Category Archives: Saving & Investing

Is sticking to your budget hurting your savings account?

This post was originally published September 3, 2009.

piggy bank

“Wait, wait,” you’re saying. “Budgeting helps you make better decisions with your money, which should be helping your savings account. Isn’t that the whole point?!” And you’re absolutely right.


This summer, I learned a valuable lesson that I want to share with you. Sometimes being too rigid in your budget can actually lead you to make bad budget decisions.

This isn’t one of those posts about how you need to treat yourself every now and then to avoid burn out. This is about how sticking to a budget can sometimes make extra money feel, well, extra. And if it’s extra, why not just spend it? You deserve it after all that hard work budgeting, right? The problem is, this mindset can prevent you from growing your savings account.

I am constantly vowing to use the snowflaking method to increase my savings, but my strict budget gets in the way. If I receive unexpected “extra money” in the middle of the month, I often end up spending it. After all, this is extra money. I’m technically sticking to my budget, right? So I can spend this money on whatever I want.

It’s a bad habit, and it’s slowing down our savings progress. If we saved this extra money instead of spending it, we would be saving a lot more.

So how do we break this bad habit? I have a plan. Part of the problem is that I feel compelled to make a plan for unexpected money right away. Whether it’s $10 or $100, I decide how to spend it immediately, and more often than not it involves spending it on something we don’t need because, hey, it’s “extra.”

From now on, unexpected money will be deposited and ignored until the following month when it can be added to the budget. It’s much easier for me to commit money to savings when I’m creating a budget than it is for me to commit unexpected money to savings when the budget has already been set for the month.

I’m hoping that adding it to a budget will help me view it as part of our income instead of “extra money.” I’m much less likely to spend our regular income than I am to spend money that I don’t include as part of our income.

Is this a problem you face? How do you combat “extra money syndrome”?

Photo by alancleaver

Homeowner blues (and green)

Last Sunday, Tony noticed a wet spot on the ceiling in the dining room. Oy.

It hadn’t been particularly rainy, but we’d had a little rain that morning, so we assumed it was a roof leak. Roof leaks aren’t covered in our homeowner’s warranty, but the roof passed inspection with no concerns, so we assumed it would be a small leak caused by the crazy storms this season and that would be relatively easy to patch.

Monday morning, I made free estimate appointments with 8 different roofers. I wanted to cover all my bases. During the inspection, we were informed that our garage door’s extension springs weren’t really safe on a door that size, and we had the whole thing converted to a safer torsion spring shortly after we moved in. Estimates ranged between $130 and $500 for the same job, so I learned my lesson about the importance of getting multiple estimates.

The first roofer who came out climbed onto the roof and said he couldn’t see any problems that would be causing a leak. Then he climbed into the attic to see where the water was coming from. I was impressed with his diligence, since we were in the middle of a heatwave, and the attic was probably 150 degrees.

He climbed back down and gave me the bad news. The water on the ceiling wasn’t caused by a roof leak. The water was coming from condensation on an air conditioning duct in the attic. We’d need to call an HVAC specialist. The roofer (who also owns properties and provides remodeling work) referred me to an HVAC specialist he trusts, and didn’t charge me a cent for his time. Thanks, mister!

I called the HVAC specialist, who gave me a few educated guesses over the phone about what could be causing the problem, but said he wouldn’t be able to work in the attic until the temperatures fell back down to normal. It was around 100 degrees here Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, so I don’t really blame him. We watched the wet spot on our ceiling get bigger and waited for the temperatures to fall a little.

When a new spot showed up on the ceiling Wednesday morning, I called and asked if there was anything we could do to at least slow the water down before it damaged the drywall or began to leak through. He said he’d come out first thing in the morning before it got too hot.

We discovered a couple things about our house that we didn’t know before. Part of the problem? Our air conditioning system was installed in an extremely unorthodox way. When the house was built in 1970, it probably didn’t have central air conditioning. When someone installed it later, instead of running the air conditioning through the furnace, they installed a separate air handler in the attic. A broken blower in that air handler was somehow causing air flow to run abnormally cold through the ducts, which was creating condensation.

