Three things I wish I had known about money

Box full of money with the text 3 things I wish I had know about money.

Today is the first day to jump in to the nuts and bolts of life skills as laid out last week.  We’ll be starting with money. Please understand that what I am about to write is simply my approach to managing money. I am not a financial planner or otherwise particularly gifted at managing money. But I have been practicing for a bit now and I have learned some things that I wish I had grasped a while ago. I hope this is helpful to you.

Final disclaimer: this is written from my perspective and from my experience. Some of it may be useful to you, but it is in no way an attempt to say “if I can do it, you can do it” or “this will work for all people in all circumstances” or any such nonsense.

Disclaimers out of the way, here are three things I wish I had really grasped about budgeting and personal money management years ago.

Know your fixed expenses

Figure out what your fixed expenses are, and then budget from there. This includes knowing what bills you pay every month, how much they cost, and when you pay them as well as knowing expenses that come out more irregularly, like car insurance or memberships.

For items that come out once or twice a year but that are predictable, I have had a lot of success with figuring out the per-month cost of these items and setting up automated savings to come out as soon as I get paid. Then when they are due, I have the money to cover the expenses.

Once you have figured out how much your fixed expenses are, you can see what money is left over. Then, you can look into how much you have for more flexible categories – everything from groceries and medical expenses to entertainment – and budget that money accordingly.

Knowing your fixed expenses can also help you to know if you are spending too much on those fixed expenses and could find ways to lower them, or if your income is too low to cover your expenses and you need to find a way to make more money.

Be realistic

Calculator and pen laying on top of a paper covered with numbers and the note

When you are setting up your budget, be realistic. Actually count costs. Do you spend about $50 on groceries a week? How often do you get paid?

For example, I get paid monthly, and have made myself a weekly spending budget on groceries. However, until recently I was budgeting the same amount each month regardless of how many weeks were actually between checks. Upping my grocery budget by $50 for months that have 5 weeks before I will get paid again has made it so I’m not stressfully trying to grocery shop on $10 for the last week of the month.

If you are constantly overspending in a budget category, look at the actual costs of things, add them up. This will give you an idea of a realistic goal for individual budget categories. Don’t fudge, and round up rather than down. If you need more money in a category, you can add that, but you may have to take it away from another category.

Take out savings (and giving) upfront

A great way to help you be realistic about your finances and to save more effectively, in my experience, is to take the money you want to save every week or month out when you get paid.

It’s very easy to simply spend the money you planned to save because it is still in your account, so I automatically debit the money I am planning to put aside for regular expenses like car insurance, and I manually take out about 10% of my income for personal savings when I get paid.

This way, the money is gone, I don’t feel like I have it, and I have a much easier time not spending it when it is not there. I do the same thing for giving – I take the money I am planning to give (usually to my church) out right as soon as I get paid so I don’t get in to the mindset of thinking it’s mine to spend this month.

These three items have been my big takeaway from years of practice with budgeting. I will get in to some more details about how I budget soon. What strategies have helped you be most successful with budgeting?

Case full of money with the text three things I wish I had known about money, for more information see www.mythoughtsonthehouse.wordpress.com

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Life skills

The world in a sink of dishes

So I’m looking to be a life skills blogger. I believe knowing and practicing life skills ties profoundly in to every piece of human understanding about and interaction with the universe.

A sink full of dirty dishes

It’s not just that it’s helpful to keep your dishes clean, it’s that keeping your dishes clean is intimately tied to the rhythm of your life, the way your mental health is impacted by your physical environment, the food you can eat and prepare because you have clean tools to make and serve it with, the products you use to clean, the chemistry of those products, the businesses that create them, the marketing that sells them, the people who eat off your plates, the use of resources in being able to use reusable plates because they are clean. As Marie Kondo said to Stephen Colbert: “Of course we all have problems tidying our homes, Stephen, but it’s not just that. We all have clutter in our hearts, and that’s what needs tidying.”

I could go further – into the gender divisions inherent in assumptions about household labor, into the history of the plate design and construction themselves, the engineering of a dishwasher. But right now, I’m going to come back around to what I consider to be core life skills themselves.

Core life skills

This list, much like this blog, is a project in process. It comes from having written out the skills I want my children to have by the time they have grown up. I hope to add to and refine it as I work through it.

Money

This includes items like budgeting and investing, dealing with banks, etc. Knowing about how money works and how to spend it wisely allows for greater ability to navigate the world, reduces stress personally and on relationships, and encourages generosity.

Food

Food is one of the life skill topics I have thought the most about, largely because I’ve had to deal with it the most while feeding myself and my family. It includes focusing on meal planning, grocery shopping, nutrition, and cooking, as well as environmental concerns like sustainability and food waste. 

