A Shift in the Narrative

winter sun through trees
Winter Up the Lane

Long story short: no it is not possible to spend just $400 per month on groceries. Not for a family of four. Not in Northern Ontario, in the winter. Not while eating a healthy diet. And certainly not while working full time.

I feel a bit bad about leaving you on that cliffhanger, as it became evident very quickly that my ambitious grocery savings goals were a bit over-the-top.

I think I can account for my bills being super low that month by the fact that the kids went away to camp for 4 days, and we also probably ate a lot out of our pantry. It was definitely not a “normal” month, and that record low grocery spending did not continue past September of last year.

One major thing that changed was that I started a full-time contract in November which goes till mid-May. Working full-time means having less time at home–especially less solo time–which means much less time for cooking and baking, especially time-consuming things like tortillas and crackers. Because of this, I’ve been buying a few more convenience foods, and the kids have been eating more cereal!

The up-side is that our overall income has gone up significantly for these few months! Because of our awesome financial skills, we’ve been able to save a good chunk of cash, and we are just days away from paying off our car in full! This will leave us debt-free apart from our mortgage, and we can start saving for a summer vacation, and for some upcoming house repairs.

This is a real dream come true, to pay off our car. Now we are looking at saving up an emergency fund, investing more in the kids’ education plans, and putting some money aside for a future car.

It is a complicated shift in mindset for me, to move from the urgent sense of paying off debt, into a perspective of saving for the future. I have never been very good at this side of things, and have relied in many ways, on the shame and stress of being in debt to kick me in the butt and provide me with the energy to meet my goals. It isn’t being very kind to myself, but it has worked!

Part of me is worried that switching the stick for a carrot will leave me short on motivation. I worry about my ability to keep reaching toward these more positive goals that are more than many people are within reach of.

I also realize–in terms of this blog–that the narrative of “I am saving up for a comfortable future” is much less appealing than “I am working hard to get out of debt”. I see the privilege that is behind that narrative and I wonder if the next part of this story really needs to be told.

so much snow in our yard
Snow in our yard

I remember back when I lived in Ottawa, I had a very frugal friend. We shared many tips on frugal and eco-conscious living, trading cultures and shopping strategies. I felt a lot of kinship with her — until I visited her home. She not only owned her own home in an expensive part of town; she also owned a rental property! I felt my feelings of kinship diminish, and a sense of resentment creep in. Here I was busting my butt just to afford to feed my family, and she was using these frugal skills to build her investments?? What a betrayal! I soon got over my reaction to her apparent wealth (and reminded myself that one never knows what’s going on behind the surface) and our friendship continued for several years. She did have good frugal tips to share!

But I don’t want to do that to you, my readers! Lure you in with perceived struggling kinship only to reveal that I’m actually out of debt and slowly building my own wealth.

And yet, I do want to give anyone reading who is in that difficult place, that place of scraping by, a concrete sense of hope. Hope that if you keep going, if you keep saving and getting smarter and paying off debt, you have a good chance of reaching a place of stability. There are no guarantees in this life: health problems can drop in out of nowhere, moving to another city can erase years of progress, job losses and babies and investing in education, these can all set us back.

But the frugal skills we learn are a kind of insurance because they can help keep us stable through crises, changes and stages of life. And once we have weathered those storms, we will have the luxury of a bit of choice around what to reach for next.

 

 

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No-Spend Month: September 2018

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“2013_04_18” by Dennis S. Hurd on Flickr

We’ve launched our latest no-spend month in the 30 days between back-to-school season and birthday/Christmas season. It’s a well-timed effort, aiming to prep us for the gauntlet of birthdays that starts in October and runs all the way to early April (amidst which Christmas just happens to fall smack in the middle). What’s a frugal gal to do?

This being our third or so no-spend month, the rest of the family is well-trained now to know what to expect. No special treats at the grocery store. No runs to the corner store for chips or pop. No pizza lunches. We wait to get that movie at the library. I still buy groceries, pay for the kids’ lessons, and of course would fund any medical needs that arose, but we strictly limit “extras”.

From past no-spend months we have learned some skills and mindset hacks:

  • we enjoy home-popped popcorn–and sometimes even buttered steamed rice–while watching movies instead of chips
  • we make lemon-flavoured sweetened iced tea, or home squeezed lemon juice instead of pop
  • we have lunch in the park or a walk with friends instead of grabbing a coffee together
  • my partner started walking home on his lunch hour instead of buying lunch or snacks downtown
  • we are generally all home-bodies, and the no-spend month is no different, but during the month we make an extra effort to do more special (free) things all together like family walks, family basketball, family disc golf, puzzles on the living room floor, and maybe learn a new card game

(Plus I am trying to generate joyful chore routines that teach the kids some skills while enjoying our time together. So far: it’s kindof a chore, maybe not so joyful . . . yet! But it sure is nice to walk into the dining room later in the evening and see a clean table, with the leftovers safely stored in the fridge instead of sitting out getting dodgy.)

