Category Archives: Budget & Money

Bargain Shopping

A few weeks ago, Kathy and I restarted our practice of budgeting. It has never been something that we do well (or consistently), although the Lord certainly helped us to stick with it long enough to get out of debt some years ago.

We use the GoodBudget app on our phones, which is a higher-tech version of the envelope system. So far it has been rather constraining, but not impossible (which is, in my opinion, a hallmark of a reasonable budget).

Kathy is the one who mostly takes care of the actual recording, which is only fair, since she does most of the actual spending, as well. Even though I have the app on my phone as well, I pretend a certain helplessness so that she will take administrative responsibility. She does take a child-like glee in hoarding virtual money in some of the envelopes, so I guess it pays off for her.

Yesterday I heard that our neighborhood grocery store was putting a lot of items on sale — apparently they are trying to get rid of brands that they have discontinued. So on my way home from a doctor’s appointment, I swung by the store.

Sure enough, they had a boatload of things marked down to $0.50 each. I spent just under $40, mostly on asian foods and sauces. When I got home, I decided to display my cache on the kitchen table, so that Kathy and the kids could enjoy my triumph.

Not bad for $39.59, if I do say so myself.

Not bad for $39.59, if I do say so myself.

The grocery store helpfully displays the full sale price on the receipt and totals up your savings. I was pleased to note that I saved 82% off the full price (on average). If only we could shop like that all the time!

Tonight was date night, so of course, Kathy and I went back to the store and spent another $24 on more bargains. This time, we only saved 77%, but somehow we were able to make our peace with that.

As we were getting ready for bed, Kathy glanced at the table, darkly.

“You’ll put that away tomorrow, then?”

I guess my newfound status as a grocery hero only buys me so much credit. I can see I’ll be spending some time making room on the garage shelves, tomorrow.

Project 365, Day 261
Tim

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Handyman Victorious

I’ve been called many things in my life. Some of them have been positive. Some, not so much. But one thing people never call me: a Handyman.

There is a good reason for this. I have a certain anti-genius when it comes to fixing things or building things (except for decks). When I get involved in a home project, you can expect that you will be paying for materials twice and STILL end up hiring someone to do it properly.

But there is one force in my character that is even stronger than my handyman ineptitude: I am very reluctant to pay money for something I could (even potentially) do myself. So this morning, I decided to remove our dishwasher, which broke down a few days ago. As it turns out, dishwashers cannot simply be wrenched out from under the counter, but are attached to the rest of the house in three fiendish ways: a water intake tube, a water drain, and electrical wires. Removing each took a lot of patience and effort in cramped (and damp) places.

Not a face that inspires confidence ...

Not a face that inspires confidence …

Somehow, I persevered, and removed the dishwasher without (a) damaging the house, or (b) electrocuting myself, even though the copper water tube was VERY hard to detach, and the electrical plug had to be un-wired (it wasn’t a simple matter of unplugging it).

It was a pretty good day. We bought the new dishwasher (a swanky Bosch model), but (of course) it was in the warehouse, and we’ll have to wait a week or so for delivery. I can hardly wait for it to arrive, so I can amaze you all with my installation prowess. Stay tuned.

Project 365, Day 115
Tim

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Goals, a 2014 Reprise

One thing for which I am particularly thankful is a church that encourages goal setting (and accountability). Just this morning as I was leaving Sunday School, my wife sat down with three or four of the women from our class to begin encouraging each other on their pursuit of this year’s goals. Since I hadn’t written mine yet, I pretended to have urgent business elsewhere. Besides, it was only for girls.

Our Pastor is particularly disciplined and aggressive in setting goals for himself, and many of the church leaders set a very good example in this regard. Each year I make a list of goals, seeking to ‘run in such a way as to get the prize’ (1 Corinthians 9:24). And each year I fail in many ways; yet somehow this is not discouraging to me. Perhaps this is because I compare it to the failure I would have if I set no goals at all.

My nephew Samuel and I probably should set goals for winning a game of Eclipse.

My nephew Samuel and I probably should set goals for winning a game of Eclipse.

Last week at AWANA, I offered the kids a revised version of last year’s Goals Worksheet and encouraged them to bring a completed copy to AWANA next week.

“If you bring it back completed, I will give you a wooden nickel,” I promised.

