Thursday, July 20, 2017

Marriage and Money: How We Handle Our Finances


Nathan and I have been together for fifteen years, and married for nearly five. Like most couples, we've faced a variety of challenges and fought about pretty much everything under the sun. How to stack bowls in the dishwasher. What to watch on Netflix. Whether or not to get twelve more dogs. You know. Normal stuff. 

One thing we rarely fight about, however, is money. I suspect this is because we have similar values, similar goals, and not a lot of cash to spare. After all, you can't argue about what you don't have.

That said, the way we handle money within our relationship has changed over the years, and the biggest shift happened shortly after we got married. I love learning how people handle their finances, so today I'm going to do just that - reveal our system, and hope it helps other couples who want to argue less about their spending and saving.

The boys love free fun.

Money Before Marriage 


Nathan and I started dating when we were naive college students who thought money was a necessary evil in a corrupt, capitalist society. As such, we mostly lived off student loans, credit cards, and meager wages. (My first job after I graduated in 2004, right after I moved from NY to Texas, was at a bookstore where I made $5.75 an hour. I earned an extra quarter because of my degree.)

Back then, we didn't talk much about money or the future - why would we? We had all the time in the world and very few needs. We lived in East Texas, where rent was $300 a month, we rode our bikes everywhere because our town was so small, and we didn't go to a lot of restaurants and bars because there simply weren't any. We mostly drank beers with friends, swam in lakes, did a ton of yoga, and played disc golf at the local park. (Now that I think about it, Nacogdoches prepared us well for a life of frugality.)

We each had our own bank account, but that was about it. We didn't save anything, we didn't have a budget, we lived paycheck to paycheck, leaned on credit cards, and took out extra student loans to make up the difference. I'm cringing as I write this, while at the same reminding myself that I was only 25 and in the midst of learning many life lessons.

Marriage! It only took us ten years.

Money After Marriage 


We got married on our ten year anniversary, which put me at 30 and Nathan at 31. I was in grad school, again. We were living off loans, again. We had jobs that didn't pay hardly anything, again. But - and this is where things began to change - marriage qualified me for a USAA bank account, since Nathan comes from a military family. At this point I was tired of separate accounts. While I liked the independence, it made paying our bills and keeping track of cash arduous. I never knew exactly how much we had, and I hated adding up what we owed and asking Nathan for his half. Plus one of us was always in school, so it was never a 50/50 split.

"Let's just open a joint bank account with USAA," I said. "We'll deposit everything we earn into that account and use it to pay the bills, buy the groceries, and drink the beers." Nathan agreed, and that's what we did. Later, we opened a joint savings account for big ticket dreams, like a down payment on a house and a new-to-us car. (Instead of USAA I chose Ally for our savings account, an online bank with a great interest rate - 1.15%! These are the things you find thrilling in your 30s.)

We also kept our personal accounts open. The original plan was to withdraw allowances to be spent on whatever we wanted from the joint account each month - equal amounts, because we both contribute equally to the household, even if our salaries don't reflect that. Five years later, we're still not at the point where we can afford those allowances. Our personal accounts remain empty but optimistic.

Nest eggs - get it?!

For Richer, For Poorer


For a while, the joint account worked well. I could log in and see our balance, with all income and spending accounted for. I could pay the bills as they were due, without waiting for transfers to clear. We never had to decide who would pick up the tab when we went to a movie or the brewery - one swipe of our joint debit card and we were done. We still didn't argue about money, because we still didn't have much. Everything was just sort of... fine.

And then I got tired of "fine." I wanted to look at our finances and think "fabulous." I wanted more control, more savings, a better and clearer idea of where our money was actually going. Over the years we'd attempted to institute a budget. There was a short-lived affair with Mint, and an extremely complicated Excel sheet, and a running tally on a dry erase board, updated daily. Eventually we discovered YNAB, and it was like the locked door on the budgeting part of my brain swung open. (You can read the whole story of this transformation on the YNAB blog. And if you want to try YNAB, use my referral code - we'll both get one month free!)

You might notice that while this post is about marriage and joint bank accounts and sharing finances, I keep saying "I" and "me." There is a very simple reason for that.

Downtown Wilmington, just because.


