When You Don’t Hit Your Financial Goals

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When I started this blog, I released my secret goal to the world: be debt free (minus the mortgage) by 33! So exciting!

Nope.

Once it became clear that we wouldn’t quite hit that goal by my 33rd birthday, I revised it to: be debt free (minus the mortgage) by the end of 2016! We can do it! Go team!

Nope.

We had guests over on New Year’s Eve, and our friend took a look at our debt snowball chart on the fridge. She remarked about how well we were doing. All I could feel was the distance between the last $8700 and the finish line. We’d failed to reach our goal.

I have always been my own harshest critic (or at least I think I have. Maybe there’s someone out there who also enjoys keeping track of my failures. Weird hobby, though.) It’s easy for me to overlook my own successes and instead see where I’ve fallen short. We all do that to some degree. While it can be valuable to recognize your failures, it’s even more important to learn from them, then create a plan to either revise your goals or revise your approach.

If you, like me, missed your 2016 financial goals, then follow these steps to get back on track for 2017:

STEP ONE | Celebrate the progress that you HAVE made: We missed our goal by $8700. In the meantime, we paid off over $21,000 in debt last year. If someone else told me that they paid off that much debt in one year, I would congratulate them, not ask, “yeah loser, but how much do you have LEFT?”

STEP TWO | Do a financial goal post-mortem: Identify the why behind missing your goal. We had a few big unexpected expenses last year–a tree that needed to be cut down, hospital bills–but those were only part of the equation. We couldn’t control those. What we could control was our monthly budget. Every time we overspent, whether it was on groceries, going out to eat, clothes, or gifts for others, it moved us further from our goal.

STEP THREE | Check your budget: If you’re consistently missing the mark on your budget, check to see if your numbers are realistic. I’ve found that if I set a budget category too low, I inevitably overspend, and then for the rest of the month, very easily slide into a “oh well…might as well keep spending, since I’ve already missed the mark this month” mindset.

STEP FOUR | Set a new goal: Now that you’ve celebrated how far you’ve come, figured out why you missed your goal, and checked to make sure you were taking the best approach, it’s time to set a new goal. If that one big goal feels too big, try breaking it down into a few smaller “milestone” goals (instead of “pay off $20,000 by the end of this year,” try, “pay off $5,000 by the end of March.”) Breaking your big goal down into chunks might help you wrap your head around it.

STEP FIVE | Enlist support: Don’t keep your goal to yourself. By telling friends and family, having a shared goal with your spouse, or partnering with a friend, you create a source of accountability.

Tell me: what financial goals did you reach (or miss) last year? What are your financial goals this year?

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Extra Budget Items That Might Be Worth Your Money

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Last month, when I went on my spender bender, I kind of snapped when it came to–well, everything. Not only was I tired of trying to save money in every way possible, but I was just tired. Really tired. Being a full-time working mom and wife is no joke.

In the midst of making it rain with our excess cash, I made a few financial decisions that we’re keeping in place for the time being. Let me preface this by saying: 1) if you go this route, talk with your spouse first. I didn’t, and I think my husband was slightly terrified and thought that I had started to lose my mind; and 2) only do what works within YOUR budget. Forget about what anyone else is doing.

Here’s what I added:

  1. Blue Apron: Each weekend, I had spent a lot of time meal planning. I’d inventory our cupboards, fridge and freezer, search for recipes online, and make my grocery list. The whole process took a couple of hours. I decided to try out Blue Apron, which sends you all of the ingredients and recipes for 3 meals each week. The meals have all been really tasty and many of the recipes have been different from anything we would normally cook. It’s been a good chance to spend some quality time cooking with my husband and it’s removed the need to meal plan on the weekends. Better yet, it fits in to our weekly grocery budget. I have ingredients for the 3 nights of meals, then I only have to pick up odds and ends at the store. For the rest of our dinners, we just fill in with what we already have on hand.
  2. YMCA Family Membership: I realized that I wasn’t taking care of myself–which probably contributed to the spender bender–so I changed my husband’s YMCA membership to a family membership. I’ve used it a ton already, and know that it’s helped me manage stress.
  3. Cleaning Help: This one was hard for me. Growing up, my mom helped bring in money by cleaning someone else’s house. I used to go with her during the summer and help (or play their piano. Sometimes I’d actually be helpful). I never thought that I would hire someone to help clean my own home, but then it occurred to me–what if I just have someone come for 2 hours a week to do the big stuff (i.e. vacuuming, bathrooms, etc.)? With a baby, it literally takes me all weekend to get through those things. It has been WORTH IT. Waking up on Saturday and knowing that I actually get to enjoy my weekend has been awesome.

