Five ways to save money right now (that don’t include living in a tiny house)

Ever since I started writing more about frugal living, I’ve gotten more & more direct messages asking for advice or tips on finances and savings, and on topics ranging from eliminating debt to investing in low-cost index funds to questions on how to stretch a dollar. I am not a finance person, nor do I claim to have all the answers, but I can share what has worked well for me. I was a mess when it came to managing my money in my 20s and have learned a lot in the last several years through reading, research, and practice. I’ve become passionate about the topic of frugality and money management (and how women manage their money, in particular) as I’ve gotten older. One of my only regrets in life is not learning more about money management when I was younger woman.

At the root of most of my (and Todd’s) decision-making is a core value of being careful and frugal with money, and there are many ways to save but I wanted to share five things that are easy to do today that will yield savings right away.

(A caveat — being frugal for us means being frugal with ourselves and the money we spend on our household. Being frugal doesn’t mean being ungenerous or stingy with others. This is just our personal MO, but we don’t apply frugality to charitable giving, gift-giving, and – this is an important one – tipping wait and bar staff at restaurants. If you can afford to eat or drink out, you can afford to tip. I believe in that wholeheartedly. And I could go on and on about ensuring service industry workers are afforded a living wage, but I won’t. I’ll just leave it here. Tipping is still very important in the US.)

Ok, on to five cost-saving measures you can apply to your life right now:

  1. Cut the (cable) cord.

Todd and I haven’t had cable TV since 2008 when I left cable news and no longer received it for free. We’ve never looked back. I just looked up current rates and found that the least expensive, most basic cable package in our area is $45/month ($540/year) and DISH is $90/month (1,080/year). Is it worth it? Have you calculated the amount of time you spend watching cable channels and what that equates to in dollars per minutes? I am guessing it’s not worth the money you spend.

An alternative: the Moku antenna for a one-time cost of $100.

Moku antenna – a one time cost of $100

We hooked this up to our home and get the NBC, ABC, CBS, and local Fox stations, as well as the three PBS channels, my favorite being Create TV. We also have the Amazon Firestick and watch videos through YouTube primarily, and also share some streaming services with my sisters (we provide Hulu at $6/month which we only have during the months that Handmaid’s Tale is on) which drastically reduces a monthly expense on TV.

2. Change internet providers

For many years I was fortunate that the company I worked for paid for our internet, but I left that job last year. I always encourage folks to ask their employer about this as a benefit or try negotiating it into your benefits package; the worst they can say is no, but maybe they’ll say yes! Todd’s company reimburses him for internet since he works from a home office, but he won’t be working there forever and we want to be more mobile, so we wanted to find an inexpensive alternative to the usual providers that would also work in most locations, and we were in luck. We discovered The Calyx Institute (https://www.calyxinstitute.org) – don’t let the weird name scare you.

We’re saving hundreds per year by using this company/non-profit and have converted a bunch of family members as well. The cost is $500/year and for that we receive 1 year 4G / LTE wireless and the Franklin R850, a personal hotspot. We connect two computers and two phones to this hotspot and have never had an issue with connectivity (you can check the website for coverage but the device uses the Sprint network). We also stream our TV through the device and occasionally one of us will disconnect one of our devices while we watch, but usually we don’t have to. I highly recommend checking them out and trying this instead of sticking with a more expensive provider.

3. Consider switching your cell phone plan

Again, my former employer used to pay for my monthly plan and my phone, and this is another benefit I highly encourage you to ask your employer about and try negotiating into your benefits package. But if you are on the hook for your own cell phone bill, as I am now, check out the best plan for what you use. Here’s a handy website where you can plug in what you need and what the least expensive options are for your coverage area : https://www.whistleout.com

I had formerly been on the Verizon plan but switched to Cricket Wireless and have the unlimited text, talk, and data plan for $55/month. That’s $20 less than the Verizon plan and I am currently in the market for a cheaper plan. Will keep you posted on what I find!

4. Use the library

Books and movies are free there! 🙂 It is actually a great community resource and one we’re already paying for through taxes so why not take advantage? We have a small library in our storage loft of 40 or so of the books we couldn’t give up, but we almost never buy books now.