Chief Financial Officer 


Every relationship is different, and in ours I'm the one in charge of the money. Both Nathan and I are thrilled with this system. I'll be the first to admit - I'm a tiny bit of a control freak. For example, I must know, at breakfast, what we're having for dinner, right down to the side dish. (This is why I'm also Chief Meal Planner.) Nathan, on the other hand, prefers to focus on the big picture. Instead of checking our bank account five times a day and meticulously monitoring our interest rates, he's mapping out a complex system for water filtration that will work in multiple apocalyptic scenarios.

This requires a lot of faith on his part, since he basically gives all his money to me and trusts that I will handle it responsibly. It also means he has to check in before making any purchase over $20. He's definitely the spendier one in our relationship (apocalyptic scenarios ain't cheap), so this means I often have to tell him "No, we can't afford that." Sometimes I feel like a kill joy, which isn't pleasant.

One way we've learned to overcome this is by asking ahead of time. If Nathan wants to spend money on a project, he figures out how much he'll need and lets me know so I can budget for it. This means he rarely gets to do a project on the spot, but that's beneficial, too - more time to plan and make sure it's something we really want or need. (You wouldn't believe how many brilliant ideas don't seem especially awesome a week or two later.) The more we talk about what we want to do with our money, the more mindful we are about how we spend it. This is the best thing about a budget - when used correctly, it forces you to have those conversations. Which brings us to my final point:

A rare selfie in honor of Valentine's Day 2016. 

Communication Is Key


This system - the joint account I control, the budgeting app we use, the allowance we'll cash in on one day - works because we talk daily about our goals and plans for the future. We know what we're saving for, and how every dollar we spend pushes those goals further away. I give Nathan regular updates on our budget, and he doesn't grumble or resent me when I tell him we need to curb our spending or put something off. We still argue plenty, but never about money. Now we just need more of it.

Are you married or partnered? How do you handle finances? I'd love to hear your stories in the comments!

PS: That time I learned about the marriage penalty in the middle of tax season + my tips for surviving on one income

Monday, July 17, 2017

Three Frugal Fails: They Can't All Be Zingers

Orlando the Silkie. Definitely a boy.

Hello! It's been a busy July, as evidenced by last week's utter lack of posts. Despite the fact that I got a surprise four day weekend (my office was supposed to be open July 3rd, but at the last second my boss decided to give us an additional paid holiday - win!) I managed to fill every spare moment with things that were not blogging. I also made some very non-frugal decisions while I was away from this space. Coincidence? Maybe. 

In that spirit, here are three frugal fails we experienced in the last few weeks. 

1. Busted my budget because friends came to town. 


My oldest friend - we've known each other since we were 12! - moved to North Carolina a few years ago. The only downside? She moved just outside of Charlotte, which is a solid four hours from Wilmington. We only see each other once or twice a year, and this past weekend she and her boyfriend made the trek to the Port City. We mostly had budget friendly fun (backyard beers and cornhole, breakfast at home à la the ladies, the amazingly tacky Museum of the Bizarre, which is just $3). We also had some not-so budget friendly fun (dinner out, a visit to the brewery, the Fort Fisher Aquarium). It could have been much worse (and in the past it was) but a fun visit early in the month means our entertainment budget is non-existent until August. Worth it.

2. Discovered two out of four chicks are roosters. 


Back in April we got seven new chicks. Due to a tragic event, only four made it through the first week. Now that the chicks are about three and a half months old, it's become clear that we have two roosters on our hands. We usually get rid of our roos - we found Lou a home, and Pop fed some friends. Our current roosters are Bianca the Rhode Island Red, and Orlando the Silkie. Bianca is already crowing, but he's also kind of nice. I'd like to find him a home rather than a soup pot. Orlando is extremely sweet, quiet, and has me dreaming of raising Silkie chicks next spring, so I'm going to keep him around. Which means all the effort we put into expanding our flock this year will result in roughly one extra egg a day. In the meantime, I created an Instagram account for the Silkies. Do yourself a favor and give them a follow. 