In order to make these three changes work for our family, we had to either make sure they fit within our existing budget or cut back in other areas. It took me a long time to get to this point, because even though I know that a budget should be flexible, I’ve been so focused on living as frugally as possible that it didn’t occur to me that we could fit lifestyle changes in without blowing the budget. If that means going out to eat less, or spending less money on clothes, then so be it!

If you have areas of your life where you could use a little help saving time or stressing less, I’d encourage you to look at your budget to see how you could work in some of those changes.  You may not be able to afford Blue Apron, but what about signing up for a meal planning service, like eMeals? If a YMCA membership doesn’t work, what about going to a yoga class once of twice a month? Figure out what you need, then make it work with what you’ve got.

Creating a Realistic Budget

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Confession time: I have a bad budget habit. Every month, I set aside a certain amount for groceries and EVERY MONTH, I go over budget. When I sit down before the beginning of each month, I plan to keep the grocery number as minimal as possible. At the end of every month, I find myself frustrated with how much we actually spent–we typically run out of money in that category around the third week of the month.

Why not just put more money in there? you might ask. That would be the obvious solution. But that assumes that this process is a logical one. Money is so strongly tied to emotion for me, that when there’s not enough, I feel uneasy and scared. Our goal of paying off all non-house debt is so deeply intertwined with my emotions at this point, that anything standing in the way of it feels stressful. So when I sit down to budget, I put down an optimistic number (RE: too little) for groceries, rather than a more practical one. Then when we inevitably run out of money in week 3, it starts to feel something like, oh well, we blew it. Might as well keep spending. Better luck next month. And that’s how we end up hundreds of dollars over budget.

If you are in the same boat as me, whether it’s your grocery budget, your entertainment budget, or something else, here are a few steps that we can take to set more realistic goals:

  1. Don’t assume next month will be the same as this month: Look at the entire month ahead. Will you need extra food for a party? Are you going out of town? Will you need to replace anything? Try to plan ahead for as many “knowns” as possible.
  2. Look at your spending history: If you generally spend an average of $125 a week on groceries, don’t put only $100 in the budget. Either figure out how to cut back, or make sure you have enough reserved in that category.
  3. Split the monthly budgeted amount up by week: I’ve found that I spend less when I take out enough cash for 1 week at a time, rather than focusing on the amount I have for the entire month.

What strategies do you have for creating a realistic budget?

Paying for College: What NOT to Do

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I loved college. I lived with a fantastic roommate who is still a close friend and I even met my husband there. I learned a lot and still have fond memories of that time in my life. I’ve also spent more than a decade paying for it.

Before I share my mistakes, here are the things that I did right:

  • I took college courses in high school. They were general education classes (English, French, etc.) that knocked out a few of the required classes I would have otherwise had to take my freshman year. It was also cheaper to take them while in high school.
  • I went to community college for my first two years, even though I had good grades in high school. During that time, I worked several jobs to pay for school and I lived at home. I also took summer classes in order to finish in a year and a half so that I could work for a semester before transferring to a 4-year college.
  • I chose to finish my bachelor’s degree at a state school. It was a very highly-regarded school in a small, semi-rural town (Its nickname is “Harvard of the Cornfields.” I kid you not).

That all sounds great, right? Well, if you’ve read some of my other posts, including this one about paying off almost $100,000 in debt, then you know that I still ended up with a massive amount of student loan debt. Some of that was from graduate school loans, but a great deal of it was from my last two years of undergrad. Looking back, I wish I could give myself a solid roundhouse kick, a la Chuck Norris, because…

Here’s what I didn’t do right:

