Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Babies. Or Lack Thereof.

I don't really know where to start.  This is one of those "lots of people go through it, nobody talks about it" things.  So, instead of making it awkward, I'm just going to get to it.


It's weird to talk about because at some point in the conversation you end up talking about how often you're "doing it."  And, let's be honest, that's sort of weird. And yet, there it is. Infertility.  I'm pretty open about it and yet it's still something that's tough to bring up (like where exactly does infertility fit into the conversation?)But this isn't something uncommon, like at all. 1 in 8 couples have trouble getting pregnant, but it's something that's not talked about.  Well, y'all, I'm done.  I'm done not talking about it.

Why?  Well, as we established, it's pretty stinkin' common.  And, it's a daily life issue for us.  So, here I am, telling our story, unashamed.  

At 16 I was diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome).  I was told then that I might, one day, maybe have trouble getting pregnant but, clearly, at 16, that wasn't an issue for me, and nothing was for certain those 11 years ago.  But, even then, and long before then, I knew I had a longing in my heart to be a mother.  

Fast forward 3 years (I was 19) and I started dating my then-boyfriend-now-husband.  We'd known each other for 11 years at that point so things got serious pretty fast.  We talked about getting married and having a family.  I was honest about my PCOS and that it could cause us to have difficulty getting pregnant, but it never crossed my mind (or Neal's, I'm pretty sure) that it might actually cause difficulties.  We sort of had the "that'll never happen to us" mentality.

Fast forward another 4 years (I was 23) and we got married.  Had things gone Neal's way, we would've gotten pregnant immediately and started a family.  I wasn't ready emotionally for that. (Marriage and a cross-country move were hard enough to handle for this girl!)  So, after a year-ish of marriage (2013 sometime) we started more seriously discussing starting a family.  That longing in my heart to be a mother grew but we didn't really go out of our way to try to make it happen. 

I'd never in my life had a regular cycle so I figured the likelihood of us getting pregnant was slim to none at that time, but we just agreed, if it happens, great, if not, no big deal.  So 2013 came and went.  No babies.  And then 2014 came and went.   No babies.

I don't know about y'all, maybe I'm crazy, but I had always had in my mind that 25 was a good age to become a Mom.  So, when 25 came and went, and there were no babies it started to get really real for me.  So then 2015 came and we decided to get a little more serious.  I started tracking my cycles more closely.  I know it seems like it would've made sense to do this sooner, but because of my PCOS, NOTHING IS NORMAL.  Not hormones, not cycles. Nothing.  So even trying to track my cycles in 2015 was futile.  Another year, no babies, and no answers.   We both agreed at this point that going into 2016 we were going to see a specialist and get to the bottom of this.  

So see a specialist we did, right at the beginning of the year.  I was told I wasn't ovulating. Duh. But that otherwise everything looked normal (as far as a woman with PCOS goes)So we made a plan.  We were going to try "timed intercourse" for 3-4 cycles with assistance to make me ovulate.  But even with assistance, our chance of getting pregnant every month was still only at 15-20% It seems low, right? Then I found out a normal couple only has like a 30% chance every cycle (CRAZY, RIGHT?!) and I felt better.  I was just relieved we had a plan and I seemed to be healthy.  

We were told we could start these cycles of timed intercourse as soon as Neal got back in town (we were co-locating for about 6 months) and a new cycle started.  So he finally came home and my cycle just went on and on and onnnnnn. Like 80 days. Yep, FOREVER. (Thank you, PCOS.)  FINALLY a new cycle started.  We did 4 rounds of timed intercourse. And, well, no babies. 

So, that's where we sit.   This is our life.  And yeah, that could be the end of our story. But it's not.  I really feel like this is hardly even the beginning.   Honestly, until those 4 cycles didn't work, I still didn't really feel like infertility was a battle we were facing.  But here we are.  We are the 1 in 8.  Infertility IS a battle we're facing and this IS the road we're walking down.

Real life. Top level of the parking garage at Neal's job.
Giving me a shot to make me ovulate.

But you wanna know something?  We have hope.  Yes, we're hopeful that as we do more testing we'll get more answers and the doctors will give us good news.  But more than that, we have hope because we both know that there's already a plan. There's already a child.  And this story God is writing is already far more beautiful than anything we ever could've dreamed up.  

There are few men I've encountered in my life who long to be fathers like my husband does.  And I've longed to be a mother as far back as I can remember.  I don't believe those things are by chance.  I believe that the Lord placed those desires on our hearts and I believe that He will fulfill them.  Clearly not in our timing or in the way we thought He would.  If that were the case we'd already have our child home with us.  Maybe it'll be 10 years from now and through adoption.  Or maybe it'll be a year from now with a biological child we conceived naturally.  We have absolutely no idea.  But what we do know is that the Lord has given us inexplicable peace about all of this.  Yes, some days there are tears.  And some days it feels unbearable and we're impatient.  And some days a pregnancy announcement stings.  But even more than all of the pain, is peace.  

The Lord has granted us peace in the waiting.  Whether we're waiting for a child who is already dwelling on this earth somewhere, or is dwelling in another woman's womb, or is still being formed in heaven, we're not sure.  But there's peace in the waiting.  I have a hard time explaining it in words.  Those of you who have experienced that sort of peace, the "peace of God, which surpasses all understanding" know what I'm talking about.  It's this sense of calm in which I know that even if we get news we can't ever conceive, I just know the Lord has a plan for us.  HE HAS A PLAN FOR US.   We have not a clue what that plan looks like, but we're prayerful and we're hopeful.  

