Here’s How I Save for Long-Term, Unexpected Expenses

Back when I first started this blog, I wrote about sinking funds and how using them helped me finally start making progress towards my financial goals.

If you’re not familiar, sinking funds are categories in your budget dedicated to larger, but infrequent, expenses. They’re the expenses that come up every six months that make you grumble to yourself (if you don’t have a sinking fund, at least).

When I first started trying to save more money, every month there seemed to be something that would keep me from being able to save as much as I thought I’d be able to.

Whether it was spending money on Christmas presents, my car registration, or an annual membership that came due, each month I found myself saying that “next month will be better, this month was just weird because of [insert ‘extra’ thing here].”

It didn’t take long to realize every month was a “weird month” and as a result, I wasn’t getting any closer to my savings goals. 

The Magic of Sinking Funds (read here)

I just recently dipped into my car maintenance sinking fund for a new battery (and a few other overdue maintenance services). This all totaled around $550 and it was so nice to go into the budget and see that money just waiting there in the car maintenance line.

That moment of gratitude made me think it would be worth circling back around to that topic and updating you all with the full list of sinking funds that I’ve added since then – I love sinking funds, so there are a lot.

My wife told me that the first draft of this post was a little…much. So, I’ve put my sinking funds into broad categories to help you understand how I categorize them (and why I actually have this many individual sinking funds in my budget).

Saving for House-Related Expenses

I have at least 6 different sinking funds that help me prepare for home-related costs. Since our house is a duplex, many of these lines are doubled — for example, we have a sinking fund for major repairs to the rental side and a sinking fund for major repairs to our side. Here’s the full list of house-related sinking funds:

  • Major home maintenance (one for the rental side, one for our side)
    I have a home maintenance sinking fund for both our personal home and the rental side of the duplex. We add a little over $100 each month for each side to cover major maintenance on the house in the long term — things like a new roof, new appliances, water heater, AC, etc.

    We replaced both ACs within the past two years, and both water heaters were replaced right before we moved in, so the bulk of this is mostly saving for an eventual new roof and updating appliances on the rental side as needed.
  • Regular home maintenance and repairs (one for the rental side, one for our side)
    We save $110 each month for our personal home and $110 for the rental side of the duplex. We stick with the rule of thumb to save 1% of your purchase price per year. Rather than long-term major costs, this covers regular ongoing maintenance and occasional repairs.

  • Miscellaneous rental costs
    We put aside another $250 each month to cover things like changeover costs (professional cleaning), quarterly pest treatment, possible vacancies, taxes on the income, and gifts for the tenants.

  • Tree trimming
    We have an oak tree in our front yard that requires professional trimming every year or so to keep it from touching our roof. I put $10 each month into this category so that when it’s time, I don’t put it off because the money is already there. It may seem silly to have a sinking fund for something that’s $10 or less, but honestly, it’s how I stay on top of things and keep my financial goals on track. It’s important to know what money will need to be spent in the future, to help you better plan your spending today.

  • Down payment
    This is a new addition! We are looking to move out of Florida in about three years, so we’re starting to save for our next down payment. We’re not going to be selling our house when we move, so this one is going to be a pretty big deal. Since we finally paid off our hurricane windows (!!!) we’ll be moving the payments we were making on that to this new sinking fund, which will total about $800 per month.

Saving for Car-Related Expenses

Transportation expenses can be a major drag. Whether it’s registration fees, repairs, or event replacement costs, this set of budget lines is one that many of us prefer to ignore until we can’t anymore.

My transportation sinking funds are all car-related, but yours might not be! You can have sinking funds for buying things like monthly commuter rail passes, bike maintenance costs, or whatever. Here are the transportation-related sinking funds I currently have:

  • Auto maintenance
    As I mentioned at the start of this post, I keep a sinking fund for maintenance on my car. Each month I drop $35 into this category in YNAB and it accrues over time so it’s ready when I need it! (Which reminds me that I really should schedule an oil change…) Sinking funds might help you have the money saved, but they’re not going to remind you to make the appointment!

  • Car registration
    Each month I save 1/12 of what my car registration was the previous year. This makes sure I’m never surprised by that pesky little bill.

  • Car replacement
    This is a new sinking fund that I just started a few months ago. I figure eventually I’ll need a new (to me) car. I don’t think this will be for a while, and honestly, by the time we hit that point I’m hoping we can be a single-car household. But I throw $35 into this category each month to slowly build up some funds for an eventual replacement anyway. I’ll probably increase the monthly amount by a bit in a year or so.

  • Car insurance
    When my wife was reading over this post, she asked if I had a sinking fund for my car insurance. I don’t because I pay my car insurance on a monthly basis and I wasn’t sure if it was worth it to pay for my whole policy period at once. I looked into it, and I would only save about $4 total, so it isn’t worth it for me to add a sinking fund line here. But for you it might be worth it, so if you have car insurance, make sure to check out your payment plan options!

Saving for Health-Related Expenses

I only actually have one health-related sinking fund — it’s just a general catch-all “health” category.

We have health insurance, but I still put $60 each month into this category so that it’s ready when we need to pay for co-pays, medical bills, prescriptions, over-the-counter medication, sick supplies, workout equipment, and even ergonomic office supplies.

Recently, this sinking fund helped cover an ER copay ($100) and some joint supplements and allergy pills at Costco.

Saving for Miscellaneous Expenses

  • Replacing technology items
    This sinking fund is for replacing the much-used tech items that I know will need to be replaced eventually, like my cellphone, laptop, and camera. I add $50 each month to this budget line, and I’ll stop adding to it once it reaches $2,000. Once I use some of it, I’ll add $50 per month until it reaches $2,000 again.

