Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Budgeting We Go

We have a super fun date night at the beginning of every month around here.

Just kidding, it's the worst. But we're usually alone, usually spending a decent amount of time talking, and it usually involves alcohol.

Kind of sounds date-like, right?

We've been doing a monthly budget since we first got engaged, so for around the past 5 1/2 years. I wish I could say we've paid off the entirety of our debt in that amount of time, but alas, we're still knee deep in student loans. HOWEVER, we have paid off a huge chunk of it, and we've honed a handful of best practices in our financial behavior that seem to be working well for our family.

Mostly we're big Dave Ramsey aficionados, but we also keep doing (stupid?) crazy things like international travel/moves (when the opportunities arise) and, alas, our shared love language is drinking alcohol at a 40% markup in somebody else's dining area. So. We've got some work to do yet, and we're not the hardcore beans n' rice cookers that we could be.

Oops. Italy was expensive. And delicious.
Still, we've made huge progress in this area of our lives, and I've gotten a handful of questions lately about budgeting soooooooo I thought I'd break up the thrill of endless postings about Advent practices and share some of what we do with you.

I'm very very much the opposite of a financial expert. So take this all with a salt lick or something.

I am, however, almost a diamond-level Target shopper, and I'm a devoted radio listener of Mr. Ramsey. I'm also a thrifty mom who loves expensive leather. It somehow all holds together, and I could never tell you how...

But the budget. Of all the tricks in our relationship bag, this one is probably the most useful and the most necessary, apart from our shared faith and practice of NFP. Because conversations. Over and over again. And continual circling back and reevaluation of goals. It's amazing what that will do for a marriage.

The nitty gritty.

  • Every month close to the 1st, we sit down with our little Xcel spreadsheet and do a zero balance line item budget. That's where we list out the total income for the month and then assign every single dollar of it to an outgoing debt/expense until we're left with a balanced zero budget at the end. It's a very simple Xcel spreadsheet with a list of all our expenses on the left, and we just go down the list and fill in what we're spending in each category. It's repetitive, but you'd be amazed how much difference there is month to month. For example, hundreds of dollars of stimulating dental work for yours truly this month. Ahem. So list it out like so: tithe, rent, groceries, energy, doctor's co-pays, etc.
  • We're trying to get back to using a cash envelope system for groceries/gas/babysitting/clothing/home goods, but I have to confess I've become notoriously lazy in this arena. I 100% believe that cash is more effective at protecting against overspending, but I also have 3 little kids and I hate going into the bank. Or the gas station. Womp womp. So, mostly we use our debit cards and track our spending daily on our bank's mobile app.
  • We don't use credit cards. Ever. We don't even have them, because at one point we did, and the temptation of the very thing's mere existence is just too much. So, reward points be damned. We don't use 'em.
  • We're not saving anything for retirement or college yet. That looks terrifying on paper, but the truth is, aside from what our employer's contribute to our 401Ks, nothing is going in. Why? Because we're still in debt. So we'd essentially be borrowing to invest, which is ridiculous. As soon as we send that last check off to Great Lakes (aka Great Satan) and are free and clear of our own student loans, the saving will commence. For now, we're in payoff mode.
  • We are not homeowners yet. Believe me, this one is by far the hardest...but when the furnace goes out, the master bath springs a $15,000 plumbing leak and the carpets are getting, well, used by small children...I'm a little bit relieved. Even though the rental market in Denver is appallingly steep, we're so thankful to have found a reasonably priced, comfortably sized house to rent while we finish paying off our debt/save out down payment. As much as it pains me to be approaching 32 and not yet in a home of our own, I know that the pain is temporary, and that the reward of entering home ownership with zero debt (and a healthy down payment) will make our mid 30's and beyond so much sweeter. Renting is a little embarrassing, but being house poor seems like a much bigger problem than my ego.
  • We've put a temporary freeze on eating out/travel. This has been the hardest part by FAR. We both love to go out, we love to travel, and we love happy hour. But at the beginning of Advent we had a little come to Jesus moment over the sobering (ha) reality that all those little date nights might be adding up to additional months not living in our dream home, so we've ripped off the final band aid. The only exceptions are previously standing commitments and birthdays. (And mine is coming up this weekend, cheers!)
  • We take pretty much all the freelance work that comes our way. I say we because even though I'm really the only one with flex time in my life to be able to take on extra projects, Dave's support and help with the kids in the evenings that makes it possible. I use a mother's helper each week to help keep me sane, and I write 2-3 freelance pieces each month to pay for her. Anything beyond what she costs goes into the larger money pot.
  • We do a debt snowball. We knock out our debts from smallest to largest, regardless of the interest rate, and we attack them. There's a list on the fridge, and every time I get to cross off another line I feel like partying. I won't list actual numbers, but it's really gratifying to see that when we started marrying out budget together we had 4 student loans (including grad school), 2 car payments, a tax bill, a credit card debt, the cost of our international move, and a year of preschool tuition. All we have left on the list are 2 student loans...WOO.
So that's the bird's eye view. I'm always listening to the Dave Ramsey show when I'm in the car between noon and 3, and if I'm home, I stream it on my computer and have it playing in the background. My kids know his theme song by heart, haha. I need the motivation because I'm a hard-headed idiot who has to hear the same thing over and over and over again before it really sinks in. Hence it taking us 5 flipping years to give up eating out. C'est la doggie bag, though.