Relationships 

I’m often frustrated at the lack of explicit teaching about relating to other people. Having clear basic relational skills taught from a young age. These include things like setting up boundaries, communication, active listening, specific relationships like friendships, dating, marriage and parenting, but also our relationships with ourselves – like learning good self-talk and correcting mistaken beliefs.

Home management

Home management is another area I’ve gotten much better at but had to struggle to really get halfway decent at it. It involves cleaning, organizing, home maintenance, decorating, and decluttering.

Career management

This is an area I am excited to learn more about – how to choose careers wisely, how to prepare, how to interview, how to do your job well.

Civics

This area involves being an active, informed and engaged citizen politically and otherwise in the public sphere. How do we take in information, how do we engage with our cities, states and countries?

Spirituality

Spirituality as a life skill means understanding and practicing your beliefs about how you connect to the bigger picture. It also involves challenging unhelpful or even destructive beliefs and being thoughtful about what you embrace.

Health

I want my children (and myself) to know how to find health services, to care for their own mental and physical health through taking care of their bodies through movement and nourishing food, to care for their minds with self-compassion, relaxation techniques, and kind and true self-talk.

Meta-skills

I’ve never met a meta-skill I didn’t like. I believe strongly in learning to learn well, in developing critical thinking skills, problem solving, in understanding the context and history of what we are doing, in great awareness of how we consume media and what it is trying to sell us. Things in this area will be tied in to each of the other skills.

What skills would you add to this list?

Neither perfect nor abysmal: getting comfortable in-between

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It is very easy for me to pursue perfection, find it unattainable, and then simply decide that everything must be terrible, and the only thing for it is to have a meltdown that would put my preschoolers to shame and quit.

Like this morning. I got up, got behind, we forgot to get out the clothes for ourselves and our kids like we are trying to do the night before, we didn’t have Ben’s lunch packed, the tiniest, Elora, was not yet awake, and it was 20 minutes before I had to leave the house to get to Simon’s preschool that he started this week.

I did not respond particularly well. I was anxious, I wasn’t sure what to do, I did not behave as calmly as I would have liked in the face of chaos. I rarely do. Ben helped me sort through how to get the kids out of the house in a timely fashion and helped me get their shoes and coats on while I gave Elora her bottle.

Normally, I would have continued to freak out, apologize for making him late, probably cry, apologize again, and felt bad about my household management and stress management skills for the rest of the morning.

But I’ve been trying to embrace the massive space that exists in between absolute shining perfection and complete collapse, so I didn’t. I did the deep breathing exercises suggested by my husband, and thanked him for taking the time to help me get out the door (instead of trying to absolve myself through repeated apologies).

I finished feeding Elora, I packed the kids up, even sent a video of them to my mom, and walked them all to school. Until I sat down to write this I nearly forgot that this morning had been challenging. I think I may like this less than entirely smooth space, even though it is messy, uncertain, and I have to be patient with myself when I do not live up to my high standards instead of comforting myself through a long wallow in self-pity.

Creating a meal and prep plan

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Today, I am going to create a meal and prep plan as part of writing this post. I’m going to write to myself (and whoever finds themselves reading along) about how I plan a meal and how I figure out what things can be done in advance. My goal is to both explain what I already do and hopefully refine the process through reflecting on it. Feedback would be helpful in this process, so please comment at the end if you have suggestions!

When I go about planning meals for a week, Ben and I usually look over what we still have in the refrigerator, freezer and pantry (particularly the most perishable items) and the weekly Aldi and Lucky’s flyers, talk about what we have going on for the week, and throw out some dinner ideas. We had too much to discuss in our Sunday evening business meeting to get to it, and Ben is working out of the house all day today, so I’m doing this on my own this time. (We meet weekly on Sunday evenings to discuss decisions and the upcoming weekly schedule – this is awesome and I love it but also we are big nerds.)

We start with a chart that looks like this:

10/15/18 Monday Tuesday Wed. Thurs. Friday Sat. Sunday
B-fast Oatmeal Eggs & toast Oatmeal Eggs & toast Oatmeal Muffins Cereal
Lunch Fruit, veg, meat Pasta Hard boiled eggs Sandwiches /quesadillas Mac and Cheese Leftovers
Dinner Pancakes & fruits Pizza Stir-fry Boechetti HG

We have the same standard meal plan for breakfasts and lunches – we just add in some fruit to breakfast and some fruit and raw or steamed veggies to lunch (at least for the kids).

We usually eat leftovers over the weekends, and on Sunday nights we have our church home group, where the host family serves us dinner (which is always so good).