"I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope."
-Psalm 130:5  

And please know that if you are 1 in 8, you're not alone.  Keep waiting, keep praying.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Financial Freedom: Neal's Side of the Story

My lovely wife has been posting our journey to financial freedom.  I wanted to share with you guys my side of the journey.

Throughout my 25 years, I have never set a budget or thought about money issues.  To further emphasize that statement let me give you this example:  I worked as an intern after my Freshman year in college and made around $6,000 over the summer.  As a college sophomore I was LOADED!! So what did I do? I blew all of that $6,000 during the first semester of my sophomore year.  Let me remind you that I didn't pay for tuition, housing, or books.  What did I buy for $6,000, you ask? A car would have made sense for the amount of money I spent, maybe even a few guns since I went to school in one of the worst parts of Hampton Roads.  Nope.  None of the above.  Scratch-off lottery tickets. That was the bane of my bank account my sophomore year of college.  Every day after class I would stop by the gas station next to my apartment and buy a $20 scratcher just because I had some money in my pocket.

Little did I know, that one act of me buying scratch-off tickets reflected how I "budgeted" my money.  For the next 3 years that's how I spent my money and that's just who I was.  I didn't mind living paycheck to paycheck because if I wanted to buy something I would and I didn't think twice about it. 

That's when my wife saved our financial state.  Annie always did a budget, but those were sort of like guidelines to me.  Kind of like the lines on an interstate, they're just recommended lanes that you should drive in.  If you drive in the lane, most of the time, you'll get from point A to point B with no problem.  If you start drifting in and out of those lanes or cross the solid lines, you'll eventually hit something.  

We started going to a church out in Washington that we loved.  One Sunday the pastor gave a sermon on tithing and mentioned that there was a class they were hosting called Financial Peace University.  My first thoughts were, "I don't need to go to a class where someone is going to tell me how and where I should spend my money."  I wanted to buy all the latest hunting gear, all the latest gadgets, stuff for my truck, and I wanted to splurge and buy stuff for my wife.  In my mind, I had already spent the next $25,000 of the money I hadn't even made yet. Why would I spend $100 to take a class that's going to tell me what to do with my money?  In hind sight, that was the best thing I could have possibly done at the time.

Well men, if you don't know this phrase already put this in the box on top of your shoulders and repeat it to yourself over and over and over and over and well, you get it.  HAPPY WIFE, HAPPY LIFE.  I bought the books and went to the class reluctantly, ONLY because I wanted to make my wife happy.  That may sound horrible, but it's the truth.  But don't worry, it gets better.

The first session wasn't all that great.  We watched a movie, filled out a workbook, and our instructor looked like one of those tree-hugging, nature-loving, "I only eat things that I grow" hippies.  I wasn't looking forward to the next 8 weeks of classes.  But that week, we had homework to do.  We had to go through our bank statement and figure out what we spent our money on and how much money we made that month.  I was blown away by the amount of money we had spent in one month alone.  I want you guys to go through your bank account right now and fill out this formI couldn't believe it but we had spent almost $300 on fast food and restaurants (this is just a guess...I don't really remember how much it was..but it was A LOT).  How can two people eat out that much? We had to have set a record.  Well this little exercise pushed me onto the Financial Peace bandwagon.

I won't go into the details of the course, because my wonderful wife has already done that in her previous posts. My main goal with this is to get you guys interested in being free from debt and to let you guys know it's not the end of the world being on a budget. I hated the thought of being "on a budget" because in my mind, it made it seem like I couldn't buy the things I wanted to buy and do the things I wanted to do.  That's as far from the truth as it could be. 

One of the major aspects of creating a budget is putting all of the money somewhere.  At the end of the month you want what you've spent to equal what you made, no more or no less.  That doesn't mean you have to go out and buy an Ipad every month if you have an extra $600 after paying the bills.  That just means if you make $2,000 a month and your bills only come up to $1,500, you have $500 left to put wherever you want.  This course makes you think like a grownup a little, but essentially I could have purchased all of the latest hunting gear, or the latest electronics, or whatever I wanted.  I may not have been married very long, but I would have had some pretty cool stuff.  The smart thing to do with that extra $500 would be to put it in a savings account for a vacation you want to take or a retirement fund, or hey here's a good one, pay off the things you've already bought that you didn't have the money for when you actually bought them.  That's pretty much all the course is designed to do, make you plan and think about where your money is going.  It's not fancy talk or a new "How to beat the system" program, it's just applying common sense, that isn't so common. 

Throughout the program, I was getting more and more interested in it.  Once we paid off Annie's student loan debt, I was hooked for sure. The small accomplishments were what made the journey exciting.  Yeah, sure, I don't have all the latest and greatest hunting accessories or fanciest gadgets, but I don't owe anyone money.  It was our decision that we wanted to pay everything off early, so we lived on what we needed and not what we wanted.  It was definitely tough for me to not go out and buy a new bow when I got tired of carrying mine around the woods.  But I knew it would be better for us if I were to keep using what I had for a while so we could pay more towards our debt.  It's worked out so far.

One more thing I want to convey, is that this is definitely something that you want an accountability partner for.  If you're married and doing this, you need the other half to be on board with this change in lifestyle.  If you're single or dating, you should find a family member or a close friend (who will tell you like it is) to help you out with sticking to your budget.  The good thing is that once you sit down to make your budget, you can make it as drastic of a change in lifestyle as you want.  If you want to live off of rice and beans so you can get rid of your credit card debt, great, more power to you!  If you want to pay off your debt at $10 a month, $100 a month, whatever you want, you can.  The accountability partner should help you out in the aspect of choosing how aggressive you want to take it and then helping you stay committed to your goal.  If you're married, both you and your spouse have to, let me say that again, HAVE TO agree on this.  The only way it worked with us, is that we met in the middle.  I wanted spending money and Annie wanted all the debt gone tomorrow.  We compromised and it kept me engaged and wanting to keep saving and paying off debt.