The Cairo Public Library — we love our sweet little library and its staff

The library has almost everything you could need or want to read or watch and the only possible downfall is that sometimes you have to wait for your items to come in – a small price to pay when you consider the monetary savings.

5. Brown bag it for lunch

I work from home now but for several years I worked in an office and for three of those years I worked for the State Senate communications shop. Buying lunch at the State Capital was soooo easy to do and the options endless. I almost always brought my lunch, though, and got teased by some who were used to dropping money everyday for food. But I estimated I couldn’t get a lunch for less than $5/day which is $25/week and approximately $100/month, and $1,200 or so a year. On lunch. It’s relatively easy to make meals at home that cost $2 per meal or less, especially if you cut out meat, as we usually do. A big batch of rice and beans can last several lunches, and is dirt cheap especially if you buy your dry beans in bulk.

A batch of beans for a week’s worth of lunches

We buy a 50 pound bag for the year and try to make that the base in many of our meals. Embellish your rice and beans with tomatoes, salsa, avocado, sour cream, etc and it can be like a different lunch each day. 😉

I am the queen of beans and rice.

There are bigger, more complex ways to save as well and I’ll tackle some of those later this week but these are easy ways to get started if you want to spend less and save more. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but not having to stress about it gives peace of mind. I don’t think you can put a price tag on that.

I’m always eager to hear others’ savings strategies so feel free to share them!

Thanks for reading,

Jess

PS – People ask me often for good reads on financial independence. Here are two to get you started: Your Money or Your Life & The Simple Path to Wealth. Request ’em from the library! Happy reading.

Financial independence isn’t actually easy to achieve. We should stop saying it is.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the Financial Independence/Retiring Early (FIRE) movement, and some of the problems I see in the messaging around it.

Todd and I are working toward FI and would like to retire early as well to pursue other endeavors and to free up our time for more travel and eventually, more volunteerism. One of our reasons for tiny living, as I have mentioned here before, is to lessen the cost burden of our living expenses. On average Americans spend 40 percent of their budgets on housing and we wondered what we could do if we drastically reduced that or even eliminated a mortgage — could we accelerate our retirement? That’s a goal. In our lives, we’re also trying to actively fight the rampant consumerism that we both feel is shredding society, our values, and our happiness on a national scale. I think the goals of FIRE are wonderful — don’t be a slave to consumerism, buy less, save more, reduce your debt, invest any savings you have, and ensure you don’t have to work until you die. One of the best reads, IMO, on the topic is The Simple Path to Wealth. 

Here’s the thing. The path may be simple but it’s not necessarily easy. (I mean no disrespect to JL Collins who I think is an incredible writer and has helped tons of people along the way change their habits and become adept investors; in fact I recommend his book to anyone reading this post, and I share it all the time with people who ask me about financial independence.) However, not everyone is going to be able to easily save 25 times their annual spend and call it a day. The four percent rule is great, but getting there is not as straightforward a path for all.

Lately I have started noticing some of the more well-known and popular FIRE bloggers coming off more condescending, almost haughty (again, not Collins; he’s great). Some of them even sound more and more like they’re bragging about how much money they have and how little they need to work – this really rubs me the wrong way, and I’ve been reading on this topic for a long time. I am wondering how turned off someone new to the idea of FIRE would be reading these blogs.

For many people, achieving wealth isn’t ever going to be easy, and assuming that it would be is tone deaf and shows a stunning lack of awareness about the world around you.

First of all, not everyone is able to make the money that many in the FIRE movement make. Many are simply higher earners, and I believe most went to college – a privilege not afforded to all. Even when we talk about investing in Vanguard’s low cost index funds – keep in mind, you need a minimum of $3,000 just to get started. Many Americans don’t have a savings. So, to start investing is going to take some serious work especially for those trying to escape debt.

IMG_7281I wasn’t even thinking of him when I wrote this blog post – but then I saw this. Thanks for proving my point, Dave. 

