July 2014 Net Worth Check: Artificially Inflated

Three months ago, I predicted that we would be more or less out of cash by now. That turns out not to be even remotely true, for two main reasons: Mr. FP’s old job paid out his last three months of paychecks in one lump sum, which we are currently living off of; and generous relatives sent us gifts, unsolicited but accepted with love and gratitude, totaling $3000 to “help with your moving costs.”

So the numbers are artificially high this month as we are spending down that last lump-sum paycheck. That said, it’s nice to see that we still have some cash reserves, even after paying off our last loan, and that the number is rising. Here’s how it looks this quarter:

Cash: $7638.35 (after paychecks start coming in from the new job, we’ll see what’s left here and invest most of the leftovers)

Investments: $55,102.25 (This is up about 10%  even without money going in. Apparently the market is doing well?)

  • Mr. FP’s 403(b): $30,432.31
  • Mrs. FP’s rollover IRA: $17,181.63
  • Mrs. FP’s Roth IRA: $7487.56

Property: $2000 (1999 Honda Accord)*

Credit Cards: -$1514.73

Net Worth: $63,225.87!

Wow, that’s up a lot–almost 17%! I don’t expect that kind of gain in the next few months, but I think we can maintain modest growth even after spending down these last paychecks. I didn’t realize how well our investments were doing or how much money we had until I sat down and added it up–which is, after all, the point of this exercise, to force myself to look at numbers and see our whole picture. What about you, readers? Has it been a good second quarter for you as well, or are you hoping for better luck the rest of the year?

*I re-checked the car’s value and took $1000 off. Mint offered to track it for me, but I try to use a more realistic number than you get from websites.

 

Goodwill Is the Best Place I’ve Ever Bought Jeans

Our old town in Pennsylvania didn’t have a Goodwill store. It had some other, lesser, small-town thrift store funding some other cause that I wasn’t sure if I supported or not. Now, there’s one in easy biking distance from our house, and you’ll have to excuse me if I’m really excited about it. Belt for $2? Toddler bike helmet for $4? Awesome!

So when I wanted some jeans to wear for a camping trip and the boys were all out for the afternoon, I headed over there. (Earlier I blogged about trying to repair my favorite jeans, but eventually they split anyway. Next time I’ll try an interior patch before it gets that bad.)

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I have neither the flexibility or desire to take a picture of my backside, so you’ll have to take my word for it that these $6 Goodwill jeans flatter it as well as my last full-price new pair.

The title says it all–it was the best place I’ve ever shopped for jeans, and not just because they were only $6. Here’s what was awesome about shopping for jeans at Goodwill:

  1. Convenience. Obviously depends on location, but Goodwill stores are generally located in strip malls, and you might very well be closer to one than to a proper mall. Mine is easy to bike to.
  2. Selection. They had maybe eight to twelve pairs in each size, all a different brand. So there were a lot to choose from–more than you usually find in an one mall store. I tried on six, liked three, and bought the best one.
  3. Ease of use. Mall stores generally arrange the jeans by brand, style, and color, and only then by size–if you’re lucky. You find something that looks cute, then have to hunt through a whole stack of folded pants looking for your size, which they may or may not have. Repeat with next stack. Repeat with pants on hangers. Goodwill, on the other hand, arranges the jeans by size, period. So you just find your size section and see what’s in it. Now, if you wear a nonstandard length, you’ll find it more challenging–there weren’t many petites or talls, and they were all mixed in. I’m actually freakishly short, so short that petite doesn’t do me any good as I have to hem them anyway, so in straight-leg jeans I just get regular length.
  4. Quality. Many of the pairs were in like-new condition and some were name brands.
  5. Less Freighted Expectations. If I spend $30 or $40 on a pair of jeans, there’s all this pressure on them to be The Perfect Jeans. But these? If they don’t work out, I’ll just bike them around the side of the store and re-donate them, mentally writing off the $6 as a donation to helping homeless people get jobs.
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Little Brother will be psyched the next time we walk to his preschool and he gets to carry his own diapers in his awesome Elmo bag.

