Hi, I’m Kaylie! I’m 25 and I’m at the beginning of my journey to financial independence (FI). I’m starting Butch on a Budget to help keep me motivated and accountable, and also share my experiences as someone who is just starting to figure out this money thing.
I don’t work in tech or make a particularly high salary. I work for a public college and make less than $45K each year, pre-tax, but I love my job. The start of 2020 marks the end of my first full year actively working towards FI. There’s still a long way to go (but much less than 40 years), and plenty of room to optimize my spending, but I’m happy with how things have progressed so far and I’m excited to continue this journey and share my experiences with you.
Like many people, I was first introduced to the concept of FI/RE through Mr. Money Mustache. I dove in, reading through the blog in its entirety. Then I found new blogs, listened to podcasts, and read the classic personal finance books, plus some that were more recently published from leaders of the FI/RE community (all checked out from the library, of course).
My now wife, Cassie, was a little skeptical at first (I’ve been known to have some crazy ideas in the past that don’t always work out according to plan), but after many conversations and dreaming up the life we want to live, she’s as excited as I am. (Though she leaves most of the research, planning, and general geeking out to me.)
This blog is a place for me to share the lessons I learn, my updates, stories, recipes — pretty much whatever I feel like writing down that’s related to money and living a good life. While it’s mostly just something I’ll use to keep me accountable and on track (and start rebuilding my writing habit), I also hope that it might be helpful to others who are just starting out or thinking about starting their own journey to FI/RE.
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything for the blog, so I’m challenging myself to get two posts up each month. That seems pretty manageable. I hope.
I haven’t been writing for a couple of reasons, but none of them are because I’m not sure what to write about. The main reason I haven’t been writing the past couple months is because my time has been pretty accounted for between work, grad school, and various projects around the house – not to mention keeping up with daily life such as cooking, cleaning, and spending time with my partner.
My wife and I are the kind of people who have always liked being busy. We usually have multiple professional and creative projects going on at once and have typically thrived with a full plate. That is, until recently. This past year, we hit a point of overwhelm with trying to balance so many things at once. It was starting to show in the ways we were taking care of ourselves, the house, and our relationship.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything on our plates that could be easily removed. Grad school is a constant until August 2022 and my current job never really has a slow period during the year. Plus, my wife is still in the early phases of working for herself which requires a substantial time commitment and sometimes strange hours.
All of the stress came to a head one day, causing us to take a step back and realize we needed to make some changes. If we couldn’t take anything off our plate anytime soon, we needed to change the way we were approaching the plate so that we could tackle it more as a team. Thus, the brilliant idea of staff meeting was born!
Okay, so I realize this isn’t anything new and probably just sounds like a glorified version of a family meeting by another name, but hear me out!
We call our meeting a staff meeting instead of a family meeting for a couple reasons. First, during staff meeting we discuss the logistics of our household along with task management and delegation. Second, we both have experience supervising staffs and facilitating meetings at work, so we follow some of the same principles we use from our experiences in these roles. And finally – and most importantly – because we think it’s funny.
In our house, staff meeting takes place on a Sunday and it comes with a three rules.
Rule #1: Staff meeting is always conducted while sipping a beverage. If it’s in the morning it might be tea or coffee, if it’s the evening it might be beer or wine.
Rule #2: Staff meeting must always begin and end with a kiss.
Rule #3: Like any good meeting, staff meeting has an agenda. I’ll break those topics down throughout the rest of the post.
Our Staff Meeting Agenda
1. Review of the last week
We briefly review the notes from the past staff meeting (kept on a Google Doc in our shared Drive) to see if we followed through on everything or if anything needs to be carried over into the new week. We also check-in with each other to see how we felt about the prior week.
2. Which days are we each working late?
Since a big part of Cassie’s job is teaching workshops, there’s usually at least one day during the week that she’s working late. I’ll also have a couple days where I plan on working late, either for my job or for grad school. Sharing these days ahead of time helps us plan our week better and be on the same page. I can plan to do my homework on the nights that she has a late work event so that we can maximize our evening time together. Or, if we need more alone time we can plan for that when the other has to work late.
3. Who do we have to call/email and who is calling/emailing?
These are those annoying phone calls that need to be made, like to the cable company. We’ll see if we need to call a doctor, or a get a quote for something, or follow-up on a previous call. We’ll list them out and delegate who will contact each that week. Sometimes it comes down to a good ol’ rock paper scissors match.
4. Is there anything we need to buy?
This is usually for household things that we need but often forget or put off indefinitely. Recent things in this category included our new vacuum (that was desperately needed), plane tickets to visit family, and blinds for our windows. We usually will order these things online during this section of staff meeting so that it’s done and we both get a say in the final purchase.
5. What are our 1 or 2 big to-dos for the week?
This category isn’t for daily chores. Like I said earlier, we’ve been doing a lot of projects around the house and we still have a long list of projects to go. Each week we’ll pick one or two of these bigger projects to tackle and put it on the calendar. These might be…
build the large raised flower beds in the front yard
build the bench for our dining room table
do a deep clean of the house.
What we select is based on how the rest of our week looks and what we think we will have capacity for. It also sometimes affects what goes into the “what do we need to buy?” category.
6. What is something extra that we need from each other for the week?
This is a chance for each of us to share something that would be really helpful for us that week and ask our partner for some extra support. That could be some extra sensitivity or dedicated time together. It could also be emptying the dishwasher every morning, taking the lead on making meals, or delivering lunch to the office on a certain day when you’re slammed with back-to-back meetings all day. (A lot of these revolve around food, honestly).
In my opinion, this question is the secret sauce that makes our staff meeting so successful.
7. Meal plan
Pretty self-explanatory here. We us Plan To Eat* to make our meal plan for the week. Plan to Eat stores our most-used recipes, makes a grocery list based on our weekly plan, and even has a tool that lets you prep meals for the freezer. Because Plan to Eat* makes a grocery list for us, we will often put in a grocery delivery order right after we meal plan so that we are all set for the week. This is super helpful!