The not-so-fun Money talk

When I first introduced this round of no-spending, my partner was bummed. We had a conversation, and it didn’t go so well, though he was still willing to see it through for the month. He said it made him feel really restricted and sad to not be able to just grab a coffee or something at the corner store when he wanted it. And when I thought about it, I could really understand where he was coming from. I mean, he’s not the one with the blog about frugal living. This is MY nerdy thing, not his–for him, it’s just restrictive.

I thought about what he said in our conversation, about how this kind of extreme cutting back made him feel, and slept on it. The next day something I was reading inspired me, and I introduced a second conversation. I really tried to see things from his perspective, and then I asked him what financial goals he could see for us in the next couple of years.

It’s all about goals

Despite all of my blogging about saving money and living frugally, we have had surprisingly few conversations about our financial goals. Maybe he’s been afraid our goals would not line up with each other; maybe I’ve been afraid our they would not line up with reality.

But despite our fears and our silence, I pointed out that so far, we have achieved every single financial goals we have set:

  • we bought a house
  • we paid off all our student loans
  • we have set aside a growing chunk in our kids’ education savings plan
  • we got out of consumer debt, and have managed to live consumer debt free (apart from our car & mortgage) for many years
  • I was able to stay home with the kids and even homeschool them for six years
  • we have weathered several bouts of unemployment
  • I am now able to work part-time

Our incomes may seem meagre, but looking back, we have been able to achieve so much!

The best part of the conversation was when he told me he appreciated all of my work on the family finances. It’s not every day you get told you are appreciated! Believe me, it made me feel pretty good about all the work you see me post about, plus all that gets done behind the scenes.

Talking about goals can be a bit scary, but I think we were in a good place in our conversation because we were able to come to three goals for the next short term:

  • save money to get our roof fixed (the shingles have seen better days)
  • finish paying off our car (a 0% loan with just one more year left)
  • save for a trip to New York City!

All of these are reasonable goals, and the vacation goal makes it a bit more fun and motivating for everyone. Who knows–maybe we can divert some of the birthday/Christmas money into that pot and move that goal to the top of the list!

I would love to hear how others talk money with their spouses and family members. Do you have any tips to share for keeping everyone on the same page financially?

Frugal Daily: a near-daily newsletter for frugal tips

In order to keep myself on a frugal track to financial success, I’ve decided to experiment with writing a daily tip newsletter.

As a reader of my blog, you probably know I’m a former homeschooler. You probably also know that I’m still holding on to the dream of being able to homeschool again some time in the future. But to do that, first I have just one more loan to pay off! So, I figured I would help us both at the same time, by writing daily tips to keep everyone focused on our goals.

What this newsletter will be:

– a daily or near-daily email sent through MailChimp, containing one tip to live more frugally.
– easy to subscribe or unsubscribe to
– quick, short and useful
– mostly my own ideas, but I may occasionally link to really helpful online content

What this newsletter will not be:

– a channel for selling anything. Really. I’m not going to link to affiliates or bundles or email-grabbing “freebie deals”. I have a small readership, a full-time job, and a busy life. It isn’t really worth my while to try to make money that way at this time. If this ever changes, I will let you know, and you’ll have the chance to unsubscribe easy-peasy. This newsletter is just one more tool to keep me focused on my goals of paying off debt, saving money and making my dream a reality. Okay, if I ever write a book or create a course, I WILL let you know! But no third-party stuff for sale.
– a forever deal. If I get bored, I will stop writing it. And if I make my dream a reality and am able to start homeschooling again, I might not have time to keep up with frugality tips! You never know–but there are no guarantees!
– information about couponining

If you are interested in receiving these tips, please click here to sign up. It’s super easy: all you have to do is enter your email address. And you can unsubscribe easily too just in case you ever win the lottery!

Sign up for Frugal Daily!

Got Debt? #SpenditDown

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A few weeks ago I shared my “Five Tricks for Painless Debt Payoff“. Right after posting it, I put the tricks to use here at home. I quickly found out that one of those tricks stood out for me above all others. It has led me to pay off hundreds of dollars of our debt this month, putting us ahead of our expected freedom date, and saving us significant amounts of interest.

The surprisingly useful trick was #3:

Whenever you decide not to make a purchase, immediately take that amount and put it towards the debt.

Or as we’ve come to call it, #SpenditDown.

What we’ve discovered is, the effect of SpendingitDown actually carries the same feeling of momentary euphoria that buying something does, with the added bonus of improving our financial situation.