  • Saving for yearly subscriptions
    This one is pretty self-explanatory. While we have plenty of monthly subscription fees, we also have a bunch of annual subscription fees, too. This includes things like annual credit card fees, our Prime membership, our Costco membership, and more. And yes, there is a sinking fund for each one of these individually!

  • The baby fund
    This has also been a recent addition. While there are no plans for babies anytime soon, I know that over the next couple of years, it will start to be part of the conversation. I also know that as a gay couple, it’s going to cost us some (ahem: a lot of) money to get there. At the moment, there is no deadline on this — so I try to put $50 each month towards it, but I don’t always make it a priority.

  • Peace of mind
    Peace of mind is what I call my “emergency fund.” While a lot of places will say you need 3-6 months of living expenses for a true emergency fund, I only keep mine at $2500. This is because I have so many sinking funds that cover a lot of traditional “emergencies” (auto maintenance, home repairs, health, etc.). So, I rarely have to pull from it.

    In fact, I used this sinking fund for the first time this year when I bought last-minute plane tickets for a funeral. While building it up, I put about $200 each month into the category until it hit $2,500.

Putting the “Fun” in “Sinking Funds”

Sinking funds are great for those big expenses that might feel a little overwhelming, but they’re also great for more exciting things, too! I’ve written before about how I prioritize fun and relaxation in my budget, and this shows up in the many fun-related sinking funds that I have. Here’s the full list:

  • Saving for my friend’s wedding
    I was the maid of honor at my best friend’s wedding, so this was a temporary sinking fund just for this year to help me save for the related expenses. I decided to save $175 each month for this by taking my estimated expenses (flights for the wedding, bachelorette weekend, suit, gifts, etc.) and dividing it by how many months I had until the wedding.  

  • Christmas gifts
    I love buying Christmas presents for my friends and family, so I set aside $50 each month throughout the year so that I know I can shop for their gifts without stressing out. To figure out how much to save each month, I set a budget for what I wanted to spend on each person, added it up, put a little on top for shipping, and then divided it by 12. And yes, this budget line is separate from other, non-Christmas gifts.

  • Vacation
    Pretty self-explanatory! This is where I save for traveling and vacation. How much I put in this category each month depends on what trips we have planned, what else is going on that year, and what my spending priorities are at the time. This has ranged from $120 per month to $300 per month, one of my highest-allocated sinking funds.

Not including the down payment sinking fund, we have over $1,000 each month that gets categorized into various sinking funds. That money is earmarked to be spent at a later date (as an important side note, a couple hundred of this is for the rental side of the duplex and comes out of the monthly rent).

That may seem like a lot, and it is. But that’s also why zero-sum budgeting and embracing your true expenses – as YNAB likes to say – is so important to actually get a handle on your budget. What would happen if I was ignoring that $1,000 a month of expenses that would eventually come due? I’d be in for a rude awakening.

Even though I’m not actually spending that money each month, those bills will come due at some point. Allocating money towards them now, bit by bit, helps them feel a lot more manageable, helps me feel a lot more in control, and ensures I’ll be able to afford them when they do come.

Without planning for these larger, future expenses, I’d think that I had more disposable income than I actually do, and I’d probably spend more of it than I should.

This would make it hard to get ahead, even though I make pretty decent money. By splitting up my infrequent-but-big expenses, it all feels a lot more manageable and my sense of how much money I have for extras is much more realistic in the long run.

My 2021 Budget Recap • What I Earned, Spent, and Saved in 2021

What a year.

If I’m being honest, most of 2021 is a blur to me. Between work, school, and the day-to-day chores, the days and weeks seemed to blend in together. And unlike the previous two years, there wasn’t a major personal milestone to provide a marker in the narrative of my life (like getting married in 2019 and buying our house in 2020).

2021 was challenging for the world, and I also found it personally challenging in ways I can’t fully put my finger on.

Work was hard and felt non-stop. It was still rewarding, and I’m proud of the work I did, but I found myself losing the sense of fun that I pride myself on carrying with me in my work.

While I remain an optimist and take care to nurture my hope for the future, I also experienced a significant eroding of my belief in people’s inherent goodness. My hope requires a bit more attentive nurturing right now.

Speaking of the future — my ideas for what I want mine to look like are shifting, but in a way that still feels nebulous and sticky, yet solidifying.

Overall, I know I’ve been incredibly lucky. Cassie and I’s partnership continues to grow in ways I’m so grateful for. I can’t imagine a better blessing than my family. I made more money than I ever have. I have a home that truly feels like a home. I’ve got big plans and I’m still learning a whole lot.

That’s enough self-indulgent reflection, time to get on to some numbers.

While I was hopeful we might fully combine our finances this past year, we haven’t quite gotten around to fully combining everything (though we do have joint checking and savings accounts and two family credit cards now!) and honestly, I’m not sure if we will this year either. I have high hopes for 2023 though.

All this to say, what follows is an outline of my expenses and not our total household.

My Income

My base salary this year was $44,300, but that got supplemented by some stipend work I was able to do, as well as some tuition reimbursements. I quit dog walking this year since I just didn’t have the time. I also did less freelance work this year, since I was working on extra projects through my full-time job on a stipend basis. However, I still managed to do one freelance project at the beginning of the year that I really enjoyed and may lead to future opportunities. And, of course, stimulus checks.

All in all, I saw $64,985 in inflow.