8. Reconcile the budget
Finally, since most of our finances are still separate, we reconcile our budgets in YNAB and figure out what we owe each other for the past week.
That might seem kind of like a lot to get through, and it is. Our quickest staff meeting has taken 30 minutes, and our longest 3 hours, but that time commitment is so worth it. It sets our week on the right path, it helps us connect and be on the same page, and it’s a chance to make sure we’re each showing up for the team. Our household runs smoother and we each know what we can expect from each other for the upcoming week.
If you and your partner are feeling overwhelmed, not on the same page, or are struggling to keep up with everything, I strongly recommend trying out your own version of a staff meeting! Staff meetings are big reason why I even feel like I have the time and energy to write this article right now!
Once you’re earning decent money, your greatest tool when it comes to saving is to automate as much of your finances as possible.
Setting your credit cards on autopay eliminates paying interest on your balance, automatic deferrals to your retirement accounts build up your nest egg without you having to think much about it, and automating weekly contributions to your savings accounts is a great way to start an emergency fund.
One useful automation trick that will help you avoid thousands of dollars in interest and pay off your mortgage years early is by enrolling in biweekly mortgage payments.
Most folks stick with the default monthly mortgage payment so that you make 12 monthly payments in one year. That makes sense because that’s how most of us probably paid our rent before we were able to buy. But you’re not usually required to only make your payments once per month.
Many lenders offer a biweekly payment schedule. Paying your mortgage twice per month doesn’t mean that you’re paying double the mortgage, though. On a biweekly payment schedule, you pay half of your monthly mortgage cost every two weeks. This means 26 half-payments in a year, which actually ends up being 13 monthly payments.
In other words, you’re making one extra month’s payment on your mortgage each year that will go entirely towards the principal of your loan.
Since many people get paid on a biweekly basis, you can align your biweekly payments to coincide with your paydays. That way you’ll be making the extra half payments in the months that you receive an extra paycheck and won’t feel like you’re really paying extra.
Even with our low 2.75% interest rate, switching to a biweekly payment will save us over $15,500 over the life of the loan (!!!) and we’ll get rid of the mortgage 3.5 years earlier than if we stuck with the monthly payment schedule (!!!!!).
If you have a mortgage now (or if you get one in the future) you may want to seriously consider switching to a biweekly payment schedule. You can find out how much money and time it will save you by using this free online calculator.
If your lender doesn’t offer a biweekly option you can still get the benefits by either setting up your automatic monthly payment to include an additional 1/12 of your payment (so that by the end of the year you’ve made one additional month’s payment). Or, you can set a calendar reminder for yourself during those three paycheck months to manually make an extra half-payment towards your mortgage.
The biweekly mortgage payment is just another one of those small quick changes that can make a big difference to the bottom line over time.
Going through my expenses at the end of the year is always fun for me. It’s like a snapshot of what happened and what I did. It always tells me way more than just what I spent my money on. It brings up memories, shows me if I’m actually valuing the things I say I am, and gives me ideas for how I want my spending to look next year.
With 2020 being such a strange year it was interesting to see how this year’s budget didn’t just reflect me and my year personally, but also the collective experience that was 2020.
There was very little spent on travel and gas, but I now had multiple transactions for face masks and hand sanitizer. I never knew I would be so grateful to have a toilet paper delivery subscription. I was now tipping 20% on top of my grocery bill. There was almost no eating out with friends, but more gift cards sent to friends who’d lost jobs or loved ones. My donations leaned heavily toward anti-racist organizations compared to last year. I bought a desk to turn what was originally planned to be a guest room into a home-office.
Speaking of home-office, by far the biggest thing to happen in our financial lives this past year was that we bought a house!
While we have a joint account now to take care of the home expenses, most of our finances are still separate. This is partially because this year was so busy with house stuff and work that we didn’t really have time to sort that all out, and also very much because Cassie works for herself so things are a bit more complicated in that department. All that to say, what follows is a recap of my financial year and not an overview of us as a household. Maybe by next year, I’ll be able to do a household recap. We’ll see.
My base salary pre-tax this year was $43,000 with an end-of-year bonus of $1,000. However, I ended up making a decent amount more than that through different side gigs and projects throughout this year. I feel incredibly fortunate that not only was my income unaffected by the pandemic but that I actually had my highest earning year to date, earning $59,105.
Here’s a rough outline of how that $59,105 broke down:
Full-Time Job Take-Home Pay: $31,712
Retirement Contribution Deductions (403b and 457b): $8,751
Various freelance work and projects: $6,050
Rental Income: $5,525
Dog Walking: $2,437
Stimulus Check: $1,200
Tax Refund: $830
Security Deposit Refund: $715
Other (dividends, cashback, interest, gifts, selling things, etc): $1,875
It’s a good thing that I had my highest earning year, because I also had my most expensive year when it came to spending. While we spent much less than usual on travel, we more than made up for it when it came to spending on our house. You’ll see.
While we spent a ton this year, a good chunk was spent on designing a low-cost life for the future, so I actually feel pretty good about it. Plus, we were able to update our home to be a place that we actually love spending time in (which…you know…2020), and saved a bunch by doing most of the work ourselves.
Here’s the full breakdown of my spending this past year below:
Rent and Interest on Mortgage
Since we were living in a rental for half the year I bundled the rent category with the interest on our house category. I don’t count payments towards the principal of the loan as an expense.
Property Taxes and Home Insurance
These costs also come out of our mortgage payment, but this is only for 7 months since we moved mid-year.
Appraisal, inspection, origination fees, etc.
From the first few months of the year when we were still renting.
Paid off in March, woohoo!
Clearly, I didn’t go very many places.
Paid for two years at once
I really need an oil change…
This is over $1,000 more than last year. We ate a lot more at home, but also got most of our groceries delivered so the extra fees and tips added up. Don’t forget to tip your delivery people!
