“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 espaƱol 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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Make It Do

Earlier this school year, my cell phone was stolen.

I’ve never really been sure what happened, and the police have never figured it out, but here’s what I do know.

When I left my garage for school, I had my cell phone in the car with me. Sometime between the time I arrived at school and 10:30, when I realized I didn’t have my phone, my phone was stolen. We (meaning the police, the school administration, and I) believe I left my car unlocked and someone came into the parking lot and stole my phone. I looked up the phone on Find My Phone when I got home that night, and it took a joy ride down to the airport before going dark, forever.

Obviously, I was bummed. Not only did I lose my Iphone 7, which I’d bought the previous summer, and all the pictures in it, but I also had to get a new phone. I did not want to spend another $350 (which is what I’d spent to get the refurbished Iphone 7).

But I needed a phone. Even during my experimentation with Digital Minimalism, it was obvious that I needed a phone.

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How We Got A Month Ahead in Our Budget… Again

In July of 2018, just after my family moved to North Carolina, we finally made it a priority to get a month ahead in our budget.

We took money we saved from not having a mortgage payment on the first month we bought our new house, together with some savings, and used that to create a bare-bones budget for the month of August. We lived on that money during the month of August and saved Mr. ThreeYear’s two paychecks to use for the next month, September.

We’ve kept this system up ever since, so that the money we budget is the money we earned from the previous month.

This has been a phenomenal system for a couple of reasons. One, we have a cushion in our bank account so we never have to worry about the timing of our credit card payment or other bills being taken out. Two, we know exactly how much we have to spend each month, before the month starts, so there’s no guessing with budgeting.

So why am I saying that we got a month ahead in our budgeting again?

I started a full time job last August, and began to get two paychecks per month. I am currently maxing out my 403b, and I’m a teacher, so to say that the paychecks aren’t huge would be an understatement. Still, they’re nice additions to our bottom line.

When I started to get regular paychecks, I decided not to add them to our budget, because I wanted to save them, or spend them on non-budget stuff.

Did I think that by not budgeting the money in our traditional money things we would somehow be more efficient or productive with the money? Apparently I did.

The months passed, and those paychecks got eaten up in some way or another, very rarely being spent on purpose like I had envisioned.

When we refinanced our mortgage to a 10-year, and our monthly payment went up by $450 per month, I realized that something needed to change.

I needed to add my paychecks to our budget, because we needed them to pay the bills. As much as I didn’t want that to be true, it was. We were going over budget every single month and if we wanted to make headway on savings goals, we were going to have to have a clear-eyed vision of exactly where our money was going.

At the same time, I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t very good at budgeting.

Guys, I have been budgeting since 2008. That’s twelve years. That’s a long time to be bad at something.

But you know that saying, if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting?

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Musings on Covid-19

Oh, good. My site’s still here. As I logged on, I wondered for a second, since it’s been so long since I posted.

My family spent last week at the beach for Spring Break. I realize how incredibly fortunate we are to have that house to visit, to have a different view for a couple of days, and to be able to visit the beach. Still, we had planned to be in Spain, and I had a few moments of mourning that trip.

Your feelings are your feelings, as selfish or ungrateful as they feel, no? I read an article (I’ve read many over the past several weeks) explaining the unsettledness we feel as grief. Grief for a future that seemed more certain, grief for what we’d planned and didn’t come to pass.

Many years ago I read an explanation of Black Swans as events that would change the course of history but that come out of left field, completely changing the course of history in ways that are inherently unpredictable because of their randomness.

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How Humility About Personal Finance Can Be a Really Good Thing

I have been known to be a bit, shall we say, know-it-all about several topics. One of those is personal finance. I thought, once I got my debt paid off and was saving up a large chunk of our family’s income each month, that I knew all there was to know about this particular topic.

Of course, that’s an exaggeration. But, I am very quick to offer advice in this particular area, without necessarily being willing to listen sympathetically.

Sometimes, not having all the answers or feeling unsure about a certain area of personal finance, however, is important.

If you know you have all the answers, or that your way is the right way, how can you properly evaluate other ideas, or have an open mind to listen to new possibilities?

That’s where humility comes in, and humility often comes through failing at something.

So, if we have succeeded with money for a while, relatively speaking, how do we get money humility?

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Debit Cards for Kids

I’ve written a lot about how we teach our kids about money and tackle allowance in the ThreeYear household, but I have a confession to make: I’m really terrible at remembering to get cash from the bank to give my kids.

Isn’t that always the way? If there’s a tiny kink in your process, such as your bank being too far away to go get cash, then it can throw the whole process awry.

For the record, our allowance plan is supposed to look something like this:

  • Kids do weekly chores and help around the house.
  • Kids are given $6 each in cash.
  • Kids save $2, set aside $2 for Giving, and have $2 to spend.
  • Kids save up for toys they want, learning valuable money lessons like patience and perseverance in the process.

In reality, it goes something like this:

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