There are systems in place and institutional barriers that prohibit much of what makes wealth possible – we have inequities in education, huge income inequality, racial barriers to housing and banking, just to name some of the obstacles to achieving financial independence. Not to mention the sheer number of people living in poverty (Forty million people in this country alone live below the poverty line) . For some people a medical or health emergency can wipe out their life savings and burden them with huge amounts of debt. We hear the stories all the time of people launching GoFundMe pages to be able to afford their medical costs.

These are HUGE issues, and I don’t expect all FIRE bloggers to take them all on. But perhaps a modicum of modesty, self-awareness, and gratefulness that we even have the ability to work towards these goals would go a long way.

To even explore the idea of FIRE means we have privilege. For me, in addition to a long list of ways I know I am incredibly fortunate, I also have the privilege of free time to research FIRE in the first place, and the ease of access to the information that has helped me become more financially secure. Not everyone has these things. It’s ok – in fact, it’s the right thing to do – to acknowledge that where you are in life may not be simply because of your own hard work.

That’s why it was refreshing for me recently to read Elizabeth Willard Thames’ Meet The Frugalwoods; she does not hide from her privilege or shame those who don’t attain financial independence. She fully acknowledges, like I do, she started out ahead. I also heard an episode of The Fairer Cents podcast which also took on some of the inequities that I’ve been thinking about; the hosts focus on women and money specifically. I recommend both of these for different (female) voices in the FIRE movement.

I guess what I am trying to get off my chest is that if you can achieve FIRE, bravo. But acknowledge your good fortune and privilege with some awareness that it’s not as achievable for everyone (heck, you can even acknowledge your own hard work!). Just don’t shame others who either can’t or don’t achieve the same. Be encouraging. Be humble. Just don’t keep telling everyone it’s easy. Everyone’s path will be different. There is no one spot from which everyone starts. Some start ahead, and some start from behind.

I am curious if anyone else out there feels similarly, or disagrees with me. I love to hear differing perspectives. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Thanks for reading,

Jess

Why I left Facebook. Most likely forever.

Earlier today I checked the date and realized it’s been exactly one week since I left Facebook, and it’s odd – it feels like it was just yesterday but it also feels like forever ago (probably because I have so much more free time!).

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I feel so much better today than a did a week ago, and I am pretty sure I’m never going back.

The reasons are many but there was one specific moment that pushed me over the edge. Before we get to that I should say I had been considering it for months if not longer. In addition to losing precious time by passively scrolling through a feed of hundreds of people’s news, I knew that Facebook was said to be bad for one’s mental health, the company itself is IMO becoming more and more unethical, and the spread of misinformation was giving me huge anxiety. Not a day went by that I wouldn’t see numerous posts with inaccurate information, really bad memes, and so much hostility (namely about politics or anything remotely political). I’m not blameless and in fact, if I’m being honest, I can say I was part of the problem — many of my posts had a political slant and I’ve instigated some, shall we say, intense conversations. I’m a political person by nature (and I lean very left). And in the age of Trump and the ease with which false information could and did spread like wildfire, it was giving this former news girl incredible angst.

But there was a part of me that wanted to stay on and fight the fight. You know, send the anti-vaxxers real, scientific articles. Send the climate change deniers the same. Cite sources, provide data, fact check dates, provide links to real news stories, in an era of rampant fake news (a term I hate with all the fibers of my being!) Oh my gosh, it became so exhausting, not to mention a colossal waste of time because as one of my best friends told me last week, “You’re not changing anyone’s mind on that forum.” (You are right, Em!).

Another thing about Facebook – most of our social media circles are bigger than the circles we actually maintain in real life, so we’re “friends” with folks with whom we may never see in person, which was definitely the case for me. I’ve had four jobs since graduating college so if you take into account family, high school friends, college friends, grad school friends, and co-workers and acquaintances along the way, it makes for one heck of an eclectic mix.

