Category Archives: Budget & Money

A Brief Budget Update

Last night we went to the YMCA to pick up our Swim Team kids. We arrived early so that we could sneak in a workout (it’s been almost two weeks since I was able to find the time). After about 20 minutes, I was ready to quit.

“What time is it?”, I gasped to Kathy on the next machine to my left.

“Seven twenty-four,” she replied. “I’ll bet you hoped it was seven forty-four.” The kids are done with Swim Team practice around 7:45 on Fridays.

I was disappointed at how quickly I had fallen out of ‘shape’, in terms of exercise stamina. There are, unfortunately, some parallels in the area of financial stewardship.

We’ve had a couple of difficult months, in terms of record-keeping. Neither of us seems to have much passion for writing down every little expenditure, and they seem to get away from us in only a few days. When we got home from the YMCA, Kathy whipped out the laptop and we attempted to wrestle the month of January into submission.

Budget Battling
Some months, you have to use excessive force.

First she went through all the receipts, and then I dug up a few more I’d been hoarding. Then we did reconstructive surgery on the month, based upon records from various financial institution. I dusted off my accusatory drone: “On the 17th, someone went to Albertsons and spent $54.23.”

When the dust settled, we had a number of budget category overages, including:

  • a trip to Oregon for the Prayer Conference
  • very high utility bills (water and natural gas)
  • some unexpected water line repair work
  • an expensive heating duct diagnostic visit
  • new running shoes for both Tim and Kathy

Happily, this was a three-paycheck month, plus I received a small bonus from my company, and I was finally paid for some side work that I did, so there was a lot of ‘slush money’ available. We were able to close the month out and make significant progress toward paying down our debt, so that only 15% remains of what we owed on April 1st of last year.

Almost done!
We’re down to 15%, after 10 months on the budget.

We were cheered to see the progress, and to feel that we can see the end of the tunnel, with regard to becoming debt free (except for house debt). We have every expectation of paying it all off by the time we get our tax refund (which, in a spurt of financial ambition, I filed last night).

God has been very good to us over the past 10 months, allowing us every advantage in paying off our foolish debt, and graciously encouraging us at every turn. We are so thankful to Him for His provision for our family, and for the strength and determination He has given us in exercising our flabby stewardship muscles.


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A Decorating Photographer I Am Not

It turns out there’s more to taking artistic pictures of living rooms and hallways than just snapping the camera.

dining room

This casual corner is the dining room. I must admit I LOVE the pink wall. A splash of COLOR.

First you have to clear away the clutter, anything that indicates you actually live in your house.

Thankfully I have helpers for that kind of work.

get to work, Sarah

Notice Sarah working hard to clean up the hallway.

she's a keeper

look at our clean hallway

Then there is the required posing and search for proper lighting.

standing is better

“Hey, Sarah, casually stand in front of the door stop and pose again, will ya.”

What kind of angles work best in long rectangular rooms? How do you take natural looking pictures of a room with lots of windows without the light from those windows throwing your, um, lighting off?

what do we do, David

All in all, I have a new appreciation for the gorgeous pictures you find in magazines on a regular basis. I never did get a satisfactory photo of the living room. Of course, I’m still on the look out for some things to put on the walls. The room isn’t quite finished.

My decorating money is about gone, however, so I’ll be scrimping and saving for the last few things.

50 degrees and park weather

When all else fails, throw in some pictures of cute kids playing at the park.

I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the new blinds and curtains in the living/dining room. We’ve lived here four years, that seems long enough to wait before deciding on drapery. I see why we waited, decorating is expensive!!

Thank you for all your hard work, Dad, I couldn’t have done it without you!


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A Quick Budget Update

As our budgeting efforts rage on, we’ve become less excited about our monthly progress — I guess we’re easily bored, or something. But there’s nothing particularly boring about reducing our debt, so I provide this brief update.

Thanks to God’s continuing provision for us, we’ve been able to reduce our debt to 35% of its April 1, 2008 level.

November progress
Debt reduction, as of 1 November 2008, after 7 months budgeting.

Mostly, we’ve continued earlier efforts to record and limit expenditures. I must, however, admit that some use of credit has crept back in. We allowed ourselves to continue to use our Amazon Visa card for purchases on Amazon, and we have been using our Costco credit line to fund purchases at that store. Originally, I was in the habit of firing off a payment from our checking account each time we used either of those cards, but lately I have become lazy about that.