The good news: He was able to stop the condensation and fix the problem for now with a $100 repair to the air handler. The bad news: It’s just a band-aid. The strange installation could eventually lead to a larger problem that can’t be fixed, and since it’s so old, he thinks the whole system will likely need to be replaced in the next 3-5 years. To the tune for $8,000. Gulp.

I asked why this wasn’t caught in the inspection. He said in decades of HVAC experience, he’s never seen anything like it, and it’s likely that the inspector just didn’t know to look for such a strange thing. He said it’s possible even the guy who remodeled the house didn’t realize the HVAC system was set up so strangely. As long as it was working, there was no reason to get up there and investigate inside the ducts.

Well, crap.

I was relieved that he was able to come up with a solution for now that didn’t require us to shell out that kind of cash. Now we have some time to plan and prepare for an $8,000 investment in our heating and cooling system. We’ll also get a second and even third opinion before we do anything to see if an entire system update is really necessary.

After the repair he made yesterday, it seems to be running more efficiently now. With temperatures so hot, the house just wasn’t staying as cool as we wanted, and the air conditioner really seemed to be struggling. After he fixed the problem, it’s much more comfortable in the house.

It’s not a complete shock. We knew the air conditioning unit was pretty old before we closed on the house, and we knew we’d probably have to replace it at some point. An new AC unit is a few thousand dollars, though — an entire system update is going to be close to three times that. Harrumph.

I’m thankful that something minor went wrong first, so at least now we’ll be prepared. If the entire system had died on us suddenly, we would have been shocked at the price tag to fix it. That broken blower saved us from the shock, because now we know what’s going on with it, and we can prepare to make the necessary changes in a few years.

The moral of the story? Owning a home really is so much more expensive that just your mortgage payment. Thankfully, we have some time to prepare for this investment, but it could have just as easily stopped working overnight and required an $8,000 investment immediately.

If you’re considering buying a house, do not wipe out your savings accounts to do it. An inspection won’t catch every potential problem, and new problems can spring up overnight. As a homeowner, you need a healthy savings account more than ever.

Photo credit

Goals for 2011

I’m surrounded by boxes once again, and in two days, we’ll move for the third time in eight months. It’s a stressful way to start the new year, but it’s really a great thing for our family. After eight months of frugal survival mode, we’ll finally be making enough to start building our savings instead of depleting it.

In addition to paid time off and a decent salary, we finally have employer-provided health insurance again after 8 months of COBRA and private insurance (Hallelujah!).

As I’ve written before, though, I actually find it harder to reach my goals when we’re living comfortably. A tight budget keeps me accountable and forces me to live frugally. More money means more temptation to spend frivolously. While this is more money than we’ve ever made, it’s still a very modest salary by today’s standards, and we’re going to have to stay focused if we want to stretch it to reach all of our goals.

To keep ourselves on track, I’m taking a break from packing to list our goals for this year and beyond.

1. Continue to live frugally.

Over the past eight months, we’ve had no choice but to live frugally. There wasn’t enough money available to go out to eat or buy things we didn’t need. Now that we’re earning more money, the temptation to spend will be greater, and we’ll have to stay committed to our frugal lifestyle.

2. Save at least 25% of our income.

The last year that we lived in North Carolina, we were saving about 30% of our total income. We’ll actually be earning more now than we did then, but we have loftier goals so saving will be a little more challenging.

3. Rebuild our emergency fund.

This is savings priority #1. Three moves, four months with no income at all, and four months earning less than we needed to pay our meager expenses have depleted our emergency fund to practically nothing.

4. Buy a second car.

We currently share a tiny economy car. It has served us well for the past four years, but now that we have a child, it’s a little cramped. In North Carolina, I drove the car to work and Tony was able to take public transportation to work and class. Now that we’re living in a city without reliable public transportation (and we’re living about 15 minutes from Tony’s job), sharing a car will be a little more difficult. So we’d like to invest in a second car so Judah and I aren’t stuck at home all day.