And a week ago today, I saw a post from an old acquaintance I probably hadn’t seen in person in nearly a decade. He’s very right-leaning in his politics but that’s not the issue. A lot of people in my life identify as Conservative, but this is more than that. He often posts commentary that’s rife with inaccuracies and conspiracy theories, and tinged with bigotry. I scroll by his nonsense OFTEN, but this particular day I was so surprised by the level of hypocrisy on his wall, I just had to chime in. Well, very quickly the conversation, if you can call it that, devolved into name-calling, personal attacks, and a level of hatred from him and his friends that I was unprepared for. It was clear (since he said it himself) that my posts (on my page) have provoked rage in him for two years!! Yes, that does beg the question: why did he not unfollow or unfriend me? Unless he wanted to keep hating me? I don’t know, I don’t really care – in fact, I care less and less every day.

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Anyway, the conversation wasn’t pretty and was getting less so by the minute. That’s when I decided to go all in and leave Facebook altogether.

I had been afraid of what I’d be missing out on (cute baby and pet pics, friends’ travel photos) but what was happening on there more routinely was so unpleasant.

Here are two over-arching thoughts I’ve had in my week of freedom.

  1. In the past week, I’ve seen or spoken directly to so many of the people I love! I’ve had two nights out with girlfriends, I have an on-going text thread with three besties from high school, another bff from high school and I are planning a weekend get-together this spring, I continue to have an on-going text thread with my family, I’ve taken walks with my husband sans cell phone, had dinner with my mom, dad, and uncle, another night Todd and I had dinner with his mom, I scheduled a lunch with a friend, got a ton of actual work done – both professional work and work around the house and yard, had a hilarious and much-needed work-together day with colleagues (we typically work remotely & from home), and on Sunday a friend and I got together to make our own homemade soap! I don’t give you this run down to show you how busy I am – but to reinforce the idea that face-to-face and in-person interactions and get-togethers are really what make our lives rich. I don’t think I will miss out on the big events in my friends’ lives simply because I am not on Facebook (also, please remember to text me or go really old school and email me!). Will I miss some interesting reading and cute pictures? Sure. But the tradeoff is a net positive. I want to nurture the relationships that matter to me, and I want to do it in person, not virtually.
  2. My other thought is: why was I arguing with this person who is not even a friend of mine, barely an acquaintance at this point, and why did his opinion even matter to me? Why did I know his political thinking, and in what other dimension of life, or scenario, should I know this stuff? Isn’t it weird to think that before social media we just knew people without knowing their political affiliations? I was wasting actual time – one of my most valuable commodities — on someone who means nothing to me (not to be harsh, but he simply doesn’t). It was more about my stubbornness and wanting to be “right”. What a fool’s errand I was on.

I think there is a LOT of good on social media, don’t get me wrong. Lots of good news is spread that way. But lots of bad news is spread that way, too. I also know myself. I have a very hard time biting my tongue, and I will inevitably argue with people which is pointless — and if you can scroll through without the negative thoughts I was having, more power to you! I want to be more intentional with my time and not checking Facebook each day (and using the screen time app to impose a time limit of 30 minutes max per day on my Instagram, which still seems high), has actually been a relief. Whereas I thought I’d be missing out, now I think being on Facebook would have me missing out on what I’ve gained.

Has anyone else left social media platforms and lived to tell the tale? Was it a positive or negative? Thinking about pulling the trigger on leaving but hesitating? Would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Thanks for reading,

-Jess

 

 

 

 

 

Conscious gift-giving — not just for tiny house people

I love this time of year – the music, the decorations (the lights!), the movies (White Christmas, Elf, Home Alone, Love Actually, etc), the cookies, family, friends, get-togethers, tradition-keeping, the warmth.

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But what I don’t love is the over-commercialization of the holidays. I worry about America in general this time of year. I know that may sound dramatic, but I really long for a return to what Christmas and the holidays are supposed to be about  – for everyone, not just for myself. I am genuinely worried that we’re forgetting the meaning entirely.

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Recently I was listening – I mean, really listening – to the advertisements in advance of Black Friday. We’re being told we’re not cool/successful/attractive/happy/etcetera if we don’t own this latest whatever is being peddled. Oh, and you’re not a good parent if you don’t buy your child the latest hot toy.  We’re bombarded with these ads, and they’re nearly inescapable. Even if you don’t watch TV, ads come up on social media feeds, online, and on the radio. And instead of the “holiday season”, it’s now, sadly, the “holiday shopping season”. Maybe this isn’t new, but it certainly feels like it’s getting worse.