My goal was to cut last year’s spending in this category in half. I didn’t quite make that but I did cut $350 compared to last year. I’ll call that a win since, again, the delivery factor added in extra fees.
Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, annual fees and memberships
Lots of beer and a kayak purchase
Clothes and Shoes
Stuff for the house
Jeez, that’s a big number! A little less than half of this went to putting in new windows on both our side and the rental side. Also, new flooring, paint, fence supplies, garden beds, a few pieces of furniture, lots of tools, plumber and electrician visits, a new stove and oven, and tons and tons of other stuff. Maybe I’ll do a full breakdown at some point.
This includes a trip we took in February, pre-paying for a cabin trip we’re taking this coming March, and a gift card for a ferry to Key West to use sometime between now and the end of 2022.
I can get much cheaper dental insurance through work, but I really like my dentist (and am a baby when it comes to going to the dentist), and they don’t take my work’s insurance so I purchase myself.
Health, vision, disability, life insurance
Co-pays, masks, medicine, etc.
Equipment, software, web hosting fees, etc.
Gifts and tree
A new AC for the rental side of the duplex and gift cards for the kids’ birthdays. Technically there should also be a couple hundred dollars of fence supplies in this category as well as a couple thousand dollars worth of windows, but since we paid for it all at once I lumped it in to our “Stuff for the House” category above.
A couple textbooks and payments on my student loans.
Remember, this is just my portion of our household spending this year!
My Net Worth
Net Worth on Jan. 1, 2020: $20,040
Net Worth on Jan. 1, 2021: $49,222
2020 Net Worth Change: +$29,182
Breakdown of My Net Worth:
Debt: “My half” of the mortgage and home depot credit card (0% interest for two years) plus my student loans and credit card balances (set to autopay mid-month)
High-interest savings account for emergency fund and long-term sinking funds
Checking account for monthly expenses and short-term sinking funds
Home Value: “My half” (this is a conservative estimate as it’s the appraised value prior to all of our updates)
I would say the biggest thing I learned this year was that automating your finances really does work and it feels like some wild wizardry magic when it does. I knew this already, but I really came to see it playing out in my own finances in a big way this year. I felt like I was spending massive amounts of money every month with all of the projects we were doing on the house, and yet every month I was surprised that my net worth had gone up again. By a good bit.
If you subtract my expenses from my income it shows that I saved around $11,300 this year, or about 19% of my income, yet my net worth increased by nearly $30,000. This is thanks to my automatic deductions that go to my retirement accounts, my other investment accounts, and the equity I’m building in my house.
So even though I was spending a lot, my savings were on auto-pilot and earning me more money. It’s wild.
Because of all of this spending though, I also learned that I feel better with a bit more accessible cash on hand. While having a high net worth was great, so much of it was invested and in home equity that when I had bigger expenses (like grad school and putting in new windows) I ended up taking out loans and putting it on credit. I know financially this was actually a better move because it’s earning more invested than what I’m spending on interest (in the case of the windows, 0%), but I’d still prefer a bigger cushion in the future, so I’ll be diverting a bit more of my money to high interest savings over this next year until I hit that sweet spot.
I’m hoping I can harness both of these lessons to give more next year. With so much spending I didn’t give as much as I would have liked to this past year considering how much need there was. I’m hoping that by keeping a larger accessible cash cushion I’ll feel comfortable giving more, plus I’m hoping to set up a few new automatic monthly donations to use the power of automation to do a little more good.
Money Goals for 2021
Stick to the schedule for paying off the Home Depot project card a couple of months before the 0% interest period is up (May 2022).
Fund my grad school sinking fund to cover my remaining summer and fall semesters without any loans.
Build up our high-interest savings account to at least $10,000.
One of the reasons I’ve been able to build a positive net worth quickly is because I was fortunate enough to graduate college with no student loans.
This was due to a healthy mix of luck, privilege, and hard work, so I thought I’d outline some of the ways I was able to make it happen so that you have a better picture of my journey and background.
Choosing a College
When I was applying to colleges, it was important to me that the school I chose wouldn’t send me into massive amounts of debt. I got into an out-of-state school that I wanted to go to, but even with them offering me a generous scholarship package (to the tune of $16,000 a year) it was still going to be much more expensive than any of my in-state options. So, as much as I wanted to go there, I cut it from the list.
The decision came down to my top two in-state schools I had applied to. They couldn’t have been more different. One was the state’s flagship university and promised a traditional big university experience. The other was a tiny public liberal arts college with a unique academic program and culture that promised small student-to-faculty ratios.
After going back-and-forth for a long time (and then changing my mind over the summer), I decided I was more interested in the tiny liberal arts college. My decision wasn’t based on finances, but it just so happened that the college I chose was much less expensive than the large university—and it offered me a scholarship.
This is the “lucky” part of the recipe in that I was super fortunate to live in a state that had a small liberal arts college in their public university system. I basically got a small private liberal arts college experience for less than the average price of in-state tuition. Looking back, I’m so glad I didn’t have the money to go to the out-of-state college because I wouldn’t trade my small college experience for anything.
I had done well in high school and qualified for Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship, which at the time covered a couple thousand dollars per year of expenses. The college I went to provided me with a yearly scholarship as well, and I applied to a few outside scholarships and won two of them. One of the scholarships was a decent size but only applied to my freshman year, while the other was recurring for all four years as long as I remained in good academic standing.
During my first year of college, my scholarships covered all but a little over $2,000 of my tuition and board expenses. I was fortunate enough that my family was in a financial position to make up the difference.
My parents also sent me $50 per week during the school year for all four years of college to help with groceries and general living expenses.
Since my expenses were mostly covered for my first year, I didn’t have a job and focused my attention on school and my social life. After my freshman year scholarship was up though, I knew that I’d have to make up a good chunk of change. So I got to work!
In my second year, I got a job as a Resident Advisor which covered 75% of my housing costs and paid me a biweekly stipend. This alone cut my expenses so that my bill was covered by scholarships and I actually got a refund check back each semester.
