Holiday Gift-Giving Guide

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Wow, the holiday season is upon us. Every year, it sneaks up on me, regrettably. I know I need to up my planning game, and maybe start thinking about Christmas gifts earlier than, say, December 1st. This is never more so than this year, since I’ve been working full time and haven’t been planning ahead very well.

If you’re like me and need some last minute Christmas gifts, I thought I’d republish my gift-giving guide from last year. Yes, all the gifts are the same as last year, but they were great options then and they are now! Everything is under $20, to boot! So take a peak, and cross everyone off your list. 🙂

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What I Wish I Knew Then About FIRE: Guest Post on Costa Rica FIRE

Ahh, hindsight. Most always 20/20, it is the perspective gleaned from missteps and mistakes made.

We can’t change the past, no matter how much we’d like to, so our ancient mistakes can only serve as a guide in our present lives.

That’s the idea behind Scott and Caroline’s post. The couple, now empty nesters who I first profiled on the blog here in my Your Three Year Experience series, write about crafting a life you love, living in multiple places, and traveling. They reached out to lots of financial bloggers, me included, with the question, “What do you know now about FIRE that you wished you knew when you started?” In other words, what would you have done differently in your pursuit of financial independence/retiring early?

For our family, where retiring early has never been a primary goal, I had to think about the question under the framework of decisions we made that would have impacted our lives differently.

Certainly moving to New Hampshire in 2010 was a decision that we debated. Just before Mr. ThreeYear accepted the job with his company there, his company in Atlanta offered him a really great deal to stay. If we had stayed in Atlanta, our lives would have looked so different. What choices would we have made? Would we be as financially solid as we are now? Would our health and well-being have suffered as a result of Mr. ThreeYear staying in a stressful work environment?

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Grocery Services: Are They Worth It?

Since I’ve started working full time, I’ve almost exclusively used grocery services to buy my groceries. What are grocery services? There are several types.

Delivery Services

One type is a delivery service. Some companies, such as Instacart and Shipt, are companies that offer delivery from various stores in your area. You pick out your store, then pick out your groceries on an online app or website.

I’ve used Instacart extensively, in conjunction with Aldi. I really like it because it’s convenient and they bring food right to your door. But it’s not cheap.

These delivery companies generally make money in two ways: one, by charging a delivery fee (generally a fixed amount, like $3.99), a service fee (with Instacart, it’s 5% of your order), and a tip (this is also a recommended 5% of your order but it’s not required). On top of all these fees, the company marks up the cost of the food you buy. So if your potato chips normally cost $.89 per bag at Aldi, you’ll pay $.99 through Instacart.

Several times, the buyer has left the receipt in the bag, and I’ve been able to compare what he or she paid at the store with what Instacart charged me. The difference is usually about $25.

$25?! So why would I ever buy groceries from this service? That’s a lot of money!

What I’ve found is that by having a delivery service, I actually end up buying less than I normally do when I go into the grocery store. Because I’m not physically in the store, I’m not tempted to buy more than what’s on my list. Obviously if you’ve got great self-discipline at the store, this is not an issue you face, but for me, it’s helped.

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6 Ways I Trick Myself Into Spending Less

It has been well established on this blog that my family is not particularly frugal. While we have tried hard, we tend to fail at the “a millionaire is made $10 at a time” adage. We spend little bits here and there, which add up to big bits by the end of the month.

But it doesn’t matter. Here’s why.

We’ve already made one-time decisions long ago that have locked us in to spending less, sometimes way less, than we have, and because of that, we are saving and investing at an impressive rate (around 40% of our income, although that will increase this year now that I’m working).

Because I know that I like to spend money, and honestly don’t have a huge amount of self control in that area, I’ve learned that I have to trick myself in order to keep my money away from myself. And the crazy part is, it’s worked!

Here are the six tricks my family uses to spend less:

We Max Out Our 401k

Many years ago, I figured out that the very best way to decrease our taxable income while also investing tax-free was to max out my husband’s 401k. So, I started small (I say I because I am the investor in our family and made these decisions). I began saving 7% of his salary, then increased that amount each year as he got a raise. Because he’s a high salary earner, it only took a few years to max out. I document that entire process here.

When I got my full-time job in August, I debated if I should max out my own 403b (the 401k equivalent at my non-profit private school). After all, my teaching salary is quite low and I wouldn’t have very much left over after I maxed out. However, in the end, I couldn’t turn down the tax benefits or the tax free savings, so I chose to max it out as well. Now, even if we end up spending most of my all of my salary on home improvement projects, I don’t feel too bad since we’re saving $38,000 alone in our retirement accounts.

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October Net Worth Update

We have crept into November, here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Our trees are now handsome shades of red and orange, and while nothing rivals the splendor of a New England Fall, the foliage is looking particularly lovely right now.

And I don’t have to brace for seven months of winter, either.

Life is good.

I thought as much on Sunday when I looked next to me and saw my sister on the pew next to me in church. We’ve started attending the same church on Sundays and it’s just another way I get to see my nieces and my sister and BIL regularly. It’s hard to explain the satisfaction that comes from living close to my family. But it’s a feeling of relief. I’m not living 14 hours away anymore. I don’t have to plot and scheme to figure out how to move closer to them. We’re currently living in the most idyllic of locations, our little town of Davidson. The weather is lovely, most of the time.

This week was Halloween and at my school, we had a Trunk or Treat event for the kids, replete with a Halloween-themed scavenger hunt. My middle schoolers brought flowers for the Ofrenda we created for a beloved teacher who died last year.

My own kids trick-or-treated in our neighborhood, despite steady rain, and came back with an impressive haul.

Thanksgiving is just around the corner and I get an entire week off. We’ll head to the beach house to soak in some sand, turkey, and family.

