How to Be Happy

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

Joseph Campbell

Grasping, grasping, always grasping. We are a dissatisfied species, no?

Maybe you’re someone who looks out over your backyard, as you’ve just hand washed your dishes, noticing the beauty of the sunset, grateful for the ups and downs of your day, convinced you already have every single thing you need right in front of you.

I have those moments, occasionally. I do. I also have a monkey mind that’s always planning, yearning, seeking things to change and improve. “Does she like me?” “When will I get a new fridge?” “My house is outdated. I’m never going to get it fixed up.” “I need, I need, I need…”

Writing helps me tame the beast. It is my form of thinking with my fingers, of taking the ephemeral whisps of thought, of what I know to be true, and pinning them down, shaping and creating them into a philosophy, into meaning, into, perhaps, a plan for living.

I’ve been reading over my old journals. My writing, especially the writing I did pre-blog, was an exercise in formulating meaning, in figuring out a purpose, in discovering my authentic self. While my thinking patterns can often drive me batty, I like the self I find in my journals, the person I am on paper.

My authentic self (in my quarantine outfit). Proudly a mama, first and foremost.

Um, what about happiness?

How does this relate to happiness? I imagine you didn’t start reading this post to hear my self-congratulations.

So let me get to the point. Reading my past words has reminded me of some things. Reminded me of the candescent ideas I read, back in 2016, and then wrote down, as I suspected I’d forget their wisdom.

To be happy, I have to be my authentic self.

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We Doubled Our Net Worth

Pardon me for not writing about this back in June when it actually happened, but we doubled our net worth. That was one of two giant goals I had on this blog when I started it.

I think I told you that we went out to a fancy dinner to celebrate.

The dinner was anti-climactic, in part because of Covid restrictions.

The reaching of our goal, however, has left me happy. Every time I check our net worth I’m happy. Especially because it keeps going up.

I know, I know. Major bull market; we’re undoubtedly in for a major correction. But let me enjoy it while it lasts, ‘kay?

How did we get here? Well, let’s back up. I wrote a post back in October of 2017 called How We Plan to Double Our Net Worth.

Basically, we planned to pay down our mortgage principal, save money in our retirement accounts, and add money to our taxable accounts.

Here is our total net savings rate over the past three years:

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How I Went from Spending $1250 to $600 on Groceries in Two Months

Well, well, well. It seems I have FINALLY managed to stay within a $600 per month grocery budget for the first time in recent memory.

You may be shouting, “amateur!” I don’t care. I have never been able to figure out how to reduce this expense until now, and I am PROUD of myself.

In June, we spent $1243.61 on food.

In August, we spent $597.13.

How in the world did we manage to HALF our grocery budget in the space of two months?

Well, if you want the short answer:

I started budgeting my grocery money weekly.

If you want the long answer (which, I think you do, because, come on, who wants a one-sentence answer when you can get something long and complicated?!), then read on.

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Austerity Measures

For the most part, we haven’t been worried about losing our jobs during Covid, so we haven’t been especially worried about our financial situations during the pandemic.

Lately, however, my husband has had some unpleasant situations at work, and we have been reminded of how much we depend on our salaries to cover our everyday expenses.

Mr. ThreeYear and I made the decision that for the next six months, we’re going to buckle down and save as much as possible so that we can beef up our emergency fund.

Contemplating joblessness, even as a thought exercise, is scary. It made me realize that we don’t have enough in our emergency fund.

For several years, I’ve kept a smaller emergency fund of $10,000-$15,000, plus the money in our budget, which is generally about $10,000-$15,000 as well. The money in our emergency fund sits in our Ally Savings Account, and earns a nominal amount of interest each month ($10-$15 at the current rate). Our budgeted money is in our checking account.

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Meandering to FI

Also, meandering to the point of this post (not sure I ever got there). I wrote this post in bits and pieces over the past couple of weeks. They are thoughts, feelings, and my attempts to make meaning of this crazy time. Hope you find some value here. 🙂

Sometimes people have different opinions than I do. That’s okay; the world is a big place and people have had very different life experiences.

Sometimes people are scared. That’s okay; I’m scared about the dumbest things myself–like buying a new sofa. I have a pretty large net worth and I’m scared to buy a sofa.

Sometimes people are wrong. That’s okay; I’m often wrong (Dunning-Kruger is real, y’all).

Sometimes people are depressed. It took me a long time to figure out I struggle with depression. I have really bad Seasonal Affective Disorder and when something as minor as three days of rain happens (like this week) I suffer.

Covid and the quarantine have brought out a lot of opinions, ideas, posts. There is good scientific data on how to control a pandemic, but it seems to get lost in the shuffle (here’s one of the best articles I’ve read on how to manage the outbreak and here’s a common sense article about social distancing). And everyone has competing ideas for the best way to go about our lives and keep others safe.

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“I’m Drowning. There’s No Way I Can Get Better at Money. What Do I Do?”

A lot of what I write is directed towards people who have been managing their money for a long time.

But in case you stumbled on this blog and you feel like you’re one bill away from bankruptcy, I thought I’d write a post for you.

Let’s say that money scares you. You don’t look at you credit card bills, you don’t know what your credit score is, you haven’t even thought about retirement. That’s a long time away.

But you know that something has to change. You know you’ve got a lot of debt, and spending feels scary, and it never feels like you have anything approaching control around your money.

There is ONE thing you need to do. One thing only.