I called it a change in lifestyle, because that's exactly what it is.  It's not just a one time thing, at least not for us.  It has been, and will continue to be, a part of our marriage and our daily thoughts.  I thank my wife for saving us financially, and I'm hoping we can save some of you financially too. 

Thank you guys for reading this and hopefully you guys can join us so we can all "Live like no one else so later we can live and give like no one else."

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Financial Freedom: What Now?

If you're just tuning in, you can check out the other posts about our journey to debt freedom.  Check out these posts about our financial history how we acquired $34,000 worth of debt, the first step we took to get out of debt, what started to happen when we began Financial Peace University, how we manage our budget, and some things we do to save money.  

We've been MIA for a while. Sorry about that!  Neal and I both sincerely hope that us sharing our journey with you all is an encouragement to you and your family in reaching financial freedom! It may take you 6 months or it may take you 16 years.  Regardless of the timeline, we'd really encourage you all to use some of these tools to leave a legacy of financial freedom for you and your family.  I know that's our ultimate goal for our family!

So..we've paid off all of our debt.  If I were you, I'd be wondering....what's next?!

The next goal should always be Baby Step 3: Put 3-6 months of expenses in savings.  Build up that full emergency fund! Neal and I were able to do this immediately as we had more money than we thought sitting in a savings account (wish we would have paid more attention because we could have paid off our debt even earlier!).  That was a huge blessing!  We were pretty dang excited about that!

For Neal and I, our next goal is to purchase a home.  We set a goal to put at least 10% down on whatever home we decide to purchase (or build).  We have a timeline in mind, but if we're not ready to purchase by then, then we plan to just continue to save until we have 20% to put down.  With Neal's job, this is a definite possibility for us.  It's possible that we may move around a bit more..and in that case it makes no sense for us to purchase a home just because we have our 10% saved.  Speaking of purchasing a home, we plan to stick with Dave Ramsey's "rules" for purchasing a home.  We plan to purchase a home with a 15 year fixed rate mortgage (yes, we realize that with a 30 year mortgage our payments will go down.  And, no, we still don't want one), a monthly payment that is only 25% of our monthly income, and then, as I just said, we plan to put 10% or more down.  We also plan to budget that 25% based on Neal's income because our long-term plan is for me to stay at home with our children (when that day comes) so we don't want to set ourselves up to financially fail by relying on my income now and then not having it later. 

I know that all of this can sound so serious and some of you are probably wondering, "What about the fun stuff?"  We do build "fun stuff" into our monthly budget.  Trust me.  But we also believe that it doesn't make sense to take a $5000 vacation when you owe someone thousands of dollars.  (I mean think about it, if someone owed you $20,000 but was going on an expensive vacation to the Caribbean, that wouldn't make much sense to you, would it?) SO...now that we're debt free AND have our emergency fund squared away, we're planning a big vacation somewhere within the next year.  Woop woop!  We never went on a honeymoon, and well, who doesn't want to go on a vacation?  BUT, we'll still be paying CASH for ALL of our expenses.

After we purchase a home and finally go on a "honeymoon" we plan to move onto Baby Step 4 (saving for a down payment is Baby Step 3b).  We each already contribute to a 401k through our employers,  but we're certainly not putting 15% of our total income away at this point.  Neal's company matches up to a certain percentage so we already put that amount (I think it's 5%) into his 401k.  But after Baby Step 3b is completed, we will begin putting 15% away each month. 

Then, we'll just keep trucking along, knocking out Baby Steps 5 and 6 and then, the REALLY awesome part, living Baby Step 7 for the rest of our lives
Our progress chart for working through the Baby Steps.
Does all of this take time?  Absolutely!  But is it totally do-able? Without a doubt, YES!

If you would have asked me, say, three years ago where I thought I'd be financially in 2015, I for sure would not have described the situation we're currently in.  Thankfully, some people stepped in, shared their journey with us, and it's changed the trajectory of our lives, and our family's lives, forever.  We pray that we will be able to raise a family who is financially free.  But that doesn't happen on accident!  And, y'all, just because your family didn't teach you about what to do with your money (or maybe they did and you just didn't care) please know that it's not too late.  You can change your family's legacy! 

P.S. Stay tuned! Neal's working on a post to talk about some things from his perspective.  It's definitely worth reading :)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Financial Freedom: Frugal Living

If you're just tuning in, you can check out the first five posts about our journey to debt freedom.  Check out these posts about our financial history how we acquired $34,000 worth of debt, the first step we took to get out of debt, what started to happen when we began Financial Peace University, and how we manage our budget 

We sincerely hope that sharing our journey is encouraging y'all and making you feel that you can have control over your finances.  It's near impossible to describe the joy and relief that we feel since paying off all of our debt. We really believe that our income is a blessing from God and we need to strive to honor him with the decisions we make with our finances.  For us, becoming debt free is the first step to doing just that.  

But, let's be honest, we never could have paid off all of our debt had we not adopted some frugal habits.  Thankfully, Neal and I have both always been pretty frugal by nature....but definitely myself more than Neal.  And as I mentioned before, we saved in a lot of areas over the 2 and half years we've been married because, in a lot instances, we had to.  When I wasn't working, it was impossible for us to eat out all the time, buy whatever we wanted AND run hard and fast toward being debt free.