About a week ago I received a bill in the mail from the Costco credit card people for more than $600 — I had no idea I had let that account grow so large, so quickly! If it weren’t for a quarterly bonus from my employer, I’d be in the sorry situation of reporting an increase in debt.

Obviously, we need to either (a) be exceedingly diligent in paying those bills immediately, on the same day of purchase, or (b) to really cut out the credit card usage entirely, as proper Ramsey groupies should.

Savings = the excess of income over consumption expenditures —often used in plural

One happy thing happened recently: we’ve started to use the money we actually saved for Christmas to snap up bargains and gifts of opportunity. We’ve been putting money aside ever since we started our budget, so we wouldn’t be surprised when Christmas came. (What? It’s in December, again?) It has been such fun to buy presents that we can afford!


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Six Months Under the Spreadsheet

Well, it’s several days into October now, and we’ve not posted our September budget blog. Sometimes it seemed that the end of the month would never come. It started so well; vacationing with Kathy’s folks in Texas, many of our grocery and household expenses were covered for the first 9 days of the month. You’d think that would give us enough of a buffer to coast easily to the 30th.

let's smile together now

If only our money would last as long as this balloon.

Nope. We came to the 30th with $1.15 in Groceries, and a negative in Households. Both Kathy and I were low on our Unaccountable’ funds. Everything seems to cost so much, and we find it very hard to continue to say ‘no’ to the things we want.

Of course, in the current economic climate, we’re very glad that we have reduced our debt as far as we have. I would be rather frightened if we were still as deeply in debt as we were back in April.

I’m not very good at managing our finances, truth be told. Over the years, responsibility for paying the bills has shuttled back and forth between Kathy and I – I’ve been ‘fired’ at least twice. Kathy is more reliable at recording financial transactions, and she seems to derive some satisfaction from it.

school time

Does coloring count as school?

On the other hand, I seem to do better than she does at shrugging off the burden of debt, and managing the larger financial transactions. Kathy seems to be more easily oppressed and discouraged by debt than I am, so I have generally managed ‘strategic’ financial details while she sticks to ‘tactical’ matters. We rarely pay more than 2% or 3% interest (including transfer fees) on the debt we carry, because I learned to play the shell game with the credit card companies, moving money around from card to card as the ‘promotional offers’ allow.

Sometimes I become hostile, viewing each bill as a personal attack, and have occasionally been quoted, referring to creditors: “they’re lucky if they ever get their money!”.

give me money or i'm heading to the closet

Joshua knows to hide when bill hostility arises.

My bark is worse than my bite; I really don’t intend to default on my bills. Still, it is not unusual for me to wait until the last possible moment before paying a bill that is due, riding the grace period to its limit. Sometimes this ‘brinksmanship’ bites me in the form of late fees or other penalties.

This month we were overdrawn in one of our checking accounts, because I wasn’t aware of a couple of checks that Kathy had written. Happily, my bank provides ‘overdraft protection’ and ‘loaned’ me $300 from a credit card that has somehow been associated with my bank account. It is a mixed blessing: the checks didn’t bounce, but they charged me $10 for the privilege of the ‘loan’, and I’m sure they’ll gleefully collect usurious interest on the $300, even if I repay it quickly.

I feel vaguely sullied by the use of this ‘protection’ on my behalf – I didn’t really want to use credit like that. It is my own fault – wanting to make more progress against our debt, I paid out a little more of our ‘cushion’ than I could afford to. We keep our emergency funds (and our savings for Christmas and a new roof) in another bank – perhaps I should link the two so I’m not charged overdraft ‘protection’ fees. But we like keeping the money separate – it helps us to pretend that we won’t dip into it for day-to-day expenses.

we love to color!

David and Sarah are good companions.

It was a good month for debt repayment, though – we’re down to less than 40% of our debt, thanks to my overly-enthusiastic payments. We’ve now reached the six month mark, which was how long Kathy and I agreed, originally, to submit to this discipline of budgeting. As much as I yearn for the days of unregulated spending, I think the nation’s financial markets are painting a vivid picture of the long-term payoff for that kind of behavior. We’ve pledged to continue budgeting at least long enough to get out of debt, which we hope will happen sometime between now and the end of March, 2009.

Praise God our trust is in Him!



