2019 Financial Goal: Aligning My Spending with My Values

The single most positive result of my renewed practice of blogging has been my ability to reconnect with my core values. The combination of regular, reflective writing and public transparency motivates me to figure out what really matters to my life and hold myself accountable for those priorities.

Ah the irony of the commercially produced family “values” for sale at a home goods store.

My biggest financial goal for 2019 is to align my spending with my core values. I want to only make purchases and use companies/products that support my values.  This is not as easy as it first seems, especially since I am trying to get out of debt. I owe money to companies and banks I would not support if I were choosing companies based on ethical practices for the past purchase of goods and services that may not align with my values.

Additionally, our world and economic practices are globalized to the point that it is quite difficult to find ethically-sourced products. Let’s say I decide that Costco has positive labor practices and a service-oriented business model that I support enough to endorse with my spending, but what about the different brands of products they carry? I’m certain the smartphones carried by Costco and other companies are tainted by the cobalt child labor mining problem. I will need to purchase a replacement cell phone sometime in the next few years (months?); how will I approach this issue? Furthermore, ethical marketing is now a thing (as evidenced by “organic” packaged foods), making it even more difficult to distinguish real practice from marketing strategy.

Last year, I made a lot of progress toward living a life more aligned with my values. However, I do believe that taking more steps in the right direction will improve my mindful spending  Here is what I’m doing this year to achieve this goal:

  1. Do more work on clarifying what my values are. I mean, sure, I know what my values are, but sometimes it’s hard to weigh competing values.  For example, I want to be effective at my job because I am working to create empowering opportunities for students (a major core value of mine).  This article in Forbes suggests that what I wear impacts my effectiveness as a leader (I already knew this from years in the classroom in front of teenagers–the most judgmental and honest group about appearance you will ever meet).  While I appreciate flattering clothing and enjoy getting “dressed up” as any ex-theater-kid would, I’ve never been very interested in fashion or style.  How much should I care about the quality of my wardrobe at work in service to my job effectiveness? (Same questions for make-up, hair, nails, etc.)  This is not a trivial question.
  2. Give more to charitable organizations and people in need. I work for nonprofit organizations (education and mental health crisis). I volunteer my time to sponsor school groups and with projects I believe in. I help out friends and family with whatever I can. I’m a giving person. However, I’ve never given away much money. I’ve always fancied myself a “giving to charity” kind of rich person, but I excused myself from monetary giving because I thought of myself as not-rich. I recently read Love Your Life Not Theirs: 7 Money Habits for Living the Life You Want by Rachel Cruze (yes, Dave Ramsey‘s daughter who works for him), which I appreciated a great deal. The final habit she talks about was “Give a Little Until You Can Give A Lot” which was about the importance of generosity as an intentional financial habit. So, I looked at my charitable giving last year, and it was unimpressive (although way more than I had given in the previous five years combined… so….). I set a goal to double my giving this year, and I am already reaping the benefits. It’s so exciting and fun to decide to make a monthly donation to our public library, send a bit of money to a family in need, and contribute to a clothing drive through my work. It is such a JOY to send this money out into the world when every other aspect of my spending is about tight control and minimizing. It is changing my whole perspective on giving and helping me become the person I really am. (For more thoughts that influenced my current approach to giving, check out this great post at She Picks Up Pennies.)
  3. Reconsider Walmart (and Amazon). Look, there is a year-old Walmart that is the closest grocery store to my house and often has the lowest prices for goods. However, within a five-mile radius there are plenty of other options in my town, some of which have competitive prices for food. I know there are many, many great reasons to take my money elsewhere, but I have allowed convenience and the attractiveness of their low prices to override my ethical considerations. I will avoid shopping there whenever possible. (Note, I have some similar thoughts about Amazon, but it is even more ubiquitous than Walmart and I know less about the business practices that concern me; I need to do more research that I’ve been intentionally avoiding.)
  4. Do better at sourcing my food. We are expanding our backyard garden this year and want to grow more of our own food. Min’s been experimenting with kitchen scrap gardening, but we also will look into where our seeds and cuttings come from when we plant. In Frederick, we are so lucky to live near small family-owned farms, yet I often purchase produce from far away. I’ve chosen to purchase a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) share from a farm about ten minutes from our house (Pleasant Hill Produce, if you wanted to know). We will continue to move more of our food purchases into local and sustainable sources.
  5. Reduce consumption (and waste). One way to reduce environmental impact and save money at the same time is to just stop buying things (kind of the idea behind environmental vegetarianism). I’m in the middle of a clothes, personal items, and technology shopping ban, but I am seeking to expand this idea into all purchases in my life. I am asking “do I really need this? will I use this? does it support my values?” for everything I buy–food, household goods, toys, etc. Then, I am attempting to use up all parts of what I purchase and bring into my home–from reusing the containers that hold my son’s deli meat for my homemade lunches to making broth from kitchen scraps to composting. When I do need something, I will obtain needed goods secondhand if possible. This might mean waiting a longer time for what I need and compromising on the exact models/brands, but I’m ok with that.
  6. Do the research. As I’ve mentioned, making ethical financial choices that are also frugal is difficult without becoming an off-the-grid hermit. Sometimes, I’ve not donated to charities because I can’t be bothered to figure out if it is a cause worth supporting. Other times, I’ve convinced myself that buying fast fashion really isn’t any worse than shopping at a thrift store. I am committing to reading at least one book each month that explores the complex ethical issues of consumer purchases in the U.S. because I’ve found that increasing my awareness of the harm in my daily actions strengthens my resolve to avoid harmful actions.
Let’s have our cake, but only if it fits into the life we want to live.