5. Buy a home.

We’re definitely renting for the first year in our new city — and likely the second year as well. But now that it looks like we’ll be settling down for a few years, I want to start making plans to become homeowners. That means meeting with a mortgage broker to find out what we need to do to get our credit in order and ramping up our savings for a down payment.

6. Pay off our student loans.

Becoming debt free is still pretty low on my list of priorities. I do plan to increase our monthly payments on these debts, but I’d like to wait until we’re homeowners to really buckle down and pay them off.

7. Increase retirement savings.

As part of his benefits package, Tony’s employer will be matching his retirement savings up to a percentage. We both have Roth IRA savings accounts as well. I will continue to put money earned through freelancing and other money-making projects into my account. We’ll also decide how much of Tony’s salary to contribute to his employer-provided account tax free.

8. Open a college savings account for Judah.

We likely won’t be too aggressive about saving for Judah’s college fund at this point, but I’d like to get the account in place so his grandparents can contribute if they’d like and we can put some money away when it’s available.

I’m so excited to finally have a bit of money to work with, but it’s not going to go far considering all of our goals. We’re going to have to be extremely focused. Stay tuned to see how we do!

Photo by dmachiavello

Planning ahead for our baby’s education

Tony and I have always agreed that a college education is something we want for our children — and it’s something that we want to help them obtain. I know this is a controversial subject, so let me begin by saying I’m not up for debating it. It’s a priority for us, and that’s that.

Traditionally, middle-class students get the shaft when it comes to college funding. I was a very good student, and I worked very hard to qualify for scholarships, but it’s a competitive market. The average above-average student qualifies for very little money when it comes to scholarships. I worked two jobs through college, and I still ended up deep in debt by the time I graduated. It’s definitely true that I could have made better choices when it came to borrowing money, but the fact remains that I needed some help funding my education. Tony and I want to be able to provide that help for our children.

Much like retirement saving, time is your best friend when it comes to saving for college. I’ve run some numbers using a few college savings calculators, and frankly, I disagree with their numbers. Our plan is to save enough to pay tuition only at a public university. We will expect our child(ren) to work as much as possible to cover certain living expenses. We also anticipate sending some money to cover part of his living expenses on a month-to-month basis.

As of right now, our budget is too tight to set any hard and fast numbers for monthly savings. But we know that if we start contributing even just a little money each year to a 529 savings plan, it will be much easier to save enough over the next 18 years than if we wait until he’s a teenager.

Our philosophy for retirement savings has been similar. We each have a Roth IRA, and we contribute as much as we can each year. Right now, it’s not a lot. But the plan is in place, and as our income increases, so will our savings.

Our plan is to open a 529 savings plan shortly after our baby is born. Our retirement savings will remain our priority, but we want to have the savings account in place to encourage us to put money away when we can. We’ll also let grandparents and other loved ones know that the savings account exists. We don’t expect anyone else to contribute to it, but we want them to know that especially in the baby’s first few years of life, if they want to give him gifts, we’d prefer they contribute to his college savings rather than spoiling him with tons of toys.

By starting early, we’ll have years of interest on our side. We’ll also have more time, which means lower monthly contributions will add up over the years. Even just $50 a month at 8% interest will net us close to $25,000 by the time our son starts college. That wouldn’t be enough to cover his tuition for 4 years, but that’s $25,000 less that he’d have to borrow, which makes a huge difference. We’re obviously hoping our income and budget will change through the years, though, and we’ll eventually be able to save more every month.

Beginning early will give us a head start. It will also give well-meaning family members who want to help with his education a place to put a few bucks every year if they want.

Are you saving for your child’s education? What’s your plan?

Photo by hmocopymonkey

What a savings account can buy

When I tell people we’re moving in 6 weeks, it always leads to the same conversation:

“Oh, so you found a job?”

“Nope. Not yet. But I’m looking.”

“So your husband found a job?”

“Not yet.”

That’s when they look at my like I’m nuts.

