Too Much Cash: A Good Problem to Have

The pandemic of 2020 has had many unexpected effects on everyone’s finances. One way or another, I’m guessing your financial life has changed since March of 2020.

Unfortunately, many people lost their jobs, their businesses, and their ability to pay their rent or mortgages. It’s been devastating to hear these stories. Thankfully, there’s been relief over the last year in the form of higher and extended unemployment benefits, moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures, stimulus money from the government in the mail, and help from several charitable organizations. I know there are many people still struggling, for whom I pray and have added more in our personal giving budget to go toward.

For many others, though, this past year has allowed them to reassess their spending habits and make major changes toward saving. It’s allowed many to sell their homes for significant profits and/or finance a home with unprecedented low interest rates. Additionally, after its initial fall, the stock market has left many people with realized gains far beyond what they’d imagined.

Because of these significant changes in 2020 that have carried over into 2021, many Americans are finding themselves with a really good problem to have: too much cash and what to do with all of it. Most personal finance experts believe that keeping extra cash under your mattress or sitting in a simple checking/savings account for a long period of time is equivalent to losing on an investment or burning a percentage of that cash in your fire place.

Due to inflation, your dollars today will be worth significantly less than in the future … and I’m not talking about the distant future. According to the rule of 72, at an average 3% rate of inflation, your cash today will be worth HALF its value in 24 years (72/3 = 24). So, if that money you have lying around isn’t making you more money (at a rate greater than inflation), it’s essentially making you less money. Therefore, you need a plan for that cash.

If you’ve unexpectedly found yourself in this position of holding onto money in excess of your emergency fund (or specifically saving for a large purchase), it’s time to figure out where to put it. My husband and I are in this boat with you, so I’ve done a bit of research to determine our best options for what to do with that surplus in the bank account…

Invest in Index Funds

We have seen over 20% returns in the past couple years on our VTSAX (Vanguard index fund) investment. In addition to our monthly contributions, we often invest our family budget surpluses in this index fund through our joint brokerage account (after our ROTH IRAs have been maxed out). This might be the easiest way to invest, and it’s truly passive. But we still have a large cash cushion that we haven’t dumped into an index fund because we’d prefer to diversify and …

Buy Real Estate

I’m not going to lie to you. Buying real estate in this hot 2021 market is TOUGH. We’ve lost out on 5 deals in one town over the past 3 months. However, we’re determined to keep trying, so we have a significant amount of cash set aside to meet our goal of closing on 3 doors this year. Now that we’re already nearing the end of the first quarter of this year and entering the really busy real estate season, though, we recognize that 3 doors might be a pipe dream. So, maybe we can remain involved in real estate if we …

Become a Hard Money Lender

A return of 7-12% sounds pretty promising. This is what most private money lenders charge investors for doing a financing deal without using a bank or typical lender. The hard/private money lender is responsible for vetting the investor he/she is lending to, doing the underwriting, setting the terms of the contract, providing a large lump sum, and chasing the money if it’s not all paid according to contracted terms. So, although private money lending is considered passive income, it still requires quite a bit of work upfront and the possibility of following up afterward if terms are not met. This option still sounds good to us, and we may move forward with the steps to get started soon, but we’ve also thought that another way to diversify our portfolio might be to…

Back a Business

We know of several businesses who have struggled during the 2020 shut-downs, but the ones that have stayed afloat have incredible ideas for reaching more customers and expanding their online presence. They have the plans, infrastructure, staff, and products, but they may not have the funding. With a loan from a local independent investor, like ourselves, they can hit the ground running and pay a contractually-agreed-upon return on our investment when their business plan pans out. This may be one of the riskier ways to invest our cash surplus, so we’ve also considered that we could …

Turn a Fun Purchase into an Income-Producing Asset

Our family often talks about owning an RV for extended road trips or a temporary homeschooling adventure. However, we will not make a large purchase like this without a plan to rent it out when we’re not using it. We could either park the RV on land and rent it out via Air BnB or we could offer our super cool ride to friends and friends of friends at a reasonable rate so they could experience their own road tripping adventures.