Spending-values alignment being a major financial goal for 2019, I will be including updates on my progress with my monthly Debt Elimination Updates. I will also be working on this project throughout the year, blogging about specific progress and intentional spending choices.

How do you ensure your money aligns with your values? I’d love to hear your advice as I embark on this journey!

Frugal Family Fun: Reading at Bedtime (or Anytime)

I love reading. I’ve always known that I wanted to raise my children to be readers. It’s a great frugal form of entertainment, and the most critical skill for success in school.  In my career as a high school English teacher, I have helped convert hundreds of reluctant, phone-addicted high schoolers into teens who voluntarily read novels. I’ve convinced students that Will Shakespeare was a pretty cool dude. Yet, when it came to my own children, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to equip them to view reading in the way that Harper Lee once described in To Kill a Mockingbird:

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

Luckily, I need not have feared.  Helping my kids become readers was easier and more enjoyable than I could have possibly imagined.  I come from an education background, so of course I advocate that families read to children early and often and model literacy.  Turns out, that actually works!

As a parent (who feels like she’s making it all up as she goes along…), I’ve also discovered that reading to your kids stops meltdowns in their tracks and provides instant family bonding.  Here are some specific ways to develop young children’s literacy:

  1. Make the time. Before I had kids, I was understanding about how hard it was as a parent to make time for reading. After all, I love reading, and I don’t always make the time to do it. Parents are even busier, right? Y’all–I timed it. Reading one of those little board books takes less than five (yes, FIVE) minutes. And often it’s the five minutes during which my child is most cooperative, loving, and attentive. No one screams. Everyone cuddles. Five minutes. It’s better than meditation–no lie. How do you not make time for that every, single day? If I hadn’t read to my kids, none of us would have made it past age two.  My worst nightmare is a bedtime without books. *shudder*
  2. Make books accessible.*  Studies show that being surrounded by books in childhood promotes literacy.  We own a lot of children’s books (way more than adult books, thanks to my decluttering efforts).  Most of them were gifts or hand-me-downs, but books are the main “toys” we have purchased for our children.  However, you don’t have to own books to surround your children with books.  Our local library lets patrons check out 75 items per library card.  Between the four of us, we could have 300 books at home for the kids if we wanted (we have yet to go over about 30 at once… but the point is we could).  Still, purchasing books for your kids are a worthwhile investment of funds.
  3. Make it a habit. Every time my kids beg for “one more poem” or to be allowed to choose one more picture book or read one more chapter in our novels, I feel like I’ve won the gold medal of parenting.  However, that joy comes from many, many times of being willing to read the same book over again, or pause and read whenever one of my children asks.  We treat nagging for books different than just about every other kind of nagging–we indulge it.
  4. Give kids choice and agency. Sometimes, I get lucky and my kids are interested in the books I enjoy reading, and we’ll have great fun with the works of Roald Dahl.  Other times, they want to read endless, technically-oriented volumes about trains (J) or the terribly-written picture book re-telling of Disney princess movies (H).  When the kids are interested in something (be it Kung-fu Panda, or space, or unicorns), we ask the librarians if there are any books about that topic (this has led to some interesting finds, like the children’s novel Stephen Hawking wrote with his daughter).
  5. Model reading books. I think many adults read more on screens (Kindle, smartphones, etc.) than they did just a few years ago.  However, children don’t know whether you are reading on your tablet or watching a video.  Be intentional about modeling your reading to your children.  Min had to get some Korean books so that the kids could see him reading on paper, not just on the screen.

Some other tips?  Teach letters and sounds, but not to the point that you are sacrificing story and fluency.  Readers read content, not phonics.  Don’t freak out if your kid who loves listening to you read doesn’t transition to reading independence right away.  It will happen eventually.

* Not every family can afford books.  I encourage using the library to fill in the gaps, but that’s not always enough.  While compiling this post, I did some research into charities that provide books to kids.  I elected to make a donation to Reach Out and Read, an highly rated organization that encourages literacy by integrating books into pediatric care.

Any other tips from parents out there? How do you foster a love of reading for your children at any age?

Free Fun Family Update Jan 13 2019

Welcome to my Free Fun Family weekly Sunday update. You can read the first update, where I explain this series in more detail, here. Each week, I’ll recap some general goings on in our world and focus specifically on the topics I love to blog about the most. The “free” will review a money/frugality win, “fun” will review something enjoyable I did/accomplished, and “family” will report on family doings.

Free

Putting together the pieces of our financial puzzle.

After reading Principal F.I.‘s post about his goals for 2019, I realized that I could have a 457 plan, along with my 403(b) plan.  The 457 is great because it has many of the same benefits of the traditional tax-sheltered 403(b), but without the age restriction.  Considering I plan to retire before 59 1/2, that’s great news!  I met with my plan administrator and opened my 457 on Wednesday.

We’re also doing very well with our uber frugal month for January. This leaves us on track to save enough money to pay upfront for our summer CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).  Hooray!

Fun

H began her musical theater class (a Christmas present) and went to a library story time this week.  J enjoyed working with Grandma, his Destination Imagination team manager (I volunteer as team manager for the middle school team at his school), to shop for supplies at Lowe’s and a hobby store (see photo).  Min and I danced at home in our socks on our anniversary  while J took terrible videos.  Min went over to a friend’s house to watch soccer and eat chicken.  We had an enjoyable, relaxing week.