With #5 particularly in mind, I decided to try some pull-on jeans. They’re pretty tricky to wiggle into, but my hope is that it will preserve my knit shirts from these tiny holes they keep getting. As a bonus, I found this awesome tiny Elmo backpack, $2, for Little Brother; he’s been wanting to carry his own things to his new preschool (two blocks away). Absolutely the only “con” to my shopping experience was that I wasn’t the only person who thinks Goodwill is an awesome place to shop, and I had to wait a few minutes for a dressing room.

I made sure to “like” them on Facebook so I’ll get notifications of all their 50% sale days, and I don’t care who sees it in my news feed!

Potty Training, or Ca-Ching!

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that Big Brother is fully daytime potty trained.

“Noticed” might sound like an odd way to put it, but it’s apt. Big Brother has been going around in underpants for about a year and a half, but was not potty trained. He had to be taken to the potty, often pooped in his overnight diaper, had accidents if he was not taken potty, and never answered “yes” to the question, “Do you have to go potty?” That’s changed. He wakes up often wet but always clean, initiates pottying, and, at the risk of jinxing him, hasn’t had an accident in weeks.

He’s not exactly young for this milestone–nearly three and a half, to be precise. His little friend from back home, about six weeks older, suddenly and coincidentally potty trained at the same time. The difference is that Little Friend spent that year and a half wearing disposable diapers and Pull-Ups.

We chose to put in the parenting effort to keep Big Brother in underpants. In addition to what I think were positive effects on his self-esteem, there were significant financial savings.

Fuzzibuns brand "hanging diaper pail"

When I had two kids in cloth diapers full-time, this bag filled up pretty much every day.

How much? I’ll start by estimating our actual savings in our particular situation. To continue having two kids in cloth diapers, I would have needed to buy more, both because they would have worn out too soon and because I wouldn’t have had a large enough supply. Figure $40 for some secondhand diapers and inserts. Then figure I would have had to wash diapers more often. I probably saved an average of one and a half loads of laundry per week. We had free utilities for most of that time, but we still had to pay for special cloth diaper detergent. Figure we saved two packages of detergent at $15 each, or $30, not to mention the time we saved–laundry was in the outside-entry basement, and all that folding.

Two days a week, the boys go to daycare. Big Brother would have been wearing disposable diapers there. Let’s conservatively figure that he would have used two diapers per day more than he did (he did wear a diaper or Pull-Up for naptime at daycare). Figure he went to daycare 65 weeks, or 130 times–that’s 260 diapers. We buy Parent’s Choice (Walmart brand), which is about $.22/diaper in size 5, or $57 total.

Our actual savings:

  • $40 for extra diapers
  • $30 for detergent
  • $57 for diapers for daycare

Total: $127

That might not seem like a lot, but it’s better, as my dad would say, than a nail in the foot. And had we not had another child in cloth diapers and free utilities, our actual savings would have been much higher.

What about comparing Big Brother to his Little Friend, the disposable diaper wearer? Figure fifteen months of diapers and three months of Pull-Ups. Big Brother often wore a disposable diaper at night, plus his Pull-Ups for daycare, so let’s figure conservatively that Little Friend wore, on average, four diapers and then three Pull-Ups per day. That’s at least $400 for diapers, then at least $70 for Pull-Ups. (Actual cost probably much higher–I don’t think they used Walmart brands.)

In short, getting your kid out of diapers and into cloth training pants, even if it takes effort, has potentially impressive savings for both your pocketbook and, whichever method you use, the environment.

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I spend every other evening packing this bin with stuffed pocket diapers, overnight-stuffed pockets, Flips, prefolds, and assorted plastic covers. Are those days nearly over?