3. Spent ten hours power washing our deck. 


Because we live in coastal North Carolina, heat, humidity, and mold are a part of our every day existence. The back of our house and our deck were looking pretty bad, so we decided to power wash them. The problem? We borrowed a very small power washer from a friend, because we're too broke to rent or buy one. This power washer hooked up to the hose and wasn't as effective as I was hoping. We had to go inch by inch, especially on the deck, in order to see a difference. We probably spent about 10 hours total which was a huge waste of time, not to mention water. Next year I'm just going to rent a heavy duty power washer and get the job done in 30 minutes, because sometimes time is worth more than money.

Have you experienced any frugal fails lately? Let me know and we can wallow together. 

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

5 Ways to Love Where You Live


I've spent quite a few paragraphs and a number of tweets railing against the "love what you do" mentality. In a nutshell, I think the idea that we should all turn our passions into profit is misguided and puts too much pressure on the things we love. Part of the reason I feel this way might be due to the fact that I most love writing fiction, which is notoriously unprofitable. Since wondering how I'm going to pay my rent puts a damper on the creative process, I have a day job. I like it just fine and I'm good at it, but digital marketing is not one of my great passions. And that's fine! It's okay for a job to be a job, especially if it clothes you and feeds you and enables you to spend time on what you do love. 

That said, there's another axiom that I think is pretty important - "love where you live." The place you live - your actual home, but also your city - has an enormous impact on your quality of life. A safe, clean, comfortable home is a place to nurture your dreams, renew your energy, and create memories with family and friends. 

If you live in a small city or a boring town, you might be thinking, "Easy for you to say. You live in a coastal city that's an actual tourist destination." While Wilmington is a pretty nice place to live, I've called less glamorous places home and loved them just as much. Nacogdoches, my tiny East Texas home for seven years, still holds a giant piece of my heart.

If you want to fall in love with your home and live a happier life, the following strategies (all tried, and all true) are great ways to start. Here's to a beautiful relationship with your city!


1. Get Involved  


When I first moved to Wilmington, it was for an MFA in creative writing, which meant my new home came with a cohort of other writers and a thriving university community. I made friends quickly, all of whom had similar goals and passions, and spent an idyllic three years living my dream life. Then I graduated, 99% of my friends moved away, and my beloved community fell apart. Even though I stayed put, I felt as if I'd just arrived. I had to get to know Wilmington all over again, this time as a citizen. 

Three years later, I feel rooted and part of something bigger than myself. Thanks to a willingness to get involved in local politics, I organized my democratic precinct and was elected its chair. I always wanted to be the kind of person who knows everyone on their street and now, thanks to my precinct work, I do. Last Friday, I had a few people over for backyard beers, and it was so great to shout an invite over the fence to my neighbors. I've also dabbled in other clubs and organizations, like the road bike club, the beekeeping club, my book club, the annual half marathon, and a story telling night. Not every club or event has been a good fit, and that's okay. I keep trying new things, meeting new people, and falling more in love with Wilmington as a result.


2. Buy Local 


The best way to love a place is to seek out and embrace the things that are unique to it - the terroir, so to speak. I don't like spending money as a general rule, but when I do open my wallet, I try my best to make choices that are unique to Wilmington, owned by locals, or produced less than twenty miles from my front door. I never eat at chains and save my restaurant splurges for Sea Level City Gourmet and our many breweries. If I need coffee during a longer-than-usual workday, I head to Tidal Creek Co-op. The first year I lived here, everyone on my Christmas list got a carefully chosen Freaker, one of Wilmington's most famous products. I just started shopping for veggies at Port City Produce, an outdoor market that sources from local farms. I work out at the YMCA, which does great things in the community. By keeping my dollars local, I enjoy one-of-a-kind Wilmington experiences, while at the same time supporting and strengthening the local economy. Everybody wins!


3. Go Outside  


Cities and towns are more than their economy. Just as important are natural wonders, as small as those wonders may be. While Wilmington is home to a pretty big outdoor attraction (you really can't beat the Atlantic ocean) there are a number of hidden gems I've discovered these last six years. One of the first places I fell in love with was Greenfield Lake which, in addition to lush azaleas and resident alligators, is looped by a beautiful four mile path. Empie Dog Park is a short walk from our house and we meander that way a few times a week. As a runner, I've gotten to know many neighborhoods intimately, which is one of my favorite things about training for races. We've camped at nearby state parks, exploring new places for dirt cheap, and kayaked to barrier islands, which are straight up magical. The only thing I'm missing is a good hiking trail, but I bet I could find one if I looked a little harder.


