Monday, November 13, 2017

How to Throw a Fancy Wedding for $10K

Over the weekend, Nathan and I celebrated our five year wedding anniversary. (Well, I use the term "celebrate" lightly. We've both been sick all week, so it was more a "snuggle under a quilt and drink a bottle of wine while watching Jeopardy" kind of celebration. We plan to go out for a fancy dinner next week, when we're feeling better.) 

Five years feels significant - especially when added to the ten we already had when we got married. A grand total of fifteen years with one person is a lot, and sometimes thinking about how far we've come stuns me. Who would have thought that weird guy I met at a college party who, at the time, lived in an actual tent, would end up my husband? Not me, that's for sure. Yet here we are, and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. 

In honor of our anniversary, and in keeping with the loose theme of personal finance, I'm re-sharing an article I wrote a few years ago about what where we splurged and where we saved in regard to our wedding. We got married pre-budget, pre-YNAB, pre-any idea of how money actually worked, but we were still fairly frugal people who loved a good deal. Some things never change. 

When Nathan and I decided to get married on our ten year anniversary, we didn’t know we’d both be back in school, with the bank account to prove it. At first, our $10,000 budget seemed like more than enough – until we started actually planning. As it turns out, weddings are really expensive! For a moment we considered postponing the event for a few more years (we'd already waited ten, after all), but quickly realized that was ridiculous. Instead, we saved where we could, splurged as needed, and ended up with a perfect day. Here are some of the choices that got us there. 

Save: Location.

For a couple that met in New York, lived in Texas, and had recently moved to North Carolina, choosing where to wed was not a cut and dry issue. We originally wanted to get married in New York – that's where our relationship began, and many of our friends and family still live there. Unfortunately, every venue we looked at was prohibitively expensive. I'm talking $4,000 for an empty barn with no heat or indoor plumbing. We switched our search to North Carolina and almost immediately found a historic train depot for only $600 - tables and chairs included. While we saved a ton of money, it meant that we were essentially hosting a destination wedding. However, considering how scattered our friends and family were, a large contingent would be traveling no matter what. We might as well make them come to us. 

Splurge: My dress.

Our wedding was five years ago, but every time I'm in a department store or thrift shop, I find a perfect, beautiful, and dirt-cheap wedding dress that would look amazing on me. Part of me regrets that I didn't go that route, and instead bought a dress from David’s Bridal. It was on sale, yes, but it still clocked in at $600. The main reason I chose it (besides being very beautiful) was because I only had one opportunity to go dress hunting with my mom and two younger sisters. Sharing the experience with them was really special, and worth every penny.

Save: Friend-ors.

Thanks to our super talented and generous friends, we avoided most of the usual vendors and relied on their kindness instead. One of my bridesmaids, who is a professional baker, made over 100 vegan cupcakes for the wedding. Another friend, who is actual pastor, officiated the ceremony. Two of our friends known for their epic dance parties took on DJ duties. My old college roommate served as day-of coordinator and bouquet-maker, crafting lovely arrangements from flowers we bought in bulk at Sam's Club. And we all had a great time drinking mimosas while decorating the space and assembling centerpieces. The only actual vendors we hired were caterers, because I was not about to ask my BFFs to cook dinner for 60 people. (Even I have my limits.) By the time I walked down the aisle, our handmade wedding was filled with so many personal touches and so much love, that even if I had all the money in the world, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Splurge: Party bus.

Our wedding venue was located 30 miles down a long, dark highway, in an area unfamiliar to 90% of our guests. We wanted everyone to have a good time (IE, drink as much as they wanted) and we needed them to be safe. Asking everyone to find a taxi seemed complicated, and Uber and Lyft hadn't come to coastal North Carolina yet. So we dropped $700 (more than the cost of the actual venue!) and rented a bus to take guests back and forth from the hotel to the wedding. At the end of the night, my brand new husband and I also boarded the bus back to Wilmington, because as it turns out, we needed a ride and we are not fancy. While the party bus was one of the most expensive items in our wedding budget, the peace of mind it provided was priceless.

In the end, it didn’t matter how much we spent or which corners we cut. The things I remember the most – all our loved ones in one place, our first kiss as husband and wife, the awesome dance party – ended up costing the least. Funny how that works.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The 5 Stages of Budget Living

The grass is always greener on the other side.

I've sat down four or five times in the last two weeks, with the simple goal of writing a blog post. Each time the same thing happens - I open a draft, stare into space, sigh heavily, and close the tab. It's not that I don't want to blog. It's just that the topic I felt so passionate about a few months ago - living on the cheap - has lately felt more like a chore. 