I’m not going to tell you what that is, yet. First, I want you to figure something out.

Step 1

When is the first time in your day when you sit in front of a computer or phone?

Do you get up early in the morning like me and go upstairs to your desk and start checking your email?

Do you get up, throw some clothes on, grab a protein bar, then start scrolling through your phone on the train (or you did, before Covid)?

Do you feed the kids, get them off to school, drive yourself to work, then sit down at your desk and open your work laptop (again, before Covid)?

Figure out when that is. Then, make a decision to take five minutes tomorrow, when you first get in front of your devise, to open Notes, or Google Sheets, or your email browser, and write some numbers down.

Don’t panic!!! Let me finish.

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Managing Your Money is Hard

I didn’t start a blog because personal finance is easy for me. I started a blog because I’m obsessed with reaching financial independence, and I love to think and write about it.

But managing your money is HARD!

Occasionally, I will read a blogger (usually an extremely frugal blogger) who will glibly comment, “It’s really hard for me to spend money. Being frugal is just part of who I am.”

That. is. not. me.

It is really hard to manage my family’s dollars, even after more than 12 years of paying really good attention to where our dollars go.

I have been budgeting since August 2008. Every month. That is 143 budgets, if you’re counting (12 months times 12 years, minus one month because it’s only June).

As I mentioned in several posts recently, I’ve rededicated my commitment to getting our budget right over the past several months.

In April, we got one month ahead with both our salaries in YNAB, our budgeting software of choice.

I started more sinking funds, so we can save money each month for even the smallest yearly subscriptions, like Ring Doorbell ($35 per year).

I’ve started a Celebrations Fund, so we can fund celebrations, birthdays, teacher gifts, and graduation gifts.

Those measures have helped, because I’m starting to see these sinking funds grow, and it’s making me feel better prepared for the future, less likely to rob from Peter to pay Paul in the budget.

But, we struggle constantly with spending. Last weekend, we went to Costco, and spent $265. That’s AFTER we already bought groceries for the week! And while we did buy a couple of items that will last us for a while, much of the food we bought will be gone by the end of the month. Housing an almost-thirteen, ravenous pubescent boy doesn’t help.

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#BLM and Money

For a long time I have championed immigrants. I personally understand the rage and frustration behind unfair immigration policies, policies that wouldn’t let my husband’s family members get a visa to come to the US for ten days in order to watch his marriage. I also had enough white privilege that my parents could make a contribution to a certain senator’s campaign fund to get that decision reversed so my family members could come visit me.

When I saw the news of children being separated from their parents at the border it hit me like nothing else. I immediately signed up to make a monthly contribution with an organization that worked to bring parents and children back together. I still feel rage and impotence every time I think of children being separated from their already-brutalized, already-war-weary parents. I’ve seen how people in Central America live. I’ve visited a neighborhood in Honduras that was built over a trash heap, watched children scamper around that filth, watch their parents with looks of resigned desperation.

I know those parents would do anything to give their kids a better life.

But here’s what I also know.

For a long time, I’ve watched cases of police brutality against black Americans, and I’ve felt some frustration. Some. Frustration. Not a lot, mind you, but a little. Enough to debate the issue with loved ones but not enough to call my senators and demand change.

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Muddling Through

I have not had many days, since the quarantine started, that I’ve gotten in the bed and felt a warm since of accomplishment melt over me for a productive day.

We’ve managed to do quite a lot each day: Mr. ThreeYear and I work our full-time jobs. I homeschool Little ThreeYear (Junior ThreeYear is self-sufficient at schoolwork for the most part). I feed the family three meals per day. We clean up and put away the dishes (this part feels like it takes hours of our day, every day). We tidy the house. We exercise many of those days. We buy groceries.

Still, the house is never really clean. It’s always fairly straightened for the most part with one or two really messy spots. Laundry is in some state of neglect, constantly.

I do my job each day, but I’m not following my curriculum very well. I can’t. I’m trying to get 17 eighth graders to keep their videos on and answer my questions en español on our Google Meet Up. They have tuned out after fifteen minutes. I can see it in their faces (the seventh and sixth graders are much more into Spanish these days. The seniors–let’s not even go there).

We haven’t managed to spend very much less than normal, mainly because we have been buying new furniture for our house, since we’ve been in it for eight weeks and realized that we need some new pieces. I have gotten us a full month ahead in our budget, which is sweet, but it’s been a slow, long haul to try and build up our sinking funds to the level needed. I still feel like I’m constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul, like we can never save as much as I’d like us to.

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The Circular Economy

A few days ago, Mr. ThreeYear and I were walking out of the grocery store with our masks on, avoiding other shoppers who were walking in, and I was struck: “This is so weird. I cannot believe the world changed this much in just a couple of weeks.”

Life itself is constantly giving us reminders that our earth is ever-changing, ever-evolving. We are reminded of that by the rise and fall of the sun each day, by the changing seasons. By children who grow so quickly that pants you bought them in October no longer fit them in February.

Yet I, at least, find myself trying to keep things the same.

Most of the quarantine has been an exercise in the small ways I try to exercise control over an uncontrollable situation. I’ve set up a schedule for the family, made sure everyone has tasks and jobs, made sure we all have a space to work in and stay in that space. Of course, my life now is one giant interruption, with Little ThreeYear popping his head in my “office” (the guest room) every three minutes when he has a question about school.

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