4. Feather Your Nest  


When we first moved to Wilmington, we rented a house sight unseen. Let's just say the photos on Craigslist were extremely flattering. We lived there for three years despite its challenges, but graduation called for a fresh start. Luckily we'd already fallen in love with a fellow student's house, and when her lease ended ours began. 

Living in a house I actually love - and we do love it - made me realize how much I didn't like our previous house, mostly thanks to a con artist landlord who fixed the house with bandaids when what it needed was open heart surgery. The stress and anger that house caused put a strain on my relationship with Wilmington. I blamed the city for my dissatisfaction, when really my living situation was to blame. In our case, finding another rental was a new lease on life. 

Now that we like our home, we take more time decorating it, spending time in it, and treating it as an expression of our life in Wilmington. Which is why I was so excited when Modern Map Art contacted me and offered me a print of the Port City in exchange for a small review. (Fun fact: they originally offered me a map of Wilmington, Delaware, and when I sadly told them they had the wrong Wilmington, they offered to make a custom map of my city. Naturally I had to say yes!)

The maps are created using OpenStreetMaps and are printed on museum quality matte paper and Ultrachrome ink. They're rated to last for 200 years if you properly frame and maintain them, which means your map has the potential to become a family heirloom. They also make excellent housewarming gifts or wedding presents. Ours hangs in the living room, and I won't tell you how much time I spent searching it for our street before I finally found it. (I have a notoriously bad sense of direction.)

Whether you decorate with art inspired by your city, souvenirs purchased during your travels, or piles of books that will take a lifetime to read, loving your home inside and out is important. Treat your space right and it will become the refuge you deserve.


5. Improve It 


Loving your city is a great thing and makes life more enjoyable, but every place isn't for every person. Cities and states have personalities, and you may find that you and the place you live just aren't working out. For example, I grew up on Long Island, moved away for college, and never looked back. It's not that Long Island is a bad place, but it's not me. No matter how many tricks I used or clubs I joined, I don't think I could be happy there. Luckily, I don't have to be.

But before you light out for greener pastures, ask yourself if there's an opportunity to make your city better. Every place, no matter how idyllic it may seem from the outside, has a complicated and dark history - that's part of the human experience. In fact, Wilmington has a particularly troubled past that continues to bleed into the present, not to mention toxic water, an opioid problem, and gerrymandered districts. I, however, am an optimist who believes in fighting for the places I call home and leaving my city better than I found it. Loving where I live isn't the end goal - it's simply the first step.

Modern Map Art did not compensate me for this review, but they did send me a free map. Also the link to their website is a referral link, and I may receive a small commission if you choose to treat yourself. Thanks for supporting Better than Never! 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Right Here, Right Now: June Report


"It is June. I am tired of being brave." I saw these lines in the beginning of the month and they stuck with me in the weeks that followed. June was fine, but it didn't feel especially summery or celebratory. Nathan is in the midst of summer school, I took on a few too many side projects, and before I knew it we were wrapping up the month. Goals for July: slow down, do less, live more. But first: a look back at June. 

Reading 


Two whole books! 2017 has been a slow year for reading, so I was glad to finally carve out some time. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living was an interesting and sobering look at the financial prospects of writers. (Verdict: not great!) The Refugees was a book club pick and our first time tackling a short story collection. Written by Viet Thanh Nguyen over the course of 20 years, the stories were all about refugees in one form of another, and the collection was highly rated by my club. If you're looking for a beautiful, profound account of journey, discovery, loss, and home, The Refugees won't let you down. 

Writing


Not nearly enough. Still plugging away at this blog. Still plugging away at a short story that has taken too many turns. Still feeling guilty about not plugging away at my novel. They say being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life. They are not wrong. 

Watching 


A complicated man's demise. We have gotten in an excellent habit of watching Jeopardy every weeknight. We also just finished up season two of Better Call Saul, which we both loved. Nathan and I argue regularly about which show is best - Better Call Saul or Breaking Bad - but maybe it's a tie. I can't help it - I love a good anti-hero. 