Here are a few other ideas to turn a personal purchase into an investment:

  • If you’re buying a heavy-duty truck for work, hunting, or family use, consider renting it out to others to haul items or complete their own home projects.
  • If you’re buying a cool woodworking tool to build furniture or make unique decor as a hobby, consider offering the tool up for a fee to people nearby to prepare for their own projects. (Or sell extras of your creations.)
  • If you’re buying a fancy snow cone or cotton candy maker for a party, use it in the future to sell goodies at local festivals or near the neighborhood pool (with a permit).
  • If you’ve decided to splurge on a commercial-grade carpet cleaner after too many pet and toddler accidents, rent it out to neighbors for a lower fee than what the stores charge. Make your own non-toxic cleaners to go with it as well.

(For each of these ideas, check with your insurance agent regarding coverage/liability before renting out your assets.)

Sometimes, the idea of someone else using an item that’s special can leave us a little unsure, so another option is to …

Invest in Self-Growth

A great way to spend extra cash is to develop more skills that allow for greater income potential in the future. This might include going back to school, taking unique online adult courses, or paying a mentor to teach how to advance in a specific career. These are exciting options and definitely worthwhile if you know you’ll put the skills learned to use right away. My husband and I would love to learn more about renovating an historic home and doing a remodel mostly ourselves. However, we’re quite overwhelmed with raising four kids and keeping up with our current schedules, so this may not be our best choice currently.

There is one investment option, though, that we’ve both agreed is the best for personal growth, community improvement, and living out truths we take seriously, which is to…

Give Generously

I recently heard an amazing sermon by Mike Todd of Transformation Church. He speaks eloquently and passionately about being a purpose-chaser rather than a paper(money)-chaser. He said in his sermon, “God doesn’t have a problem with paper; he just wants priority!“ Our opportunities, finances, and blessings are the fruit after we’ve given His purposes priority.

Most believe that it’s better to give than to receive, and many also believe that true rewards (whether they be money or something even more valuable) only come after you’ve given from your heart. Therefore, this may be the best use of a cash surplus.

There are dozens of other ways to invest your extra cash, and because personal finance is truly personal, each person will likely have a different idea that resonates with him/her. The main thing to remember, though, is that while it’s a huge accomplishment to have saved a large sum of money, you don’t want it sitting around losing value for too long. Every dollar needs a job, and hopefully your surplus can provide more value to you in the future.

9 Easy Steps to Buying an Index Fund

I’ve been asked several times, “How do I get started in investing?” Usually, my response includes several follow-up questions, such as, “What are your investing goals? What’s your risk tolerance? How much money do you have to invest? Have you started first with your employer’s 401K? Do you have debt? An emergency fund?” and so on. There can be dozens of factors to consider.

Then, I recently came to realize that many of my friends were simply asking how to take the steps to open an investment account and contribute to it. Most had already decided that they wanted to invest a certain amount in the stock market but didn’t know how to actually start a new account (outside of 401K investing). Hopefully, the 9 steps below can be helpful to those who are looking for a literal answer to that initial question.

The guide in this post is specific to opening a Vanguard account because it’s the brokerage firm we use, but the process is likely the same or similar for other firms/banks.

Why do we choose Vanguard? We consider it to be the leader in low-cost index fund investing. After all, John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, was also the inventor of index funds. Vanguard makes investing easy and has several options for mutual and index fund investing. If you’re more interested in trading stocks, options, and ETFs than taking the simple path to wealth, those trades are commission-free. Vanguard also has great customer service, including agents who will answer even the most amateurish questions and will gladly walk you through every step if you get stuck while navigating the website. For all of these reasons, my husband and I have both our ROTH IRA’s, as well as a joint brokerage account, with Vanguard.

Other highly-recommended brokers include Charles Schwabb and Fidelity, which also carry a wide variety of funds and low fees for many of them. (We have investment accounts in both of these brokerages and a few others due to past employer offerings, but we are slowly transferring balances on accounts with higher fees to Vanguard. We’d like to consolidate and reduce fees as much as possible.)