No sooner than Big Brother was fully potty trained than Little Brother, newly aged two, has started asking to go potty and wear underpants. On the one hand, I am not exactly eager to jump back into the potty training cycle after a year and a half in it with Big Brother, but on the other hand, the idea of not having my powder room always smell like peed-on diapers and not having to spend my evenings stuffing pockets sounds fantaaaastic. And now we are paying for our own electricity again, so the potential savings are higher. I shudder to think what it costs to run the dryer for 90 minutes three times a week.

Mending Time

You know you’re really frugal when you find yourself mending, well, rags.

When I was about seven months pregnant with Big Brother, I headed over to my mother’s house (I lived in my hometown then) to make cloth diaper wipes out of old receiving blankets, T-shirts, and pajama pants, plus some new flannel my mother had lying around. My mother, you see, has a serger; I highly recommend having a mother with a serger. She did all the tedious threading and most of the actual sewing, while I just sat around looking huge, cutting things out and playing with the machine now and then.

We made a big stack and I use them for everything. I love them so much that my mom made me a new stack last Christmas out of brand-new clearance flannel, but I go through so many that I still use the old ones. I have a butt-wiping stash with my cloth diapers and an everything-else stash in the kitchen, which I use for wiping noses, cleaning up toddlers after a meal, cleaning up spills that are too small for a whole towel, etc. Tissues? Paper towels? No, thank you, I prefer not to buy things just to throw them away.

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Hopefully, the zigzag will keep the frayed edge in place.

But they got ragged, my beloved stash of rags. Some are double-layer flannel, and those seem to be holding up pretty well three and a half years later. But the ones that are one layer of T-shirt and one of flannel are separating and the T-shirt part is sort of dissolving with every wash.

Since I now live halfway across the country from my mom and her serger (sniff), and that might not have been the best tool for the job anyway, I used a small zig-zag stitch on me regular ol’ sewing machine to reattach the T-shirt layer.

While I had the machine out, I also mended some prefold cloth diapers that were getting raggedy around the edges, too. I probably could have just taken them out of the rotation as I’m hoping we’re close to potty training, but that’s all the more reason to use the cotton ones! They feel wet, which the fancy ones do not. And I can sell them, Freecycle them, or pass them on to a friend.

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With all the washing and drying cloth diapers take, this frayed edge was getting noticeably worse every wash.

Since the fabric was still in usable shape, I think it was a worthwhile exercise to mend them rather than just throwing away. What do you think—just the right amount of frugal, or on the nutty side?

My Disposable Diaper Vacation

I’ve posted about cloth diapers on here before, and, to be clear, I’m an advocate. Especially if you buy secondhand and/or use the diapers for more than one kid, there’s a lot of money to be saved, not to mention that it keeps disposable diapers out of landfills. Plus the plain cotton ones feel wet, so I like to use those more often pre-potty training. Little Brother is still in diapers full-time, but will probably starting training in a couple of months or so, and Big Brother still sleeps in them. (For a while, he had to sleep in disposables, but covering the cloth diaper with nylon Gerber pants does the trick.)

But here’s my confession: I don’t love my cloth diapers. They have to be changed every two hours and if you run a little late with the change, they leak. If the kid sleeps crookedly, they leak. If the kid pees too much at once, they leak. They get to smelling bad in between bleachings, and don’t even get me started on poop. (Nothing like walking to a room containing two toddlers wearing cloth diapers, which may or may not be poopy, which they have been wearing all night, which are a little overdue to be bleached.) I also hate folding the damned things, especially stuffing pockets.

So… I took a little vacation. We were having company overnight, Mr. FP was out of town, and I did not want to have cloth diapers stinking up the bathroom or even hanging up drying while our guests were around. That meant I switched into disposables Friday morning, when I washed, and used them until Monday morning. I love the miracle of modern technology that is the disposable diaper. They go so long between changes, almost never leak, and don’t have to be rinsed in the toilet.