How does it work? It’s really easy. Every time you are about to buy something “extra”, stop, figure out what you almost spent, and immediately put that amount toward your debt. Then high-five the nearest person.

For example:

  • Tempted to order pizza? Make home-made, take $25 and #SpenditDown.
  • About to stop at Bulk Barn for a post-library treat? Go home and eat chocolate chips, take $15 and #SpenditDown.
  • Longing for a fancy bar of soap? Use up what you’ve got in the cupboard, take $6 and #SpenditDown.

You may have to try it to believe it, but it’s actually fun for the whole family! The kids were thrilled that I let them #SpenditDown after we opted for home-made popcorn instead of making a trip to the corner store for chips. I logged into my online banking, my little guy dutifully typed in $5, and I invited him to hit enter. When it was my daughter’s turn, she looked up with a twinkle in her eye, typed in 1-5, and hit enter. Really, it was more fun than an extra toy at the second-hand store.

One day we opted against another corner store trip, and my son asked in his sweet 7-year-old voice, “Mommy, can I Spend it Down?”

I think the success of this method is that it gives a reason and a framework for diverting funds towards paying off debt. You don’t even realize how much extra you’re spending until you start playing the game. It disrupts automatic habits of spending, while actually making you feel *good* instead of guilty, and at the same time, making progress toward debt freedom.

Without a reason and a framework, you will always tell yourself, “We will just put all our extra money toward our debt.” The problem is, in reality,

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS EXTRA MONEY!

When it comes to the end of the month, if you’re anything like me, there’s never much extra left over, and if there is, it’s hard to justify putting it toward debt when “you never know if you might need it”.

By playing the game, you have a chance every day to put extra funds towards your debt.

So, we’ve been having a lot of fun with this. The surprising thing was, when I did my big Debt Repayment Round-Up, I only saw this method mentioned in one or two articles.

The world needs to learn how to #SpenditDown! Will you help me by posting when you decide to #SpenditDown? You can link back to this post so people know what you’re talking about, and help me inspire a revolution of debt freedom!

Debt Repayment Round-up

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Since I posted my Five Tricks for Painless Debt Pay-off, I’ve been trying to put some of my own tricks to work. So far, number three is my favourite, and I have seen my small extra payments really adding up. I also applied #2, but I am worried that re-allocating my little cushion to pay off debt will leave us with nothing extra at Christmas time.

I am so motivated to pay off these debts that I want to harness the power of the interweeb to help me. So here, for my reading and yours, is a round-up of 20 of the internet’s best ideas for paying down debt faster.

11 Ways to Get Out of Debt Faster

I’ve been a fan of The Simple Dollars for decades! They give solid advice.

How One Woman Paid Off $23,000 of Debt in 15 Months

An inspiring story of one woman’s spending fast.

How to Pay Off Debt Fast with a Low Income

This one has links to a lot of other great resources. I’d say it’s definitely worth spending some time cruising around this blog.

Kick Debt’s Butt! How to Get Out of Debt On Your Own

This one is aimed at the under-30 demographic. Another inspiring story of a guy who paid off $80,000 in three years.

6 Ways to Get out of Debt Faster

This Canadian article has two ideas I haven’t seen elsewhere.

How to Pay Off Your Debt Faster And Save Money

Some ideas for paying off your mortgage faster, and how much money you will save by doing so.

How I Paid Off $90,000 in Debt in Three Years

Another story mainly aimed at young people. This young lady made some major shifts in her lifestyle in order to pay off her huge student debt.

How To Pay Off Debt Fast With The Stack Method

A solid description of a debt repayment plan from Lifehack.org

How I Paid Off $158,169 in Debt

An inspiring personal story about one woman’s journey out of debt, from Time magazine.

Debt Snowflaking – 25 Ways to Find Extra Money and Pay Down Debt

Lots of ideas for making a little extra cash to put towards your debt.

33 Proven Ways to Reduce Personal Debt

A couple who paid off $66,000 in debt gives their unconventional tips for reducing spending and reducing debt.

How to Pay off Debt Fast: The Most Efficient Method

A clear explanation of the “ladder method” of paying off debt, including a comparison with the “snowball method”.

The Psychological Trick That Will Help You Pay Off Debt Fast

A slightly different perspective is offered here. As the title indicates, this one gets into the psychology of debt repayment.

How to Trick Yourself Into Paying Off Your Credit Card Debt

Another one from the Huffington Post, this one gets into the nitty gritty of holding yourself back from excess spending.

HOW I PAID OFF $34,579 IN STUDENT LOANS IN UNDER 4 YEARS

Here is a cute one complete with comics! I liked how this blogger thought about prioritizing what was important in life.

How a simple family budget paid off $5000 of debt in 6 weeks

This one features an in-depth lesson on creating a family budget.