If you’re ready to purchase index funds, here’s your guide on how to do it in 9 steps or less:

1. Have your bank account info available, including routing number.

2. Go to Vanguard.com and select the Personal Investors page.

3. Click on “Open an Account”, then select “Start Your New Account”.

4. Follow the prompts and answer the questions on subsequent pages.

5. Determine the type of account(s) you want to open based on tax advantages, income limits, and contribution maximums.

  • The max contribution for an IRA each year is $6,000 for under age 50 & $7,000 for over age 50.
  • Simple rule of thumb: Traditional IRA‘s give you a tax deduction now, but you will pay taxes on the withdrawals in retirement. ROTH IRA‘s require contributions from earned income and do not give you a tax deduction now. But they allow your money to grow tax-free and allow you to withdraw the earnings tax-free in retirement. Also, you can withdraw ROTH IRA contributions (not earnings) before age 59 1/2 after owning the account for 5 years. (So, if you contribute the max for 5 years, you can withdraw the $30,000 penalty-free as soon as that 5 years ends, but you can keep your interest earnings in the account.)
  • Brokerage Accounts, also called Taxable Accounts, General Investing Accounts, or Non-Retirement Accounts, have no contribution maximums, no income limitations, and also no tax benefits on the interest you earn or the sale of funds. You are subject to taxes on all of it the year you receive the money. These can be joint or solely owned.
  • The other available options are investment accounts for children or small business owners. More on those in a later post.
Types of investment accounts

6. Provide personal and banking info.

7. Complete required paperwork and send it in.

This may take several days for a response.

8. IMPORTANT: When you receive confirmation of funding via email, go back into your Vanguard account to select funds to invest in.

Index funds are recommended very often in the Financial Independence Community. VTSAX is one of the most common ones and allows you to be invested in ALL 500 companies of the S&P 500. Read more about index funds here. Index funds track almost identically over time, so don’t stress too much about which one you choose.

Keep in mind that an index fund is a 100% stock investment. If you’d like to limit your risk a bit and balance out your portfolio, you can invest in a bond index as well, which pays monthly dividends. (We reinvest ours.) Many investors believe that the closer you are to retirement age, the higher percentage of bonds you should hold in your portfolio to minimize risk. (Reminder – lower risk usually means lower return.)

If you’re still not sure how your investment portfolio should be balanced, Vanguard can walk you through a risk assessment quiz to determine asset allocation for your target portfolio before you choose your investment funds. You can also view how different portfolios have performed over the last 94 years.

9. Buy!

Follow the prompts to buy the funds you’ve decided to invest in. You’ll select the desired fund(s), choose the dollar amount you want to invest, and designate where you want the money to come from (likely the bank account you uploaded).

If, at any point, you’re stuck or not sure what step to take next, open a live chat with an agent, read FAQ’S in the margin, or call Vanguard customer service.

Voila! You’re invested in the stock market! Hopefully you’ll watch your money work for you! My husband and I have seen 30%+ returns in the last couple years. These gains are unusual as we’re still in a bull market. Fluctuations are to be expected, but because we plan to keep our money in these funds for over 10 years, we feel good about riding the waves.

For a more in-depth guide to getting started with Vanguard, go here.

Everything written in this blog is based on personal experience. It is not professional advice and should not be taken as such. Personal finance is personal, and decisions should be made based on analysis of individual situations, as well as risk tolerance and financial position. 

Fuel your FIRE

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 30

Wow! We made it to Day 30! I calculated that I’ve written (and you’ve read) over 25,000 words in the last month. That’s enough words to fill 1/3 of a novel, and all of them were about saving money and investing for the purposes of financial freedom.

But why?

In my post titled, What Does Financial Freedom Mean to You?, I summarized what motivated me to jump on board with the FIRE movement:

“Financial freedom allows the ability to let go

of maintaining a specific image; of an addiction to other people’s lives; of the shackles of material goods; of the restrictions placed on me by others; of saying ‘yes’ when I want to say ‘no’; of saying ‘no’ when I want to say ‘yes’; of negative relationships; of working to achieve someone else’s dream.