I don’t blame them. Back when I was living paycheck-to-paycheck, the idea of quitting my job without another one lined up would have seemed pretty nuts to me, too.

It’s not polite to ask specific questions about our financial situation, so most people leave it at that. They sort of raise their eyebrows like we’re nuts and assume we’ll be mooching off our parents for months while we job search. I don’t ever bother to correct them, even though their assumption isn’t really true.

Yes, we’ll be staying with Tony’s family temporarily, and it’s extremely kind of them to give us the chance to get settled in Indiana before we find an apartment. And yes, the absence of a rent payment from our budget for the few months that we stay there will help keep our savings account healthy. We won’t be mooching, though. We’ll be paying all of our own bills, chipping in for groceries, and helping out in any way we can to repay their kindness. But the truth is, we’re staying with them more out of convenience than financial necessity.

My husband is hoping to find a teaching job. Because the availability of teaching jobs depends so much on geography, we don’t want to lock ourselves into a certain area with a lease. We want to be open to move where ever the jobs are. Staying with family while we look makes the most sense.

Financially, though? We’re in a better place than we’ve ever been. Because we’ve been saving for the past three years, we have enough cash savings to carry us through a full year without any income. We won’t be living without income, though. We plan to earn money through part-time jobs or substitute teaching while my husband searches for a full-time teaching job. I also make a little bit of money from freelance writing and advertising on this site. That income will stretch our savings even further.

Obviously, the sooner we start earning income again, the better. I don’t want to completely wipe out our savings accounts while we search for jobs. I’m just not too stressed about the fact that neither of us has anything lined up yet. The sooner we find jobs, the more money we’ll be able to keep in our emergency fund and move to our house fund. For now, though, our savings has bought us peace of mind and the freedom to move closer to family despite the fact that the job market is sluggish, because we’re not dependent on our paychecks every week to live.

I doubt I’ll ever view our savings the same way again. Sometimes when I looked at that balance, I saw all of the things it could buy: a new car, a new computer, a million other things I wanted but didn’t need. It was tempting to spend at least some of it.

Now I see that the best thing a savings account can buy is freedom and peace of mind. We’re free to move closer to our families, free to be a little picky as we job search, and free to enjoy our vacation to Europe right before we settle into our new home. All of that is worth so much more to me than any material thing our savings account could buy.

Photo by alancleaver

Our emergency fund is complete!

emergency fundTake a look at the progress bars in my sidebar! We’ve completed our emergency fund in just about 15 months and it feels FANTASTIC! Over the past year, we’ve saved about 30% of our income. Not too bad, huh?

We weren’t projected to complete it until next month, but I went ahead and moved some of our Europe fund into our Emergency fund to finish it up. Now we can focus on funding one savings account.

Over the weekend, we stashed our emergency fund in an ING 12-month CD. The interest rate on our ING Direct savings account has been steadily dropping since we opened the account. We started with a 3% interest rate, and about 15 months later it’s down to 1.3% and still dropping. With the CD, we lock in a 2.1% interest rate for 12 months.

I know what you’re going to say. Isn’t the Emergency fund supposed to be liquid savings? Doesn’t a CD smack you with penalties for early withdrawal? Well, here’s the thing: The penalty for early withdrawal is 3 months of interest regardless of when we withdraw. So the penalty is the same if we withdraw tomorrow or 11 months from now. If we leave the money alone for 12 months, we’ll earn at least an additional $80 in interest. Worst case scenario, we have a catastrophe and we have to withdraw early. If that happens, we’ll lose a little of that extra interest.

Based on my calculations, 3 months of interest would equal about $20. So even if we withdraw early, we’ll still make about $60 more with the CD than our regular savings account (and that’s if our savings interest rate doesn’t continue to decrease, which is unlikely).

If we run into a little hiccup that requires us to move some money out of savings, we could always borrow from the Europe fund, which is still in a regular savings account, without any penalties.