Anniversary trip to the mountains last month. Our last travel for ... um, ever?
So how about your family? Are you trying to pay off debt? Do you even have any debt? Does talking money make you feel icky? I love hearing other people's get out of debt stories - they're almost as addicting as birth stories.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Waiting in joyful hope (And still finishing the Christmas shopping)

(Disclaimer: I'm a little sick of writing about Advent, and you're probably a little sick of reading about it. Feel free to skip this one, it's a piece I wrote earlier this month for Catholic Exchange.)

Advent is a tricky little season. On the one hand it's a kind of "little Lent" inviting Christians to enter into the hush and mystery of God - God! - becoming a tiny baby boy, laid in a manger where animals eat and birthed in conditions no first-world woman would consider laboring in.

On the other hand, it's the last 4 weeks before Christmas, the end of the calendar year, and jam-packed with more parties, social obligations, and family traditions than the previous 11 months combined.

As parents the balance can be especially tricky with excitable small people who are rightfully enthralled by blinking Christmas lights, a giant evergreen tree shedding needles and the scent of heaven itself in the living room, and a shortened school calendar punctuated by plays and festivals and parties. Their little voices cry out in delight at the mere glimpse of the Christmas aisle(s) at Costco, and they develop a disturbingly insatiable thirst for hot cocoa.

But Advent. Peaceful, expectant waiting. Austerity, even.

Enter the brilliant of the liturgical calendar.

Isn't Holy Mother Church so generous to pepper this short little season of expectant hope with a multitude of fabulous feasts? I have never appreciated it more than I do now, as the mother of 3 young children, these multiple opportunities she presents us with each week of Advent to kick up our heels and celebrate a little.

After one particularly harrowing afternoon involving lots of laundry and lots of craft glue, I was able to fire a happy little text to my homebound husband to swing by and procure a bottle of nice Spanish wine for dinner, because St. Francis Xavier! (And don't worry, we also watched the CCC movie of his daring evangelistic efforts in the Far East and talked about the Jesuits.)

We try to use our party days well in Advent, confining the necessary tasks of preparing Christmas for a family to those days which are supposed to be filled with joy and merriment. So, the Christmas tree comes home on the first Sunday of Advent. St. Francis Xavier's Spanish heritage is toasted to (and mommy finishes addressing the Christmas cards). Our Lady of Guadalupe's feast day may find us drinking margaritas and pencilling in commitments on our social calendar for the season, and the feast of St. Lucy might be an occasion to cruise the neighborhood with hot chocolate and admire all the incredible Christmas lights before putting tired little sugar plums to bed and getting a head start on the gift wrapping.

And of course, St. Nicholas will show up to fill shoes with chocolate coins and take the kids' letters to Santa. Two for one.