My second year I continued as an RA and also started working in the school’s communications and marketing department where I did event photography, videography, editing, writing, and web updates.
At the start of my third year, I also became a tour guide in our admissions department (which was a nice fun job).
I kept each of these jobs (RA, communications, and tour guide) until I graduated.
During my fourth year, I also worked for one semester as a Teaching Assistant for a course for one semester. That meant working 4 part-time jobs while writing a thesis and being the editor of the school paper.
Do I regret that decision a little bit? Yes, yes I do. But I did it and I survived!
(As a quick disclosure: That doesn’t mean I’m telling you to work four part-time jobs in addition to school. Balancing that was a lot, to say the least, and it is definitely not the path for everyone. It’s just what worked for me.)
I also did random gig work sporadically throughout my years in college, including photography, oral history work, and babysitting over summers.
The college I chose, my scholarships, family, and jobs were all integral to me being able to graduate from undergrad debt free, and I’m incredibly grateful that that was a possibility for me.
It’s completely okay to take out loans for your education and I know folks who have put in a lot of work to pay theirs off quickly, but I’m super happy that I was able to avoid them altogether and have that head start when it came to saving.
Since my undergrad years I’ve take on a little bit of student loan debt as I began a master’s program this year, but you can read about my plan for that debt here!
What about you? Do you have student loans or no? If so do you regret them? If not, what things made that possible for you?
Over the summer, I wrote a post about the basic math behind figuring out how much money you need invested in order to retire or become financially independent.
Essentially what it boils down to is this: multiply your annual expenses by 25, and voilà! You have your target number. This is because of something called the 4% rule and if you want to understand the why behind these numbers, go back and read that article (it’s linked below to make it easy for you).
I’m bringing it up again because you can use those same principles in reverse to find out how much cutting a monthly or annual expense reduces the amount you need to save for retirement.
For example, let’s say I reviewed my past few month’s spending and found $100 worth of monthly expenses that I could cut. Cutting this $100 from my monthly budget means I now have to save $30,000 less for my retirement.
$100 per month x 12 months x 25 = $30,000
Knowing how much you’ll need to have saved in order to cover an existing expense in retirement can be helpful when making those decisions on what to cut. (You can use the same formula above to figure out how much you’ll need to save to cover any monthly or annual expense in retirement.)
In 2019, the average cable bill in the U.S. was $85 per month. That means to keep cable service in your retirement, you’d need to save an extra $25,500 in order to cover that monthly cost. Meaning that one bill could add a year – or a few – to your working career based on how much you save each year.
Seeing these monthly bills associated with such high numbers might make you feel overwhelmed at first, but I think it can also have a sort of freeing feeling that allows you to feel more in control.
Just like a $100 monthly cost requires you to save $30,000, it’s flipped as well. By finding a way to shave $100 off your monthly spending, you’re cutting your savings target by $30,000 just with that one move.
By opting for a house with a mortgage payment or rent that’s $200 less per month than you currently pay, you reduce your savings target by $60,000. By choosing to save up and buy a used car with cash instead of financing the latest model, you could easily save $400 a month in car payments, reducing your target savings by $120,000.
Don’t go wild and cut everything out just for the sake of reducing that number though. Keep the things that you really enjoy, the things that you value and find meaningful, and the things you don’t mind trading some of your time for. With everything else, get creative and think critically if that extra cost is worth it.
So this week, here’s what I want to know:
What is one monthly expense you think you could cut?
How much less do you have to save because of making this cut?
Leave me a comment and let me know what expenses you’ve opted to drop!
In general, we work to make money. But there are costs that come with our jobs, too.
These expenses (that we may or may not ever think about) affect our true hourly wage. A few of the ways we spend money on our jobs include:
transportation costs related to our commute
professional clothing or uniforms
meals and drinks bought during the workweek
random supplies and gifts we might purchase in relation to our work
With so many people working from home now, many might be realizing for the first time how much their work-related expenses were adding up. When calculating the amount we earn, we really should be subtracting the costs we incur for the privilege of working. And when figuring out our hourly wage, we should also be counting all of the hours we spend on work (including commuting and those late-night work sessions) because it’s probably more than 40 hours a week.
When all of these costs and added time get taken into account, someone who thought they were making around $20 an hour may realize that their actual hourly wage is closer to $14.
Determining a “real hourly wage” in this way is a concept that found popularity in the classic personal finance book Your Money or Your Life. Taking the time to calculate your own earnings in this way can help you understand the value of, and relationship between, your time and money.
For example, my take-home pay after taxes and health insurance is around $18 an hour. However, when I calculate my real hourly wage using the above method, my hourly pay drops down to about $15 per hour (even though I have pretty low costs associated with my job). I don’t need to buy a lot of clothes for work, I have a nice short commute, and pack my lunch most of the time – but the extra time and money I spend on my job still reduces my pay by about $3 an hour compared to what I would have thought.
For folks with long commutes or childcare costs, the difference between their expected and real hourly wage can be significant.
Knowing your real hourly wage can be extremely helpful in calculating how much other purchases are costing you in time – or hours of your life. Now that I know I actually earn about $15 an hour, that means I have to work an hour for every $15 purchase. A meal out that costs me $30 costs me two hours of my time.
Your real hourly wage gives you a very concrete link between your money and the time and energy you spent earning it.
Let’s do another example.
The new iPhone 12 Pro costs $999. Since I take home about $15 an hour, I would have to work for about 67 hours just to pay for the new phone. That’s a little over one and a half weeks of work. Now that I know that, I can decide if that’s worth it for me. (For me, it’s not.)
Knowing your real hourly wage can also encourage you to advocate for yourself or make some changes. This might look like asking for a raise or moving closer to your work to limit the time you spend commuting.
Since buying our duplex in April, our to-do list has had no shortage of things to do. Every time we get to cross something off the list, it seems two or three things have been added to it in the meantime.