Family

Last night it began snowing.  We expect to be snowed in all day today.  It’s been fun to play games and try different activities inside.  So far, baking pumpkin bread has been the favorite (because it is so delicious)!  I expect we’ll have more fun snow pictures for next week’s update if today continues as it has been.

Other

I am making progress on my goals.  I have not eaten out once in January.  I meditated all but one day this week and worked out three times and intentionally moved three other days this week (once was a long walk where I took the above picture).  I ate whole fruit most days and green with every lunch and dinner.  I’m keeping up with my blog and enjoying my new posting schedule (my high school alumni group even tweeted out one of my posts; I always thought I’d be recognized by them for my professional achievements, but hobby blogging works, too).

I am very lucky, feeling grateful and happy, surrounded by love.  I hope everyone has blessings and joy this January.  Happy Sunday!

 

The Value of Playing Mindgames with Yourself

Perhaps you noticed that the number at the top of our debt thermometer increased from $30,956 to $36,033.78 (or maybe you didn’t, but I bet you looked now!). No, I didn’t suddenly charge up another $5000 in credit card debt when I was playing the balance transfer game (again, super not recommended for novices who haven’t done the work on changing habits).

I’ve simply decided to let go of a mindgame I was playing with myself.

A mindgame is anything you do to help your brain retrain in the new, healthy habit as a rewards system to fight out the baser urge for the “reward” of the unhealthy habit your brain thinks it wants.  You’re tricking your brain into believing what’s good for you is what’s good for you until your brain understands it on a deep level.  I’m very familiar with how useful mindgames are in success with another long-term goal: weight loss.

Permanent weight loss is scientifically about good nutrition, moderation, and movement; knowledge is necessary to make changes, but knowledge alone isn’t what makes it happen.  To lose the 40+ lbs and keep it off for years, I had to make deeply personal and psychologically difficult behavioral changes.  However, to stay motivated during that long-term challenge, sometimes it helped to play mindgames. 

Korea, 2018 vs Korea, 2013

Mindgames work well when trying to accomplish a long term goal.  For example, Fitbit works to increase fitness because it is a mindgame.  In reality, getting 10,000 steps every day doesn’t really matter, but daily movement does.  Just knowing that I should “move more” though doesn’t actually result in me moving more.  Getting the little vibrating buzz that tells me I met my step goal did make me move more.  I would do bananas things to hit my step goal every day.  Did you know the wrist Fitbit doesn’t always count steps taken when pushing carts and strollers?  It doesn’t.  I’d go on a three mile walk with my baby and register a measly 500 steps.  While trying to build the habit of daily movement, I was determined to get my steps in, so you know what I did?  I would push strollers and grocery carts with only my non-Fitbit hand.  I tried wearing it on my ankle, but it didn’t keep as accurate count.  This is actually insane.  I’m getting the same movement whether it’s counted or not, but it helped my mental state to have it count.  Sidenote: Sorry to all the people I decidedly inconvenienced while trying to navigate a full grocery cart to my car using only one hand (try it sometime… bananas).  When my Fitbit finally bit it, I was exercising 3+ times a week, taking the stairs just about every time I could, incorporating daily movement, and going for long walks with the kids most days.  I no longer needed the game, I had the lifestyle.  I chose not to replace it (though I do miss it sometimes).

I also used Weight Watchers for a time; besides the weekly support group (which is a major part of the program’s success), I really think the program works because a lot of it is mindgames (you keep track of “points” instead of calories; some food, like fruits, vegetables, and lean protein is considered “free” food).  All of that is mindgames to reprogram your faulty rewards system in your brain that believes french fries and Diet Coke are what you need to feel better, when what you really need is a good night’s sleep and a walk outside. 

Mindgames really help keep up the motivation strong when your brain wants to revert to the easy fix.

Mindgames work well in the world of personal finance, too.  Many well-known commercial programs for money management help you play mindgames to get better with your money.  For example, Dave Ramsey recommends the debt snowball for the mental benefits over the more mathematically sound method of paying off highest interest rates; YNAB has fun, game-like “rules” like “give every dollar a job” and “age your money” that really are just about planning your money out in advance.  At the end of the day, how you get out of debt or learn to manage your money matters much less than which games you used to get there.  I will never judge someone who uses a gimmicky program (or even worse, the “wrong” gimmicky program) to accomplish a goal because I know why they work.  My mindgames work for me, but they are not superior to anyone else’s.  Heck, even Mr. Money Mustache, who generally eschews shortcuts like mindgames to accomplish goals, has made his celebrity through his colorful, borderline-offensive phrases that are a sort of mindgame to break that consumerist mindset he despises–here’s my bookmarked favorite I read whenever I need a punch in the face.

We like playing games; perhaps this will be a future Frugal Family Fun post!

Personal finance is about math and numbers, sure. Save more money, avoid debt, invest well, yadda, yadda, yadda.  However, money is also about our habits, values, and attitudes.  I’ve been a money nerd since I was a little kid, opened my first IRA with an index fund at age 19, and known to choose term life insurance over whole before I owned my own car.  Our debt is not the result of financial illiteracy.  Rather, it was the result of low income for several years that made us (ok, me) want to avoid a serious look at anything financial and developing several bad financial habits to avoid the bad feelings associated with our situation.  Changing the habits that got us into debt (spending more than we earned, not aligning our spending with our values, living paycheck to paycheck) were difficult, long-term goals.