Our Progress

We did so well in September with our spending, but October saw us back to our newly-spendy(er) habits.

We’ve been using the part of my salary that’s not designated for my 403b to fix up several things in the house that need fixing. We’ve updated our dishwasher, which was essentially worthless, and just finished getting our cabinets painted. We toyed with the idea of doing it ourselves, but the truth is, we had no idea how, so I’m infinitely glad we left it in the hands of professionals.

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Update

Hello all. It’s now the end of October, and I’ve been teaching for ten weeks.

As with any major change in life, my teaching job has brought a new schedule, and many new habits, both good and bad. I’ve tried to keep in mind that each decision I make around how I spend my (now precious) free time is really a vote for a habit I will ultimately develop.

One of my biggest priorities has been exercise. I convinced my neighbor, who’s a fitness instructor at our gym, to offer classes three times a week in the mornings. So on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Mr. ThreeYear and I dutifully head over to the gym at 6:30 and work out for thirty minutes (yes, I drag him there, too).

This was the earliest time the gym offers, and the latest that would work for my schedule. I get home at 7:00 and have just a sliver of time to get myself and the kids ready for school. Little ThreeYear and I both leave at 7:30. He heads over to our neighbor’s house to walk with them to the bus stop, and I drive to school.

I have not yet settled into a running schedule I’m happy with. I run one long run on Sunday mornings and eke out one more run per week if I’m lucky. I’m still working on a more robust running schedule.

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How to Communicate with Your Kids without Using Cell Phones

Last year was Junior ThreeYear’s first year of middle school. His middle school starts an hour later than Little ThreeYear’s school, so he would head to the bus at 8:40 each morning, then get home at 4:40 in the afternoons.

This system worked beautifully, since the bus stop was just a block from our house, except when the busses were late. Unfortunately, this happened with some frequency. I truly don’t understand why the bus company that the district outsources to can’t get its act together, but I don’t think they pay their drivers enough, so there are often busses that are tardy, bus substitutions, and, during the first week of school, busses that arrive an hour late.

Last year, when Junior ThreeYear was in sixth grade, we did not want to give him a cell phone. Knowing what we know about cell phones, we wanted to protect him as long as possible from the temptation to use a phone during his free time and get on social media. Especially after my experimentation with taking social media off my phone, I wanted to give my son as much social-media free childhood as possible.

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August Net Worth Update

Happy September! Labor Day has officially passed. School has begun for the kids and me, Mr. ThreeYear is off on his first travel trip of the school year. FinCon, the eponymous financial conference, has started, although I’m not there this year.

A new season has started for many families in the US and it definitely has for ours; I’m now working full time and life is very different in our household.

Last week was my first full week teaching at my new school. I loved it; the kids are great, in general, and it was fun to have such a challenge in front of me. I also got home completely depleted every evening. I know that in time, I will feel stronger and less exhausted. I know this is a period of transition, but it feels hard.

That said, I’ve tried to put into place things that will help me make good choices. I’ve given myself a week to sleep in a bit, but this week I’m getting up earlier. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I’m going to my office to write, and on Wednesdays and Fridays I’m going to a fitness class. My neighbor, who works at our club gym, started it because I asked her to, so I feel locked in to going each Wednesday and Friday. That’s exactly how I want to feel, so that I will go regularly and not miss a workout.

I’ve started new habits of making lunches and getting clothes out the night before, something I’ve never mastered, so that mornings won’t be as rushed. Seems to be working for now.

Our Progress

While July showed an uptick in the net worth category (68.9%), August brought us back down (66.9%). I’ve now had one full month of contributing the max to my 403b, but that did little to my overall balance, combined with a market downturn. That means I bought low, though, so I’m glad.

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Back to School Savings

On Wednesday, I officially started teaching (although I’ve been in teacher work days for a week and a half). On Monday, the boys return to school. The summer has ended.

In order to get ready for these auspicious beginnings (and because I had no idea how much energy I’d have left after the end of a long day at school–answer, not much), I spent a few days before I started work cleaning out the boys’ closets.

This is an annual tradition at our house, and one that is very much in keeping with my minimalist roots and a good way to sift through hand-me-downs that we’ve stored for the boys’ future use.

This year, Mr. ThreeYear commented that the boys have a lot of clothes, and recommended we reduce the amount of clothes we keep on hand for them.

So as I went through their dresser drawers, I made a big donation pile for anything that no longer fit or was badly stained.

Even though it’s been two years since Junior ThreeYear has received any hand-me-downs, he still had one Tupperware bin of clothes left that didn’t fit him yet. He wears a size 14 in pants, meaning the clothes I once packed away for some giant of the future now fit.

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Letters from the Past

Last week, I got a letter from my past self. I wrote it the previous year, on August 5th, 2018.

This time last year, I had lived in my new town a mere month. I had no idea what the future would hold, nor what the school year would be like for the boys, nor how working remotely would work out for Mr. ThreeYear.

But I hoped and I wished. Here’s what I wrote:

Dear Future Me, 
What a surprise to get my second letter from the past today! This time last year, I had just come back to New Hampshire from South Carolina. I hoped to have spent my entire trip South there this year. It feels almost unbelievable that we’ve actually moved to North Carolina, that we actually live full time in the South now. We reached our goal a full year earlier. We’ve reached so many of our goals. We paid off our debt. My blog has continued to grow. I am a freelance writer. We have an exciting Disney trip coming up next month. We’ve improved our grocery spending.

In some ways, it feels hard to think about next year at this time. When so many goals and plans have come true, where do we go next? I know I’d like to find a way to make money that doesn’t rob my focus on my family. Is that writing full-time? I hope I’ve figured it out by next year, that I’ve taken my time and figured out the right path.

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