Don’t get me wrong—working on the house and starting various projects has been super fun and an awesome learning experience. Plus, I’m incredibly lucky to have a partner who is excellent at planning and research to help me along. But when you’re trudging through any long-term project (whether working towards FI, updating a house, or a major project at work) you’ll have days that leave you feeling demoralized or thinking you’re not making quick enough progress.
To help balance this, it’s important to make sure you set up milestones along the way and celebrate little wins.
Setting up milestones helps you realize the progress you’re making when you’re working on something longterm, and pausing to celebrate little wins is crucial to keeping up motivation.
This weekend we finally started installing the new fence on the rental side of the duplex and installed the new mailboxes (one of our mailboxes was so low to the ground, we got multiple notices from USPS that it needed to be raised). The fence was something that felt overwhelming to start, and we knew it meant long hours outside. We’d been pushing it off hoping for cooler weather to arrive, but Florida was not so obliging. I’m publishing this post on October 27, and today the high was 91 degrees and the heat index felt like over 100. (If you live somewhere cool, frolic in some orange leaves for me, please.)
We knew we’d be getting busier with the upcoming holidays and so this past Sunday, we decided to finally just commit to the project. We made good progress and now that it’s started, I actually feel excited to get back out and finish it.
Enjoy these work in progress photos (featuring the old, touching-the-ground mailbox):
After a very sweaty Sunday and some opportunities to exercise our problem-solving skills, we basked in the glow of our handiwork and a nice cold beer. (Come to think of it, that glow could have been our sweat.)
Sure, we still need to caulk the baseboards, install shelves in our pantry, fully set up my office, build the bench for our dining room table, and lay a stone patio in the backyard – but this fence will be done by the end of this week and we’re going to celebrate goddammit.
Anyways, all of this got me thinking about the important milestones you can set for yourself when taking control of your financial life – after all, that’s a lifelong project! Here are a few milestones that I think are worth acknowledging and celebrating.
Some Financial Milestones You Can Celebrate
Look at the full picture of your financial life. What you have, what you owe, and how you spend.
Save your first $1,000 in your emergency fund.
Successfully track your spending for 3 months.
Fund all of your sinking fund categories in a month.
Pay off credit card/s if you carry a balance. Celebrate each one you pay off!
Open a retirement/investment account (and set up automatic contributions).
Pay off an auto loan.
Save 3 months worth of living expenses.
Handle an emergency expense without feeling (super) stressed about the money.
Have a positive net worth.
Save up a down payment.
Pay off student loans.
Reach a net worth of $10,000
Reach a net worth of $25,000
Reach a net worth of $50,000
Reach a net worth of $100,000
Reach a net worth of $[insert number here]
Pay off your mortgage.
Reach Financial Independence!
There are tons of big and little milestones that are worth acknowledging and celebrating, and the examples I listed above don’t necessarily need to go in that order.
Celebrating doesn’t mean you have to throw party or buy yourself something nice. It might mean cooking your favorite meal, making your favorite drink, telling a friend about your accomplishment, or planning a special night and opening a bottle of champagne.
When I hit a big money milestone, one of my favorite ways to celebrate is to sit with Cassie on our porch, listening to music, drinking a beer, and talking about how wild it is that we’ve come so far in such a short amount of time. It’s simple, but it makes me feel grateful, and hopeful, and filled with a tipsy sense of wonder – which is really what I want out of any good celebration.
Otherwise, in this house, general life milestones get celebrated with really good Mexican food.
What is the next financial milestone you’ve set for yourself and how will you celebrate when you get there?
In my last post we talked about paying off debt, so I figured a natural follow-up would be to talk about credit and how to improve your score.
I didn’t understand credit for a while.
I didn’t have a credit card until my last year of college and was pretty adamant about not getting one. My thoughts were that credit cards were bad and that I would never need one if I only planned to spend money that I already had.
Cassie gently explained to me that I probably needed to get one in order to start building credit, since I hadn’t needed to take out any student loans and didn’t have a car loan. At that point in time, I was pretty much a ghost to the world of credit — in fact, the first time I tried to sign up for Credit Karma, they couldn’t find me.
My principled stance against credit cards was great in theory, but not so great in the capitalist reality we currently live in. And my lack of credit at the time made it difficult to get approved for my first card, which was such a catch 22! (Thanks to Discover for approving me way back when!)
Since my first credit card, I’ve come to be a big fan of the responsible use of credit cards and currently have over $1,500 in cashback and travel rewards saved up for when I can finally travel again.
Understanding how credit and credit cards work helps you take advantage of them, rather than them taking advantage of you.
We won’t be going into all of the details of travel hacking and sign-up bonuses in this article, but we will cover the basics of understanding credit and how to improve your score (so that you’ll be able to qualify for those cards with great sign-up bonuses, when you apply!).
So, let’s dive in!
What Is Credit?
Credit is essentially money that is loaned to you with the expectation and promise that you will pay it back at a later date, usually with interest. Generally, this looks like lines of credit provided to you through credit cards, a mortgage, and other various types of loans.
There are three types of credit: Revolving, Installment, and Open.
The most common type of revolving credit is credit cards. You are only required to pay the minimum balance and the remaining balance rolls over to the next month (revolving).
Installment credit is credit that has a set payoff timeline with a fixed amount due each month, like a car loan or mortgage.
Open credit examples typically don’t have interest and are things like your utilities. You’ve received your water or electricity for the month on credit with the expectation that you will pay for it when your bill comes due at the end of the month.
However, when someone talks about your credit they are usually referring to your credit score.
How Credit Scores Work
Your credit score is a number between 300 and 850 that represents your creditworthiness based on your credit history. There are different scoring systems that have their own unique ranges bands, but FICO is the most common, and their range is as follows:
Excellent: 800 to 850
Very Good: 740 to 799
Good: 670 to 739
Fair: 580 to 669
Poor: 300 to 579
Your score is determined by a variety of things that we’ll get to shortly!
Why Credit Scores Are Important and How They’re Used
Your credit score will affect not only your ability to actually borrow money in the first place, but also the interest rate you will be required to pay on the borrowed funds.