Those of you who have been following our debt elimination project since last March know that in July 2018, just a few months into this project, we took out a personal loan to pay for our roof replacement. At the time, the setback would have felt too devastating to include in our total for consumer debt payoff.  It would have brought me right back to square zero.  With the pre-planned Korean trip, my little monkey brain might have given up and gone back to its old ways.

So I lumped the personal loan in with my graduate school debt (our next goal after consumer debt), and made my peace with it (I am tracking ALL of our debt through this, including the mortgage, to keep myself honest).  It was the mindgame I needed at the time to persevere.  I knew I was kind of just fooling myself, but I continued to make strides in the right direction, so it worked.

I’m ready to include it in our calculations now.  We have $12,000 of success behind us; I’m ready to be honest with myself (and this blog) about all of my consumer debt–even the stuff incurred after vowing to elminate ours (ouch!).  You’ll see it in my updates from now on.

What are your thoughts about mindgames? Are they useful crutches in service of a larger healthy project, or are they lies to be rejected in pursuit of purity? Let me know!

Nine Lessons Learned in Nine Years of Marriage

This is the first picture of Min and I after we were officially married in Seoul and registered at the U.S. Embassy, although we had the ceremony three days later. 

Tomorrow is our ninth wedding anniversary.  While we probably won’t do anything traditionally anniversary-ish (like get each other presents or go out to dinner), we will share stories with our children about how we met and what we did before we had them (that’s for another day on the blog).  We’ll spend time together.  This is what matters most to us.

With just a year shy of a decade of marriage experience, I would like to reflect on what has been one of the most profound experiences of personal growth as an adult. However, I also feel wildly unqualified to offer “advice” about marriage, so take all of these lessons for what they are: my own growth and reflection after nine years feeling happy and lucky to be married to Min for the vast majority of that time.

Look at those kids on their honeymoon in Cambodia, 2010.
  1. Marriage is not 50-50, it’s all-in. When I was young and single, I often heard my friends talk about their desire for partnership in a marriage. Women especially worried about becoming burdened with a greater responsibility for the domestic elements of their family life–cleaning, cooking, child-rearing. We would often say we wanted a marriage where chores, finances, and other joint endeavors were split “fifty-fifty,” the assumption being that equal contributions would result in equal status and thus, success in marital bliss. But marriage doesn’t work if each person isn’t giving everything they have to the partnership. That doesn’t mean work is 50-50, or even 70-30; it means 100-100. But sometimes, one of you can’t give the same as you did last week/month/year. If both of you are giving 100% of what you can in a safe, equitable partnership, the marriage will balance over time. (Note, this isn’t easy.)
  2. Assume the best about your partner’s intentions. This was a difficult one for me to learn–and when I hear complaints from others about their partner, it is the thing I wish I could teach them. It’s about trusting that your partner loves you. Believing that he didn’t leave the toilet seat up again (even though you have asked him to put it down a thousand times) to annoy you in the middle of the night. Believing that her inability to eat less junk food isn’t about her not loving you. Sometimes, it’s about intentionally choosing to ignore the critical comment directed your way because you trust your partner is giving 100% (see #1). It is an act of faith and entirely worth it.
  3. Notice the good things your partner does. One of my personal commandments is to “See the work.” In any relationship, but especially one as mundane and functional as a marriage can be, it is easy to overlook the things your partner does to support the function of the household. We tend to know how hard we are working, but underestimate the things our partner does for us. Recently, Min thanked me for taking care of the family finances, something I’ve handled since we moved back to the U.S. It warmed my little personal finance nerd heart. I try to thank him as often as I can when he prepares a meal, takes out the trash, or lets me take a nap.
  4. Learn to think long-term about your relationship. Time does not feel linear. It blows my mind every time I realize that there are more years between now and my high school graduation than there are between now and my children’s high school graduations. It makes no sense at all to me that my husband and I are not still the exact same people we were in the photos from our honeymoon. Marriages, like stock market investors, suffer when we feel too much like this current moment is forever and forget to think long-term. I’ve found that we need to regularly invest in our connection, but not be too thrown by the ups and downs of our lives and individual struggles.
  5. Remain curious about your partner. I find my husband’s thoughts about the world and our experiences fascinating. After a few years, it’s easy to think you know everything about your partner, and they know everything about you. Most of our best conversations, though, have stemmed from one of us asking the other about our thoughts on something in our ordinary lives. For example, until very recently, I didn’t know my husband had created a specific vision for raising the children. I know he’d been doing a great job with them as a full time parent, but I hadn’t realized how philosophically invested he was in their development, even though we talked about the kids all the time.
  6. Work on yourself. In stories and films, marriage is represented as either a) an eternal, static fact or b) the end result of a romance. The state of real-life marriage, however, is not static and by no means the end of anything. Being a good partner, taking care of yourself, meeting your needs outside of the marriage, and advocating well for your needs from the marriage are vital. I’m most grateful that I have a husband who cheers on the work I do to improve myself (such as when I went back to school or increased my exercise), and certainly that helps. But marriage is for adults only, so be an adult.
  7. Be kind and choose love. This isn’t easy to do. Let me tell you about the time I was working the worst job of my life, was pregnant and trying to find a better job, and I came home to my husband having quit (without notice) the only job he’d had since moving to the U.S. Oh, being kind and choosing love in that moment was hard. Actually, the only reason we lasted through that season was because we were legally bound and expecting a child. However, I am better now with #2 and #4 and recognize that Min wasn’t trying to make me lose my mind–he was refusing to be exploited any further by a petty, racist boss. I wish I could go back and choose to respond with kindness and love. I try to do so now.
  8. Tell positive stories about your relationship. It is no accident that we will be telling stories of our relationship to our children as part of our anniversary celebration. The stories we tell shape the way we view our lives and memories. I believe that what you say and write shapes how you think as much as it is the result of your thoughts. When I think of my mother and father’s relationship, I think of the way my dad talked about his proposal: “We were studying for finals and your mother kept pestering me, so I asked her to marry me so we could get back to work!” The reality was that the decision had been planned out (they were nearing graduation from college and it was during the Vietnam war, so there was a very real chance my dad could be drafted–he wasn’t) and a ring purchased in advance, but he made it sound like a low-key, funny anti-proposal. That was my dad.
  9. Let things go and think big-picture. Holding onto petty bitterness only hurts yourself. When Min first started doing the laundry, he washed a raw silk blouse of mine in the washing machine and dried a cashmere sweater in the drier. Of course, the clothes were ruined. I had a moment where I realized I could get mad at him about this, or I could let it go and have a husband who does the laundry. I chose the latter (because it’s way more important than any particular item of clothing). He is a caring, thoughtful man who does domestic chores (see #1), even if he doesn’t know how to do them the first time. I’m not complaining; I’m appreciating!
Still in love, after all these years. (from 2018)