So what exactly did we do to save?  First of all, we got really honest with ourselves and each other about what our needs and wants are.  This was difficult at first, but as long we kept our focus on the prize (being debt free) giving up those "wants" really seemed like no big thing.  

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First to go? Cable.  As long as we'd lived on our own, we'd each always had cable and it always seemed like a must-have.  I don't remember the exact numbers, but I know we cut our bill about in half by cutting back from our cable/phone/internet package just to internet.  We used our home phone approximately never so that was an easy choice to cut.  And once Neal got over losing his hunting channels and I got over losing HGTV, we decided the cable definitely had to go too.  (In Washington we bought a $40 indoor antenna...think rabbit ears...and because of the way our apartment was situated we got like 30 HD channels from that thing!  Here in Virginia, we spent $100 on a long-range outdoor antenna which we mounted on the roof and we still get 30 HD channels with that.)  While we're not huge TV-watchers (i.e. we don't really have any specific shows we keep up with) we do like to sit down and enjoy a TV show/movie together, so we do  pay $8.99 a month to stream Netflix through our PS3.  But we're about 2 years cable free, and we don't miss it a bit. 
Pinterest is my best friend when it comes to meal planning!
Another thing we did to save was to seriously cut back how often we eat out.  I started to meal plan and cook all of our meals at home.  We're blessed in that I really enjoy that whole process.  I meal plan and plan a grocery list based solely on what we're going to eat that week.  When I go grocery shopping, there's no "Oh yeah, that looks good!" or "Yeah, just throw that in the cart."  Nope.  As a matter of fact, Neal basically refuses to grocery shop with me because he can't stand how I only buy what's on my list.  He wants to throw random stuff in the cart, and I just won't have it.  Haha.  This also forces us to eat a heck of a lot more healthy! Win-win!  I'll warn you that because I only shop based on what we'll be eating, by the end of the week it looks like we're starving because our refrigerator, freezer, and cabinets are basically empty.  But I count that as successful meal planning!  I should also mention, it's not that we never eat out, we just don't eat out if we don't have the cash.  Our "us" money is where our eating out funds come from in our budget.  

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Next up, date nights (or just time spent together).  Neal and I are homebodies.  We have a lot of at-home date nights.  (This is easy for us as it's just the two of us in our household. Parents would definitely have to plan ahead for at-home date nights.)  This has helped our budget tremendously. We get pretty creative with date nights.  Board games. Puzzles. Video Games. Movies. Trivia.  Projects around the house.  We also like to make homemade pizza (way better than any take-out!) and homemade desserts for our date-nights instead of ordering in (but we do that sometimes too!).  In the past we've avoided high costs by celebrating holidays like Valentine's Day at home too.  (You can make a delicious surf and turf dinner and enjoy it by candelight for a fraction of the cost that it would be at a restaurant!)  While we are homebodies, we do enjoy getting out and exploring too.  We frequently just find a new place to visit (a park, trail, body of water, beach, landmark, historical site, anything) and we make an adventure out of it!  We pack snacks or lunch and hit the road.  It's so.much.fun.  Going on adventures together is one of those things that has not only been good for our budget, but it's been GREAT for our marriage too.  On our adventures, we frequently like to go geocaching.  (If you haven't tried geocaching, DO IT! It's so fun! And it's FREE.)

Hand-me-downs.  As I'm sitting here on our 15ish-year-old couch writing this, I'm looking around and thinking about our furniture and I can only think of one piece of furniture that we actually bought new.  Literally everything else in our house, is a hand-me-down.  And you know what?  That's 100% okay.  Our dining room table and chairs (which Neal bought at Big Lots when he was in college) is the only furniture we own that was purchased new.  Neal did buy a brand new couch and loveseat set when he was in college, for a couple hundred bucks, and we had it in Washington, but it was junk (live and learn) and never would've survived the move back to Virginia, so we sold it before we left Washington.  But seriously, our living room furniture was donated by my parents when they bought new furniture (this stuff has been around for at least 15 years and it's still in great shape!), our bedroom suit is my old one but was a hand-me-down my Mom bought from a co-worker when I was like 16, our guest room furniture is Neal's college furniture, our office furniture is my old stuff (probably 10 years old), and any other pieces of furniture we own were purchased at thrift stores or given to us by other family members.  We frequently dream about what our dream home will look like; I make Neal walk the aisles of Home Goods with me, we pick up those books at Lowe's where you can design your kitchen, and we look up house plans and design our own floor plans.  We have big plans.  But we're in agreement that for right now, in this season of life, we're 100% okay with living with used items.  When the time comes to buy or build a home, we'll invest in nicer, newer things, but in the meantime, we'll just save that money!
Clothes.  I don't love to shop, but I love clothes.  This is the biggest way I blow my money.  I spend a pretty big chunk of my spending money on clothes (I'm getting better though!).  Neal used to tease me about not being able to go into Target without buying a new piece of clothing.  The thing is, he wasn't wrong.  Neal could care less about clothes and fortunately for him, my Mom loves to buy him clothes (seriously, most of his bright plaid/striped shirts are from her).  I frequently purge my closet and I've started using this in my favor.  I discovered thredUP (this link leads you to a free $10 credit if you want to buy yourself something...and yes, I get $10 too) about a year ago and ever since, it's been my best friend!  They send me a bag for free, I send them my clothes, and then they pay me for the clothes I sent them! And what they don't accept, they donate for me! Perfect.  I can then buy gently-used and new clothes on their site or cash out my credit (I've never personally done this).  I've always been extremely pleased with the clothes I've ordered from them. 
Be honest!  This one is so easy.  It's so easy when people ask, "What do you want for your birthday?" or "What do you want for Christmas?"  to just say, "Oh, I don't know!" thinking that you're being modest (which is not a bad thing!), but if we were being honest, I'm sure there's SOMETHING you want.  Our families always buy us gifts.  And we'd rather them get us something we desire rather than something we really hate.  So when our family asks us what we want, we tell them! This year we even made wishlists on our favorite websites (I used Pinterest) and it was SO MUCH EASIER for people to buy us gifts!  And remember, it's just that, a wishlist.  It doesn't mean we expect to get what's on the list, but a wishlist helps give people an idea of something you may really enjoy instead of just guessing.  (Seriously, several of our family members did this this year and it was so much more enjoyable to know we were actually getting people things they wanted!) It also helps our families not waste their money.  And if we want something really expensive, we'll flat out tell family, "Get me a gift card to ______" or "Cash would really be great, I'm saving for _______". 