Here’s a rough outline of how that $64,985 broke down:

  • Full-Time Job Take-Home Pay: $41,180
  • Retirement Contribution Deductions (403b and 457b): $8,671
  • Rental Income: $8,150
  • Various Freelance Projects: $2,185
  • Stimulus Checks: $2,000
  • Other (dividends, cashback, interest, gifts, selling things, etc): $1,400

My Expenses

While my total expenses this year were, predictably, much lower than last year’s (we didn’t spend $14,000 on windows this year), it’s still a bit more than I was hoping for — especially considering it’s just my half of our household expenses.

However, we did put in a new AC and spent a good bit on yard projects, both of which are one-time (for a long time) expenses.

Also, because I was balancing work and school, I was willing to pay a little extra for some time-saving conveniences. Though I have to say, I’m looking forward to getting back to doing most of my own grocery shopping and cooking.

Here’s the full breakdown of my spending this past year below (with some explanatory notes for those who are interested (also remember this is just my half)):

Interest on Mortgage$1,738.84I don’t count payments towards the principal of the loan as an expense. Also, since we live in a duplex I count half the interest as rental expenses.
Property Taxes and Home Insurance$1,717.59These costs also come out of our mortgage payment. I also count half of the property taxes and home insurance as rental expenses.
Utilities $1,744.67Water, electric, wifi.
Pest Service$294.75Quarterly pest service and termite prevention.
Yard & Garden Supplies$993.95Supplies to build two large raised flower beds in the front yard, various landscaping supplies, and lots of garden stuff. Last year I lumped all these purchases into the home maintenance category but this year I separated it out.

This should be less next year.
Home Maintenance & Updates$4,180.39We planned and had saved up to replace our AC in May of this past year and also had them update some ductwork. This also includes supplies to do a stucco patch on a leak, replacing a final section of fence, and a few other minor things.

We don’t have any major updates planned for this upcoming year so I’m hoping this will be a good chunk less next year.
House Stuff$1,197.43A few small pieces of furniture, kitchen stuff, artwork, etc.
Car Insurance$879.77Need to look into lowering this next year.
Gas$366.67Gotta love a short commute!
Auto Maintenance $41.69
Groceries$3,836.53We used grocery delivery a good amount this year, so this also includes fees and tips. This will be a target for reducing next year.
Dining Out$1,542.65Would also like to see this go down next year.
Entertaining at Home$171.76Food and drinks for social gatherings.
Coffee Out$38.80
Subscriptions$978.89Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, Costco Membership, Simplisafe, credit card annual fees, etc.
Fun Money!$1,002.35Tickets for events, board games, movie rentals, post-kickball beers, recreational supplies, etc.
Clothes and Shoes$1,210.71This was much more than usual, but I’m happy with everything that was bought, and lots of it was needed replacements – a rain jacket, a few good pairs of jeans, sports bras, shoes, etc. Plus just some new stuff that I liked.
Travel/Vacation$1,731.99Cabin trip in March, two trips to Pennsylvania, and a staycation. Also includes tickets we bought to Japan that we ended up not being able to use but have flight credit for that we’ll use on a future trip.
Dental Insurance$413.64I 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$1,268.64
Health Spending$944.69Meds, an ergonomic setup for my desk (fancy keyboard and mouse), co-pays, a couple rapid tests, etc.
Work Expenses$725.70Parking, software, misc.
Christmas/Family Trip$384.70Ecuador! My parents paid for most of this trip as a Christmas present for the family.
Rental Costs$5,067.28New washer and dryer, landscaping, welcome basket/gift card, birthday gifts for the kids, the interest, property taxes, insurance, etc.
Grad School$1,937.60Student loan payments and a few textbooks. Ended up taking out more loans instead of paying in cash like I had planned. It just made more sense financially with the zero-interest loans right now.
Pets$284.61The vast majority of pet costs come out of Cassie’s accounts.
Dumb Fees$38.34
Misc. $822.55
Total Expenses:$37,072.18
Total Minus Rental Costs & Work Expenses:$31,279.20Closer to my actual living expenses for the year.

I have to say, overall I’m a little disappointed with how high my final numbers were this year, but it also makes sense.

Some categories I feel confident will be less next year include yard and garden supplies, home maintenance and updates (*knocks on wood*), house stuff, groceries, dining out, and clothes. However, I do expect increased spending on travel, grad school, and Christmas.

My Savings Rate

I had a savings rate of 43% this year — saving $27,912 of my $64,985 in income. My month with the lowest savings rate was May with -4% (that’s the month we bought the AC). The month I had the highest savings rate this year was September with 70%. I’m hoping next year’s annual rate will be over 50% and I’m pretty sure it will be.

My Net Worth

It’s hard to believe, but my net worth almost doubled this year! This was primarily driven by the gains in the stock market and the insane increase in my home’s value (both of which could decrease tomorrow).

Net Worth on Jan. 1, 2021: $49,222

Net Worth on Jan. 1, 2022: $95,311

2021 Net Worth Change: +$46,089

Breakdown of My Net Worth:

-$140,436Debt: “My half” of the mortgage, plus my student loans (around $12K at the moment), and credit card balances (set to autopay mid-month).
$45,632Invested (403b, 457b, Roth IRA, and taxable accounts)
$12,434High-interest savings account for emergency fund and long-term sinking funds
$6,681Checking account for monthly expenses and short-term sinking funds
$171,000Home Value: “My half.” This is a pretty conservative estimate — about $45K less than the Zillow estimate and taking out realtor fees.

Money Goals for 2022

  • Hit a 50% savings rate.
  • Lower both my grocery and dining out costs.
  • Invest more.

Life Goals for 2022

  • Stay grounded during moments of stress, and focus on brining the fun back into my work.
  • Be more intentional with my time. Less screens. More time outside and connecting with people.
  • Make my health a priority.