  • I didn’t apply for scholarships. At the time, I made every excuse in the book: it took too much time to apply, there were too many people applying and I would never be chosen, the amount for a particular scholarship was too little to matter, etc. But you know what? It takes a lot more time to pay off student loans. I had good grades, was involved in extracurricular activities, and could write a decent essay. And $500 IS NOT A SMALL AMOUNT OF MONEY (in 2003, that would have bought me at least one semester’s worth of books).
  • I didn’t get a job while I was at school. Although I did work when I came home during breaks, I chose not to get a job during the school year. I believe it had something to do with “cramping my style” (a.k.a. “preventing me from being able to go out with my friends.”) I also didn’t save any of the money that I earned during breaks, nor did I use it towards tuition or books (see: “going out with friends”). Between the hours that I worked during the holidays and the summer, I could have easily paid for a semester of classes.
  • I didn’t plan my classes well. I originally went to school to become a teacher. Imagine my surprise when, while planning my classes for what I thought was my last year of college, I realized that student teaching would add an extra semester. If I had planned out my strategy on day one, I could have loaded up a couple of extra courses throughout the two years, maybe taken one or two summer classes, and graduated on time. Instead, I had to pay for an extra semester.
  • I took out the full amount in student loans. Instead of taking out just enough to pay for classes, books, room, and board, I took out every last penny. After tuition was paid, I used the rest of the money to rent an overpriced apartment and to pay for groceries, going out, clothes, and anything else I wanted.

What about you–what money mistakes did you make in college?

5 Ways to Save Money with a Baby

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When I was pregnant with my daughter, I remember having several all-encompassing panic attacks about how we were going to afford to have a child. Friends and family assured me that it would just work out, but that’s not my style. I need a plan.

Fast forward to today, and while our budget is noticeably tighter with an 8-month-old in the house, I’ve picked up a few strategies for saving some cash.

  1. Skip the name brands: After repeated reassurance from our pediatrician that yes, our daughter would live and grow just fine, we chose to skip the name brands for formula. The ingredients in her generic formula are very similar to those in the name brand formulas and the generic is a fraction of the cost.
  2. Request coupons: When buying wipes and diapers, we go the cheapest route. Sometimes that means generic, but if I have a good coupon that I can pair with a sale, sometimes the name brands are cheaper. Even if you don’t subscribe to the newspaper, you can still get coupons by emailing the baby supply companies directly to request coupons. We received a “welcome home” kit from Enfamil just by signing up on their website–it came with a few different types of formula (a whole canister of one) and some good coupons. We don’t still use the name brand formula, but that kit did help us save money for a month.
  3. Make your own baby food: Once our daughter began to move on to fruits and veggies, I decided to make all of her food. At around $1/jar, baby food can become very expensive very quickly. We buy a variety of fruits and veggies, some of which we mix with rice cereal, depending on the consistency. Sometimes I boil them in water first (e.g. sweet potatoes) and sometimes they’re already soft enough (e.g. bananas).  There is NO NEED to purchase one of those expensive baby food blenders. We use this stick blender and it works perfectly. I can usually make enough food for one week in about 1-2 hours.
  4. Use consignment stores to buy and sell: I talked about this one in a previous post. We have a local consignment store where I sell clothes and toys that my daughter won’t need or use. I’ve purchased some clothing and books for her at the same store, all of which look brand new. They also have a small selection of toys, cribs, high chairs, swings etc. that are in great shape and that cost much less than buying new. For instance, my mother-in-law just purchased a used high chair for her house that was $50. We have a nearly identical high chair that cost about $150.
  5. Check out mommy blogs: There are a handful of blogs that I will occasionally check for deals on baby items. This is a great way to find out what the current deals are in stores and online for baby food, diapers, wipes, clothes, books, toys…and the list goes on. One of my favorites is Money Saving Mom.

How have you saved money with a new baby in the house?

What is the Real Cost of Your Purchases?

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There is something about getting closer to paying off debt that sometimes makes it feel more difficult not to overspend. It’s odd, I know–you would think that with the end in sight, I would be hyper-focused all of the time on spending as little as possible. After working on this goal for so long though, I see how much we make and what we could be doing with that money instead of paying for our past financial mistakes. Some days, that can feel incredibly frustrating.