The way I see it, if we have to withdraw from our CD a little early to cover our car insurance deductible, for instance, then so be it. We’ve really got nothing to lose. We’ll give up a little of that extra interest. So what? The money is still accessible in the event of an emergency, and we’re not technically losing money that we invested. Just interest, which would be fine with me if it was a true emergency.

Another reason we made the decision to open the CD is to protect our savings. Now that we’re banking primarily with ING, it’s a little too easy to move savings into our checking account. I wanted an added layer of deterrent for us to leave it alone now. There’s no way I’m giving up 3 months of interest just because I want to buy something.

This is our second milestone (the first was paying off all of our credit card debt), and it FEELS GREAT. When we first started our emergency fund, I felt so overwhelmed. Our budget was so tight, how could we manage to save such a large amount of money? But I have to tell you, it is so worth the scrimping. Since I opened our emergency fund, I’ve turned into a savings junkie. I love the feeling of looking at our account, and feeling secure in the knowledge that we can handle anything that life throws our way. It’s so empowering.

If you haven’t opened an emergency fund yet, why don’t to grab one of my referral links and get started? :)

Photo by endlessstudio

Necessity is the mother of frugality

money jarTony will finish graduate school in May 2010, but after that he’ll have a semester of student teaching before he’s certified to teach. Right now he receives a stipend for teaching undergraduate classes, which he won’t receive while student teaching. Unfortunately, this means we’ll have to live on my income alone for about 7 months. The student teaching program is full time, and we’re hoping he’ll be able to work nights and weekends, but I don’t want to count on that considering the trouble he’s had searching for part time jobs in the past.

We’re also preparing ourselves for after the move. I’ve done a little research, and in the area where we’re moving, it looks like we can expect Tony to start somewhere between $32,000 and $35,000 as a high school teacher (according to what I read, he’ll be paid slightly more than a normal first year teacher because of his master’s degree and experience). Of course, this number is just an estimate. If you have any information about what starting teachers in the Indianapolis metro area make, by all means please pass it along!

I will continue to generate freelance income, but I won’t be working full time since we’re planning to start a family shortly after Tony finds a teaching job. Freelancing is feast or famine, so we don’t want to factor my income into our normal budget. That means we need to start planning now for a reduced income with a baby.

On top of all this, our savings goal has increased since we’d like to buy a house sooner rather than later.

To help us reach these goals, we’ve decided to reduce our monthly spending by about 5% and increase our total monthly savings amount by 25%. Put simply, that means we’re cutting about $150 from our monthly spending and adding it to our monthly savings.

I spent some time pouring over the budget. I determined that if we continue living on a cash budget, cut our weekly spending by $25 a week and make some minor adjustments in other areas, this is totally doable. If we hadn’t spent the summer on such a tight budget, I never would have thought this was possible. I thought we were saving as much as we possibly could, but after a summer of tight expenses, instead of feeling like we need more, I only see where we can cut.

In real terms, this means we’re cutting our grocery budget from $50-$60 a week to $40-$50. Our “shopping” budget, which covers household expenses like cleaning products and other miscellaneous items, is being cut from $20 per week to $15.

As we move into fall, we’ll increase our additional savings by another $50 when our electric bill drops from $100+ during the summer to $40-$60 a month during the cool winter months.

Over the next 8 months, this will increase our total savings by about $1500. More importantly, it will better prepare us for next summer and fall when we lose 1/3 of our total income. It will also make it easier for us to transition into a single income home in spring 2011 when I’m no longer working full time.

My point is this: if you’re looking ahead to a lower income, now is the time to make cuts. It’s always easier to transition slowly than it is to jump into the cold water. Don’t wait until you lose your income. Learn to live on less now so you can bank the extra money for the future.

Photo by jayd

Should we pay off all debt before buying a home?


We’ve been doing some big planning again for the future. That’s always dangerous. :) But lately, we’ve been talking about a timeline for becoming homeowners.

The closer Tony gets to finishing school (about 17 months now), the more confident we feel that we want to live near family. We’re pretty set on starting our own family shortly after Tony finds a teaching job, and we don’t want to raise our kids more than a couple hours away from their grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Now that we’re pretty sure we know where we want to settle down, we’ve been bitten by the homeowner bug. We want a backyard where the dog can run, and we want more space of our own for our family. Our original plan was to rent a house when we move. Then I started looking at the cost of rent for even small houses.