What are your money and life goals for 2022? I’d love to hear about them! Drop some inspiration in the comments for some good, high-tech public accountability.

November’s Grocery Challenge Update!

Alright, here it is! Our slightly late – but still here – update on our food spending for November. Last month I wrote about how our grocery budget had gotten a little – *a lot* – ridiculous. So, I created a self-imposed challenge to keep our joint spending on food for the month of November to under $500.

Now, this may seem like a totally reasonable, not challenging at all, challenge to many of you out there. I mean we’re only two people! But considering we had been averaging around $950 a month in the previous few months this was a pretty significant cut.

So, the results are in. Drum roll, please…

Our total monthly food spend for November was $447.62!

We hit our goal with $52.38 to spare. Our total spend broke down as the following:

Groceries – $305.68

Dining Out – $141.94

Compared to the previously mentioned average, we saved $502.38! Not too bad, for just paying a bit more attention and spending a little time planning!

Now, I have to be honest – our success does come with one caveat. We spent a week visiting family in Pennsylvania and any food purchased during that week got categorized into the travel category. Plus, it was Thanksgiving, so we spent a few days at my parents’ house where we weren’t paying to feed ourselves.  These two things definitely helped us out in reaching our goal.

However, I can feel a little better because $80 of November’s groceries dollars went to buying (and vacuum sealing) many months’ worth of whole bean coffee from our favorite coffee shop. Without this bulk purchase, our grocery bill would have only been $225 for the month. So, I’ll say it kind of evens out?

Now to see if we can keep it up.

3 Things Budgeting Taught Me About Time Management

A major part of my job involves working with college students to help build up their time management skills. Time management is something that everyone struggles with at various points in their life, and it’s also something that many of us are never explicitly taught. Yet it’s super important! Because of this, I wanted to spend some time on the blog talking a bit about time management this week.

I’ve always been pretty naturally good at managing my time in the traditional sense. I can get a lot done, manage multiple projects, prioritize tasks, and have a good sense of how long things will take me. I love a good to-do list and I live by my Google calendar.

However, there’s a danger to this myopic view of time management that’s focused purely on productivity. If that’s our only view of time management, we can fall into the trap of focusing too much on quantity rather than quality and we can easily lose sight of the bigger picture – and finite nature – of time.

For example, in my last year of college, I was working four part-time on-campus jobs, taking classes, writing a thesis, and was the editor of the school paper. On paper, I was a time-management wizard! I passed my classes, wrote a thesis I was genuinely proud of, and our school paper even won an award that year.

That may sound like I had quantity and quality covered, however, juggling all of that also meant that I spent a lot less time with my friends in my final year on campus, turned down more than one party I wanted to go to, and didn’t spend any time focusing on what my plan after graduation would be. I felt stressed and exhausted most of the time, and barely saw my cousin/best friend who had moved across the country to the same city as me (and who now lives back across the country and I haven’t seen since…I’m not even sure??).

I don’t really believe in regrets, but if I could go back and do it over I would quit two of my jobs so I had more time for the things I missed out on.

When I started budgeting, I also started learning a new way to think about time management. See, when I was able to get a clear picture of how to make my money line up with my actual priorities, desires, and dreams, it helped me also think more critically about how I needed to shift the ways I was spending my time so that it also lined up with those priorities. 

So here are the 3 time-management lessons that budgeting taught me:

1. Set clear priorities and allocate your time accordingly.

When I budget, I first go through and cover all of my bills/obligations. Once those required categories are covered, I get to decide how I want to allocate the dollars that are left based on what my priorities are. Right now, those priorities are funding our travel budget line, saving up for an exciting next step, and investing.  

Using zero-sum budgeting – which relies on clearly identifying your priorities and aligning your money with them – has helped me translate this way of thinking to my time as well. Sure, large chunks of my time are already accounted for with work, school, sleep, and the basic chores of living – but how do I really want to spend those leftover hours that are mine to decide what to do with? What are my priorities for my time?

Lately, I’ve been answering that question a lot more intentionally, and as a result, I’ve been spending a lot more time with friends and family, reading for pleasure, and cooking – and a lot less time in front of the TV and on my phone.

Something that I remind myself of often (both when it comes to how I use my time and my money) is that saying yes to one thing always means saying no to another. If I buy this thing now, it means I’ll have less to spend on travel. If I decide to watch one more episode, it means I’m going to get an hour less sleep tonight.

Knowing that this equation is always in play reminds me to identify and name the tradeoffs. Once I name the tradeoff, I can make an active choice about if it’s acceptable to me.

2. Budgeting my money and planning out my time aren’t constricting – they help me do what I need and what I want.

There’s this myth that budgeting is no fun and leaves you feeling constricted. However, when you’re budgeting based on your values and priorities, budgeting actually allows you to have more of what’s important, build the life and experience you want, and eliminate that no-fun financial stress. Having a clear map for your money means you get to do the things you really want to do, while also covering your bills.

Sometimes there’s a similar myth about scheduling your time, that it can constrict you and eliminate the fun of spontaneity. I used to buy into that. The first few vacations my wife and I took together, we didn’t plan anything other than where we were going and where we were staying. We figured that when we were walking around, we’d stumble on all sorts of fun stuff to do and didn’t want to be locked into an itinerary.

We spent most of those trips wandering around trying to find a place we could agree on to eat. Sure, there were great moments, and we stumbled on a cool thing here and there, but looking back on those trips, they could have been so much better with just a little more planning.