This is not to say I've already switched gears and abandoned my tiny baby budget living blog. I will continue to write sporadically about my adventures in living on less. It's just that I've entered a new phase. Much like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief, budget living, too, is experienced in steps. Allow me to illustrate. 

Stage One: Denial 

You're living the good life, focusing only on the moment at hand. Delicious dinners at your favorite restaurants. Good wine and craft beer. Flights and hotels to see friends and family. Donations to all your favorite charities. You tell yourself that you're not being completely irresponsible - it's not like you're buying fur coats and fancy cars. You're frugal enough that you can rationalize pretty much anything. Meanwhile, your credit card debt is mounting. Interest fees are eating you alive. Your student loans are so staggering that you wonder if someone accidentally added an extra zero when you weren't looking. Eventually, your worries about the future begin to erode the joy you feel in each moment. Your life is not sustainable, and your denial is no longer working. It's time to face the facts. 

Stage Two: Anger 

The facts are not good, and you are not happy. In fact, you're angry. Angry at the inflation of tuition, which has made Sallie Mae a permanent part of your life. Angry with your parents, who did not teach you how money actually works. Angry about capitalism in general, which forces you to work within an unfair and inhuman system. Angry at your past self, for being young and dumb and irresponsible, and whose mistakes you must now pay off. 

Stage Three: Bargaining 

Okay, you tell yourself. Anger is only helpful if I use it as motivation. I may have made mistakes in the past, but I'm smarter now. I'll only make good decisions from here on out. I'll make a budget and stick to it. I won't eat at any restaurants for the next ten years. I'll ride my bike as much as possible, and wear this cardigan even though it has holes in the sleeves, and skip holidays and birthdays, and eat lentils three days in a row, and start up a blog about budget living. I will embody thrift and frugality and watch my net worth rise like a phoenix from the ashes. 

(In case you were wondering, this is the stage I've been at for the last year or so. Which brings us - and me - to stage four.) 

Stage Four: Depression 

You've been doing everything right, making sacrifices left and right. And it's working, but wow! is it slow going. As it turns out, racking up debt is a lot faster than paying it off. As a consequence, your passion and enthusiasm begin to lag. You're tired, plain and simple. Lentils, which you once lauded for being cheap, nutritions, and delicious, now turn your stomach. Your home, which you once appreciated for its low rent and reasonable comfort, now seems drab and dull. You watch your friends make big transitions - starting families, buying houses, publishing books, going on glamorous overseas trips - and you are jealous. Restless. And - yes - depressed. 

(Hello, stage four! How not-nice to see you.) 

Stage Five: Acceptance 

Acceptance looks different for everyone. In the original five stages of grief, it's described as an understanding that your life will never be the same after the death of a loved one, and that the reality you are left with is your "new normal." While facing your debt and embracing frugality is not even close to the trauma of as losing someone, acceptance is still a key moment. At this stage, you will recognize that budget living is not a phase, but a way of life. You won't emerge on the other side, ready and able to spend like you did when you were younger. You won't reward yourself for paying off debt by buying, for example, a sailboat. Instead, you will continue to save your pennies, watch your budget, and live within your means. This is your new normal. This is your life. Accept it, embrace it, and find joy in hard work and simple pleasures. 

This is the stage I'd like to reach, but I'm stuck somewhere between bargaining and depression. Which is... normal, I guess. On the bright side, writing this out has made me feel a bit better about my debt-free journey, slow as it may be. It takes some of the pressure off, too - I don't have to be perfect or thrilled about my life at every moment in order to share the ups and downs. I just have to be honest - with myself, my readers, and my wallet. That, I can do. 

In the meantime, tell me what stage you've reached, and how you plan to get to the next one - especially if you're sitting pretty at acceptance! 

Monday, October 16, 2017

5 Frugal Things: Back on Track

Camping at Carolina Beach State Park = Good, Cheap Fun

Apparently starting a fancy, brand new job means there is even less time for blogging than usual. Sorry for my silence these last few weeks! The good news is that I've settled into my new role and as a result I feel more energized about every area of my life. Exercise? Killing it. Writing? Every morning. Dinner? A masterpiece. It's amazing how fixing one part of your life improves everything. A rising tide, right? 

Even though I haven't been blogging regularly, I remain frugal and budget-minded. We took on some debt recently and after paying off our credit cards, seeing our net worth sink was not a good feeling. The current goal is get out of the red as fast as possible, which means continuing to live like I did not just get a big raise. That should be pretty easy, to be honest. Frugality is a habit and we've been practicing for pretty much our whole lives. Which brings us to these most recent frugal accomplishments. 