The better your credit score, the lower the interest rate. The lower your credit score, the higher the interest rates you’ll be charged to borrow money.
By building up good credit and keeping your score high, you’ll end up saving a lot of money in the long run, thanks to those lower interest rates.
For example, according to Nerd Wallet, someone with a FICO score of 620 would pay $65,000 more on a $200,000 mortgage than if they had a credit score of 760. That’s a lot of dollars!
But aside from interest rates and credit applications, your credit score is used for lots of other important things. If you’re looking to rent a house or an apartment, your landlord will look at your credit score as one factor in whether or not they’ll rent to you. Your auto and home insurance premiums are partially determined by your credit score, too.
For all of these reasons, it’s a good idea to pay attention to your credit and work to improve it. Next up, we’ll talk about how to do that!
What Affects Your Credit Score (and How to Improve It)
You can keep track of your current credit score by using the free app Credit Karma. Most banks and credit card companies now come with some form of a free credit score tracking service, too, which can help you catch fraud faster. If you don’t know your credit score, find it out! This will let you know where you’re starting.
You also have the right to request a free credit report from the three major credit bureaus (TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian) once a year by visiting annualcreditreport.com. Your credit report provides a much more detailed picture of your credit history and the things that are affecting your score. It’s good to look through this once a year to keep your eye out for any mistakes that may have shown up on your report and be unfairly affecting your score.
How Your Credit Score Breaks Down
Payment History: 35% of your score
Your payment history makes up the largest chunk of your credit score and therefore has the biggest impact. That’s why it’s incredibly important to avoid late payments (or missing payments entirely). They can negatively affect your score for up to seven years!
To simplify things, set up auto pay for at least the minimum payment on your credit cards and loans. That will ensure that you avoid the dings to your score and the associated fees.
If you accidentally make a payment a day or two late (and it’s not a common occurrence for you), you can usually call your credit card company and ask them to forgive your late payment this one time and not to not report it.
Credit Utilization: 30% of your score
Your credit utilization refers to the percent of revolving credit you have access to that you are actually using. So for example if you have three credit cards that when added together have a $10,000 credit limit, and your current balances add up to $2,500, then your credit utilization would be 25%. That’s because you are currently using 25% of the credit available to you.
It’s general guidance to keep this amount below 30% to not negatively affect your credit score, and if you can keep it under 10% then all the better!
Credit History Length: 15% of your score
The length of your credit history can either help or hinder your credit score. There’s nothing you can really do here — just be patient! But, this is one of the reasons why starting to responsibly use credit sooner rather than later can be helpful. Getting a 0% interest, low-limit credit card just as you start college (and paying it off consistently and completely) can help you later on. If you’re not a student, you may still be able to access credit cards designed for credit newcomers.
Credit Mix: 10%
Credit agencies like to see a mix of types of credit such as credit cards, an auto loan, mortgage, etc.
I wouldn’t worry about this too much because it doesn’t have that big of an impact on your score, relatively. I recommend having a few key credit cards that you pay off each month, but otherwise, only borrow money for things you need to borrow for.
It doesn’t make sense to take out a car loan and pay interest if you can pay cash. Same for student loans.
New Credit Lines (Hard Inquiries): 10%
If you’ve recently opened a bunch of credit cards or taken out multiple loans, this is a red flag to lenders and will impact your credit score.
When you open any new line of credit you may see your score dip immediately afterward because of the hard inquiry they made. A hard inquiry is when a lender pulls your credit report to determine whether or not to approve you for credit.
Hard inquiries stay on your credit report for up to 2 years, but as long as you don’t more than three or four inquiries in that two-year period, it shouldn’t really affect you too much.
People sometimes get really stressed about the hard inquiries component of credit scores, but honestly, I wouldn’t worry a ton about it. The dip is temporary, and the newly available credit will reduce your credit utilization which will have a bigger net-positive impact on your score.
Important Note: The only time I would say to be wary of opening a new line of credit is if you plan on making a home purchase in the near future. This temporary dip could affect the interest rates you’re offered, and on a $200,000 mortgage that small difference in interest rate can equal a lot of money!
Your payment history and credit utilization are the things that have the biggest effect on your score, so they are definitely the ones to keep an eye on. Make those payments on time and try to keep your debts low and pay them off as soon as possible.
Credit Karma will walk you through each of these factors and explain how they are affecting your particular score, so that’s a great place to start if you’re generally new to understanding the world of credit! And remember, you may not see instant change as you work to improve your credit, but by diligently sticking with it and working to improve your score you will see slow and steady progress and get to where you want to be!
If you have debt, you’re not alone. Not by a long shot.
The average household with a credit card has over $8,000 in credit card debt. And the U.S. as a whole totals nearly $14 trillion in consumer debt, including mortgages, auto loans, credit cards and student loans.
But just because everyone else has it, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing (or healthy for your financial and mental wellbeing, for that matter).
If you currently hold debt, it’s not something to be ashamed of or hide from, but it is something you want to actively working towards eliminating. In this post, I’m sharing six totally manageable steps to help you get out of debt and closer to financial freedom (and an update at the end on our own debt situation).
1. Figure out how much you owe.
The first step is to figure out what your debt is. Too often, we feel overwhelmed by debt and avoid facing the reality of our situation. If you want to pay off your debt (and get rid of the associated stress and monthly payments), you’re going to have to face the facts of your situation and take a close look at the amount of debt you currently have and your current living expenses.
Understanding Your Debt
First things first, you want to get a picture of how much you owe, who you owe it to, and how much it’s costing you.
To do this you’ll want to make a table, either on paper or in an Excel sheet or a tool like AirTable. Go through each of your credit cards, loans, and things in collections and make columns for your remaining balance, the interest rate, your current monthly minimum payment, the due date, the type of debt, and who you owe it to (plus a payment link) .
Seeing it laid out like that can be stressful, but the clearly-displayed information will come in handy when making your payoff plan.