These are the main ways we limit our spending, but we also cut costs by: limiting our subscriptions (gym, magazine, etc.), run errands all at one time to cut down on gas costs, research items before purchasing, buy books for free from sites like BookBub, only run appliances (washer, dryer, dishwasher) when they are full, and we do use coupons if we have them. 

Neal and I would love to hear some tips from you all as well as I'm sure you have some awesome tips to increase savings.  Next time we'll share all about what our big plans are now that we're 100% debt free! 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Financial Freedom: Budgeting

If you're just tuning in, you can check out the first four posts about our journey to debt freedom.  Check out these posts about our financial history how we acquired $34,000 worth of debt, the first step we took to get out of debt, and what started to happen when we began Financial Peace University.  

Sorry to leave y'all so abruptly last time.  There's so much to cover!  So it was October 2014.  We were paying $1000 a month on the only debt we had left and we were determined to pay it off within the next three months.  From October to December 2014 we paid $1000 a month toward our auto loan.  And I'm OVERJOYED and relieved to, once again, report that we paid off that final debt right on time.  Just this past week, on January 6, I wrote the LAST check for our auto loan.  Our lien-holder is working on submitting all the appropriate paperwork and the Certificate of Title will be sent to us shortly.  WOOP WOOP!  

From the time we started Financial Peace University, and chose to dump all of our debt for good, until we mailed in our last payment, it only took us 15 months to finish paying off our debt.  In total, we paid on our debt for 3 years and 2 months.  We paid my student loans off in 2 years and 2 months which means we paid them off 7 years and 10 months early.  We paid our auto loan off in 2 years and 8 months which means we paid that off 3 years and 4 months early.  So really, y'all, you can make it happen! 

So...how did we do it?  First of all, let me start off with tithing.  Neal and I were both tithing intermittently prior to getting married.  This pattern continued into our marriage.  We were tithing intermittently but we were, for sure, not tithing 10% of our income.  When we went through FPU, we prayed about it and both agreed that no matter what we were going to start tithing 10%.  I don't find it coincidence at all that at the time our church had just begun a series on finances and was doing a 90-day challenge.  The church challenged everyone to tithe 10% of whatever their income for 90 days; if after 90 days you felt it was just making you broke and saw nothing else come out of it, they offered to return people's money.  We figured we had nothing to lose (although, who is really going to ask for their money back? Just sayin').  We began tithing 10% consistently at the beginning of October 2013.  After applying for SO MANY jobs in the 6 months I was at home, I finally got a call for an interview at an agency I really wanted to work for. I interviewed and then began work the next week.  Again, I don't find it to be a coincidence that as soon as we began to first give back to God, He blessed me with a job in my field.  This is just an example of one of the many blessings we have experienced since tithing 10% above and beyond everything else.  In sharing that, if you don't take anything else away from any of these jumbled thoughts, I'd encourage you to pray about tithing if you're not doing it already.  
Averages are: Tithe: 10-15% | Saving: 10-15% | Housing: 25-35% | Utilities 5-10% | Food: 5-15% | Clothing: 2-7% | Transportation: 10-15% | Medical: 5-10% | Insurance: 10-25% | Personal: 5-10% | Entertainment: 5-10% | Debts 5-10%
Now, more about our budget.  Prior to going through FPU, I was already doing a budget and keeping track of all of our expenses.  If you're not doing this.  Start.  We believe the only way to control how you spend your money is to know where your money is going.  Like I'd mentioned before, we knew how much we were eating out, but to see the weekly or monthly total of restaurant costs, we were appalled and, I don't know about Neal, but I was kind of embarrassed.

FPU was just the encouragement Neal needed to get involved with our finances.  I was ecstatic to make this into a team effort.  FPU encourages you to have a "Budget Committee Meeting" (Sound familiar, Baptists? Haha) that lasts no more than 17 minutes and have both parties (especially the free spirit, aka Neal) change something on the budget.  Our first meeting was comical.  I had so much to say I was afraid we'd run over 17 minutes.  Neal literally set a timer.  He had just about had it and the dog was barking to go out.  As soon as he got up let the dog out (he was so itching to be done with the meeting) the timer went off.  I was disappointed and Neal was SO RELIEVED.  That still gives us a good laugh. (I read this post to Neal before posting it as I do every time and we both laughed at this yet again.  It shows our personalities so perfectly! Haha.) 

However ridiculous our first meeting was, that was the first step to us doing this as a unit.  We've come a long way since then, folks!  I still create the budget, and then I run it by Neal, he contributes, makes changes as he sees fit, we discuss things if they need discussing, and then we call it done.  (Just an FYI, we used Microsoft Excel to write and track our budget for years but just this year we're using Google Sheets. We like that we can access Google Sheets at any time and I can create under my account and share it with Neal so he can also access it anytime he wants.) 

