Monday, July 10, 2017

It's Not About Us

As you all know, we've been trying to grow our family for years.  (If you don't, you can read here and here).  It definitely hasn't been all rainbows and butterflies, but, to be completely honest, this journey also hasn't been the devastating one we thought it'd be.  For a while I really "blamed" that on just disconnecting myself emotionally from the process, especially during fertility treatments. Then I realized it wasn't anything I had done, but it was Jesus.

I've known many many women and couples who have struggled with fertility and growing their family.  One of the main themes I noticed when I listened to their stories was how heartbreaking it was month after month, cycle after cycle, to get a negative test.  The waiting. The disappointment.

And I knew I could never handle that.  I longed to be a Mama.  I still do.  But I knew I'd never survive the heartbreak over and over again. 

We prayed and leaned on Jesus before fertility treatments.  We watched Him do some major works in our marriage and He showed Himself in ways we'd never experienced before.  But, y'all, I have never leaned on Jesus or known Him like I have since beginning fertility treatments, and now, as we are pursuing adoption.  I've known Jesus personally since I was in the 7th grade.  He's been my strength and confidant through many a trial over the years.   But nothing like this. 

Jesus has become my all.  I'm honestly ashamed to admit this, but until this journey I wasn't in the Word every day. I didn't talk to Him every day.  But I knew I had to, needed to, if I was going to survive this.  We committed to lean on Jesus every day, through every decision. 

Literally not a step of our fertility treatments went by without us praying about it and digging in His Word.  There were times we took "breaks" because the Lord put on our hearts to pause.  We stopped fertility treatments altogether because He told us too.  We're now pursuing adoption because He led us here. 

Jesus took away our anxiety because we trusted Him.  Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you [1 Peter 5:7].  We didn't have to stress about making decisions because we knew He already had the answer, we just needed to be with Him and He'd tell us.  And He did.  And He does.

As we sit here, waiting to be matched and one day meet our child, we rest in the assurance that Jesus already knows that child.  He knows the expectant mom.  And He's chosen them specifically for us, and us for them. Our lives will be woven with theirs and we'll all be forever changed.  We won't be changed because of us, but because of Jesus.  

I could write pages and pages about the things, big and small, that the Lord has done.  He is able to do more than all we ask or imagine [Ephesians 3:20].  And He already has over and over again. Through every step of this journey, and our lives, we want to make much of Jesus.  He is the vine, we are the branches, and apart from Him we are nothing [John 15:5].

I don't write any of this as if it's just been an easy journey so far.  It's been far from it.  But we rest in this:  Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may me mature and complete, not lacking anything. [James 1:2-4].  He is making us complete through all of this.  He's making us complete in Jesus and He's making our family complete. 

Jesus gets all the glory, y'all.  To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. [Ephesians 3:21]

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Our Biggest Adventure Yet

Those of you who have known me closely for a long time probably know that I've always talked about adopting "one day."  For Neal it wasn't quite that easy.  Maybe down the road he'll share more of his journey through navigating his thoughts and feelings on adoption.  But for now I'll just say that while he was never against adoption, it just wasn't really on the radar for him...that was until I came along (as a serious girlfriend, fiance, and now, wife).  While I never pushed on the topic, I did talk about my desires openly and I just left that chapter of our story up to the Lord. 

I remember sometime early last year, while driving to Gloucester, crossing the bridge to be exact,  Neal said, COMPLETELY out of the blue, "I've been thinking about adoption a lot lately."  And I was completely caught off guard.  Pretty sure I just said "What?" Haaaa.  That sort of opened a conversation for us about what that may look like for us one day.  We just agreed to pray about it and what God had in store for our family.  Over time we'd gotten a bit more clarity and our hearts were certainly being changed, but we still didn't know what to do in regard to expanding our family. 

During this time we just continued with fertility treatments, of which not a single one has been successful.  We discussed adoption more and more but still weren't sure what to do.  Is it right for us? Are we right for it?  If we adopt do we do infant adoption? Foster care adoption? International adoption?  So. We did nothing. 

Then November (2016) came.  Did you know that November is "National Adoption Month"? Yeah. Us either.  Then it was suddenly, EVERYWHERE, and I mean EVERYWHERE, there were signs pointing to adoption.  Literal billboards, radio stations (Christian and secular alike), SEVERAL sermons our pastor gave, friends, devotions we read, the school I work at. OH MY GOSH.  Adoption was swirling around us.  But, what's crazy (hindsight is 20/20!) is that we still weren't "sure."  Sure, there were plenty of times where something would happen and we'd just look at each other like "Okay, there's another 'sign'."  But we just didn't "get it" yet. 

One day I was praying and I was asking God for clarity and I just stopped praying.  I just didn't even know what to ask for because it was evident in that moment that while we didn't know the details, God had already made it abundantly clear that we were to pursue adoption.  Neal and I talked about it and we started checking out agencies and we made plans on how to tell our families over the holidays.

Then we didn't.  We still had one more fertility treatment to go (we'd set up a plan for a series of a few treatments and timing was critical).  We decided we'd go through with this one last treatment and, ya know, in our wisdom (NOT!), give God time to say "just kidding, not yet guys!".  So we (I) took all the medications for this last fertility treatment and we went in for the ultrasound to see if we were ready to go through with this round.  Well, the doctor starts looking and there's not a single viable egg.  EVERY single other round, I've had 1-2 "good" eggs.  This time, none.  Then, on top of that, I had this really weird cyst form.  Meaning, even if I had a viable egg, we couldn't do this treatment anyway. 

Y'all. Our eyes were opened that afternoon.  We left and went for a walk at a local mall (we do this often after appointments to sort of "process" what just happened).  We didn't really say a whole lot because we both just knew.  There was so much peace.  We knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it wasn't coincidence that my body was not responding this time and that, instead, this weird cyst formed.  It was God.  God knew we were doubting (not our finest moment) and He knew we needed a CLEAR sign (ya know, even more clear than literal BILLBOARDS).  He knew we'd never risk my health for me to bear a child.  The clarity He gave us was confirmed even more when I went back to the doctor to check on that cyst at the beginning of my next cycle a few weeks later, and it was gone. Completely gone. The cyst that doctors said would take at least 2-3 cycles (months) to go away was complete gone within a matter of a couple weeks.  The golf ball size cyst was GONE. G-O-N-E. 

That's our God.  Faithful.  And loving.  Maybe in ways I would never even imagine, but He provided for us and He's been loving us each step of this journey to growing our family.  And He's put us on a path which is leading us to the biggest adventure of our lives.  We're growing our family through adoption!

Heather Lynne Photography

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?) 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.  

Image Link
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.  

Image Link
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  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! 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.