What are some practical and fun ways you can combine the more worldly (but still necessary) tasks of gearing up for Christmas with the beautiful liturgical rhythm of Advent? I'd love to hear them.

(cross posted at Catholic Exchange)

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Sweetest Thing

My little principessa is one today. I can't believe it was only a year ago that I was holding her for the first time, thanking God she opted to arrive 10 days early rather than smack dab on her Christmas due date, and marveling at her thick shock of black hair.

I must confess that when we found out Evie was a girl, I was terrified. I thought I had boy mom down pretty well, and I didn't know what kind of a relationship to expect with another woman in the house. Now I can't imagine life without her sweetness.

She's really the happiest baby in the entire world. She sleeps from 7-7 more often than not, and when she is awake, she is almost supernaturally happy.

She laughs a lot, and she also shrieks like a pterodactyl if her brothers thwart her will or don't come quick enough with a toy delivery.

Mealtimes are crazy because she sometimes eats more than our 4 year old. Last night she ate a plate of beef stew, a container of baby food, and 6 ounces of milk.

Oh, and did I mention she is still currently toothless? You'd never believe the amount of meat this girl is able to put away on a daily basis, sans dente. It's the craziest thing you'll ever see.

She's still not crawling, pulling up on her own, or walking, but she is scooting her butt all over the house like a teeny human Roomba, buffing the hardwoods with her diapered butt. She does this kind of crab like scuttle that's hard to describe and hilarious to behold. And she's pretty fast!

She loves: having her long hair brushed and styled, playing with her brother's toys, throwing a ball and having it returned to her, all meat and dairy products, bath time, taking showers, her stuffed Catty Cat, stealing sips of mommy's pellegrino, and the occasional sip of coffee. (Kidding. Mostly.)

She also loves to be laughed at or sung to.

She hates: being forced into a crawling position, most every physical therapist she's worked with, trips to the chiropractor, having her clothes changed, being told "no," and riding in the Ergo.

She's most attached to: John Paul, her mommy, and her stuffed kitty.

She looks like: me, apparently.The past couple weeks we've gotten a huge increase in comments about how much we resemble each other. It's precious. She does have daddy's big blue eyes, though.

Favorite foods: raisins, steak, chicken, ham, avocados, black beans (never enough black beans), and chocolate anything. She's officially graduated to dairy milk in her bottles, and she seems to love it.

Stats: 16 lbs, 13 oz as of last night. Around 24 inches long, (but don't quote me, because John Paul was holding one end of the measuring tape and he's notoriously sloppy with his figures). Wearing: size 3 diapers, size 9 m sleepers, size 12 m tops and leggings fairly successfully. We do roll sleeves quite a bit. ;)

She's such a sweet little bug, I love having a one year old in the house. They're into everything but none of it is malicious, and it's really fun (and sometimes surprising) to find a little person underfoot everywhere you turn.

Genevieve Therese, my little Evie doll, I love you so! I'm sorry I spent so much of your first year of life worrying obsessively over your growth and development, I'm really going to try to relax and just enjoy you more this coming year (but if you could go ahead and crawl and maybe pop out a single tooth, that'd be great.)



Saturday, December 13, 2014

Supporting Mary's Shelter

You know what I neglected to mention at some point during this very Marian past work week, bookended by the Immaculate Conception and Guadalupe?

(hangs head in idiot shame)

Mary's Shelter. It's a home for women in crisis pregnancy situations, and it's the fullest expression of what it means to be truly pro life. Because material assistance, spiritual support, medical and emotional care, and physical shelter. It's the total package.

One of my best friends, Karen, sells Arbonne, and she had the beautiful idea to create baskets filled with botanical skin care products to give to the mamas who call Mary's Shelter home.

I LOVE the idea of incorporating quality and beauty into charitable giving. I think it's easy enough to give leftovers, or to troll the Target dollar spot (um, guilty as charged) loading up on sparkly body wash and crappy nail polish. When Karen and I were brainstorming about how we could promote her giving baskets here on the blog, I was really struck by the idea that these moms deserved the same level of quality that I have at home in my own medicine cabinet (and in my makeup bag).