This lesson really hit home in 2019 when we took my brothers on a 5-day trip to Ecuador. We were both used to taking longer trips when traveling, so 5 days felt like not enough time. We wanted to visit three different cities/towns and wanted to make the most of the time we had. For the first time, we really planned out our trip ahead of time and had a pretty tight itinerary filled with travel, specific areas of the towns we wanted to explore, booked activities, recommended restaurants, etc.

Even though that trip was short, it was jam-packed, incredibly fun, and still relaxing because we didn’t have to spend half of our vacation figuring out and agreeing on what we wanted to do next. That trip converted me from the spontaneous travel camp to the planned travel camp (still leaving a little room for surprises) and our trips have become infinitely better because of it.

In my day-to-day life, this looks like me planning out my weekends and days off work so that I’m able to make the most of the time I have. I usually keep a note on my phone with a list of what I plan to do that weekend in the order I plan to do it in.

This makes sure I get the stuff I need to get done and also that I’m making time to do the things that I want to do as well. For example, this was last Sunday’s list:

3. Momentum builds – do a small thing today.

Closely related to time management is the issue of procrastination. Investing offers a clear lesson in the importance of starting early. The momentum that builds thanks to compound interest is an inspiring message about the impact of small actions taken consistently over time.

When I first started getting interested in personal finance, I was really motivated, and I used that motivation to take a lot of small steps quickly that have been paying off ever since.

I spend 15 minutes every day checking my budget, reconciling transactions, paying any bills that aren’t automated, and assigning new dollars to jobs. This small 15-minute habit has dramatically improved my life in so many ways and has really shown me the momentum that comes with developing small habits and routines around the things you are hoping to improve or accomplish.

I’ve tried to harness that lesson in other areas of my life as well. If I want something, what small actions am I taking today to help make that a reality? In the past, I’ve had the tendency to overthink things, while never quite getting to the point of doing or dedicating the time, space, and energy to make it happen.

The thing is, it often takes less energy than we think — and motivation and momentum will follow us once we just start.

If you want to read more, read for 15 minutes every day before bed. If you want to have a better relationship with a friend who lives far away, have a 10-minute phone call twice a week so you don’t feel like you have to carve out 2 hours to catch up. If you want to start working out but can’t consistently drag yourself to the gym in the morning, what’s a 20-minute workout you can do in your living room each day?

Your time is valuable – not because it’s an opportunity to be productive, but because it’s an opportunity to do something that brings you joy or fulfillment. So how will you allocate yours?

11 Reasons Why I’m Obsessed with the Plan to Eat App for Meal Planning

This blog post really should be titled “How Plan to Eat Taught Us How to Meal Plan and Saved Us Hours of Tears” but…that feels a little intense. 

But it’s true! 

Also hi — it’s Cassie, Kaylie’s wife. I know I’m typically in the background here, but since I’m the one who has explored more of Plan to Eat’s features, it made more sense for me to write this review. Just be forewarned: Kaylie’s love of You Need a Budget is nothing compared to how I feel about Plan to Eat. (Okay, they’re pretty similar.) 

We’ve been using Plan to Eat for almost two years now, and it’s the one subscription that has had the most noticeable effect on my day-to-day life. 

Before we started using Plan to Eat, we meal planned in our heads, using pen and paper, and occasionally in a Google Doc. I also tried setting up a Google calendar at one point, but that was a short-lived experiment. 

There were three problems with those methods: 

  • First, it required us to either remember all of the recipes we liked or to keep a bookmarks tab full of recipes. We would try to do that, but we couldn’t maintain it and searching through it sucked. I also tried to input our recipes into a Google spreadsheet and into Airtable — both tools that I use all the time, and simply could not get on board with when it came to recipe storage.
  • Second, we would write out our meal plan, stick to it for a day or two, and then promptly get off track. Once we missed one day, it was like we were afraid to look at the meal plan again because it would remind us that we had failed. It’s intense meal plan shame, I know.
  • The third problem was food waste and overshopping. We’d go through each recipe, one by one, to make our grocery list. Then, we’d add in our snacks and the other staples we needed. But inevitably, we would end up buying too much of one ingredient (hello, cilantro) and forgetting other ingredients entirely. We’d also have to keep running out to the grocery store because we’d forgotten things. 

In short, our old methods sucked. 

We both love to cook, but actually doing it caused us a lot of stress, and because of the stress, we’d end up ordering takeout or skipping meals entirely. 

We were introduced to Plan to Eat via You Need a Budget — because we had a YNAB subscription, we got two months of Plan to Eat free. I didn’t think much of it at first, but the more I explored Plan to Eat, the more obsessed I became. In our house, I shout about Plan to Eat features the way Kaylie shouts about YNAB’s new product rollouts. 

You might be thinking this is all very overboard for an app that helps you meal plan. But meal planning can be pretty stressful. And if you’re a parent, or overworked, or have brain fog, then trying to actually remember the meals that you enjoy (and what ingredients they require) is totally unrealistic. 

So, here are the 11 reasons why I’m obsessed with Plan to Eat. (As a heads-up, this whole thing sounds like an ad, but it isn’t. I’m just actually that obsessed. There are some affiliate links used, though.) 

1. The digital recipe library is amazing and easily searchable

You can build your own recipe library within Plan to Eat, so all of your favorite recipes are just right there in front of your face. We have 211 recipes in ours, and we try to add 5-10 more each month, just to keep things fresh. 

One of my favorite parts of the recipe library is the fact that you can import recipes from your favorite meal blogs. All you have to do is copy/paste the URL, make sure everything imports correctly, add whatever tags you want, and you’re done! 