That’s nine things. I learned more than that, and of course I have a lot more to learn, but I think that’s a pretty good reflection of the most important lessons from my own marriage experiences so far.

What have you learned about marriage? Any advice for us before we enter the double digit years? Let me know!

Free Fun Family Update Jan 6 2019

Welcome to my second post in the Free Fun Family weekly Sunday update. You can read the first update, where I explain this series in more detail, here. Each week, I’ll recap some general goings on in our world and focus specifically on the topics I love to blog about the most. The “free” will review a money/frugality win, “fun” will review something enjoyable I did/accomplished, and “family” will report on family doings.

Free

They get more independent every day.

I continued to pick up extra shifts at the hotline through the end of winter break, but now we’re back in full swing of school and regular job schedule. Transitions are tough for young families, but we are getting better at them as the kids get older. While we were busy, I am proud of my continued commitment to spend no money on food outside the home for the month of January and minimize grocery spending by cleaning out the pantry, freezer, and fridge. We spent very little on groceries so far in January, compared to our usual.

Also, with the beginning of the year, I tackled some financial review tasks in preparation for tax season and the new year. Specifically:

  • I applied for the Maryland State Contribution (at our income level, the state will give us $500 per kid if we kick in a very small amount) to our kids’ 529 plans (I encourage everyone who has one to apply for this FREE college money).
  • We did a 0% balance transfer for the last part of our credit card debt that still had interest. If we hit all of our deadlines, we will pay no more interest on credit cards AND be fully paid off by April 2020. (Note: I do NOT recommend this route until you have done the work to stop the outflow of money, otherwise balance transfers are a dangerous game. I made myself feel the pain of paying interest until we’d had two full months with a net positive on expenses and an emergency fund.)
  • I switched some of our automated bill payments to a different credit card with a higher percent cash back.
  • I made an appointment with my 403(b)/457 guy to talk about fees on the funds and 2019 contributions.

Fun

Spires in Frederick

Min and I had a lovely date night on New Year’s Eve that cost us $0, thanks to the generosity of friends and family. My mom offered to host a grandkids’ NYE party at her place (we picked the kids up before 9pm–haha). Our kids played games with their cousin at her house, while we dined at a nice restaurant that our lovely neighbor gave us a gift card to for Christmas. We chose reasonably priced food, so the gift card even covered a very generous tip. Then, we came home to our wonderful kid-free home and watched Black Panther on Netflix. (Yes, we get very behind entertainment trends with the young kids; it’s a great film–totally lived up to the great hype!) I noticed that we now dine out a lot less frequently, we savor the experience much more. That’s a fine benefit of frugality–greater joy in the spending you do.

On Saturday, it was raining for most of the day, but it cleared up in the afternoon. We took a nice family stroll around downtown and then played a bit in the library. My son suggested homemade pizza for dinner. It was a delightful, free family day.

Family

J wrote his first poem ever, inspired by the works of Shel Silverstein (famous for The Giving Tree, but our current family read aloud favorite is “funny poems” from one of his many anthologies).  The poem had rhythm, played with language, and had a fun ironic twist to it!  Not bad for a 7 year old.  Then H was inspired to “write” her own note.  She read it aloud to me, then when she read it to Min, it was suddenly in Korean.  As a former English teacher, I delight in how much fun they have with literacy skills in each language.  The best part of having kids is getting to witness the miracle that is the making of an ordinary human adult.  Things that really shouldn’t elicit wild reactions of pride and love (like counting for the first time or correctly identifying different members of the family), are thrilling accomplishments.  Delightful!

Other

Recovered from my cold/sinus infection and back at my regular work schedule, I’ve resumed exercise and meditation with regularity. I’m doing well with my effort to eat “something green” with every lunch and dinner.

The next few months are very routine. I’m hoping to use this time to (1) establish some family rituals to facilitate closeness and (2) explore the joy I’m finding in greater life simplicity. I’ve discovered that I thrive on routine, even as I sometimes crave the novel.

I hope you are having a wonderful first week of 2019!