And we almost always have pancakes or another breakfast food on Wednesdays and pizza on Fridays. Fridays are a weekly celebration known as pizza show night, where we make homemade pizza and one family member picks out a movie for all of us to watch. I am proud of our habit of pizza show nights. They are festive and something we look forward to.

So that leaves Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights, and Sunday lunches. We often do leftovers for Sunday lunch, but I would like to get into the habit of putting something in the slow cooker before church so we don’t have any cooking to do in the afternoon and could invite friends or strangers, as the case may be, for lunch.

I wait to go shopping until Tuesday because of the sale cycle at Aldi, so Monday dinner has to come from what we already have in the pantry. Ben is also out of the house (at class) on Monday evenings, so I like my dinners to be pretty easy to put together because of babies. We have spinach in the fridge, and pasta is usually a good choice for an easy dinner, so I looked at Budget Bytes because I know I’ve seen a lot of recipes with fresh spinach there. I’m going to try Creamy Tomato and Spinach Pasta because I have all the ingredients.

For Tuesday, I’ll be able to buy some new ingredients at Aldi, and I have:

  • Broccoli crowns
  • Butternut squash (cubed and frozen from a couple of weeks ago)
  • A few golden potatoes
  • Four enormous brussel sprouts
  • A cucumber
  • Many apples from apple picking
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • Several pounds chicken breast
  • 1.5 lbs pork butt

At Aldi, there are good sales on

  • Grape tomatoes
  • Blackberries
  • Pears
  • Kale

I’m sourcing ideas from my mom and Ben, because I’m stuck. I’ll update tomorrow!

 

Quick update on dinner timing

This has been a pretty good but exhausting week (on me and Ben, not the kids – we stayed up late visiting with friends on Tuesday and playing Gloomhaven till – gasp! – 12am last night), but I am tired. I want to keep up writing, and I’ve been planning an update on dinner prep all week, but iPad time kept not happening. Today I need to take some of that time for quiet meditation and prayer, but on Ben’s advice I’m taking 5 minutes to write.

So, I did do my meal planning on Sunday night and wrote out the parts of the meal prep I thought I could do in advance, and tried to note if anything needed to be started early. This was harder than I expected, because I’m not in the habit of doing it and I did not spot all the things that could be done.

But all the meat was thawed in advance, which honestly is a huge win for me. And I did get Dinner: The Playbook from the library again, and was inspired to do small things like get the nonperishable dinner ingredients out, and chop things and put them in the fridge when I had time. It’s one of those things that makes everything go a bit more smoothy, and one of my favorite things about it (particularly doing the chopping before dinnertime) is that I enjoy the chopping much more. Usually I find prep very stressful, but doing it at 11 am or 2 pm instead of 30 minutes after I was planning to start dinner was quite enjoyable.

I even found myself feeling meditative while pulling chilies to pieces for the Cook’s Illustrated carne adovado that was not a minute late to the dinner table. I’ve heard tell of people feeling this way about meal prep, but never have experienced it myself. Also that dinner was the best thing we’ve made in a long time. I started it, Ben finished it, it was delicious.

 

How do I get dinner on the table?

I love to cook. I believe deeply in the importance of family dinner. But getting dinner on the table in a timely fashion has never been a strong suit of mine.

Back when my husband and I were just my husband and I, we were … still not good at it. Actually, we were worse than we are now, because a late dinner was never a massive problem. Well, I get Very Cranky when I’m hungry, but other than that, no big deal.

Once, Ben, the husband in question, made a Cook’s Illustrated recipe for eggplant and it took four hours when it claimed it would take only one. To be fair, we should never have believed a CI recipe when it said it would be “more streamlined,” but the point stands that my family has never been skilled at speed when it comes to dinner. The eggplant, however, was delicious.

Now, we have three babies with early bedtimes (though one is still young enough to be formula-only and shaking up a bottle is quite easy when it comes to food prep), and they need to eat before they go to bed. And so spending the two hours I regularly somehow spend on dinner is less than ideal.

So, this series of reflective life skill learning will be focused on learning how to get dinner on the table.

What do I think are the issues?

  1. Well, there is constantly something to attend to durning dinner. While my smallest, Elora, is low maintenance when it comes to preparing her meals, she is quite insistent that they come right when she is ready for them, as well she should be. And with the older two being four and three, they still need things during dinner prep. Sometimes, three year old Hazel wants to help, and that is welcome but also takes time.
  2. I like to cook. I enjoy variety and trying new things, making everything from scratch, experimenting. When looking for solutions, I would like to give this up as little as possible.
  3. While I enjoy cooking, I am slow at it. My knife skills are not amazing, my mise en place is either non-existent or ends up like the beaker of olive oil I carefully measured the other day, spilled all over the (rather small) counter, and I find that I have to choose between “cleaning as you go” and ever getting anything done.