Several months ago, when my husband and I had our financial breakthrough and finally got on the same page with our budget, I remember him being shocked to find out that there were plenty of times that I wanted to spend money. He was under the impression that I had trained myself to want as little as possible. That couldn’t be further from the truth! I am tempted to spend extra money all of the time. ALL OF THE TIME. Here’s a sampling of purchases that I was tempted to make just in the past week:

  • An iced coffee at Dunkin Donuts
  • A movie on Apple TV
  • A subscription to StitchFix
  • A book on Amazon
  • Another pair of Frye boots (Amazon Prime Day, you are a seductive temptress)
  • A hat at Target
  • A new air conditioner from ANYWHERE
  • A membership to our local co-op grocery store

If I had thrown the budget to the wind and made all of those purchases, I would have easily spent around $700. In the course of a year, $700 might not seem like a big deal. That’s when I have to stop and remind myself what that $700 represents:

  • That’s a $700 step back from paying off a loan with only $4,500 left on it.
  • That’s a $700 step back from creating our full emergency fund
  • That’s a $700 step back from funding our daughter’s 529 account
  • That’s a $700 step back from putting more into retirement
  • That’s another month in between us and the celebration vacation we plan to take when we finish paying off debt

And for what? For a coffee that I could make at home, a movie that I don’t need to buy because there are literally thousands to choose from on Netflix, a clothing subscription I don’t need because I can go to the consignment store, a book I don’t need because I have a library card, boots I don’t need because I already have a pair, a hat that I don’t need because I never wear hats during the summer, an air conditioner that I don’t need because we already have two that (mostly) work, and a membership to a grocery store that I can shop at without a membership.

So to those of you who get down on yourselves about spending money you don’t have–I get it. I’ve been there before and I’m still there sometimes. It’s hard work to stick to your goal of paying off debt. It’s hard work to have budget conversations with your spouse. It’s hard work to put most of your paycheck towards mistakes you made 10 years ago. It’s hard, hard, hard. But the payoff will be amazing, and so worth it. Don’t give up.

10 Ways to Practice Self-Care While on a Budget

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Pardon the radio silence for the past couple of weeks, but I have been WIPED OUT. I had a cold that turned into a sinus infection. It would start to get better for a day or two, and then I would stupidly push myself too hard and end up even worse. In the midst of all of this, I had a couple of weeks that I’m certain were the universe punishing me for some sort of terrible offense that I inflicted upon mankind. Among other punishments, I cut myself on two different occasions with a butcher knife, had my credit card number stolen, shut my fingers in the car door, and broke the necklace my husband bought me for Mother’s Day. Needless to say, I’ve enjoyed June about as much as Justin Bieber enjoys wearing shirts.

When I’m sick or stressed, I’ve noticed that I’m more inclined to overspend. I think it’s something about just wanting to feel better–you know, the old “I feel crappy for the 5th day in a row, so I should treat myself and that will make me feel better” game. That’s fine if it’s within your budget, but a few bad days (or weeks) will hurt even more if you overspend.

Here are 10 ways you can practice self-care without blowing the budget:

  1. Request spa gift cards for birthdays/holidays. Massages, mmm.
  2. Meditate. This is a tough one for me, but there are tons of apps and YouTube videos to help. (I’ve done the free trial of the MindSpace app before and liked it–it’s about 10 min of guided mediation, which seems to work well with my limited attention span. I first tried it while pregnant and it led to many good naps. That’s neither here nor there, though.)
  3. Take a walk or just sit outside. If sunshine can help make wilted plants look better, it will help my wilted immune system, right?
  4. Do some yoga. Yoga with Adriene is a good, free series on YouTube.
  5. Take a nap. By far one of the best self-care practices. Naps help everything. Why do you think we make toddlers take them regularly?
  6. Grab coffee/a beer/a cupcake/a PB&J/anything with a friend. Get out of your own head for a bit.
  7. Turn off the T.V., say buh-bye to social media, and read. Get a good book from the library and curl up before bedtime.
  8. Skip a fatty treat and make a smoothie. Or if you’re me, eat a donut and wash it down with a smoothie. Find a good recipe on Pinterest and load up your immune system with fruits and veggies. Baby spinach is cheap if bought in bulk and can be mixed with many different seasonal fruits. Get yo’ vitamins.
  9. Buy some good tea or coffee. Make a cup. Sit. Enjoy.
  10. Do a brain dump in the morning. When I wake up feeling anxious, this practice is a huge help. It gets the mess of thoughts out of my head.

**Bonus idea (only half kidding)** Buy the good tissues. Trust me, I’m now a tissue connoisseur after blowing my nose for a month straight. The Aldi ones hurt. Spring for the Kleenex with lotion and aloe. Live large.

How do you practice self-care without overspending?