It provides the option to linger

with a baby in my arms; in bed all morning with my husband; on the floor in my kids’ playroom as they set up a tea party; at church after service or maybe on a Wednesday; on a restaurant patio with a friend; at a beautiful beach all day; in my sister’s living room catching up on a favorite TV show; at my mom’s house sipping coffee; at my children’s favorite museum; on the hiking trail or in the river at a state park.

It affords the privilege of indecisiveness

on whether to build a forever home, buy an investment property… or both; on whether to volunteer in local church ministries, start the business I’ve always dreamed of… or both; on whether to do travel homeschooling, keep my kids in public school… or both; on learning to play golf, participating in an over-40 soccer league… or both; on whether to write a book, start or podcast… or both.

It commands the responsibility to give

financial literacy lessons to my children; personal finance advice to the young and old; donations to charitable organizations; more time to important projects; opportunities to the underprivileged so that they can break the cycle of poverty; gifts to my church; more of me to those I love.”

It’s this final paragraph that makes the FIRE movement especially appealing, not just for myself, but for the entire community too. I recently heard that while others might see an individual’s push toward financial independence and early retirement as a selfish, greedy move, the truth is that most people in the community want to use their freedom for greater good.

Those who’ve reached FIRE write blogs to help others improve their money situations. They host podcasts and share the best tips available. They write books to make investing easier. They teach classes for free to the under-privileged, under-educated, and under-represented. They run fix-it clinics, start buy-nothing sites, and inspire minimalist movements. FIRE people don’t keep this to themselves; they share what they know and encourage others to make the best use of their money as well.

Consider the type of people who truly subscribe to the Financial Independence Retire Early life. These people are often intelligent, motivated, educated, persistent, goal-driven, risk-tolerant, and innovative. When people with these qualities are freed from the daily grind, their talents can then be put toward philanthropy and changing the world we live in.

Take action today on Day 30 by determining what fuels your FIRE and decide what good you could do in the world if earning a regular paycheck was no longer a top priority.

Thank you so much for going on this 30-day journey of action steps toward financial freedom with me! I truly hope it’s been helpful and that you’d be willing to share these tips with others.

I invite you to subscribe to this blog and follow Frugal_with_Four on Instagram. I’m looking forward to sharing so much more on living this frugal yet wonderful life with you.

Thanks for reading!!

Consider Real Estate Investing

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 21

Don’t wait to buy real estate, buy real estate and wait.

– T. Harv Eker

My husband and I just started our real estate investing journey by closing on our first rental property last year. We decided that because we were starting late in life on maxing out our retirement accounts, we needed to add real estate investing to help us reach FI a little faster. I read, researched, and studied several free resources, such as the Bigger Pockets Podcast and books from the library, for almost a year before we purchased our first (non-primary) residence.

It was not a quick process, and finding our second deal in today’s competitive market is proving to take longer than we had planned as well. We’re determined to add two more properties to our portfolio this year, but we’d rather pass on several good deals than buy one bad one. So, we’ll continue to follow Gary Keller’s advice in The Millionaire Real Estate Investor: “Persistent Effort, Patient Money”.

Although we’ve decided to slowly start with buying rental properties, there are many additional options and opportunities in real estate investing. It can be as easy as selecting a fund through your online broker or putting a couple hundred dollars into a pre-vetted deal on a crowdsourcing website like Fundrise.

Today’s action step is to read about these 5 ways to get started in real estate investing. Determine whether any of these are worth adding to your overall investment portfolio and retirement plan. If so, make a list of resources to dig a little deeper into your preferred method. I highly recommend the book and podcast linked above.

Invest for Retirement

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 20

It’s hard to picture yourself getting old. It can be difficult to imagine a day when you won’t be capable of or motivated to work in some capacity. However, it’s not that hard to picture yourself spending every day exactly as you choose without the pressure of earning money to cover bills. Hold that thought!