It's natural (and I'm looking in the mirror here) to go for the biggest bang for your buck when you're doing charitable giving. But I think there's something to be said for giving something a little nicer and a little higher quality than, say, the store brand mac and cheese. Even if the store brand is what you'd buy for your own family.

I want these moms to feel a little pampered. And this seems like a small but tangible way to share a little bit of joy with them during Christmas time.

It's easy enough to be pro life when all eyes are on baby. It's a further step to love and support the mama who did turn away from the clinic, who left the abusive relationship, who put school on hold to give her child a shot at life.

If this resonates with you at all, would you consider sponsoring a basket for one of these mamas this Christmas? It costs $30 (Karen is selling everything at cost and donating the packaging and shipping), and it could be a really sweet part of your family's holiday this year. Generous love for an unwed mother in a crisis pregnancy? Sounds very seasonally appropriate.

You can donate two ways. The first (and probably easiest), is by clicking here and giving directly via Paypal:

The cost per basket is $30, but any amount you can spare is so very appreciated.

(And don't worry, if you don't parle Paypal but you still want to give, please drop me an email with "Mary's Shelter" in the subject line, and I'll connect you directly with Karen to give via CC or checking account.)

Please pray for these mamas and their babies, if nothing else. It's a tough time of year to be alone in any circumstances, and they've each made a heroic choice in a culture that screams at them to do the easy thing, the thing that's no big deal and gives them back their "freedom."

Praise God for brave mothers and sweet babies who don't know how lucky they are.

(p.s. Karen's husband is the name associated with the Paypal account: "Scott Cruess" will appear on your gift receipt. Don't worry, he's a firefighter and an okay guy - he won't embezzle the funds ;)

Friday, December 12, 2014

We give what we get

There's something deliciously satisfying about the anticipation inherent in the Advent season.

Even as a little kid, largely ignorant of the mechanics and meanings of the liturgical seasons, I loved Guadete Sunday. Seeing that little pink candle aflame meant we could begin the Christmas countdown in earnest. Now that I have little people of my own running around, we're trying to instill that same sense of anticipation and "now-but-not-yet-ness" as we celebrate the season.

One particularly tangible way we Advent, the verb, in our house, is by participating in our parish's Adopt-a-Family program. Our parish has binders full of eligible families from a diocesan-wide program, and each year we choose a family equal in size to our own and sponsor their Christmas, essentially.

In past years we've made a family affair of taking their list of ages, sizes, and gift wishes to Target with a pile of children in the cart to "help" shop, though this year the baby and I hit the stores late one night on a solo mission. Same end, much less traumatic effort.

But! We do try to let the boys (ages 4 and 2.5) help with the wrapping and the drop off. We explain to them that because we've been entrusted with a certain amount of material wealth by God, we're expected to share it with our neighbors who are in need. Our rule of thumb is that whatever we budget to spend for our own family's Christmas, we commit to spending on our adopted family, too.

So far our kids are small, and their wants are, too, for the most part (life sized Lightening McQueens notwithstanding.) It's more than reasonable to budget x-amount for their Christmas gifts and to spend an equal amount on the other family. As they get older and, God willing, more numerous,  I can see how the 1:1 ratio is going to stretch us. My hope is that in the coming years, it also limits our spending on our own family in a palpable way.

As crazy as it sounds, I want to have to say no to them, (and to myself as my finger hovers over that 1-click button) because if we go over budget for ourselves, that could affect our capacity to be generous with our sponsored family.

I want us all to learn to to give until it hurts. And I want the anticipation of Christmas morning to be tinged with the joy of making a sincere gift of self to someone else.

I want our kids to feel that - I want them to fall in love with generosity.

There's nothing set in stone that we will always operate this way. But 5 years in, it's definitely starting to feel like a tradition. I hope it's one we can continue to grow into, and that in turn, it grows our hearts.

Meanwhile, I'll be looking for that pink candle come Sunday, and trying mightily to resist the urge to turn my radio dial to the 24/7 Christmas least for another week.
P.s. this is a Krampus. He knows if you've been bad or good, and he might be hiding under your bed. Be very afraid.