Eating


Snacks in bulk. One of the perks at my job is a Costco membership, and this month I actually used it! (I love buying in bulk, but I don't like the way it skews my monthly budget - #YNABproblems.) Thanks to a June Costco run, I've been living on Sunrise Energy Bars and Babybel cheese. I've also been buying a personal watermelon at Trader Joe's for $2.99 and eating it all by myself over the course of the week. At this point, I estimate I am approximately 75% watermelon. 

Drinking 


Reverse osmosis water. It's a long story, but about a month ago news broke that DuPont has been dumping a toxic chemical, known as GenX, into our drinking water for the last, oh, three decades or so. All of Wilmington is up in arms (as they should be!) and while they try to find a solution, most experts are advising us to avoid drinking tap water. Unfortunately, the only way to filter out this particular toxin is through reverse osmosis. Some people have bought filters for their faucets, but since we're renters we bought a ceramic water dispenser from Amazon and have been filling up 3-gallon jugs at the co-op. It's a hassle, it's annoying, and it's an expense I certainly didn't budget for. But it's also my health, so we found the money. My biggest concern are those families who don't have an extra $50 for such an alternative. 

Growing 


Jalapeño peppers, basil, and eggplant. Our tiny garden has been struggling all summer. It doesn't get quite enough light and the chickens destroyed our broccoli plants, but all is not lost. Our jalapeños are finally coming in, we have about seven tiny eggplants chugging along, and I continue to make pesto for pennies once a week. The only plants that truly seem to be suffering (besides the long-gone broccoli) are our cherry tomatoes, which are remain short, squat, and barren. Keep them in your thoughts. 

Campaigning


Dr. Kyle Horton for Congress! I've been getting pretty involved with the local Democratic party, attending meetings and keeping my precinct organized (especially after I was elected chair!). In June, I attended a campaign kickoff event for Dr. Horton, who is hopefully going to unseat our current rep. (My favorite of her slogans: "We need a doctor in the house!") I also organized a very successful precinct picnic. It was a BBQ potluck at a local park and pretty well attended. The only downside was that I ended up spending about $60 on hamburgers and hot dogs. (Why I volunteered to bring the meat is anyone's guess.) Annoying, but a good lesson in the importance of delegation and how much people actually eat. (Hint: much less than $60 worth of meat!) 

Calling 


My senators. I just realized most of this month's recap is political, and I can offer no apologies. In case you haven't heard, the GOP is pushing a terrible health care bill that has very little support from constituents in either party. (Finally - something we can agree on!) I'm particularly worried about this bill from a financial perspective, because my (Trump-voting) parents are in the group that will see the biggest hike in their premiums, and I'm in no position to help them pay it! If you're looking for an easy way to call your elected officials, check out the website 5Calls. They give you phone numbers, scripts, and some background on the issues of the day - it couldn't be easier! 

Goals for July 


Actually work on my novel, keep pitching freelance articles, read three books, and save democracy. What could be easier? 

Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links and I may earn a small commission from them. All opinions, however, are honest and my own. Thank you for your support! 

Monday, June 26, 2017

How to Budget Your Time Like It's Money


A Full Plate (Plus Dessert)  


Every time I talk to my mom on the phone (which is not nearly enough) she comments on how busy I am. "You never sit still," she says, clucking her tongue. And she's right. To me, a relaxing day is one spent reorganizing my book shelves, prepping food for the week, and mowing the front lawn. I like being productive and crossing things off my to-do list, and I feel guilty if I'm idle for too long. 

In addition to my 40-hour workweek, I write a few articles a month for various magazines and websites (#sidehustle). I'm working hard on this blog, trying to find my niche in personal finance sphere. I maintain very active Twitter and Instagram accounts, read at least one book a month (my numbers this year are down), occasionally publish short stories in literary journals few people have ever heard of, work out at the YMCA three times a week, organize events for my democratic precinct, and watch a lot of things on Netflix. Not to mention my husband, dog, chickens, and friends. (See, Mom? This is why I never have time to call you!) 