So...the content of our budget.  I make a list of all the necessities each month.  For example, those currently include: Rent, Gas (heat), Water, Trash, Electric, Insurance, Gas (vehicles), Groceries, and Medication.  I write down how much they'll be that month, and if I'm not sure, I always overestimate.  I do that part on paper.  Next, I input everything into Google Sheets.  I list our spending by week.  I put our incomes, and then all expenses.  In the expenses category our tithes are always the first thing we list.  We plan for those first and foremost.  It's much easier to first do on paper.  I highly recommend using these budgeting sheets that Dave Ramsey offers.  They're the most detailed and inclusive budgeting sheets I've yet to come across.  
Compared to the "average" budget (above) we fall right in line.  Tithe: 10.2% | Savings 18.9% | Housing: 22.6% | Utilities 9.1% | Food 9.4% | Clothing: 0% | Transportation: 5.7% | Medical: .1% | Insurance: 2% | Personal: .6% | Entertainment 8.9% | Debt 0%|
I should also note that all of our health insurance, life insurance, and retirement contributions come out before taxes. 

 Depending on where we were at in our journey (two-incomes, one-income, three debts, one debt, etc.) determined how much of the "extra" stuff we added into the budget.  From the get-go, Neal made it clear that he's okay with a budget, but he didn't want to feel like he couldn't ever buy anything.  So, for us, we built in spending money each week.  Neal gets a little bit more than I do and we're both 100% okay with that.  

This would also be a good place to mention that we work primarily in cash.  Not as in cash versus credit.  As in, green, paper, cash.  We really benefit from using the envelope system.  We use our debit cards for buying gas for the vehicles and I pay our other bills either by check or online.  But everything else gets paid in cash.  I go to the bank each week and get our our allotted amount of money; this includes money for groceries, our spending money, and any extras (i.e. pet nail trim, gifts, vehicle repairs, etc.).  I then place the money in my envelope (I keep labeled dividers in my wallet) and I give Neal his spending money for the week.  For us it is easier to manage weekly amounts versus monthly but do whatever works for you.  The premise of the envelope system is that you can't overspend.  For example, if I go into Target with $50 cash, I can't buy groceries and those cute new $45 boots, I only have enough for groceries. We also roll over any money left over from week-to-week in each category.   

Currently, our budget categories include: Tithe, Groceries, "Us" Money (i.e. for date nights or stuff we want to do together), Spending Money (each of us get a separate line in the budget), Gas for vehicles, Rent, Electric, Water, Trash, Gas (heat), Insurance (we pay our renter's insurance in full up front and pay our car insurance monthly), Medication, Cell Phones, Gym (Neal plans to end that when his year ends in March), Internet, and Netflix.  These are our monthly expenses.  Previously our debts were added in there too.  We try to think ahead and plan for expenses ahead of time.  For example, we're already discussing a summer vacation and agreed on a plan to save for it.  Other expenses we plan for ahead of time are: clothes, doctor's appointments, vehicle repairs, gifts, magazine subscriptions, vehicle registrations, taxes, and vacations.  We also plan in advance for things pertaining to our hobbies.  Neal loves to hunt and I enjoy crafting.  Neither of those are cheap hobbies.  We always research a lot before making big purchases and those go into the budget.  Small things we use our spending money to purchase and even if something costs $100, we encourage each other to just save up for it or ask for gift cards or money as gifts for our birthdays or Christmas to put towards whatever it may be that we want to buy.  

We do all of this so that we stay in control of our money and our money doesn't control us.  We've always been pretty frugal, but we've adopted some good habits to help us save over the course of this journey.  Next time I'll share with y'all some of those habits so you can start putting them to use too!  And no, it doesn't involve couponing.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Financial Freedom: Financial Peace University

If you're just tuning in, you can check out the first three posts about our journey to debt freedom.  Check out these posts about our financial history how we acquired $34,000 worth of debt, and the first step we took to get out of debt.  

As I left off with last time, Neal and I began Financial Peace University in October 2013.  This was a serious game-changer for us, not only in the way we viewed our finances, but it helped to strengthen and encourage us in various areas of our marriage.  
The way FPU is set up, you attend the class (usually held at a church or community center...but look here for a class near you!) for nine weeks.  Each week there's a different topic: 

1. Super Saving.  This outlines why it's important to save and what happens when you do.  
2. Relating with Money.  This week's lesson talks about how you relate to money independently and, in your marriage, as a team.  I'm the nerd...Neal's the free-spirit.
3. Cash Flow Planning.  Here you'll discuss the importance of a budget.  Seriously enlightening, y'all!
4. Dumping Debt.  Lesson four shares LOTS of information about why debt is so burdensome and gives you tips on how to get rid of it.  It IS within your reach, I swear!
5. Buyer Beware.  This talks about how advertising sucks us in and also talks about how to break our bad buying habits.  We defined what a "major purchase" is and committed never to buy any major purchases without each other's approval.
6. The Role of Insurance.  During this week Dave outlines seven types of insurance you need and how to steer clear of insurance traps.  We're definitely still working on this. 
7. Retirement and College Planning.  This week's lesson gives you an overview of all of the 401k, IRA, 403b stuff.  This is still way over my head and Neal pretty much deals with this department.  It all confuses my social worker brain, but his engineer brain just seems to get it.  
8.  Real Estate and Mortgages.  Here you'll discuss effective tips for buying and selling real estate and talk about the best time, financially, for you to purchase a home.  This was really helpful! Definitely a huge reminder to just be patient. 
9. The Great Misunderstanding.  Lesson nine shares information about misinterpretations as well as the blessings regarding generous giving. Huge lesson: You cannot gain with a clenched fist.