We Were Tired of Being Broke So We Paid Off $52K in 7 Months

Another personal story, this one from The Debt Myth, detailing how a couple used the snowball method to get out of debt quickly.

The 8 Mistakes We Made While Paying Off Debt

This article looks at debt repayment from a different perspective.

How I Paid Off $8,100 of Credit Card Debt in Just 3 Months

This blogger aggressively paid down her debt, and writes about the extreme spending cuts she imposed on herself.

A Fun Way to Pay Off Debt Faster!

Last but not least, a fun printable game for tracking your pay-down progress.

What I got from sifting through these articles is a major boost of motivation to pay off my own debts! Looking at what these families, couples and individuals have done, the techniques they’ve tried, and the solutions they’ve come up with, is very inspiring for my own situation. I highly recommend cruising through these sites, taking notes, and getting stoked on your own ability to crush your debt. I know you can do it! I’ve done it twice before, and I know I can do it again.

Five tricks for painless debt pay-off

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Coins” by Randen Pederson, copyright 2007

Paying off debt can be really hard! You visualize what your life will be like when you’re finally debt-free, but that day seems like it will never come. Over here it feels like we have been paying down this one last student loan for EVER! In fact, it has been close to 20 years.

We all need some tricks up our sleeve to lighten our load and make that day come just a little sooner. Here are my top five tricks to pay off your debt a little quicker, for very little pain or effort. Let me know how they work for you!

1.Save all your change. Roll and deposit it, and put it towards your debt.

This can actually be kinda fun if you make it special. When my daughter was born, I devoted a pretty bowl to saving for her education. I did a little ritual where I “promised” all it contained would be devoted to her education. The ritual helped me to never touch what accumulated there, and I eventually deposited a little extra into her RESP.

I’ve got a really nice hand-made pottery bowl in my cupboard which I am going to take out tonight, put in a special place, and pledge its contents to our debt freedom!

2. Set up a “Simply Save” bank account, and deposit the accumulated savings into your debt account.

At my bank, we have the ability to forward a set amount to another account every time we use our debit card. We have set up a savings account into which the bank automatically deposits 50¢ each time we make a payment with our debit card. The deposit is made at the end of each day, which supplies a little slush fund for gifts and travel.

Transferring this to our loan account will speed up our debt repayment by 20-30%, saving us hundreds in extra interest payments. And the best is, we won’t feel it at all!

3. Whenever you decide not to make a purchase, immediately take that amount and put it towards the debt.

Okay, I’ll admit: this one might be a *little* painful. A recent example in my life was deciding not to order pizza. Which meant that I had to make supper. Which I didn’t want to. But I adulted hard, and made something much cheaper, and much healthier. I then logged into my online banking and made an extra payment to the loan, of the amount that we would have spent on pizza.

While it does require a bit of will-power to resist spending on extras, this technique likewise keeps your goal at the front of your mind, and may increase motivation knowing you are getting closer to your goal.

It might just be me, but this kinda feels like a little game. Forego that fancy soap? Transfer that $5 to your debt instead! It can actually reward the “pleasure centres” in your brain–replacing the “hit” you might get from a treat with something even better: progress towards your debt-free life!

4. Say it out loud

I have had so many experiences of simply stating out loud a goal or intention, and then having the universe jump on board with surprising immediacy and effectiveness. I’m sure there are some more mundane explanations for this (probably relating to mental focus and frame of reference), but I choose to think of it as a big burst of energy that partners with my own, that comes on board as soon as I say what I want out loud. Not to imply that this always happens, and certainly there are limitations, but still, I say, Why not? Why not put some faith in yourself, and some faith in the world, name your goal, and see what happens?

If you share with your family your vision of a debt-free life, it could help get them on-side. At the very least, they’ll now understand when you make home-made pizza instead of getting take-out, and then go to your computer and say “cha-ching!”

5. Blog about it.

The other day I told you about my husband saying to me, “You know the expression, ‘You’ve never had a problem that x wouldn’t fix’? Well, for you, x is a new blog.”

Here’s why I believe that’s true: Like saying something out loud, writing about something also sets your focus and names your goal. Writing about something regularly keeps it at the front of your mind. Making that writing public ups the commitment to reaching that goal. After all, you’ve just told all these people what you want to achieve. And you know what? They’re rooting for you!

We all like a good redemption story.

So, start that debt pay-off blog! Research other bloggers’ tips, and then make your own list. Soon you’ll be reading success stories–of people who’ve been where you are now, who made the journey you’re just starting out on. It’s a huge motivation to know that others have made it–and with focus, determination and vision, you will too!

So, that’s my list. If you have any painless debt pay-off tips to share, put them in the comments section!