It's a lot. Often, it's too much. In a twist that will surprise no one, I only share the good stuff and keep the less-impressive moments to myself. The piles of dog hair in every corner of my house, the dumb fights with my husband, the anxiety dreams that wake me in a panic, the novel that wouldn't sell, the feelings, overwhelming at times, that I haven't done enough, accomplished enough, or lived an interesting enough life. Instead, I post a beautiful photo of the beach and pretend that everything is perfect. This, of course, is part of the problem. 


More Than I Can Chew


The other part of the problem is that I'm ambitious. Ambition by itself is not a bad thing. It's good to strive for more and challenge yourself and set big goals. But energy and time are finite resources, and trying to do too much means you'll eventually run out of both. 

This seems obvious, but it's a lesson I've only recently learned. The epiphany was sparked, in part, by learning to budget, and here's where the personal finance angle comes in. My budgeting method of choice is YNAB, and in this system you assign jobs to your dollars as soon as you get them. $100 for groceries, $25 for beer and wine, $30 for dog food, and so on until you reach zero. If something I didn't budget for springs up - happy hour at the brewery for a friend's birthday, or a political campaign I simply MUST donate to - then I have to pull that money from another category and give it a new job. 

Sometimes this is easy - obviously an emergency trip to the vet is more important than a six-pack of beer. Other times, the stakes aren't as clear. Should I use some of the money I'm saving for that wedding in September? What about the holiday fund I'm not going to spend until December? 

In this sense, time is a lot like money. For example, I'm currently writing this post, which means there are easily a hundred other things I am not doing. I don't feel too badly about that, because I like this space and I want to publish only thoughtful, well-written posts. This requires time, energy, and work, all of which I'm happy to do. On the other hand, I also want to publish a novel, which also requires time, energy, and work - all without the added bonus of hitting "publish" and instantly sharing my work. Blogging offers immediate gratification, so it's easy to find the time to do it - I'm rewarded right away. Novel writing is long, arduous, rife with rejection, and comes with no guarantees. Choosing to spend my precious and limited time on it anyway - well, you can see why I struggle. 


Pie in the Sky 


While instant gratification is delicious in the moment, it's not a good long term strategy. If I keep spending my September wedding money on tacos and sundresses, I won't be able to afford my plane ticket. If I spend all my free time watching Better Call Saul or scrolling through the latest outrage on Twitter, I'll never finish revising my novel. My paycheck is finite, and I need to use it wisely by paying for the most important things first. My ambition is the same way - I need to decide what my priorities are, accomplish those, and then drink a fancy cocktail at the beach. 

This means cutting some things out, and saying no to others. When I re-launched this blog back in May, I said I would post twice a week. That lasted about two months. As it turns out writing quality posts takes time, and I don't have quite that much - not if I also want to freelance and write fiction. One post a week it is. When I started getting more involved in local politics, I was elected chair of my precinct and volunteered for a few committees. As it turns out this required a lot of meetings and events, and I quickly became overwhelmed. One precinct and one campaign it is.

Another thing that's helping to guide my new philosophy of time management is the idea of consumption versus creation. (The Minimalists sum it up well.) The basic idea is that, while we all need to consume things in order to live (air, water, food, but also wine and books and movies) we shouldn't let consumption be the majority of what we do. We should create as much as we take. As a writer especially, this is an important reminder.

I write because I love words and stories - creating them, and consuming them. Sometimes the scales tip, and instead of working on my blog or novel, I scroll through a hundred other blogs, or read five books, or watch some high quality peak television. None of these are bad ways to spend my time, but even too much of a good thing is - well - too much. If I'm consuming more than I'm creating, I need to bring the focus back to my own work. Write my own words, think my own thoughts. Use what I've consumed as inspiration, and then create something that's all my own. 


The Sweet Spot 


I'm still working on finding the perfect balance, and that means thinking about my goals ahead of time. I know how many hours are in day, and I know how long it takes to accomplish big things. By organizing my days the same way I've organized my bank account, I can spend each moment wisely, invest in the goals that matter most, and enjoy my free time without triggering an existential crisis. Or, to put it another way, I can have my cake and eat it, too.  

This post was inspired by a thoughtful comment from Jaclyn of The ADHD Homestead. Thanks, Jaclyn!