Forgotten is the sage advice you may have heard from your grandfather, “Don’t take any wooden nickels!” Kids today gladly accept them, possibly because of their worth in comparison to our debt-devalued currency, or (more likely) because I redeem them for a free can of pop (most of ‘em prefer root beer).

Don't take any wooden nickels ... unless they are like this one!

Don’t take any wooden nickels … unless they are like this one!

Then, as often happens, my mouth ran away without my brain in attendance. “And if I don’t have a copy of MY goals completed and ready to show you by next week,” I shouted, “I’ll give you ALL a wooden nickel!”

So much for my wily plan to drag out my goal-setting until people stop asking me about my goals. These AWANA kids are ruthless and relentless. They will stop at nothing to squeeze a wooden nickel out of me. I guess I’d better trot out a list of goals for the year, before Wednesday arrives and I am bankrupted.

A quick word about goals. I think they should cover as many areas of your life as you can — so I usually divide mine up into Spiritual, Marriage, Parenting, Personal and Administrative goals. Then I add an extra category for Fun goals, and (if I feel brave) one more category for BHAGs (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals).

Maybe not as big and hairy as my beard ...

Maybe not as big and hairy as my beard …

So here are my goals. I’m not trying to brag, as those of you who know how I actually perform on my goals can probably attest. I’m just trying to respond in thankfulness to my God whose mercies are new every morning (and every year) and who gives me the power to attempt great things for Him.

  • Spiritual Growth & Maintenance
    • Pray through the church prayer letter, weekly
    • Pray for my AWANA leaders by name, weekly
    • Pray for each of my family members, daily
    • Read my Bible plan for 280 days (finish current year’s plan + 180 days on a new plan)
    • Teach a Resolution class for men
    • Attend the Perspectives missions class in the Fall with Kathy
    • Recite & track my commitments every day (I have a personal statement of faith and intent)
    • Write an encouraging note, card or e-mail to someone, each week
    • Write a blog post about something I am thankful for, each week
    • Listen to one ‘extra’ sermon a week
  • Marriage
    • Pray with Kathy 2x/week
    • Go out on a date with Kathy at least 1x/month
    • Have a ‘home date’ with Kathy 3x/month
  • Parenting
    • Celebrate Special Days™ in some form (at least one child per week)
    • Read some kind of Bible devotional to my kids 3x/week
    • Discuss at least one of my Convictions™ with my kids each week
  • Personal
    • Write two blog posts each week (in addition to thankful blog)
    • Exercise 4x/week, 25 minutes minimum
    • Reduce weight to 203 lbs
  • Administrative
    • Review my goals weekly
    • Report on goals via e-mail to my ‘boys’ weekly
    • Continue using my TaskList™ application at work to be accountable for my performance
  • Fun & Family
    • Play at least 1 board game/week with my family
    • Go camping as a family at least once
    • Vacation in Turks and Caicos with my family
    • Complete a working game prototype with Joshua (Ziba)
    • Finish my skit collection website
  • Big Hairy Audacious Goals
    • Increase tithe/offering to 25% of my gross income

Some of you may wonder why these goals bear a striking resemblance to some of my previous year’s goals. This is no coincidence — these are the things that I (a) think are important, and (b) have difficulty performing. It should be no surprise, that some of them would crop up on my list of goals, year after year.

Joshua was certainly surprised when Kathy and I resumed writing our blog ...

Joshua was certainly surprised when Kathy and I resumed writing our blog …

One of my best college friends recently commented on an earlier blog post, questioning whether personality type is a major factor in a person’s willingness and decision to set goals or not. She suggested that people who tended toward ‘Perceiving’ on the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator (vs. ‘Judging’) might find it more difficult and less rewarding to set goals than those on the other end of the spectrum. Unfortunately, my most recent test results on that measure were exactly divided between ‘Perception’ and ‘Judgment’, so that doesn’t really give me an ‘out’. In any case, I found this article interesting and informative on that question, particularly this paragraph:

Sometimes people feel they have both. That is true. The J or P preference only tells which preference the person extraverts. One person may feel very orderly/structured (J) on the inside, yet their outer life looks spontaneous and adaptable (P). Another person may feel very curious and open-ended (P) in their inner world, yet their outer life looks more structured or decided (J).

I am thankful that 2014 gives me a fresh start on my desire to be disciplined and to live my life in a way that is pleasing to God. All my pathetic 2013 failures are hereby washed away (if only to make room for my 2014 pathetic failures) and I am excited to see what God will empower me to do this year.