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Of course, you can also write in your own recipes (and import from other recipe apps, too). Within the library you can leave recipe ratings, add prep notes, add tags (like “Instant Pot” or “20-minute meal”), and even leave comments to yourself. 

You can also add in nutritional serving and estimated costs, too. 

Plan to Eat’s recipe library is the biggest time-saving part of the app, because it makes planning meals super easy. You can search and filter through your library incredibly easily — I’ll often search for all meals tagged “Instapot” so that we can have at least one really fast meal each week. 

2. You can assign prep notes to recipes

When you were a kid, did you ever have the experience of hearing your parent pull into the driveway and then…you panicked because you forgot to take the chicken out to thaw? 

Yeah. I did. A lot. 

I’ve also done that as a grown-ass adult. Before we started using Plan to Eat, forgetting to take the meat out of the freezer happened at least once a week, and then we’d end up getting takeout or making pasta again. 

About a year into using Plan to Eat, I finally tried out the prep notes function. I had assumed it was just an extension of the written directions, but wowza was I wrong. Adding something to the prep notes creates a “task” associated with that recipe, so every single time you schedule it, the task will get added to the calendar too. 

Say that I’m planning on making carnitas. I know that it takes about three days for a pork shoulder to thaw in the fridge, so in my carnitas recipe, I can add a prep note that says “three days before planned date: remove pork from freezer.” Then, the prep note will show up on my calendar (on the appropriate day) reminding me to take the goddamn meat out of the freezer. 

The prep notes setting has also been really helpful when we make bean or pasta salads for lunches. They usually need to sit in their sauce overnight, so we have to make them the day before. The prep notes remind us to actually do that, instead of forgetting and missing lunch. 

3. You can add meals to your “freezer”

There are a handful of recipes that we only really make to freeze. In Plan to Eat, you can actually designate a recipe as “prep for freezer.” Then, it’ll get added to your freezer tab — an area that basically has an inventory of all of your complete frozen meals — and you can plan meals straight from there. 

We get a bunch of frozen food from Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods frozen pizzas are a staple in our house. So one day, we’ll get our act together and add those as “recipes” so that we can add them to the freezer, too. Sometimes it’s just helpful for an app to remind you that those easy-to-make things are there and ready! 

Frozen recipes show up differently on your calendar, so you can remember that they need extra time to cook or thaw (and you can add that as a prep note, too).

4. It’s really a food planner, not just a meal planner

When I think of meal planning, I think of entire meals. And I’ll be honest with you – I’m not great about eating whole meals. But in Plan to Eat, you can even plan out what snacks you’ll eat on which days. 

That’s an easy way to remind yourself that “oh right, I have sourdough pretzel bites in the pantry” so that at least you eat something, even if you aren’t feeling your lunch plans. 

Simple Meal Planning - Plan to Eat

5. It auto-generates a grocery list for you

Remember how one of our major problems was translating our meal plan into a grocery list? Well with Plan to Eat, we literally never have to worry about that. Once we make our meal plan, we just head over to the “shop” tab and voilà, our list is there! 

Once we get that preliminary list, we go through it and see if there’s anything that we already have. We can also go through and add in staple items, like milk. 

Most of the time, we use Plan to Eat on desktop. But when we grocery shop, we use the mobile app to check items off as we go. If you’re more of a paper list person, you can even print out a list to take with you – it’ll be categorized by type of item! Produce, meat, dry goods, and more will each be in their own categories for easy organizing. 

Plus, you can add different grocery stores in. We typically get our meat and dairy from a different store than our canned goods, and Plan to Eat knows that, so it puts them into two separate sections. 

If you’re a grocery delivery buff, you can even use the Instacart (or local grocery store) integration to easily import your grocery list into Instacart. Honestly, I wish I had known about this when we were still doing big grocery deliveries. 

6. You can queue up cravings

Kaylie and I typically crave pretty different things throughout the week, which can add lots of extra time to our meal planning section of our staff meeting. One way that we’ve worked around this is via the queue function. 

It works like this: If there’s a recipe that sounds really good to you that week, you tap a button to add it to your Plan to Eat queue. The queue is basically a shortlist of recipes (which is helpful when you have 200+ recipes saved). Then, you can meal plan straight from your queue! 

Using the queue is how we negotiate what meals we’ll eat each week. If Kaylie has put chili or taco soup in the queue every week for three weeks, I know that she really wants to have some soon. So, we can quickly plan it in. 

If you have a bunch of people in your household who all want a say in what you eat each week, the queue can save you lots of negotiation time! 

7. Planning out upcoming meals is super easy

You can use the planner function on mobile, but we always use it on desktop. You just drag the recipe you want from the queue (or the search sidebar, or from your filtered list) onto the day that you want to eat it. 

If you have a prep note attached, it’ll automatically schedule itself onto the right day. 

You can also factor in leftovers using the app’s “Plan as Leftovers” function. Since we’re just two people, most of the meals we make have several servings of leftovers. Using the plan as leftovers function helps make it easy for us to figure out what days we need to actually make a lunch, which evenings we’ll rely on leftovers, and how far a meal will take us. 

If you change your mind or need to reschedule something, just drag your recipe onto a new date or delete it from the calendar entirely. 

8. You can create themed, reusable menus

So, a meal plan is inherently a menu. But what if you have some things that you consistently eat time and time again? Or, meals that you might eat back to back? 

For example, if I make carnitas, it’ll make more food than we would reasonably know what to do with. Plus, there are a lot of different things I could do with it – I could make burritos, or rice bowls, or soup. 