I don’t know how much the market will change in the next couple years, but as of right now with our stellar credit history and low housing costs in the Midwest, a small, older home in Indiana would likely yield a lower mortgage payment than we’d pay to rent a comparable home, especially if we can save a chunk of change for a down payment. It just doesn’t make sense to me for us to pay more in rent than we would if we owned a home, especially since we don’t want to move again for a long time. We’ve spent the last 6 years of our lives moving way too frequently. We’re ready to just settle down and stay put.

The only problem is that we won’t be anywhere near paying off our student loan debt. In the past I had lofty dreams about paying down our student loans before even thinking about buying a home. But now I’m just not so sure.

Currently, our only remaining debt is $60,000 in student loans. It’s overwhelming, and when I think about trying to pay that down, save for a house, and survive all on one teacher’s salary, it feels impossible.

The plan was to move into an apartment, pay down that debt, and then start saving for a down payment for a home after that. I’m just concerned that on that plan we’ll be 35 before we can start saving for a home.

So we’ve been talking about an alternative plan: continuing to save as much money as we can, renting a tiny apartment for a year or so after we move to save even more money for a down payment, and then buying a home. Then we’ll work toward paying off student loan debt from there.

Even the tiniest apartment will be doable for just a year while we’re working toward the goal of home ownership. The longest amount of time we’d have to live there with a baby would be 3 months (and that’s under the unlikely circumstance that I got pregnant immediately after we start trying). However, I wouldn’t want to be cramped like that for the long term while we paid off student loan debt and saved for a house for 5+ years.

Right now we’re paying a little more than the minimum amount on the student loan debt, and that’s what we’d continue to pay while saving for a house. Now that we’re out of credit card debt, I feel okay about paying off the student loan debt slowly while we’re getting started. It’s going to take us so much time to pay off, I just don’t want to wait years to start working toward other goals.

What do you think?

A little symbol to remind us of our goals

Photo by benklemm

Just last week I wrote about the importance of dreaming big. Sometimes the day-to-day reality of living frugally can be tough. Having big goals to remind you why you decided to scrimp and save can make it easier. By keeping my eye on the prize, I’m reminded of why the daily sacrifices are so worth it.

It’s been almost a month since we cut back to a limited cash budget for the summer. Even though we’ve been living frugally for almost two years, this is more extreme than anything we’ve ever done. I’ve been reminding myself of our big goals more frequently lately to stay on track as it’s starting to get a little tougher.

One of our biggest goals is an extended trip to Europe after my husband finishes grad school in a year and a half. We’re trying to save enough cash for two frugal months in Europe in addition to money for moving and an emergency fund. This is a huge goal, which is part of the reason we’re cutting back even more than before.

Last week, I received a tangible reminder to keep with me. My lovely friend Kacie at Sense to Save sent me about 15 US dollars worth of euros that her husband collected in an overseas trip. Her bank wouldn’t let her convert the coins, so she sent them over to me in the hopes that we’ll be able to use them on our trip. (Thanks, Kacie!)

These little coins have actually been incredibly helpful. It seems silly, but having something tangible to keep the trip on our minds is exciting! It motivates me to push that much harder toward our goal. I look at those little coins, and I’m so excited about the possibility of this trip that the daily extras don’t seem so important anymore. They serve as a symbol for why we’re working so hard.

If you have a big goal you’re working toward, why not see if a tangible reminder can help keep you on track? If you’re saving for a new car, maybe you could pick up an air freshener and save it until you can hang it from your new rear view mirror. If you’re saving for a new house, maybe pick up a piece of art at a yard sale or a welcome mat for when you move in.

Having a tangible symbol of your goals not only feels like a step toward accomplishing them, but it also serves as a reminder of why you’re working so hard.

Have you ever tried this? Leave a comment if you have an idea!