Blogging Goals (or is it Anti-Goals?) in 2019

New Year’s offers a great moment for many of us to set intentions (or resolutions) for the year to come. One of the writers that introduced me to modern minimalism and simplicity through his website Zen Habits, Leo Babauta, wrote about New Year’s being a blank slate. Every year, I reflect on my progress of my year’s intentions and review my goals, dreams, and aspirations for the year ahead. While I don’t set “resolutions” exactly (this term is loaded with cultural baggage, and therefore has a high rate of failure), I do look at which habits I most want to change and which achievements I most want to reach in the new year. Sometimes, I set a specific goal (for example, in 2019, I plan to become a certified fitness trainer in my favorite dance fitness format); sometimes I just focus on a specific habit that would help me live better with my values (in January, I am eating food prepared at home for all meals and something green with every lunch and dinner).

Part of my reflection this new year, was setting intentions for Free, Fun, Family. I’ve been blogging here since March of 2018, mostly to keep myself accountable for our Debt Elimination Project, but also because I love to write and feel most myself when I am writing. I love that I’m back in the “world” of blogging, but blogging is a very different world than when I was last a blogger (2007-2011). Cait Flanders wrote eloquently about her perspective on this change in blogging-scape when she retired from blogging last year. J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly wrote about this shift in his post about why you should be skeptical of personal finance bloggers. When I left regular blogging in 2011, I had only just begun to think about ways of “monetizing” my blog (never earned bupkus, even with daily readership in the several hundreds at its height); now it seems that everyone assumes blogs are supposed to make money. Heck, I fell for it, too, and signed myself up for the Amazon Affiliate program (they dropped me once because no one reads this blog, but I did sign back up) and another referral program (from which I’ve had no clicks).

Maybe it’s because I’m loosely intersecting with the personal finance blog world, which is much larger and more intimidating than the expat-living-in-Korea blog world, but I have struggled to build a community through blogging and “find my people.” Sometimes, it feels like many people these days look at blogging as a kind of get rich quick scheme, where they can make a lot of money quickly through affiliate marketing and impersonal, listicle-style writing. Some bigger names in the blogging community even deride so-called “hobby blogging” as naive and worthless; sometimes even those who began as hobby bloggers themselves!

Green tea fields in Korea in 2010, with straight hair, back when I was part of a blogger community.

It’s been lonely here, feeling like no one is reading, blogging for my average seven viewers a day in 2018. (Hi there, Allison, Amanda, mom, and like, three or four other people! I love you guys!). While I write for myself first and for accountability, it’s a lot more fun to blog when you feel like part of a writing community. And when someone reads what you write.

My last couple months of pulling off Facebook had the weird side effect of spending a bit more time on Twitter, where I feel like I’ve finally started to find my people in the PF blogging community. I’ve stumbled onto a few bloggers who aren’t quite so “big” as the Liz Frugalwoods, Cait Flanders, and Chelsea Fagans of the world (all of whom inspire me, but really are just too awesome to spend their time on this little slice of the internet), but who are writing in the personal, inviting style of blog I enjoy, and are being recognized within the personal finance/financial independence/frugality blog world for their excellence. Women with voice and power in their writing, who are telling good stories, and welcoming me into the blogging world a bit at a time. I cannot thank the following writers enough for being a source of deep inspiration for me in setting my blogging intentions for 2019 (in no particular order):

  1. Angela, who writes Tread Lightly, Retire Early about frugality and sustainability (and identifies as a “hobby blogger”).
  2. Penny, a teacher (YAY) who writes She Picks Up Pennies about purposeful spending and keeping the personal in personal finance.
  3. Jennifer T. Chan, a lawyer and deep thinker in Canada, who keeps a blog in her own name and no longer considers herself a personal finance blogger, but writes stuff that makes you really think about your spending.
  4. Mrs. Frugal Asian Finance, who lives nearby in DC and writes about marriage, culture, and frugality.
  5. Piggy and Kitty, who write the delightful, not-suitable-for-work-but-totally-should-be, Bitches Get Riches.

Thanks, ladies.

Here’s what I’m doing in 2019 to improve my blogging practice:

  1. Starting a posting schedule. I’ve been mostly writing when I feel inspired. But one thing I’ve noticed (especially during my 21 Day Challenge this summer) is that I actually FIND inspiration to write more when I’m writing regularly. A posting schedule will help me produce regular (hopefully high quality) content that people who want to read my blog can depend upon. I will be publishing on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Sundays will be my Free, Fun Family updates. Tuesdays and Fridays will be whatever I feel like writing (including my recurring features like the Debt Elimination Updates and Ways We Save Money).
  2. Tell more stories and deal with complex philosophical issues. Telling stories is the best part of blogging. Deep thinking is the best part of writing. Besides, who am I to offer advice and cater to the mainstream reader, anyhow? I was the girl in college who took Linear Algebra for FUN. I just want to write authentically to my weird little inner nerd’s delights and literary forays. I hope you enjoy more of my chronicled adventures and bizarre philosophical tangents in 2019.
  3. Stop worrying about blogging “shoulds.” I will not worry about my statistics, Pintrest (ugh… no), forming a community, or creating courses. I do want to be more intentional with linking to content I enjoy and commenting on other writers’ work (such as with the blogs above). Other than that, I’m just going to write about what I want to write about, in the way I want to write about it. I hope you enjoy reading, and (if you’re here) drop me a line to let me know what you want to read about.
  4. Include more photos. What can I say? I live in a beautiful city and have really cute kids in my life. I mean, I only have a handful of readers, right? I like taking pictures as part of my documentation of the stories I tell. For example, enjoy this little moment of joy from my kids learning to play the guitar and ukelele:

My goal for 2019 is to write 150 posts. Posts I can be proud of and enjoy reading over when I’m old and miss my kids because they’re off pursuing FI/RE. If I keep up with my writing schedule, I’ll make that easy, peasy.