Let’s talk about retirement planning. I am not a financial planner, nor an advisor, but I think about investing for retirement quite a bit. There is A LOT of information out there on how best to invest your money long-term. There’s no way I can cover the mountain of advice I’ve read and listened to in a short blog post. Instead, I’ll share the best tips I’ve heard from my favorite finance peeps.

Start as early as possible!

Let’s illustrate this with two extreme cases… Early Ellie and Late Larry. Both start working at 20 and both want to “retire” at 60. The market returns 7% a year, compounded monthly.

  • Early Ellie diligently invests $100 a month for ten years. She stops contributing when she turns 30 but leaves the money in the market for the next thirty years until she’s 60.
  • Late Larry waits ten years before he starts investing $100 a month into the stock market for the next thirty years until he is also 60.

Who ends up with more money… Ellie who has personally contributed $12,000 or Larry who has personally contributed $36,000?

  • Ellie – $141,303.76
  • Larry – $122,708.75
Source: Wallet Hacks

The early bird almost always catches the worm… first. But don’t take this to mean that if you’re starting late that you shouldn’t start at all. Today is still earlier than tomorrow!

Also, remember that more time in the market is better than timing the market. My husband and I were nervous about purchasing more shares of VTSAX during the week of the inauguration, not knowing what kind of response the stock market would have to the change in administrations. Well, I wish we had purchased last weekend as planned because the stock market had the biggest rise on Inauguration Day in 36 years! 🤦‍♀️

Identify the Right Investment Accounts

This article from Nerd Wallet summarizes the 4 types of accounts you need to know (brokerage accounts, retirement accounts, education accounts, and kids’ accounts).

Diversify your portfolio.

Many planners suggest using the bucket approach: hold some cash savings along with investments in stocks and bonds to balance out your funds. Many also add other investments, such as real estate, commercial ventures, and personal lending to diversify further.

Simplify Investing with Index Funds

If you’ve read JL Collins’ book, The Simple Path to Wealth, you know that his main piece of advice is to choose index funds and then leave them alone. Here’s an example of a simple portfolio that would be easy to execute and have you well diversified in stocks and bonds within your accounts mentioned above.

  • Total Stock Market Index
  • Total International Stock Index
  • Total Bond Market Index

The stock index funds allow you to invest in every stock within that index in proportion to the size of the company. You own a piece of all the companies. No need to pick just one or a few companies. If the whole stock market index goes up, so does your portfolio! It’s also recommended to balance out your domestic holdings with some international ones, just in case the US economy takes a nose dive. Many recommend that 15-30% of your stock holdings be in international markets.

Bonds typically carry less risk (and lower returns), but they balance out the more risky stock investing. Owning a bond index saves you from trying to decide which bonds are the best. Own them all instead.

(The portfolio above is only ONE example of thousands of options for a retirement investment portfolio. )

Beware of High Fees

Another reason why index funds have become so popular is because they come with very low fees, usually under .5%, which is significantly less than actively-managed mutual funds. This way, you can keep as much of your interest earned as possible.

Rebalance your Portfolio over Time

Rebalancing refers to adjusting your asset allocation based on your current risk tolerance and how close you are to retirement. For a young person who has many years before retiring, her portfolio will likely be heavy in stocks. For someone who is within a few years of retirement age, her portfolio will likely be heavier in bonds to minimize risk and preserve wealth.

Choose a Fee-Only Financial Advisor or Planner

Advisors working on commission are quickly becoming a thing of the past. According to Investopedia.com, “fee-only advisors have a fiduciary duty to their clients over any duty to a broker, dealer, or other institution. In other words, upon pain of legal liability, they must always put the client’s best interests first. In contrast, a commission-based advisor’s income is earned entirely on the products they sell or the accounts that are opened. Commission-based advisors can be fiduciaries, but they don’t have to be.”

When looking for advice on retirement planning and setting up the best investment portfolio for your specific situation, a fee-only advisor is likely your best choice.