So, I can make a menu called “carnitas menu” that incorporates all of those things. All I have to do is drag recipes or ingredients onto the menu creator in the order that I want to make them. Then, I can save the menu, and next time I make carnitas, I don’t have to add all of those things to my meal plan schedule! I just can drag the “carnitas” menu to the meal plan and it’ll automatically add everything to the calendar in the same chronological order I used for my template. 

9. There’s an easy “start cooking” view

It’s really hard to check a recipe when your hands are messy. You have to wash them a ton, or, if you just don’t care, then you go and be gross and touch your phone with your dough hands. Whatever. 

One day, I was making an involved meal and getting annoyed that my phone kept putting the recipe screen to sleep. Sometimes I print out recipes, but most of the time, I just look at them in the Plan to Eat app. 

Then…I tapped a button I had been ignoring for months. It said “start cooking” and I had assumed it was a timer or something. It’s not. It basically tells your phone or tablet “hey, this is actively being used right now” so that you don’t have to touch the screen with your gross food hands. 

You can look at an overview of the instructions or a step-by-step screen. This feature made me understand why people use iPads in their kitchens – I first used this feature on my iPad and it showed me the recipe list and the step-by-step instructions all in one place, and it was just very satisfying. 

10. You can keep it in the family or be social

You can connect with friends within Plan to Eat, which can make your recipes viewable to them (if you want). You can opt to keep certain recipes private, so if you’re planning a surprise birthday cake or you have a top-secret family recipe, you can make that unviewable by anyone other than you. 

But if you do add friends, you can see their recipes and their menus, which can significantly expand your recipe repertoire. 

Plan to Eat also has a bunch of “challenges” that you can follow along with or use as recipe inspiration. The challenge recipes are all public and you can see how people have rated them and how many times they’ve been planned (but you can’t see people’s private comments). 

11. It’s a very affordable subscription

Plan to Eat is a paid app, but it’s incredibly affordable – $4.95 per month or $39 for the year. I’m 110% confident that we’ve saved way more than $39 per year using Plan to Eat, even when you look at our absolutely obscene 2021 grocery budget

The best part? You don’t need a credit card to start a free trial and they won’t automatically charge you when your subscription is up. They’re all about you being in control, so if you decide you’re done with the app, no worries – you won’t be charged. When you log in after your expiration date, you’ll be prompted to submit payment, and then everything else will continue as usual. 

Okay. I realize this whole thing sounds like an ad, but I swear it’s not. Plan to Eat has no idea I exist. But I truly am obsessed, and if you’ve been struggling with meal planning, I think you will be too! Sign up for a free trial here and let me know how it goes! 

-xoxo, The Finance Femme (Cassie)

Simple Meal Planning - Plan to Eat

Operation: Get a Grip on My 2021 Grocery Bill

Alright y’all, it’s time for me to get a grip on our monthly grocery bill. It’s been creeping up steadily since the pandemic started, and at first, I was fine with that.

We’re comfortable and we were happy to pay the extra fees and tips for delivery. However, even now that we’re doing a lot of our shopping in-person again, it’s still much higher than we’d like — and I’m starting to feel a bit like a budget fraud. *gasp*

For example, by the end of September, we had already spent $1,400 more on groceries in 2021 than we had in the whole of 2019…and we still have 3 months to go in the year.

It’d be a bit more understandable if our higher grocery bill was making up for a dramatically reduced takeout budget…but it’s not. We’re currently on track to spend slightly more on dining out/takeout by the end of the year than we did in 2019.

All this to say: I’m ready to take some of my own advice. We need to put a dent in our food costs so we can start putting that extra money to some more important priorities we have at the moment. 

To help cut these grocery and takeout costs, I’ve put in place the following plan.

1. Taking Stock of What We Already Have

We’ve gone through our pantry and freezer and made a list of staples and proteins that we currently have. We’ll plan certain meals each week around these ingredients to avoid having to purchase all the needed ingredients for a meal.

Also, now that we have a list, we’ll avoid accidentally buying duplicates of things we already have (which we’ve done a lot recently). Not only will this help cut down costs, but it will also help us use the dry and frozen foods that have been taking up room and cluttering our freezer and pantry. 

2. Meal planning simpler meals

We already meal plan weekly, but we will be planning simpler meals for the next few months. We both like to cook, and so we’ll often plan meals that can take a decent amount of time to prepare and include more ingredients than average.

However, between work, school, and other various responsibilities, we’ve been finding we have less and less time and energy to spend in the kitchen. This means sometimes that big meal we planned and bought the ingredients for we never end up making. Instead, we opt for something simpler…or order take out.

This leads to more food waste (our compost bin only alleviates some of the guilt) and wasted dollars. We’ll be sticking to faster, simpler (but still delicious) recipes for the next couple of months, especially with all the holiday busyness.

3. Eating less meat

This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while anyways, but I haven’t put much intentional energy behind it. I’ll be trying to plan only one or two meals a week that include meat and relying on more vegetarian meals the rest of the time. This will help reduce our food costs and just help us feel better in general. I’ve already added a bunch of new vegetarian recipes to Plan to Eat*.

4. Reducing our alcohol intake

Since the pandemic started, we’ve gotten into the habit of having a beer or glass of wine pretty much every night with dinner. Like meat, this is something I’ve been wanting to cut back in general. The plan is to limit ourselves to either splitting a six pack or a bottle of wine each week.

5. Stocking up on convenient back-ups

Even though we’ll be planning simpler meals, sometimes you just don’t want to cook or do the dishes at all. To help us avoid ordering takeout on these nights, we’ll make sure to always have a few frozen meals at the ready.