1. Chased down a freelance check. 

I am still committed to cutting way back on freelance work, but before that change took hold I did one last big project for a friend of a friend of a friend. It only kind of wanted to do it, so I gave a pretty high quote for the work, thinking they wouldn't be able to afford me. Apparently their budget was bigger than mine, so off I went. Of course, the hardest part of freelance is actually getting the check, and it took a few polite reminders until they finally acknowledged my invoice. I put the money straight into savings, which we had to dip into for the down payment on my car, and that was a big help. 

2. Wrote our booze budget on the fridge. 

While I am still fully committed to YNAB and check it multiple times a day, my husband remains supportive but hands-off. Like, he'll tell people how great YNAB is and how it changed our lives, but he does not open the app and look at our categories. Since the only thing he ever buys is beer and/or wine, I started jotting our booze budget balance on the dry erase board in the kitchen where I plan our weekly meals. So far, it is appearing to keep him in line. (Except for when he slips extra 1s and 0s in the total posted. I see you, Nathan.) 

3. Joined The Produce Box. 

For the last year or so, my good friend Kat has been getting her veggies via a weekly subscription to The Produce Box (<-- my referral link). It's basically a CSA, but the food comes from a variety of North Carolina farms and is delivered to your doorstep once a week. I haven't done the math, and it's almost certainly more expensive then just buying the same items at the grocery store, but I'm considering it a frugal win for a few reasons. First, when you eat 95% of your meals at home, it's easy to lose your cooking mojo, fall into a rut, and order a pizza. By getting a box of fresh ingredients each week, I feel excited and motivated to cook them. Second, budgets aren't just about spending less. They're about making sure you spend your money mindfully, in a way that aligns with your morals. Supporting small farms, getting produce locally, and eating veggies when they're in season makes me feel good about my choices and healthier, too. Plus my monthly grocery budget hasn't gone up as a result, so it's a win all around. 

4. Paid off a small debt. 

About a year ago, I went to a chiropractor three times a week, for three months. My back had been bothering me for a while, and in a moment of desperation I got roped into an extensive and expensive treatment plan. Even though I stopped going months ago, I've continued to make monthly payments. I'm still not sold on chiropractic care (even though I must admit my back has been much better ever since) but I definitely felt the pain each time that automatic withdrawal hit. Which is why I'm so happy that I just made my last payment. Now I can put that money toward other things... like paying off my car faster. 

5. Enjoyed free snacks at work. 

The best part of my new job is that we have a fully stocked kitchen filled with all types of healthy snacks that are free for the taking. String cheese. Chobani yogurt. Snapea crisps. Luna bars. An espresso machine! As someone who lives for snacks and hates spending money, taking advantage of these freebies has been a wonderful and delicious perk. 

That's it for me! I'm hoping to get back to blogging once a week, so stay tuned for more adventures in the life of a late bloomer on a budget. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

How Learning to Budget Helped Me Get a New Job

Those who follow me on Instagram and Twitter have already figured out the news. For those who prefer blog posts, I'm happy to share it here as well: I got a new job! 

It all started with my budget. No, really. As you're probably well aware because I never shut up about it, I began using YNAB in May 2016 to manage my money, slay my debt, and become a budgeting superstar. (Want a referral code? Here you go.) The YNAB method, in which you give every dollar a job and budget to zero, helped me understand how far my money actually went.

At first this was thrilling. In the past, managing my money amounted to putting out fires and occasionally getting scorched. With YNAB, I was able to make decisions about how to spend my money in advance, stockpiling kindling for a controlled burn. (And with that, I believe this 🔥 metaphor is finished. Thank goodness.) 

Once our immediate emergencies (like paying off $13K in credit card debt and learning to live on one income) were handled, we started to look ahead. And the future... well... it didn't look great. Sure, my husband was back in school with the hopes of eventually landing a lucrative career, but my earning potential had stalled out. To make up the difference, I picked up a lot of freelance work this past year. While the extra cash kept us from dipping into our savings, it wasn't sustainable - I was stressed out, overworked, and constantly juggling deadlines. Plus my own writing, which is incredibly important to me, suffered from lack of time and attention. A few months ago I realized that the side hustle lifestyle, despite the way it's glorified and celebrated, simply wasn't for me. I didn't want to hack my paycheck or monetize my free time. What I wanted was a job that paid enough, so I started looking for one.

Job hunting, as I'm sure you know, is not a pleasant process. Everyone says that it's easier to find a job when you already have one, but I beg to differ. When you're already working 40 hours a week it's really hard to find the time and the motivation to pick through job boards, rewrite your cover letter, schedule screening calls, attend interviews, and write sample articles. (I was applying for marketing and content writing jobs.) Needless to say, my job search was a long and slow process, with a lot of false starts and shattered hopes. And then a really good opportunity opened up right here in Wilmington. The company is growing by leaps and bounds, a bunch of my friends already work there, the benefits are AMAZING, and the job description sounded as if it was written just for me. I applied. I interviewed. And reader - I got the job.