Image Link
Each of these nine lessons tie back into the Seven Baby Steps that Dave Ramsey has established.  Here are the baby steps...in case clicking on the link is too distracting ;)

1. Put $1,000 in an Emergency Fund. The key word is emergency. This is not an "I want a vacation or a fancy dinner or new outfit fund.  Be clear about what an emergency is.
2. Pay off all debt using the Debt Snowball.  List your debts, excluding your mortgage if you have one, in order, smallest to largest.  The smallest balance should be your number one priority. Don’t worry about interest rates unless two debts have similar payoffs. If that’s the case, then list the debt with the higher interest rate first.  Pay the minimum on all but the smallest debt.  Put your money toward the smallest debt first.  Any extra income should go here also.  Once that debt is paid off, take what you were paying on that and put it toward the next smallest debt.  Continue to do this (i.e. build the snowball) until you pay off ALL of your debt. You CAN do it!
3. Save 3 to 6 months of expenses in savings. This is your full emergency fund.  It's important.  Don't skip this step!
***If you haven't bought a house, this would be where you would be in the position to do that.  But put at least 10% down and get a 15 year mortgage with a fixed APR.  Here's some more information regarding purchasing a house. 
4. Invest 15% of your household income into Roth IRA's and pre-tax retirement. When you reach this step, you’ll have no payments—except the house—and a fully funded emergency fund. Now it’s time to get serious about building wealth.
5. Saving for college for your children.  By this point, you should have already started Baby Step 4—investing 15% of your income—before saving for college. Whether you are saving for you or your child to go to college, you need to start now.  Be deliberate about this.  Set a goal of how much you want saved and explore the best way to save that by the time your child(ren) go to college.
6.  Work toward paying off your house EARLY.  Begin chunking all of your extra money toward your mortgage. You are getting closer to realizing the dream of a life with NO HOUSE PAYMENTS!
7. The final of the baby steps, build wealth and give!  It’s time to build wealth and give like never before. Leave an inheritance for future generations, and bless others now with your excess.

In each week's lesson you watch a video and you have a workbook in which you fill in information as you watch the video.  We both felt that the class did a great job of using a variety of teaching techniques...so regardless of your learning style, the information will stick.  So you watch the video, fill in some information in your workbook, then you do an activity.  Each activity pertains to the lesson.   For example, in week four we filled out the debt snowball worksheet.  We would also break into small groups and engage in discussion (this was awesome!) and we also engaged in discussions as an entire class (about 20 of us).  Then each week there was "homework" to complete.

As I'd mentioned before, up until this point, I was in control of the finances and while I tried to keep Neal up-to-date, he really didn't care.  He knew the bills were paid and we'd saved a little money and he was good with that.  The homework each week forced us to sit down once a week, together, and discuss our finances.  This did awesome things for building that "team" and "togetherness" in our marriage.  That's important whether you've been married 2 months or 50 years.  

At this point (November 2013) we were back to a two-income household but we were used to living strictly on Neal's income.  This meant we had a lot of extra income that we could put towards things like paying off my second student loan and our auto loan.  As we learned new things each week, we realized that we really did have control over our money after all and it was SO incredibly empowering.  For the remainder of 2013 we continued to pay the same amounts on our student and auto loans but we were saving a lot more money.

We finished FPU in December 2013. The excitement during this time was unreal! And honestly, it still is. 

So where did we stand with the Baby Steps?  We completed Baby Step 1 (thankfully we already had the $1000 in savings) right out of the gate.  Then in January 2014 we took the extra money we had in savings (leaving just $1000 behind) and put it all toward my second student loan.  (Thanks to technology it went like this: sitting in my parents' living room, looking at our bank account on my phone before leaving for a hockey game while in VA for the holidays, I said, "Hey we have enough money in savings to keep our $1000 emergency fund and pay off my student loan. Wanna do it?" Neal: "Sure."  Annie: click, click, click. "Okay. It's paid in full."  Hahaaa. Oh, technology.) So that meant our auto loan was the only debt we had left. Woop woop!
We still had $17,604.90 left to pay on our truck (again, not including the interest being tacked on daily).  We then resolved that we were GOING to pay it off within one year from the time we paid off my student loan (i.e. our goal was to be 100% debt free by January 2015).  Once we paid off my student loan (now looking at my records I see we were paying $175 a month toward my student loan) we took that extra $175 and started putting it toward the truck payment.  So in January 2014 we increased our payments from $400 a month to $575 a month.  We were making that debt snowball work for us!

Meanwhile, we were meeting each month, more often if needed, to discuss our budget.  I'll share more about our budget in the next post.  But let's just say we were living very frugally at this point.  

We continued the momentum throughout 2014.  As long as Neal's company is profitable (they've had a really awesome few years, praise Jesus!), employees receive an annual bonus.  We receive his bonus and our tax return around the same time each year. So between March and April 2014 we threw an extra $7300 at our auto loan in addition to the $575 we were paying a month. This made a huge difference in how long it would take us to pay off that debt. 

We moved back to Virginia in March 2014 and we were fortunate to stay with my parents (and Neal's company paid to keep our belongings in storage) for a few months which saved us a lot as it meant we had hardly any bills to pay.  On the flip side, we didn't have a gas card from Neal's company anymore and he was driving our truck (we finally got smart and switched vehicles)  almost 100 miles every single day, so our gas bill sky-rocketed.  I also got my old job back  as soon as we returned to Virginia (another blessing!) so we maintained two-incomes. 