Tim

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A Starving College Student

When I was a Freshman in college, I was required to buy the 19-meal plan (per week). As I recall, it was between $700 and $900 per semester, and seemed rather pricey at the time. I lived in a dormitory just a hundred yards down the hill from ‘The Caf’, as we called it. I wasn’t there for many breakfasts, but it was nice to have an all-you-can-eat option at lunch and supper time.

I remember we ate (in addition to Caf food) a lot of cardboardy dollar pizzas, drank Grape Nehi sodas out of the vending machine for 35 cents apiece, and would drive to Hardee’s just before midnight. Hardee’s served milkshakes until 12 am, but they wouldn’t serve our favorite Steak & Egg Biscuits until after midnight, no matter how we cajoled them. So we’d drive two miles to the nearest Hardees at 11:50, order our milkshakes, and then stand around the lobby sipping our milkshakes until 12:01, when we’d order our biscuits.

Grape Nehi -- the nectar of my freshman year

In later years, I cooked for myself. My sophomore year, I learned to live on mashed potatoes, generic cornflakes, biscuits and macaroni & cheese. It was at that time that I firmly determined in my heart to choose a lifestyle in which I could earn enough money for decent food, or at least an occasional meat dish.

It was also at that time that I developed the ‘Little Debby Standard’, similar to the Gold or Silver standards on which currencies were at one time based. (These days, I think our currency is backed by the ‘Plastic Standard’, but that is another topic.) Anyway, the Little Debby Standard is the measure by which all grocery purchases are compared and judged, even now, some thirty years later. When purchasing a box of cereal for $3.00, I ask myself this question: “Is this box of cereal worth two boxes of Little Debby Nutty Bars?” Most of the time, the answer is a resounding ‘No!’.

My senior year, I shared a house with three or four others, and cooked a fair bit in the kitchen.

When I was a student, Mac & Cheese could still be found at the rate of four boxes for a dollar, and Campbell soups were never more than 50 cents (33 cents on sale). Ramen Noodles (by the case, of course) were less than ten cents apiece, and Little Debby snack cakes were 99 cents a box (or in rare cases, $.79 on sale). I miss those days, but am comforted by the fact that food prices have been fairly inflation-resistant, at least when compared to gasoline.

Basic sustenance for a college student

As Joshua prepares his heart and mind to attend college in the Fall, we are starting to think of what he will need to succeed. Assuming a 16-week semester, and meal plan options that offer ten or fifteen meals a week respectively, Joshua will probably need to learn to buy groceries and (at some level) prepare them for himself. We have hopes of teaching him to bake Kathy’s family’s famous Mesa Manna before he heads off to school. We’re mulling over the possibility of teaching him to make a basic tomato-based stew in a crock pot, should he venture so far into the field of culinary arts. But at the very least, he needs to know how to shop for the basic necessities of life without bankrupting himself. Hence the Little Debby Standard.

Nothing makes you hungry quite like Calculus.

Today, I took Joshua to shop with me at WinCo, a defiantly non-union grocery store in our area with decent prices. We spent the better part of 90 minutes shopping for food that a college student might need as a supplementary to a meal plan. It was fun for me to relive some of those hours of bewilderment that I spent as a single man in the aisles of the grocery store.

In retrospect, I realize how clever my Mom was. She used to take me with her to the Commissary, under the pretense of not wanting to drive. Now I realize that she was stealthily and kindly teaching me the value of my dollar when food shopping. I’m not sure this excursion was much fun for Joshua, though. He really hates shopping, and was a little panicky and wild-eyed toward the end. But I hope I managed to teach these basic principles:

  • Start by buying and eating the cheapest food item in each category, and work up from there. If you can stand the generic brand, great, you’ve saved yourself all that needless marketing and packaging cost. If not, then you’ll appreciate the name-brand version all the more, or you can decide (according to the Little Debby Standard) to go without altogether.
  • Avoid purchasing meats, fruits or vegetables. That is why you buy at least a partial meal plan — to avoid the expense, hassle and spoilage of preparing and presenting meats and vegetables. Let them worry about your roasts and salads and (if possible) grab fruit on the way out of the cafeteria for late-night snacks.
  • Wherever possible, buy food that doesn’t require refrigeration or freezing. If (as we expect) Joshua will be sharing a common living area, kitchen and refrigerator with three other young men, room in the freezer and fridge may be at a premium, at least on occasion. Pragmatically, food that can be stored in your room is less likely to be filched by others than that left invitingly in a common fridge.
  • Although food packaged in larger quantities may seem cheaper, if it spoils or is wasted, it isn’t cheaper, after all. When cooking and eating as a single man, economies of scale are hard to come by, unless you enjoy feeding your entire dormitory. (Amusingly, every time I tried to demonstrate this principle, the smaller packages were the same price or cheaper, on a unit basis. Sometimes the grocery stores just don’t cooperate.)