What I’m NOT going to worry about? Monetizing. Targeting an audience. Improving my statistics.

Do you have blogging or writing goals for this year? Feel free to tell me about them. I love encouraging other people to write (it was my day job for about 13 years).

Debt Elimination Update: December (and 2018)

Happy New Year!

December has been a great month to focus on reflection and prepare for the new year through changing habits and clearing out old stuff that was holding us back.  We had a wonderful Christmas, though we struggled with terrible colds after!  We struggled to get Zero Spend Days this month (just a few, mostly at the end of the month).  However, after a setback this year, I quit the evil Diet Coke once more (22 days strong, baby… I intend this to be permanent).

We also wrap up the year and can note our progress from this debt repayment journey.  Overall, it’s been awesome.

Financial Progress from December:

  1. Set Financial Priorities for 2019. While getting out of consumer debt is our main goal and our focus, I felt that the great progress we’d made allowed me to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of financial health for our family over the next few years. In the past, I’ve set these kinds of goals without really believing I could achieve them. I have a great deal more confidence that we will meet our emergency fund, retirement, and college savings goals. I know that we can prioritize travel as a family without getting into debt again. These are great feelings. For specifics, I’ll share that we plan to pay off a minimum of $15,000 of consumer debt in 2019. Not quite paying off all of it, but pretty close! (Next to tackle: Roof & Graduate Student Loans)
  2. Reviewed Net Worth Annual Progress. I’ve been reviewing our Net Worth fairly regularly. Since purchasing our house in 2013, we’ve been on a steady upward trajectory (from about $0 Net Worth), even though debt has increased somewhat (thanks real estate market!). About 75% of our assets are the house and another 10% is a mandatory pension, so it grows more than just debt repayment. We are ending the year at just above $150,000. Last year, we ended at around $120,000, so pretty solid growth in all.
  3. Progress on Credit Cards. Here are the numbers for the end of November:
  • Home Improvement Loan: $0 (so crushed it!)
  • AmEx: $7,400.00
  • Balance Transfer 1 (0% for 6 more months): $2,835.00
  • Balance Transfer 2 (0% for 11 more months): $8,716.25
  • TOTAL: $18,951.25
  • Amount paid off this month: $1,331.75 (impressive, no?)
  • Amount paid off TOTAL: $12,004.75

Did I take $100 out of my emergency fund to make it to over $12,000 paid off in 2018? Yes I did. Do I care? HOO BOY HALLELUJAH, $12,000 paid off this year!!! I feel like I never need to accomplish another goal ever again. (Just kidding; it’s fueling my wild addiction to success).

Goals for January:

  1. Spend 0$ on prepared food/drink outside of the home.
  2. Form two good habits: meditate every day and eat something green with every lunch/dinner.
  3. Restore $1000 Emergency Fund.

Free Fun Family Sundays, Dec 30 2018

I would like to set an intention of blogging in the new year with a three times weekly schedule. My plan is on Tuesdays and Fridays to bring you regular content along the lines of “whatever topic I feel like writing about in connection with the mission of this blog,” and then a more personal focus snapshot of our week on Sundays. My goal is to increase personal accountability and storytelling (my primary reasons for blogging). Also, I’ve been admiring Angela’s Friday’s Frugal Five on her blog, Tread Lightly, Retire Early and wanted to try for something that would help me create a structure here while focusing on Debt Repayment.

The “free” will review a money/frugality win, “fun” will review something enjoyable I did/accomplished, and “family” will report on family doings.

Free

This week, I made the final payment on a $9,000 home improvement loan we took out in August 2017 when we had to replace the HVAC unit in our home. We took advantage of a 18-month 0% interest loan if paid in full; the end of the term was January 2019–so we made it! No interest paid on that baby! I am so grateful that we’ve spent this year focusing on improving our financial picture. Having to take this loan was a big part of me starting to feel really out of control about our finances, leading to more slip ups and problems. Conquering it as originally outlined makes me feel powerful and like we can take on any (financial) challenge that might come our way.

Also, my sister gave me my annual haircut as a Christmas present–awesome frugal win to have a hairdresser in your immediate family. Finally, I picked up a bunch of extra hours at the hotline while my regular job is out on holiday break. I miss having downtime, but it’s helping us make major progress on the financial goals.

Fun

Besides a small family Christmas, which J declared “the best EVER,” we hosted one of his school friends for a playdate this week. This family has two boys close in age and recently adopted twin two-year-olds, so they’ve had a quite busy holiday season! The mom brought both older boys, and while our three kids frolicked about the house playing board games and with toys, we moms chatted. It was so nice to have this adult time and catch up with a friend. (Note: Min had a dad friend over to watch soccer while his kids played with our kids another day–so we try to do this sort of thing now that the kids are old enough not to need constant adult intervention while playing. I recommend it highly.)