And though this is coming from someone who works in social media, and also loves her Instagram, social media isn’t helping.  With so much over-sharing of photos that showcase the bounty of presents under the Christmas tree on Facebook and Instagram, there may also be some pressure to keep up with the Joneses.

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” said Teddy Roosevelt, and maybe those photos posted around the holidays make us think we’re not doing the holidays right, that our pile of presents isn’t big enough.

The true meaning of the holiday season is being marred by the huge emphasis we Americans place on buying, buying, buying. Consumerism is out of control, and rather than focus on what this time of year is truly about – giving to those in need, connectedness, family, tradition, gratefulness for the abundance around us, charity, spending time with those we love – many of us stress out, spend too much time in malls, and buy presents frantically, missing the season entirely.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Below I share a few ideas that maintain the spirit of giving, but with an emphasis on experiences and time together with those we love.

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A caveat – we don’t have kids so this is purely a recap of my own experiences, and I’d never dare suggest depriving little ones from the joys of unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning. But I don’t personally think people should go into debt just for that “wow factor” on Christmas morning. I think it’s a healthy thing to teach children about mindful gift-giving even at a young age. Not to mention, all the stuff we collect over our lifetimes will still be here on this planet long after we’re gone… but I digress…

I hope these ideas may spark an idea or two for whoever is reading, and inspire more conscious gift-giving this season.

  1. Many years ago, when the kids of the family were no longer kids, my extended family decided that instead of more gifts, we’d instead play the Left-Right Game. The entire family sits in a big circle in the living room, and a designated family member, usually my cousin Kathy who is great with words and presentation, was responsible for writing a story with the words “left” and “right” throughout, and then reading it and acting it out. Each player contributed a $20 bill to a basket and that basket was passed around the circle, changing directions and hands each time the word “left” or “right” was said. At the end of the game, whoever was left holding the basket contributed the collected money to the charity of his or her choice. This game was great fun, and gave us lots of laughs and wonderful memories – and importantly, since we all had everything we needed, we loved giving to a worthy charity each year. (Google left-right game if my description isn’t clear!) You can alter this game to your liking, and get creative.

Screen Shot 2018-12-06 at 1.07.54 PMMy sister and cousin after one year of playing the Left Right Game and face-timing with another sister who was in France for the holidays

2. A few years before Todd and I even considered downsizing, we knew we just didn’t need more stuff, and had a hard time coming up with gift ideas for each other. Every holiday season, I racked my brain but couldn’t think of anything I really needed or wanted. So we decided on a new idea. We both love a good cocktail. So, each of us decided to find a recipe for a new cocktail we’d never had and purchase the ingredients for said cocktail and give them to each other on Christmas – and then quickly whip them up to sample! This was a fun one, and can be done with food, coffee, other warm drinks – doesn’t have to be cocktails. It’s a way to get a little more creative and not fill your home with things you won’t use or don’t want.

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3. Experiences are key. I think what many of us are longing for isn’t more in terms of material belongings, but more human connection. My sister Sarah has given some great experiential gifts in past years, such as Moroccan/African cooking classes for the two of us. One year she also bought the ingredients and the cookie mold for Lebanese cookies called Mamoul, and we used my grandmother’s old recipe to make them together for the first time. Trust me – these are gifts that don’t fill your house up with stuff, but fill your life with memories and experiences that you’ll cherish even more.

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4. For a few years we played another game with my immediate family where each of four households (Jess/Todd, Sarah/JP, Becca/Jamie, and my mom and dad) would secretly pick a name of another household and we’d each be responsible for giving a gift to just that couple. A lot of the time, we aimed to get creative and make all or part of the gift – there were things like indoor herb gardens, booze-infused fruit, gardening gifts, homemade soaps and lotions, sleeping bags, camping gear, and other memorable handmade gifts. We also “adopted a family” at Christmastime, which I know many other family members and friends do, and I believe giving to those in need is truly one of the best ways to celebrate the season.