It turns out that a key food item for Joshua is peanut butter, which slightly surprised me.

In the end, we spent about $100 for what looked to be about two weeks’ worth of supplementary groceries, assuming a 15-meals-a-week meal plan. I had Joshua watch the prices, and keep the receipt — then we talked through it all with Kathy when we got home. As one much more nutrition-oriented, she had some important insights, but seemed to generally approve our excursion, if not necessarily our choices.

It will be interesting to see how Joshua copes with living on his own. Maybe he can persuade his cousin, Rebecca to cook for him … ?

What about you? What are your memories of college food? What advice would you offer to Joshua, as he heads off to school?
Tim

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Come, Rejoice with Us!

Last April, Kathy and I performed a comprehensive review of our finances. We discovered that we had allowed our consumer debt to slowly increase, month after month, to the point that we owed nearly $20,000 on various credit cards. Although we own both of our aging vehicles ‘free and clear’, we had made a practice of living above our means on a monthly basis. In just a few years of self-indulgence, we grew our indebtedness into a substantial millstone, hanging around our necks.

our mountain

Our debt seemed mountain high.

“We’ve got to do something,” Kathy implored me.

My wife is the more fiscally-conservative in our marriage. Debt bothers her more than it does me, and (although she can spend some serious money at a Target sale quicker than you can say “50% off”) she inherited many good financial habits from her thrifty parents.

Although I also am blessed with parents who are frugal, money has sometimes come easily to me, and so I can be a little cavalier about it. “Easy come, easy go,” I sometimes think. Blessed with the gift of generosity, I don’t always draw a clear distinction between giving to others and giving to myself.

Over the past ten months, we have seen the hand of the Lord time and time again in the area of finances. In spite of unexpected expenses and repairs, we’ve made steady progress on reducing our indebtedness. Each time that we have faced a hurdle in expenses, God has provided a way to overcome that difficulty without going further into debt.

Finally, the day arrived: our tax refund was deposited into our account, and we were able to pay off the last of the remaining debt.

No more debt!
Our debt is finally gone, after eleven months of God’s goodness!

As soon as I woke up, I fired up my computer to check to see if the promised deposit was there. “Did the money arrive?” Kathy asked, before I had finished logging in.

“I hope so … hold on … YES!” I checked again, just to be sure.

We gathered the kids and I let Kathy push the ‘Continue’ button on the funds transfer. “As of this moment, we don’t owe anyone anything except for mortgage debt,” I announced. Technically, I was wrong, since we still have another kind of debt:


Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. — Romans 13:8

Kathy and the kids trundled off to co-op, but I found my mind circling back to this startling truth: we don’t have any more debt hanging over us! It felt strange, as it does when you’re in college and your last paper is turned in and your last final is complete, and Summer Break has begun.

My mind turned to consider the parable of the lost coin. In Luke 15, Jesus tells a story about a woman who loses a coin, and then finds it again:


Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

We thought about having a party, and inviting all the people we know, to rejoice with us. Not to boast, but simply to celebrate. It wouldn’t be a fancy party (since we’re staying on a budget), but it might be an opportunity to encourage others. “If Tim and Kathy could do it,” people might say to themselves, “then surely anyone can get out of debt.”

a girlie tea party

Not our actual party. A Valentine’s Day tea party.

So we’re having a party.

‘Open House’ format, from 4 pm to 8 pm on Saturday, March 7th. Games, fellowship, food and fun.

If you read this blog and know where we live, consider yourself invited. Come, rejoice with us!

david is 8 years old!

We won’t make you wear the party hat unless it’s your birthday.

Please bring something tasty to share, and also write down (on a 4 x 6 card or something) an idea you have used to help save money (or avoid spending it altogether). We’ll compile the ideas, print ‘em out and make them available to the contributors, sort of like compiling a stewardship cookbook.

A time to celebrate!

Tim

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