Side note: For full transparency I should mention, we  made money on our cross-country trip (a trip of a lifetime, by the way!).  Neal's company reimbursed us for all of our expenses (food, gas, lodging...the fun stuff was on us).  That meant we got paid like $.050 a mile or whatever the IRS says to pay.  Well, we got like 18 miles to the gallon on average or something.  And if gas is only like $3 a gallon, then when it was all said and done we ended up making money.  Be wise, folks.

Our bills increased moving back to Virginia (Hampton Roads is an expensive place to live!) and while we were both working, our incomes decreased slightly.  We continued to make a monthly budget and track every expense.  We also continued to increase our auto loan payments as we were really committed to paying off that stupid loan.  In June 2014 we began paying $750 a month instead of the previous $575.  So at this point we were basically doubling up on payments.  In October 2014 we increased our payments again to $1000 a month.  We were coming down to the wire and getting really  serious about being 100% debt free. 

I know this is an abrupt stopping point, but there's so much information here already and I have so much more to share.  In the next post I'll discuss our tithing (AWESOME things happened) and how we set up our budget.  Stay tuned!

P.S. Again, If you're even thinking about taking FPU.  Stop thinking.  GO SIGN UP!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Financial Freedom: The First Step

If you're just tuning in, you can check out the first two posts about our financial history and how we acquired $34,000 worth of debt

Welcome back!  When we left off last time we were talking about how we'd racked up roughly $34,000 in debt.  A lot of money.  Like I said before, this was (within a couple hundred dollars) the equivalent of the salary of my first real job.  So, yeah, that was (and is) what I consider to be quite a bit of debt.

Despite being in a chunk of debt already, I'm very glad to be able to say that Neal and I still made some wise decisions regarding that debt.  First of all, I really only "allowed" debt because I thought we needed it.  But from the get-go, I was determined to pay our debt off early.  Neal on the other hand, could care less whether we paid 100 times what was due or whether we paid the minimum.  Can you tell who the free-spirit is?

Because of my determination to pay off debt early, I always paid $50 to $100 (the actual number eludes me but I know I'm close here) more than my actual student loan bill each month....from day one.  Also, to give you a true reference, my student loan bill was only like 90 something dollars each month.  So I was essentially doubling up on payments. 

After we got married in August 2012 I didn't work from August 2012 until November 2012...and even then it was minimal, part time work until February 2013.  We lived pretty comfortably on one income.  We continued to only use our credit cards to pay for gas, and we continued to pay them off each and every month.  We started to save some money each month (10% give or take) but we were only tithing intermittently.  I was doing a monthly budget, but Neal didn't really care to be included in that, and I was pretty good at managing things so we both just left the day-to-day money-matters up to me.  We stuck tight to our budget for a couple of reasons, but mostly because we had to. 

In February 2013 I went back to work full-time and Neal and I were both working 10-12+ hour days every day.  We really fell off the budget bandwagon from about February til April.  We ate out almost every single night (we seriously only cooked at home like one, maybe two nights a week).  Not only that, but I frequently ate both lunch and breakfast out and Neal spent a lot of money on gas station food.  It was bad....for our wallets and our waistlines.  There was one great thing we did during this time; we spent a big chunk of Neal's bonus in March 2013 to pay off my first student loan ($3000).  We then continued to pay the same amount on my remaining student loan. 

Up until this point we had been paying the minimum on our auto loan ($385.18) but once we paid off my first student loan, we increased that amount to $400 a month.  Yep, you read that right, we increased our payment by a whopping FIFTEEN DOLLARS a month.   Haha. I seriously can't help but laugh at that now because I remember, at the time, thinking it was kind of a big deal.  Honestly, the only reason we increased our payment, was because it was easier to keep track of in our check register.  If we were already paying $385, it just made sense to round it up to an even $400.

In April-ish 2013 we got our budget fairly back under control and started cooking and eating more meals at home.  (Side note: If you ever need a reality check, write down all of your expenses for the month.  We were appalled by how much money we were spending at restaurants in a single week, let alone an entire month!)  In May 2013, we made the decision for me to quit my job.  Our household and marriage were not being cared for as they should have been and we agreed that in order for those to be a priority, I couldn't continue working 12 hour days every day. At the time, with my job, not working 10-12 hour days was not an option.  We knew this was a sacrifice financially, but agreed it was 100% worth it for the well-being of our marriage.  I stayed home from about halfway through May 2013 until November 2013.  During this time we, once again, stuck especially close to our budget and we started making some bigger financial cuts.  We got rid of cable, cut back our food bill, ate out significantly less, shopped less, got rid of Neal's smartphone (he's never looked back, by the way. Have I mentioned how awesome he is?!) and enjoyed cheaper date nights (hellllloooo, Redbox!). These changes alone saved us a few hundred dollars each month. 

In October 2013, we joined a small group through our church.  At one of our first meetings, we started talking about Financial Peace University.  Half of our group had already gone through the class earlier in the year, half of us hadn't.  The first class had been held like the day before, so those of us who hadn't gone through it yet, agreed we were going to commit and take the 9-week class. 

FPU was a game-changer for Neal and I.  It did a great job of giving information in a variety of ways which helped Neal and I get on the same page and for the first time in our relationship, we were both excited about our financial goals and our family's financial future.  For the first time in our marriage, we were both 100% invested in our finances.  We had a focus and clear [and agreed on] goals.

Stay tuned for the next post as I walk you through our FPU journey and how that class rocked our world!

P.S. If you're even thinking about taking FPU.  Stop thinking.  GO SIGN UP!