They do, of course, take up a lot of room in the trash, still smell bad when they get pooped on, and cost like twenty or twenty-five cents apiece. It helps me stay motivated if I picture each diaper as an actual quarter, going either into the trash with the disposable (boo) or an imaginary piggy bank if I use cloth (yay). Now that my vacation is over, I’m back to the old routine, a little energized by having taken a break.

Are there parts of your routine that seem important, but are a bit of a grind? How do you stay motivated? Do you ever take a break?

Me, My Bike, the Kids, and the Groceries

Last time I wrote about how we’re trying to stay out of the car as much as possible this summer. So far, it’s been all playground-hopping fun and games except for some sore sit bones. Today I biked the kids over to the library, only to realize that I had gotten the day wrong and storytime is actually tomorrow. So what? I burned some calories, Little Brother admired some basketball hoops, Big Brother said hello to all the dogs, and we went to the playground instead. No fossil fuels burned or time wasted wrangling with car seats.

But could I put my money where my mouth is and use the bike trailer for “work” as well as play? Despite the fact that there is a Walmart Neighborhood Market about three blocks from our house, I’m embarrassed to admit that we’d never actually biked it. Even Mr. FP has driven himself there–alone–in the car, in perfectly acceptable weather. Because, hey, groceries, right? They’re heavy.

That changed today! Two kids, Mr. FP out of town, and a short list of groceries to get me and the kids through the next several days.

Two bags of groceries in rear cargo compartment of child bike trailer.

Plenty more room in there. The insulated bag was a freebie that’s turned out to be handy.

If the bike trailer holds a hundred pounds and my two kids combined weigh less than 70, that means I should be able to carry up to 30 pounds of groceries, or as much as will fit in the trailer’s “trunk.” I didn’t weigh the groceries, but there were $52 worth. Yogurt, bananas, couple of canned goods, couple of vegetables, odds and ends. It fit pretty easily, so I guess I could have gotten more, but that was all I really needed. With the distance so short, it would have been just as easy to walk, but the bike trailer is my only non-motorized vehicle that’s large enough for the job. Next stop: The “nicer” grocery stores a couple miles away where we like to buy produce.

I’ll be honest: It was really easy. Probably easier than driving. Really nothing to crow about. So why is what I did so unusual in this country?

Summer Goal: Stay Out of the Car

Driving in the summer is unpleasant, especially, I imagine, for toddlers: They’re in the backseat, away from the air conditioning, and their car seats are hot. And  in addition to the usual rigmarole of  fastening and unfastening two separate five-point harnesses for my two toddlers, I have to put up and take down the windshield sun screen and cover the car seats with blankets (which doesn’t keep them from being hot, but at least prevents burns). Then maybe I get stuck in traffic, so the AC doesn’t cool as well, and the sun is baking one of the children–who have long since disabled those window-covering doodads one buys for babies–or me.

Then there’s the cost of the gas, the environmental impact, and the fact that our fifteen-year-old Accord will probably limp along longer if we don’t use it for a bunch of stupid little trips around town.

Fortunately, we have another means of locomotion. Mr. FP went on an awesome second-hand buying spree a couple of weeks back,

Double bicycle trailer.

The kids seem quite cozy, but comfortable enough.

picking up toddler sandals, bike helmets, a lampshade, and, most pertinently for our present discussion, a well-used but structurally sound double bike trailer. It’s an older model of the highly recommended Burley brand.

While I am not nearly as badass as Mr. Money Mustache, who uses his bike trailer to buy groceries in the snow, I can at least use it to tote my tots to, for instance, library story time. It was so much more pleasant than driving. The kids got to exclaim at every dog, water feature, and basketball hoop we passed (Little Brother is currently, inexplicably obsessed with basketball hoops), and I burned some calories. . We stopped at a playground on the way home, and I think next week I will pack us a picnic lunch. The only snafu was that I forgot to bring a bike lock. I almost skipped the story time because of that, but I thought I would at least see what the ride to our new library was like. When I got there, I noticed several other unlocked bikes, and I thought you’d have to be a pretty stupid bike thief to choose a midget bike with a giant trailer attached when there were several unencumbered normal-sized bikes to abscond with.