No matter what you decide are your best options, just make sure you’re prioritizing a significant part of your savings to go toward investing in retirement. If the infinitude of information prevents you from getting started or scares you from making a necessary change to your portfolio, keep your strategy as simple as possible.

Today’s action step is to review all of your investment accounts.

  • Identify what percentage is going into your 401K and make sure it’s at least at the match your company offers (if they do) but preferably closer to the max allowed.
  • Pay attention to whether you’re maxing out your IRA’s, if you have any, and if not, can you? Decide if you’re eligible for a ROTH IRA. If so, might that be a better choice than a traditional one?
  • Review your asset allocations in each account and determine whether those represent your risk tolerance and age.
  • Assess the fees you’re currently paying to a financial advisor and/or through an actively managed mutual fund. If they’re high (>1%), consider passive investing through index funds.
  • Discuss what percentage of your income you want to invest moving forward, in stocks, bonds, and other potential opportunities.

There is a lot to consider, and it may be worth scheduling another money date to go over the many questions and options regarding retirement planning. I admit that this is likely not a one-day action step. Mark your calendar to dive in deeper and cover all the bullet points listed above.

Know Your FI Number

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 19

Whether you plan to retire early or work until the Lord takes you home, it’s helpful to know the magic number you’re aiming toward to no longer be dependent on a regular paycheck to pay your bills and live a full life. Your FI (Financial Independence) number is the amount of net worth you need to support you for the rest of your life moving forward.

The breakthrough Trinity Study published by three professors from Trinity University in 1998 determined a safe withdrawal rate* from stock portfolios despite the fluctuations of the market, and the conclusions they made have had a huge impact on retirement planning. Their research produced the “4% Rule” mentioned in yesterday’s post. What this means is that if you can estimate your annual expenses for when you plan to retire (or when you’re hoping to reach that state of financial freedom), you can multiply that yearly amount by 25. This is a simple way to calculate your FI number.

Here’s an analysis of how I’ve calculated my family’s FI number:

  • Anticipated Retire Early Date: January 1, 2030
  • Family Status (at that time): 2 children graduated from high school, 2 still in grade school
  • Potential Side Income: Real estate investing (monthly cash flow)
  • Estimated Annual Expenses: $70,000
  • Expenses Remaining after Side Income: $70,000 – (10 homes * $3600 cash flow) = $34,000
  • Required Net Worth: $34,000 * 25 = $850,000
  • FI Number (with RE investing): $850,000 … almost there!
  • FI Number (without RE investing): $1.75 million … NOT almost there!

There are so many variables, right? But that’s ok. The analysis is the the fun part. It’s a game to see how low you can get your expenses by paying off debts and cutting unnecessary spending. There are also so many ways to earn a passive income to offset your anticipated annual expenses and decrease your FI number; real estate is just one of them. What’s important is that you continue to keep track of your expenses and net worth with intentionality. If you do that, chances are that you’ll reach FI much sooner than planned.

In the example above, I conservatively estimated owning 10 doors in our real estate portfolio at $300/month cash flow, but our goal is to own 20, and maybe our average cash flow will be even higher than that. If so, we may be able to cover ALL of our anticipated expenses through those investments. We may also downsize our home with fewer children living with us or we may decide to do traveling homeschool, which will decrease our living expenses, and therefore, our overall annual expenses.

The point is that things will change; the future is unknown. The good news is that you now have a framework and an easy way to calculate your FI number even as income, expenses, and investments change.

Another aspect to consider is that many believe that the safe withdrawal rate is now higher than 4% and closer to 7%. This would significantly reduce how much you’d need in your nest egg. At a safe withdrawal rate of 7%, our FI Number (without real estate investing) drops to $994,000!

Today’s action step is to calculate your FI number. It’s ok if you have a few different scenarios with a few different outcomes. Just doing the calculation will give you a ballpark to aim for and get you in the habit of doing the math as things change. There are FIRE calculators online that you can use to find your FI number while taking into consideration your side hustles, higher or lower withdrawal and return rates, as well as anticipated expenses. So… what’s your number?

