December for the extended family Christmas celebration held the weekend before Christmas. When we visit, we used to stay at his mother’s house. But that has become more cumbersome as the family expands. The house contains two smokers which isn’t ideal for a pregnant woman and a toddler. Two years ago their household was also expanded to include a large, unneutered, untrained, male pit bull. As a puppy he was tolerable, but as a two year old adult dog he is uncontrollable and aggressive, especially with our two year old. Last year we spent the entire visit with our daughter in our arms or on our shoulders.

We also discovered that the close quarters are very emotionally hard on my husband. As an introvert, he requires some alone time to recharge each day. But with the tiny bedroom the three of us share as his only refuge, the visits were exhausting both mentally and physically. (With four adults, one teenager and a toddler, it was pretty hard to get even the bathroom to yourself.) There was nowhere to go to escape and recharge when the family stressors became too much. By the time we returned home he was drained headed into the Christmas holiday and had a hard time enjoying himself. Once our son is born next year, we weren’t even sure we could fit all four of us in there anyway. Unfortunately there are no other relatives with the space to house our growing family so we were faced with a choice. Stop visiting or pay for a hotel room.

My husband’s first instinct was to say that we wouldn’t visit, since we can’t technically “afford” a hotel room. But I know that family is a priority so I argued that this year we dip into the emergency fund to pay for two nights in a hotel (reducing our three or four day visit to three days and two nights) and then next year, we would make saving for the end of year visit a priority. On one hand, it feels wasteful. But on the other, family is important. (Before you begin to wonder, no, his family hardly ever comes to visit us, but then again, soon we won’t have the space to house them either.)

So what non-emergency events have forced you to dip into your emergency fund? Was it worth it? Hopefully in the future we’ll have the allocated funds for this and we won’t have to resort to the emergency fund.