Rear view of bike trailer showing cargo space.

There’s a surprisingly generous amount of “trunk” space.

We had a further adventure in the afternoon. Tropical Smoothie Cafe, one of our favorite places in the universe, was having a special event to support Camp Sunshine; everyone who came in wearing flipflops would get a free smoothie. (I am unclear on how giving away free smoothies benefits charity, but was happy to play along.) We stashed flipflops in the “trunk” and set off by bike. Unfortunately, Mr. FP wasn’t as sure of the route as he thought, and it wound up taking like an hour and a half. Do you have any idea how delicious a free strawberry banana smoothie tastes after that long on a bike? Extremely awesome.

In easy biking distance of our house, we have a wide selection of grocery stores (Walmart, King Sooper’s, Sprouts), a very nice branch library, several playgrounds, and a variety of other restaurants and shops. Downtown is also, in theory, reachable by bike, but it’s like eight or nine miles and I have not tried it yet. With so much in reach on two wheels, here’s hoping we can spend the summer in the open air, not in the car!

Mother and two toddlers drinking smoothies.

The kids, of course, didn’t “earn” their smoothies like Mr. FP and I did. That’s why they look so fresh.

Minimalist Fail: 10 Days Without a Dishwasher

When we moved into our new rental, I noticed that the dishwasher appeared to be as old as I am. The bottom rack was missing half the wheels, and there were rust spots. But I’m not a snob about these things–I happily tool around in a 15-year-old Honda, for instance. So I tried it, once, and it did not clean the dishes. It took about ten days for the management to get me a new one, during which time I washed the dishes by hand.

I was miserable.

The minimalist approach is to own only as many dishes as their are people in your family. Then after every meal, you wash them in the sink to be ready for the next meal.  None of this business where you have a whole special device for holding your vast quantities of unwashed dishes (aka, a dishwasher). This is not my style for many reasons:

  1. I already own a lot of dishes. Why would I get rid of perfectly good dishes?
  2. A stack of 10 plates takes up no more room in the cupboard than a stack of 4 plates.
  3. I often use plates for meal preparation. I’m not going to eat off a plate that previously held raw chicken or was used to microwave bacon, for instance.
  4. Some things are really hard to wash by hand, like cheese graters and strainers that have been used for draining meat.
  5. I really, really hate washing dishes. A lot.

    Dishwasher with dial control.

    At least it’s a minimalist dishwasher, right? None of your fancy buttons and options.

I think the last time I was so happy to see anyone as I was to see the dishwasher installer was when the anesthesiologist showed up

during the birth of my second child.* Washing the dishes by hand took up time that I could spend playing with my children, earning money, or reading. Plus, I accidentally lost two sippy cup valves down the garbage disposal, and it cost me five dollars and an extremely un-Mustachian trip to Toys R Us to replace them.

The new dishwasher is not one I would chosen for myself–not wild about the layout, and it seems to have been installed a bit crookedly, so that the bottom rack keeps rolling back in. But I’m just so happy to be away from the sink.

Minimalist fail! I will keep my dishwasher and my lots of dishes.

*I attempted natural childbirth, which I still think is a desirable goal that is attainable for many women. All I’m saying is, in my personal situation, I was really, really happy to see the anesthesiologist.

How To Save Money Moving If You’re Crazy (and Lucky)

Since Mr. FP and I began our married life in the summer of 2001, at which time we were living in a two-bedroom apartment that rented for, as I recall, $565 a month, we have moved house ten times. Yes, ten. A few of those moves were short distances; most were between states. Our two children, ages two and three, are now living in their third state.