Today is my first day as the Content and Social Media Specialist at a company that bills itself as the "worldwide leader in cloud banking." This position is in-house so, unlike the marketing agency where I previously worked, I only have one client to focus on. This will allow me to pitch more ambitious campaigns, all while taking a deep dive into the fintech world, carving out a niche for myself, and working for a company that truly values its employees.

I'm grateful today for a lot of reasons, not least of which is YNAB. Budgeting my money showed me its value, which in turn made me question my own. If I wasn't so in tune to my finances I might not have realized how much I was worth, or found the motivation to make more.

When was the last time you started a new job? Any tips for my first week? I don't love being the new person, but my company seems really good at onboarding new hires and preparing them for success. Another awesome bonus! 

Monday, September 18, 2017

How I Bought a Used Car on a Budget

Announcing that I bought a car on my budget living blog is kind of ironic, I know. But what if I told you I planned for this purchase, budgeted my dollars, and found a great deal? For someone who previously only bought cars from family members, I'm pretty proud of myself. Here's how it happened.

First, some history. About twelve years ago, Nathan and I bought a 2005 Ford Escape from his parents. They had purchased it for themselves but their needs unexpectedly changed - unfortunate for them, awesome for us. The car was practically brand new, in excellent shape, and they sold it to us for a steal. (They are very kind and generous people.)

For the next decade, we drove the hell out of that car. After 180K miles, multiple trips all over the country, two giant dogs that love to go for rides, and some strange sounds coming from the engine, it was clear that we were running on borrowed time. To prepare for its inevitable demise, I started a "New Car" category in YNAB about a year ago, diligently saving as much as we could. We were making great progress and my dreams of buying a used car in cash seemed within reach. Then we started living on one income, and progress slowed significantly. The Escape, along with our savings account, limped along. And then our yearly inspection was due. 

To no one's surprise, the Escape failed spectacularly. I won't get into the nitty-gritty because this isn't an episode of Car Talk, but suffice to say we were looking at $1500 of repairs just to make it road-worthy. Instead, we decided to go ahead and buy the new car we'd been saving up for. While we didn't have quite enough to buy one outright, we did have a hefty down payment, along with whatever we could get for a trade in. Financing, we hoped, would be minimal. 

Our criteria was as follows:

  • A used car from a dealer. 
  • Less than 50K miles. 
  • As fuel efficient as possible. 
  • 2010 or newer. 
  • Something we could drive for the next ten years. 

As you can see, we weren't that picky - we were open to pretty much anything that checked these boxes. We bank with USAA, and they have a great car buying tool that allows you to set parameters and search dealerships in your area. The same day the Escape failed inspection, I started searching to see what was available. Two cars in particular quickly rose to the top of my list - a 2016 Hyundai Elantra, and a 2014 Nissan Sentra. 

The Elantra was newer, a little fancier, yet $1500 cheaper. It had 50K miles, but didn't come with any kind of warranty, which made me nervous. The Sentra was in great shape, had only 25K miles, and came with a lifetime Powertrain warranty from the dealer, which ultimately sealed the deal. As our salesperson explained, most people only keep their cars for a few years, trading them in for something newer and shinier. Since we were planning to drive our car for the next decade, we would definitely take advantage of the warranty at some point. In other words: sold. 

My new-to-me car!

And because a budget blog is nothing without cold, hard numbers, here's what we spent on our 2014 Nissan Sentra: 

  • Cost of car: $13,125 (included title, tags, and registration) 
  • Cash down payment: $7,000
  • Trade in for Escape: $1,500
  • Total of car loan: $4,625

Our car payment is $136 a month, which means we will pay it off in three years. Except that's a pretty low payment for us, so we're aiming to pay it off in half that time. Obviously, I'll keep y'all updated. 

Overall, buying a used car was a good experience for us. I'm sure if we'd looked longer or were "car people," we could have found something cooler/cheaper/better. But we didn't, and we're not, and after thinking long and hard about our goals, lifestyle, budget, and what was available, this car feels like the right fit. Plus it's cute. (Hey, budgeting doesn't have to be practical all the time!)

The only negative (pun obviously intended) is seeing our bank account take a hit. Not only did we spent a large chunk of our savings, we also took on a not-tiny amount of debt. Thanks to YNAB's handy line graph of our net worth, the downward plunge is glaringly obvious. On the bright side, it's great motivation for paying it off as fast as possible.

What kind of car do you drive? Or are you one of those lucky people who are car-free? We used to be a one-vehicle family, but Wilmington is just big enough and our public transportation is just terrible enough that it's hard to get by with one car.