Your Living Expenses
Next, you’ll want to take a closer look at your monthly expenses and how that compares to your income. If you don’t already track your spending through YNAB, Mint, or some other tool, you can pull your bank and credit card statements from the past couple of months and do your best to piece together a picture of your spending.
This step is important for two reasons. First, it’s to assess if your current spending levels are causing you to go more and more into debt each month by living outside your means. If that’s the case you’ll need to have a more extended conversation with yourself about lowering your expenses and your relationship with money.
Second, having this blueprint of what you’re spending money on will help you identify funds you can redirect to debt payoff when we get to step four.
So, if you’re serious about paying off your debt and living a debt-free life, take a break from reading this article to complete step one. Come back once you’ve figured out where you stand. I’ll wait.
Back? Great! I’m so proud of you! Having the courage to face your debt head-on and take stock of what you owe can be difficult, but it is so incredibly important to making the changes that will let you live the life you want. You’ve taken a big and important step already!
2. Pick your payoff method
Okay, next up is picking your payoff method. In the world of personal finance, there are typically 3 methods of debt payoff: The debt snowball, debt avalanche or stacking, and debt consolidation. We’re going to go through them one-by-one so that you can decide which one will work best for you.
The Debt Snowball method is a debt payoff strategy popularized by Dave Ramsey, and many folks swear by it. If you are using this method, you’ll list your debts in order of smallest to biggest. You’ll make your minimum payments on all of your debts to avoid any late fees and negative effects on your credit score, but you’ll throw all of your extra cash at the debt with the smallest balance. Once you’ve paid off your smallest balance, that minimum payment and any extra cash now gets thrown at the debt with the next smallest balance.
While this strategy may not make sense if you are looking at things from a pure numbers point of view, it takes advantage of the psychology of motivation. You’ll be able to see and feel your progress faster, which is likely to inspire you to stick with it and tackle your debt more aggressively.
The debt avalanche strategy is similar to the debt snowball method in that you will pay the minimum balance on all of your debts, but rather than throwing all of your extra cash to the account with the lowest balance, you throw your extra cash at the account with the highest interest rate first. Once you’ve payed off your debt with the highest interest rate, you’ll transition the funds from that minimum payment and your extra cash to the balance with the next highest interest rate, and so on.
This method will save you money and time, as more of your cash will be going to the principle of your debt. However, you may feel like it takes longer to see progress which might cause you to feel less motivated to stick with your payoff plan.
If you have a lot of debt, it might be worth it to look into debt consolidation. Depending on your situation and your debt payoff timeline, this might look like a personal loan with a lower interest rate, or a balance transfer credit card with a 0% interest intro period. If you’re using a balance transfer credit card, be sure to read the terms carefully — some credit cards offer 0% interest for the first year or so, but that term doesn’t apply to balance transfers, and you may get hit with high interest there. So pay close attention.
Consolidating your debt can save you a lot of money in interest and therefore speed up your debt payoff timeline. But it can also seem more overwhelming because you’ll see your total debt in one balance rather than broken up over numerous cards and loans. The even bigger danger with debt consolidation is that if you haven’t adjusted the spending behavior that may have gotten you into consumer debt in the first place, you could just be opening the door to more debt by consolidating your credit card debt and therefore opening up your credit cards that had previously been maxed out or close to maxed out of their spending limit.
If this is something you are worried about you can call each of your credit card companies and ask if they will lower your interest rate, as this may save you a few percentage points on each. It won’t be as much as consolidating, but it’s still a good idea to do no matter which payoff method you’re using.
Choosing your debt payoff method is a personal choice and will depend on the way you think, your relationship to money, and your motivation. There is no right or wrong choice, no matter what the numbers on paper may say. The right choice is the one that will work and that you can stick with.
3. Automate your debt payoff method
Now that you’ve chosen your payoff method, it’s time to automate it. You’ll want to set up auto pay for each of your minimum payments to avoid late fees and make sure you’re making progress. If you already know you can afford to put an extra $50 or $100 per month to your debt payoff, add that amount to your auto payment on whichever balance you are targeting first (the smallest balance if using the debt snowball, or the highest interest rate if using the debt avalanche).
Making your payoff plan automatic ensures that you’re sticking with your plan, and since the money will be automatically transferred from your account, it takes away the decision-making process and the risk of forgetting or rationalizing your way out of what you’ve planned to pay.
4. Find extra funds
If you’re serious about crushing your debt, or as you get excited seeing the progress you’re making, you may want to find extra funds to attack your debt balances. You can do this in two ways: cut current spending or earn additional income. I suggest a combined approach.
By this point you should be tracking your spending using some form of budgeting app to make sure you’re spending is in line with your income and your debt payoff obligations. If this is the case, run through your categories from the previous month and pick at least 2 or 3 categories that you think you could lower. This might be subscription services, dining out, groceries, or clothing.
Choose a few categories to cut this month and keep track of the savings you make in those few categories, then use that money to pay off more debt. If you can eliminate or lower a monthly bill, great! Now use that monthly amount towards your debt payoff.
The other way to aggressively payoff debt is to earmark any extra income for making additional debt payments. This could mean birthday money, cash your neighbor paid you for dog sitting, a tax refund, or holiday bonus. Using these extra funds to turbocharge your debt payoff is a great way to spend that money.
5. Maintain motivation
If you’re paying off large amounts of debt and have a long road ahead of you, it can feel demoralizing at times. It’s important to maintain motivation on your debt payoff journey, so here are a few suggestions:
Visually track progress
Seeing the progress you are making on your debt pay off journey can be a big motivator. Hang your payment tracker on the fridge or over your desk; basically, just put it somewhere that you will see regularly. If your partner or a friend is also trying to pay off debt, you can even create a shared spreadsheet so that you can be motivated by each other’s progress (be careful of the comparison trap, though — they might be paying off things at a faster rate than you, and that’s okay. Your debts are different).