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Not a Day Trader

Over the years, I’ve worked at quite a few different jobs. I’ve been a grocery bagger, a lawn worker, a clerk/typist and a soldier. I’ve sold fish wholesale and worked the front desk at several hotels. I’ve spent time as children’s program director at a Christian camp and served behind the deli counter at a supermarket chain. I’ve been employed as a chauffeur and a bell-boy and purchasing agent. I was very possibly the lowest-paid political appointee in all of Washington, D.C., for one eight-month stint. More than 16 years of my life, I’ve been a programmer of one sort or another.

Some of these jobs didn’t really appeal to me as a career. For example, working behind the deli counter was interesting only for the first five or six weeks — there are only so many different kinds of meats and cheeses (and I tried ‘em all!). I wasn’t fast enough to make bagging groceries very remunerative. Selling fish, as it turns out, made me very popular with cats, but limited my social opportunities. And I didn’t like the hours of being a soldier.

Trust in my pistol?
At least I never had to ride a horse, for any of my jobs.

Sometimes I look back at my life and I wonder, “what would it have been like if I had become a … dentist?” Well, OK, I don’t spend much time wondering about that, but there were certainly other possibilities. With a little more work, I might have retained my ROTC scholarship and become an Army officer, like my brother and my Dad. Or I might have followed the call of missions and taken that job as a network administrator for a missions agency in the Ivory Coast. I’m not griping, but why have I chosen to spend all this time as a programmer? Is it enough that I’m pretty good at it?

Joshua joins the Sharpshooters
Joshua nearly was drafted into the Sharpshooters, on the spot.

One thing I’m glad I didn’t choose to be: a day-trader. I’ve always had a certain anti-genius when it comes to stock market investing. As the years have passed, I’ve seen my miniscule 401(k) investments grow into, er, slightly less miniscule 401(k) investments. When people talk about an average 8% return, I laugh uproariously — I’m lucky to see 3%. Just when a fund is about to show a profit, I am gripped with an uncontrollable urge to sell, and to buy a fund that is about to tank.

Of course, the last three weeks have not been kind to those with any kind of wealth tied up in our financial system. As in the days of the dot-com bubble burst, private investors are being sheared (perhaps even fleeced) at an alarming rate. I think my annualized rate of return is somewhere around -16%.

I read on the news that billionaire T. Boone Pickens has lost around $300 million so far this year, amounting to about 10% of his net worth, and somehow, that made me feel better. When wealthy men with a lifetime of investment experience and significant holdings in the energy sector can’t show a profit, I guess I don’t need to feel so bad about my own dire investment strategies.

But it raises an important question: where does my security come from? Do I trust in my stored up wealth? Do I take comfort in the appreciation of my home or other real estate? Do I place my confidence in my ability to work and generate income?

Floating a needle
… or do I trust in the viscosity of water?

For a follower of Christ, the answer is simple (even if it sounds a little trite): my trust is in the Lord. But let’s look at that a little more closely. Can I trust God to ensure that I’ll continually improve my quality of life, enjoying my retirement in comfort and ease? I don’t think so. While there are some general remarks in the scriptures about righteousness and diligence and their tendency to produce lasting wealth, the only real guarantees I can think of at the moment, speak more to persecution than they do to retirement. It may be the American Dream to acquire wealth and enjoy a better standard of living than one’s parents, but I think that Christians need to take a hard look at that dream before incorporating it into their spiritual life. I suspect that the American Dream is an idol that prevents many from giving their full devotion to God.

If God chooses to bless me with wealth that I can use to bless others and pass on to my children, so much the better. But placing my hope in a future of comfort and ease here on earth seems foolhardy. God promises me an eternal rest; but while still on this planet, all bets are off.

Kathy works on her Bible Study
Kathy in the sun with her Bible and her faithful Starbucks mug — a quintessential Kathy moment.

Since I first wrote this blog, the promised ‘bailout plan’ has failed in the House of Representatives, and the Dow Jones Industrial average has dropped more than 770 points (the largest ever in a single day, to include 9/11/2001). In one day, somewhere around 7% of the value of the stock markets has been erased, if only on paper. With any kind of retirement becoming less of an option, this seems like a really bad time to trust in wealth.

Partisan skirmishing
I don’t pretend to know if the bailout is a good idea or bad, but it has been pretty funny (yet sad) to watch the partisan skirmishing.

What do you think? Do hard economic times cause people to turn to God? Is this an opportunity for the church to reach out to hurting unbelievers? Is this a chance for people to turn away from the idols of wealth and ease?

Prayer before battle
At the very least, I hope it causes us to pray.


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