Family

We’ve all been struggling with colds and other kinds of illness, so it’s been a restful week around our house. It’s been sad that we couldn’t take advantage of the beautiful weather to do something outdoors this week, but it has helped with focusing on the December Declutter.  I checked out Joshua Becker’s newest book The Minimalist Home from the library before break; it’s been very inspiring for me in this project.  I finally got rid of socks that haven’t had a match in years (this was very hard for me!) and accessories I never use or wear.  My kids were curious about my efforts and when I told them about it, they wanted to try.  So, I worked with each kid to go through their clothing and choose what they still love and wear, what is too small and needs to be donated, and then replacing the more streamlined wardrobes in accessible storage spaces (the closet, an underbed dresser, and a bin).  It feels very calming to know everything we want to use is accessible, not buried under lots of stuff we don’t need.

Other

I’m missing exercise and nature, but making progress on getting back to eating healthfully. I’ve made my plan, goals, and set a focus for 2019 (I do this rather than setting strict resolutions). Here is my focus:

Develop healthy daily/weekly rituals centered around the home (family, food, cleaning, organizing), faith (meditation, mindfulness, giving, ethical practice), nature (hiking, gardening, noticing), and community (friends, work, groups).

I am excited about these things, but still don’t have my full energy because my health is recovering. I’ll include notes about them in this weekly feature.

Salary Transparency in Financial Blogging

Subtitle: The post in which I disclose my income from the last five years, but not without a long-winded explanation of why I am uncomfortable doing so. Enjoy, kids!

Many bloggers struggle with the general dilemma that confronts nonfiction writers: how much of the personal do I need to reveal to present truth in my writing? Personal finance bloggers in particular struggle with disclosure of something our* culture is bananas about sharing publicly: income.  Many personal finance bloggers make names for themselves doing impressive things, like paying off $20,000 debt in nine months or becoming financially independent in 1500 days.  These are awesome accomplishments (and I never link to people whose content I don’t admire).

However, it can be hard to get a sense of the realistic nature of timeline for financial accomplishment without such benchmarks as income.  Some have come under a bit of criticism for being vague about their numbers.  Some do share numbers, but are anonymous to protect privacy.  Others are loath to disclose a lot of specific details about their finances, especially if two partners contribute income, but only one is blogging. I will admit that without income numbers attached, it’s harder to be impressed by “90% savings rate for 2018” or “five figures of debt paid off in 5 months.”  Those kinds of achievements are very difficult to achieve on incomes in the average (or even just above average) range, such as those featured in The Middletons. One of my favorite old blogs about frugality (from before blogging about frugality was a thing) is Living on A Dime by Tawra Kellam, whose tagline includes that she and her husband once paid off $20,000 debt in five years on a $22,000 income.  Now, that’s impressive!

You may have noticed that I err on the side of honesty.  I am not anonymous here.  I work in the public sector (education).  Y’all know my husband is a full time dad (and not the kind of full time dad that brings in money through odd jobs; we are a single-earner family of four).  However, it’s taken me until this post to be completely open about our salary and income.  I’ve vague-blogged about our income before, but never revealed it exactly.

I think the origins of our unwillingness to disclose income stem mostly from our strange worship of the middle class (to the extent that a family of four earning just above the poverty line will claim the same “class” status as a family of two each bringing in six figures).  However, it’s also a lot more complicated than that.  Every family situation is different and expenses vary in different parts of the world.  Some people get gifts and inheritances from family–is that income?  Others are obligated to send money to extended family each month for cultural or legal reasons–is that spending, debt, or other?  Plus, we all know that $100,000 in Iowa will purchase a different standard of living than $100,000 in San Francisco. When we moved to the U.S., I asked my husband not to disclose our income to his relatives back in Korea because $50,000/year goes much, much farther there than it does here.

Self-reported income then gets even more complicated than that.  People who are self-employed have to cover business expenses and pay double on social security taxes.  Should they claim their full earnings or their income, less business expenses?  Furthermore, people who earn money from public sector jobs (like mine as a public educator) have access to certain benefits (namely pension plans), but those benefits often significantly reduce their pay.  My publicly reported salary sounds much cushier than my Federal taxable income, let alone my actual take home pay.  Numbers geeks (like most PF bloggers) could easily play around with how they present the statistics to paint whatever picture they wanted to paint.

In preparing to do our income taxes for next year, I looked at our last five years of returns to see the income, as reported on our 1040 forms (not AGI, earned income).  During that time, we moved into our home where we have lived since then and I was working at the same school, in the same job (high school English teacher).  For 2013 and 2014, I worked part-time at the crisis hotline where I work now, so that income is included there.  Here’s our actual income from the last five years (before my promotion this year):

  • 2017: $51,040
  • 2016: $47,786
  • 2015: $37,154 **
  • 2014: $53,611
  • 2013: $45,822

Most of the variation has to do with how much extra work I took on through summer workshops, after-school responsibilities, and leadership roles. I’ve had some nominal raises from increasing my graduate credits and annual raises for all teachers in my district.

I have a lot of feelings about those numbers (pride at my hard work, annoyance at how underpaid teachers are, forgiveness at us being in debt, etc.), and I know that other people will see those numbers and have different feelings about them (if their own numbers are much higher or lower, they might feel they can’t relate). That’s probably why people don’t disclose their own numbers. However, at the end of the day, the numbers are just those–numbers. You have a bit of a better context for what we’re working with in the Free, Fun, Family household.

And now I can get famous by writing a really cool post titled “How I doubled my income in just three years” without mentioning that three years ago it was artificially depressed, and that I earned another degree and got a promotion/raise during that time…

Or just keep plugging along.

*by “our” I mean generally Western, specifically American

**the year we had our daughter, and I had to take an unpaid maternity leave (about 3 months).

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