Celebrate the smaller milestones
When you’re on a longer debt payoff journey, it’s important to celebrate milestones along the way to keep you motivated. Here are some small things you can celebrate:
Setting up automatic payments on all of your accounts
Your first $1,000 paid off
The first balance you eliminate
The first interest rate you successfully negotiate down
Designate markers for your journey and be sure to appreciate reaching them (just don’t break the bank with your celebrations!).
Set specific challenges for yourself
As humans, we like a good challenge. One way you can take advantage of this is by regularly creating challenges for yourself to turbocharge your debt payments. This might mean setting a challenge to find an extra $100 this month to put towards your debt. Or doing a “buy nothing” week or a “buy nothing” month in a specific category and using the savings for your debt. It might mean seeing how many thoughtful and creative gifts you can come up with for the holidays to save money. Get creative, and tell someone else about your challenge to add some additional accountability (remember that friend from earlier?).
6. Stay out of debt
It’s super important to also address what caused you to go into debt in the first place. Some debt may not require any kind of examination of your relationship with money, like medical debt.
But if you’re getting out of credit card debt that was caused by high spending, you’ll want to make sure you’re also addressing the habits that got you into debt in the first place or your success will be short lived and you might just end up back where you started. Make sure to live within your means, and think critically about if your spending is aligning with your values and the life you want to live – not just in the moment, but down the road.
My Debt Journey
My wife and I aggressively paid down around $15,000 in debt that we had accrued during a really rough year. You can read about that here! Since then, we’ve also paid off both of our car loans.
On the flip side, we have also accumulated more debt through our mortgage and a 0% interest home improvement credit card that we used to cover our very expensive new hurricane windows for our house.
We could have cash-flowed this update, but it would have meant pulling money out of investments that were earning money. In this case, since the windows came with a two-year 0% interest rate, it made more financial sense to keep the money invested and pay off the balance over the two-year interest free period. We have our auto pay set up so that we’ll pay off the balance a few months before that period is up, just to be on the safe side.
Once we get rid of the PMI on our mortgage, we won’t be paying it off aggressively (right now we have twice-monthly payments set up). I don’t mind having mortgage debt and as a rule, I don’t worry too much about aggressively paying off debt with an interest rate of less than 5%. Since money invested in the stock market will earn an average of 7% annually, my money will likely be better off invested and earn me more than I’ll be charged in interest. This will also be a personal call, because some folks prefer that pure, unadulterated, totally debt-free feeling.
I also recently took out my first student loan since I started grad school this semester (as an undergrad, my RA job and scholarships covered my cost of school). This was another instance where I could have not taken out the loans, but doing so let me keep more money invested and borrow the money while the interest rate was 0%. I plan on paying off this loan before the start of the next fall semester and paying for the second year of my program in cash. My original plan was cash-flowing the entire program, but since we ended up buying a house sooner than we expected (and making quite a few updates) this method gave me more flexibility with my cash and didn’t cost me anything extra.
Understanding and managing your debt can be overwhelming, I know! But it can also help you feel much more in control of your financial life, and that feeling is one worth pursuing.
But, I also love living a good life. I talk a lot about how saving money doesn’t need to mean living a life of denial or feeling deprived – in fact, I would argue that having control of your finances gives you a blissful sense of security and outright joy.
That’s because my philosophy on saving money isn’t one of “making cuts” but of “making choices” and aligning your spending with your priorities. With a few simple tweaks to your life, you could save hundreds of dollars per month and not feel deprived of anything (except stress).
I know—this sounds like a phishing scam or a pyramid scheme, but I’m serious!
Buying the fancy chocolate (but not the fancy car) is one ingredient in the secret sauce to becoming wealthy.
That’s because the fancy chocolate gives you that same sense of luxury and decadence, but only costs $5 more than a Hershey’s bar, while that fancy car will cost you hundreds of dollars more every month. The chocolate bar is literally treating yourself, but the fancy car is just treating you to…more expenses. Your chocolate bar doesn’t need cleaning and maintenance. It just needs to be eaten.
If you try to build in daily decadence without designing a life that cost less (by paying attention to the big 3 categories of housing, transportation, and food) you risk living beyond your means and succumbing to lifestyle inflation. That’s really easy to do with influencers and advertisers constantly selling us the *~*new perfect item*~* we simply can’t do without. Sometimes that item is a $300 pan. Sometimes it’s a brand-new car. Often, it’s a bigger, nicer, more recently renovated house.
But you don’t need that fancy car and you can probably be just as happy (if not more so) in a smaller house. Spend time with your loved ones in that smaller house rather than spending time with them at Chili’s. (No offense Chili’s…Okay, maybe a little offense.)
Lifestyle inflation is absolutely a one-way express ticket to looking cool! And to living in stress city. Nobody wants to live in stress city. Especially not you.
At least once a week I turn to Cassie and tell her that I can’t believe how luxurious and awesome our life is.
Part of this is because I’m acutely aware of how lucky we are compared to others in our life (let alone across the country and world) and I try to make it a daily habit to practice gratitude for this.
But it’s also because our life is just objectively pretty dang great.
We eat delicious food at a beautiful table (that we built). We live in a beautiful home that we’ve fixed up to our taste. We buy A LOT of craft beer and enjoy it regularly on our screened-in porch. I top my oatmeal with dark chocolate, fresh strawberries, and shredded coconut (can you taste the luxury?!?). And under normal circumstances, we travel regularly – last year even paying to bring my two brothers along to Ecuador (where we did, indeed, buy a lot of fancy chocolate).
Not to mention we have family and friends who we love and who love us. I must have been a saint in a past life or something.
So I challenge you to build decadence into your everyday life. Spend extra on the things that truly bring you joy and make you pause to appreciate them, but design a life that costs less on the things that are purely superficial (that’s where the real savings come in).
By practicing gratitude and enjoying the simple pleasures in our lives, we can start to free ourselves from the capitalist trap that more or bigger is better. Instead of fixating on the latest status symbol, focus on cultivating your community and small pleasures instead.