So we have tried pretty much all the kinds of moving:

  • Van lines. These provide full service, but are expensive, keep your stuff for a and undetermined period of time, and have lousy service.
  • Local/individual movers. These will actually often do longer distances as well. They have much better service than van lines, in our experience, and their prices are equal or less. Since they generally put just your stuff on a truck and drive it to you, you get it much faster.
  • U-Pack. In this service, the shipping company ABF drops off a full-size trailer (we had to get special permits to have it parked  on the street when we used it) and you fill the first part with your stuff. They charge by the linear foot used and fill the rest of the trailer, after you put up a bulkhead, with commercial shipping going in your same general direction. They have good service, reasonable prices, and keep to a good schedule, but you do still have to wait for your stuff for quite a while–about a week for the distance we were looking at this time. And the trailers are hard to load (you can, of course, hire local movers to help load and unload). If you are going a long distance and do not want to drive your own truck, this is probably the most economical option.
  • Driving your own truck. While this option is the most grueling, it is generally the cheapest option for a smaller move. Advantage: Your maintain control of your stuff at all times.

For our recent move to Denver, we chose option D: Drive your own truck. This even though it meant driving in separate vehicles for 28 hours–I followed behind the truck in our 1999 Accord with the toddlers in the backseat. The main deciding factor was convenience. We did not want to be living in a new city for a week with toddlers and no stuff, nor did I think that four humans and one cat could ride comfortably in an Accord for three days. (The cat, in her carrier, was Mr. FP’s only companion in the moving truck.)

Our quote from U-Pack was about $2700. Renting a Penske truck for that distance was about $1700, and online gas estimators put the gas for the truck at about $700. (Other moving costs–movers that we hired to help unload, hotels on the road–would have been about the same either way.) So we expected to save only about $300, plus whatever we saved by having our stuff sooner (fewer meals of restaurant/convenience foods, not needing to buy a new air mattress, etc.) Better than a nail in the foot, as my father would say, but nothing to get excited about by itself.

We actually wound up saving a whole lot more than that. A truck breakdown (stranded five hours in Strip Mall, Ohio) allowed us to negotiate a refund of $800. While it was certainly an unpleasant experience  and one would prefer that they resolve maintenance issues ahead of time, really the whole thing worked out in our favor. And gas was more like $500. Total savings: $1300.

Was driving through the flyover states with a backseat full of toddlers, listening over and over again to “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” a grueling experience, one I am glad I will not have occasion to repeat? Well, yes. But now the three days are over, and the extra money is still there.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done to save some money? Was it worth it?

Debt-free and Why We Did It

It’s official: We’re debt-free! Our very last loan–Mr. FP’s student loan–is paid off. We have no outstanding student loan, consumer, or credit card debt (aside from our regular grocery-buying card, which we pay off every month). We even got a nice e-mail from Mint.com noting that we had met a goal.

To be debt-free, we actually broke a couple typical personal finance/financial independence “rules”:

  1. We put a lot of money toward debt payoff even though our cash reserves are extremely low.
  2. We paid off a loan with a very low interest rate (1.62%) instead of putting that money in a higher-return investment like the stock market.

So why did we do it? Mostly just because it “feels good” to be debt-free. Our student loan debt (mine especially) and even more so our car loan debt (which is a few months gone) was a remnant of our old way of thinking, when we (more so Mr. FP) were okay with carrying “good” debt. Shedding the debt just seemed like a natural accompaniment to shedding the way of thinking. Since the balances were pretty low, knocking out the loans was an accessible first goal. Meeting it gave us an instant feeling of success that will hopefully keep us motivated financially.

We felt reasonably safe paying it off even with low cash reserves because Mr. FP is a teacher with a contract for next year. His job is thus quite stable. Plus, we feel more financially secure with that monthly line item removed from our budget. The money that was going toward paying that loan can and will now go toward building up cash first and then toward other goals, like buying a house.

We do plan to go back into debt in the form of a mortgage in the next few years, but barring unforeseen circumstances, we won’t again take out a car loan or other consumer debt ever again. Other people might have made different choices, continuing to make just the minimum payments on a low-interest loan while socking away money for other goals, but that didn’t seem like the right course for us.

What about you? Do you prioritize saving or paying off loans?

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