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5. Todd and I don’t really do many tangible gifts anymore, opting to purchase airfare around the holidays so we can travel together somewhere new in the New Year. Screen Shot 2018-12-06 at 1.01.11 PM

There are incredible deals on international airfare around Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Travel Deal Tuesday, as well as into the holiday season, and since we both place a huge premium on travel, this is our gift to each other.

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6. But when we do buy tangible gifts, it’s often things like our kayaks which we got for our first wedding anniversary, camping supplies like a solar shower, and sleeping pads, and a recent bike purchase as our old bikes were totaled in a car accident last year – so we opt for things we can use in experiences together which make our life together fuller.

7. I mentioned it above a few times, but giving to those in need, either through adopting a family, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or collecting for a charity, is really one of the most gratifying ways to celebrate this season, and is what Christmas is truly about.

8. A few more ways to celebrate the season that we need more of: carol singing, cookie baking, Christmas cocktail parties, sleigh rides, ghost stories by the fire. Any I missed? Please do share!

I hope some of these ideas have been helpful, and please feel free to leave ideas or thoughts in the comments, or by emailing me and if there are a bunch of other good ones, we can do a follow up post.

Enjoy the holidays. They’re over in the blink of an eye. I hope you have meaningful time with family and friends, and I wish you love, peace, and warmth this season and into the New Year.

PS – Just because I love seeing how other countries do it, here is one of my favorite Rick Steves episodes on Christmas traditions in Europe!

A photo collection of some of my favorite Christmas memories

 

You’re not going to win the lottery. (Here’s a better way to make your $2 – or more – grow)

Hey, you.

I have some news for you. You’re not going to win the lottery (Powerball and Mega Millions) tonight. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you.

Yes, it’s fun to fantasize about all the things you could do with that kind of insane windfall. But it’s not going to happen. You’re more likely to win an Academy Award or be killed by a vending machine.

I have a better idea of what you could do with that two bucks you’ll waste on a ticket (Bear with me, I am not necessarily great at math. But I am great at saving.)

Say you spend $2 every week on the lottery a year, for 30 years. That’s $104/year for 30 years. (Don’t even get me started on how awful the lottery is and how it’s essentially a tax on the poor.)

Take the $2 you’d spend on a weekly lottery ticket and instead invest it. Invest it, ideally, in Vanguard low-cost index funds.

Over 30 years’ time, taking into consideration compounding interest, you could turn that $2/week, $104/year into 20,632.85. (I used this compounding interest calculator from MoneyChimp.com). I also used an interest rate of 10 percent, which is a conservative number. It’s important to note that the returns are usually better than that for Vanguard low cost index funds. They have an average annual return of more than 11 percent.

Screen Shot 2018-10-19 at 10.03.21 AMAnd this number is actually pretty low. Market Watch says Americans spends an average of $206.69 per year on the lottery. If you compound that amount, after 30 years you’d have $41,005.81. In New York where we live, New Yorkers spend an average of $398.77 per year on the lottery. If you take that money and instead invest it for 30 years, you’d have 79,113.11 at the end, give or take. That’s a nice way to make a $7.65 per week investment grow.

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Todd just said to me, “But that’s nothing compared to millions.”

Right. But you’re not going to win. Remember that.

If you think your $2 (or more!?) is going to some good, worthwhile cause like education or the environment – don’t be fooled.

From this Fortune article:

“Patrick Pierce, a political science professor at St. Mary College, has studied lotteries and how states spend the revenue lotteries generate. He found that education spending does jump in the first year after a state adopts a lottery system. But after that, the pace of education spending tends to slow. By the eighth year, education spending is actually lower than it likely would have been if the lotto had not been adopted. Pierce says the money that would have gone to school spending is diverted elsewhere or used for voter-friendly tax cuts.”

 So if you really want to see your $2 (or a couple bucks more) translate into something much, much more than it’s worth now, don’t spend it on the lottery. Invest it wisely and watch it grow.

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