What are some possible solutions?

  1. Try simplifying my meal plans. This seems to be a popular piece of advice in the homemaking blogs I’ve been reading through. I feel a strong resistance to this suggestion, but imagine it is probably reasonable. On the other hand, cooking is one of my main hobbies as well as a necessity. On a third hand, it being a hobby makes it feel somewhat frivolous. But being able to engage in something that I enjoy and my family needs also seems worthwhile.
  2. Prepping ahead. This advice I encountered in detail in Dinner: The Playbook by Jenny Rosenstrach of Dinner: A Love Story. The advice is to look ahead to the week’s meals and see what bits you can do in advance in spare pieces of time — in the morning before leaving for work, on the weekend, etc. I feel much less conflicted about this, but still unsure as to how I would go about finding additional time for prepping.
  3. Lowering my expectations. My first response to this suggestion is “it’s probably right but I don’t wanna!” Which is my very mature response to so many things. I want to do things Well and Properly, and while I know I need to be more flexible and give myself grace and lower my expectations, particularly when my children are so small, I struggle to do it.

What are my first action steps?

  1. When we meal plan for this week, I will be more thorough, and list out mains and sides, along with realistic time estimates and which elements can be prepped ahead. This way both Ben and I can work on them as we have time during the week.
  2. When we meal plan for the week, I will intentionally suggest a mixture of things I am comfortable making and newer, more exciting recipes.
  3. I will keep my goal of having dinner on the table when I intend to put it there, but treat this as a learning process, and as a process in which people (myself and my family) are more important than results.

Well, that’s the plan! Please let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions.

What I am learning at home with the kids

Right now, I have three children ages 4.5, almost 3, and 3 months old. I work 15 hours a week in my job teaching German at my local university and developing online courses, and the rest of the time I spend at home, with my children.

I have always imagined myself ultimately as a homemaker – my mother did it and found great satisfaction in it (and was and is an incredible mother), but I found, to my surprise, being unmarried and without children after graduating college, that I deeply enjoyed teaching and, in a way that I rarely have experience, felt called by God to do it.

Now, I find myself in the challenging but also very privileged position of being able to do work in my field that I find both enjoyable and worthwhile, and spend a large amount of time caring for my children and my home.

Despite my assumptions about what my life would look like, however, I am not particularly skilled with children or as a homemaker. The main thing I have going for me as a homemaker is enthusiasm – I am a homemaking nerd, researching various methods for doing things and (best case scenario) also trying them out and finding one that fits.

With taking care of my children, my love of research is less happily engaged – I find most child rearing advice incredibly stressful, asserting that the one giving the advice has it right, and woe betide any who think differently.

Little-by-little, though, I am learning, both through good advice and experience.

Dapper, stylish, and hip

1. I am very introverted, and sadly, social media also counts

I get overstimulated very easily, especially when I am rarely alone. That includes time spent with my children, particularly when they are climbing on me or yelling far more than I think should be possible. I have been trying to not use any social media during the day this week so that I can cut down on the amount of noise in my life, and (sadly) it has been working. Even doing an imperfect job, I have felt quieter and less stressed by comparison or perceived judgement or just too much input.

2. Kids really do do well with routines, apparently

I have always, always resented the advice to have a routine with my children. It sounded so very restrictive and boring. Which is, probably, a childish reaction, especially from someone who tends to boast about how boring her interests are. However, managed to establish an afternoon and evening routine, and it shocks me how much it cuts down on chaos. The children, who complained about quiet time literally every afternoon complained this weekend, when our day plan was different, about why we were not having it.

3. Short, snappy, repeated phrases work well 

This has been a bit of a surprise win this week. Friends came over this weekend to visit and told us about their “knees or tushie” rule at the dinner table. I have always had trouble with my 3 year old daughter since we switched from her high chair, because she is fairly short and I did not want to make her sit all the way down. But she stands on her chair a lot. So, I started reminding my kids this week “knees or butt” when they stand up (I probably should not say “butt” with my kids, but  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ). It’s working fantastically. Thank you, friends. I’ve also changed my “what we do every time we come in the house” phrase to “shoes in the closet, wash your hands.” It seems to get through to them better, means I have to talk less, and is easy for us all to remember than my usual wordiness — I get oddly verbose when talking with my children generally.

That is all I have time for today – I’m trying out a new thing where I write during the kids’ iPad time, and that’s almost over.