Archive | May 2014

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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An Even Lower-Key Toddler Birthday

IMG_4462Little Brother is two years old today. And we’re moving halfway across the country in ten days. Is it any wonder that throwing a birthday party even on my usual modest scale didn’t quite make it into my radar screen?
Fortunately, he’s two, so he doesn’t have any expectations. Here is the sum total of what Little Brother got for his birthday from his parents:

  1. A hand-drawn birthday card. (There is a reason I don’t call myself the Artistic Paragon or the Frugal Artist, but I looked up a tutorial and gave it a shot.)
  2. Homemade sugar cookies, with sprinkles, for a special daycare snack to share.
  3. A trip to the zoo, funded with birthday money provided by other relatives.

The last was his big present. With a move coming up, we’re trying to get rid of toys, not add more! Fortunately, he really, really 020liked the zoo. After about three hours, even with a snack break, Big Brother was starting to lose focus (more climbing on railings, less looking at animals), but Little Brother was going strong.

What do you think–am I an awesome non-materialistic parent, or just cheap and distracted?

Tossing “Things That Must Not Be Thrown Away”

The FP family has a big move coming up–Pennsylvania to the Denver area, or about 1700 miles. Since we have very little cash at the moment, it’s especially important that we keep the cost way, way down. And that means as small a load as possible.

We have actually moved several times, so you would think that we had already reduced our possessions to the minimum. Not so. Sure, we thought we had, but subconsciously we (OK, especially I) had been following certain rules about Things That Must Not Be Thrown Away. I hauled around the TTMNBTA from one home to another, tucked in the back of a closet. But did I really need them? The amount of stuff you own affects not only how much it costs to move, but how large a home you think you need. This time, I was ready to tackle the TTMNBTA.

Box of photos and negatives.

No one is ever going to want to look at these reject photos.

First on the TTMNBTA list was photographs, two shoeboxes full of them. Now, I keep scrapbooks, and have done so since my senior year in high school. So any photos from the last seventeen years are, by definition, photos that were not good enough for the scrapbook; a few are duplicates. The older photos were mostly—in duplicate prints made from disposable cameras—pictures of people with whom I went to various camps, all but two of whom I have entirely lost touch with and most of whose names I no longer remember. I kept one or two photos from each event. The rest—trash. And the negatives. I remember holding negatives up to the light to find a picture I wanted to make a copy of, but those days are gone.

Pile of decorative bound journals.

This isn’t even all of them. I found two more in my closet, plus two blank ones I’d gotten as gifts.

Next up, journals. Surely those are a TTMNBTA? I was one of those angsty girls who was never out of reach of a blank book. I filled volume after volume with… nothing of any value. Seriously, even I don’t want to read about my tenth grade crush or ill-advised freshman year dalliance, certainly not in the excruciating and embarrassing detail in which I recorded them. The entire stack goes in the recycling bin.

More: three binders of school papers, comb-bound yearbooks from the aforementioned camps, a middle school yearbook, the stack of cards I received at every major event from my high school graduation to the first birthday of my second child, postcards from friends’ vacations, three more binders full of truly dreadful fiction and poetry written before I had achieved my second decade. I kept a few representative items from each category.

As I started kicking around ideas in my head for this blog post, I realized there was something else I needed to add to this list: my very last American Girl doll. I was into dolls in a big way. Besides the first four American Girls (from back when they were cool, before they were Mattel), I once possessed perhaps a dozen other dolls, many of them named Laura after the Little House heroine (blonde dolls were Mary, after her sister). Most went out at a yard sale in 2009. I gave Molly to my much younger sister-in-law. Felicity to my niece.  Last Christmas, a Facebook friend was griping about the excessive prices people charge for used AGs, so I gave her a very good deal on Kirsten.

There was one left. I thought I needed to keep this one last one as a memento of something that was once soooo important to me, and I fought Mr. FP tooth and nail when he wondered why a grown woman, the mother of sons, needed a doll. Not open for discussion, I told him. But really, can I justify letting it take up space in my home? Having it add, however infinitesimally, to the cost of our move? Nope. Casually mentioned to a neighbor with a five-year-old that I was planning to unload Samantha, and she couldn’t write me a check for $50 fast enough. (Mr. FP was shocked. Had he known that used dolls were worth that much, he would have argued much harder!) Not only do I not need the doll, I kinda do need the money, and now the kid will have a nice birthday present.

So far, I feel much lighter and pretty proud of myself for making room, and I can’t wait to tackle my clothes! Have you let go of things you thought you would keep forever? Any regrets?

The FP Makes Laundry Detergent

Now, if there is an easy way to do something and a hard way, I always try the easy way first even if some people say that the hard way is “better.” How will I know if it’s better if I haven’t tried the other way first?

With homemade laundry detergent, that definitely paid off. Lots of people make liquid laundry detergent in five-gallon quantities, and some make whipped laundry detergent (more concentrated, but sounds like more work) in smaller quantities. I make powder and find it quite adequate. I don’t have any trouble with the powder not dissolving, even in cold water.

Borax, washing soda, and an example of the little rice sachet that keeps them from clumping.

Borax, washing soda, and an example of the little rice sachet that keeps them from clumping.

There are only three ingredients: bar soap, borax, and washing soda. The first thing people often ask when I tell them about my detergent is what washing soda is and where to buy it. Washing soda is different than baking soda, but the brand I’ve seen is Arm and Hammer, so it looks similar.  It is sold in the grocery store laundry aisle as a detergent booster, as is borax.

Also in the laundry aisle, you can buy special laundry soap like Fels Naptha. It probably has more cleaning power, but I don’t like the way it smells (many people do) and for me, half the point of making my own detergent is to avoid artificial fragrances! So I use Kirk’s Coco castile soap, which I can buy at Walmart for about a dollar a bar.

Don’t make the same mistake I made. The VERY FIRST day you open your borax and washing soda, put in a sachet to keep them from clumping up. The easiest way is to take a coffee filter, put a spoonful of uncooked rice in the center (brown rice works fine and in a pinch I’ve also used quinoa), then twist it up and put on a rubber band. The rice will absorb moisture which otherwise causes the powder to form into one hard lump. You can still use it then, it just requires a lot more banging on the counter and so on.

Here’s my technique:

Grate soap with a hand grater. Just cutting it in chunks causes my food processor to make bad noises. Some people grate it with their food processor’s grating disc, but I haven’t tried it.

Put soap into food processor with one cup of borax and one cup of washing soda.

Turn on food processor.

If I feel like it, maybe stir in some OxyClean.

Pour into empty, dried and washed 32-ounce yogurt container.

That’s it! For my front loading washer, I use one heaping tablespoon per load. With homemade detergent, it’s very important to use vinegar in the rinse cycle. That’s easier with a front loader, but I have heard of people successfully putting vinegar in a Downy ball as well. Vinegar prevents the soap from building up on your clothes and, over time, turning your whites yellow.

The total start-up costs are about nine dollars (one dollar for soap, about four each for borax and washing soda), but the borax and washing soda will each make many batches. The good news is that even if you HATE your homemade detergent and decide to go back to commercial, you can still use up the washing soda and borax as detergent boosters (with a little less detergent).

Have you tried making your own laundry detergent? What were the results?