We’ve already given ourselves a head start with this when we stocked up on some of our favorite frozen goodies during a recent trip to Trader Joes. Frozen pizzas from Whole Foods are also another convenience staple in our house, and they were recently 50% off, so we stocked up.

6. Public Accountability

The final piece of my plan is actually writing this article as a bit of public accountability. Lately, as a household we’ve been averaging a bit under $950 a month between groceries and dining out (we do include our cleaning and personal hygiene products in groceries as well, but still!!!).

I’m hoping to halve that and be down to around $500 per month: $400 for groceries and $100 for dining out. I’ll be updating at the start of next month with how we did. Wish us luck!

(BTW — that link to Plan to Eat is an affiliate link. We’ve used it for more than a year now, and it’s seriously changed our lives. More on that later!)

What Is a Dividend? How Cash Dividends Work and What to Expect.

The end of June will mark the end of the second quarter (April, May, and June) in the financial world. The end of the second quarter means that this quarter’s dividends have started to land in my investment accounts! In honor of this, I thought I’d write a quick post about dividends for anyone who isn’t sure what they are – like me, three years ago.

What is a cash dividend?

Cash dividends are the most common type of dividends; they’re simply cash payments made by a company to their stockholders. They are paid at a specific frequency. Usually they’re paid quarterly, but sometimes they are paid more or less frequently, or after a specific, one-time event. Other types of dividends include stock and property dividends, but in this post, we’re focusing on the cash options.

Dividends are essentially how companies pay money to shareholders who have invested in their company. It’s your return on investment, basically.

Think of it like this – when you buy a share of a company, you’re buying a share of their future earnings. The cash dividend is how you get paid your slice of that profit.

The board of directors at each company will decide if a dividend payment will be made and what amount will be paid. It’s important for companies that pay dividends to maintain (or increase) that payment in order to keep up their reputation and the value of shares.

Companies that have a long history of paying stable or rising dividends are often called Blue Chip stocks. Blue Chip stocks are valuable because they provide fairly dependable earnings – however, they are not a guarantee, and it’s always important to diversify your investments.

Which companies pay dividends?

Not all companies pay dividends to their shareholders. Larger, more established companies usually do think Johnson & Johnson, Walmart, and Disney. But younger companies, especially those in high or rapid-growth phases, usually don’t pay dividends – think Tesla or Biogen.

Instead of paying dividends, those younger, high-growth companies use their profits to reinvest directly in the company for continued growth. Shareholders of these companies are cool with this, with the assumption that the reinvestment will lead to the price of their shares going up, possibly earning them higher dividends in the future.

Dividends are paid out on a per-share basis. In order to get paid the dividend associated with one of your shares, you must have purchased that share prior to the ex-dividend date for that quarter and own it on the record date – when a company determines its list of shareholders on record eligible to receive the payment. Don’t worry about those details though, that’s more than you need for now.

Ex-dividend Date

This date is set by stock exchange rules. It’s usually one business day before the record date.

Record Date

The date by which an investor must be on the company’s books in order to receive a stock’s scheduled dividend.

How much are dividend payouts usually?

The average dividend yield (the amount a dividend pays relative to its stock price) tends to be around 2-5%.

You can usually choose if you want to accept your dividends as cash payments or have them automatically reinvested. It’s usually a good idea to have your dividend payments reinvested so that your investments keep compounding and growing without you having to think much about them. Last year I had a little under $400 worth of dividends reinvested in my accounts without even having to do anything!

Because dividend stocks pay you earnings on a semi-regular basis, they can be a useful part of your investment portfolio that can add some stability and help cushion your overall investment and earnings, even during periods when the market is down.

How “Staff Meetings” With My Wife Helped Us Find More Balance

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!

Our quickest staff meeting has taken 30 minutes, and our longest 3 hours, but that time commitment is so worth it.

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!

The Surprising Benefits of Biweekly Mortgage Payments

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.

My 2020 Budget Recap

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 Income

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

My Expenses

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$6,602.99Since 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$2,152.08These costs also come out of our mortgage payment, but this is only for 7 months since we moved mid-year.
Closing Costs$2,028.09Appraisal, inspection, origination fees, etc.
Utilities $1,768.73
Pest Service$210
Renters Insurance$37.80From the first few months of the year when we were still renting.
Car Payment$855.96Paid off in March, woohoo!
Car Insurance$804.75
Gas$204.95Clearly, I didn’t go very many places.
Car Registration$301.70Paid for two years at once
Auto Maintanence $19.24I really need an oil change…
Groceries$3,675.75This 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!
Dining Out$1,116.13My 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.
Coffee Out$49.31
Subscriptions$681.44Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, annual fees and memberships
Fun Money!$687.27Lots of beer and a kayak purchase
Clothes and Shoes$159.58
Stuff for the house$16,032.85Jeez, 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.
Travel$931.70This 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.
Dental Insurance$309.81I 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$1,067.08
Health Spending$179.31Co-pays, masks, medicine, etc.
Work Expenses$773.56Equipment, software, web hosting fees, etc.
Christmas$675.86Gifts and tree
Rental Costs$2,460.85A 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.
Grad School$2,197.12A couple textbooks and payments on my student loans.
Misc. $1,207
Total:$47,808Remember, 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:

-$137,841Debt: “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)
$28,318Invested (403b, 457b, Roth IRA, and taxable accounts)
$5,498High-interest savings account for emergency fund and long-term sinking funds
$5,747Checking account for monthly expenses and short-term sinking funds
$147,500Home Value: “My half” (this is a conservative estimate as it’s the appraised value prior to all of our updates)

Lessons Learned

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.
  • Simplify and combine more of our finances.
  • Give more.