*The safe withdrawal rate (SWR) method calculates how much a retiree can draw annually from their accumulated assets without running out of money prior to death.

Pay Off Debts

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 17

You now have several tactics lined up for saving on monthly and annual expenses, as well as a few ideas for making extra cash. Now, each dollar needs a job so that it doesn’t end up in the wrong place. If you have debt, several of those dollars may need to take on the job of paying that down.

Where do you start? First, know what you owe. When you were calculating your net worth on Take Action: Day 1, you had to enter Liabilities into the calculator. Those are debts, and some could be considered “good” debt while others are considered “bad ” debt.

Good Debt allows you to make an income or grow your net worth through a low-interest investment, such as a mortgage on your home or your student loans. You still want to aim to pay them off at some point, but you’re hopefully receiving greater value than the interest you’re paying on it.

Bad Debt is high-interest consumer debt, such as credit cards or personal loans. These debts and the interest you pay on them will significantly delay you on your path to financial independence. You want to pay off bad debts first.

There are also different methods to paying off that bad debt. You probably hear a lot about debt snowball vs. debt avalanche.

Debt snowball: You focus on paying off your smallest debt first (while paying minimums on the others), then roll the amount you had been paying on it into payments on the next largest.

Debt avalanche: You pay off your debt with the highest interest rate first (while paying minimums on the others), then the next highest rate, and so on. It may save you time and money over the course of your debt payoff.

Source: Nerd Wallet: Pay Off Your Debt

Debt Snowball vs Debt Avalanche

If you’re carrying any bad debt, pick a plan above to pay that off first. Then, go after the car debt and student loan debt. Once you get a little momentum, that debt will be paid off before you know it, and your money will be available for saving toward priorities and investing in the future. Plus, you’ll feel so free!

If, upon reading this post, you have zero debt (other than a mortgage), congratulations! Today’s action step is to make a plan not to incur any debt this year. If a big purchase is coming up, have a strategy for paying for it in cash. You can try a short term savings method for a big purchase rather than resorting to using credit.

Here’s how… Calculate what the item or trip costs with all additional taxes and fees. Then, determine how many months you have until that specific purchase. Say you want to set aside $250/month to purchase a new dining room table at $1750 in 7 months. What are you able to give up completely for just 7 months? Maybe you can do at-home haircuts for a savings of $80/month. Maybe you can give up cable or TV streaming for a savings of $60/month. Maybe you can boycott shoes- and clothes-shopping for that time period for a savings of $60/month and choose an at-home meal instead of one night of dining out with the family for a $50 savings. Another option is to put the money you save from challenges like spend-nothing weeks or a free-activity month toward that total.

Then, after you make the purchase you saved for, you can decide whether you want to re-up your TV streaming service, go back to salon haircuts, and replace a few pairs of shoes … or you might not. You may have found even more areas to cut your spending long-term.

Save on Groceries

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 9

Food is the third largest expense for most households, especially if you have growing children or pets in that house. A family of 4 in the US spends around $700 – $1000 per month. When I first started tracking our spending, I discovered that our family of 6 was spending close to $1500 per month on groceries and eating out. Woah! That’s a lot of money!

Thankfully, I quickly found ways to reduce our food expenses, starting with grocery shopping. The following tips show how our family dropped our monthly grocery bill from around $1200/month to $800/month. We’d like to get that down much further, so we continue to try to find ways to cut back although we do not have discount grocery stores in our area.

  1. Ask yourself whether you HAVE TO go. One of the best ways to save money on groceries is simply to go to the store less often because once you’re there, you know you’re going to buy something else … and another something else… and another. I get it if you have a sick child and ran out of his medication or if you need more baby formula. However, many of our *quick* grocery store runs are for want items as opposed to need items. Can you make a slight change to tonight’s recipe so that you can go without a certain ingredient? Can you bring a different dish to the potluck than what you had originally planned? Can you make pancakes or muffins rather than instantly replacing a favorite cereal? Find ways to eliminate those in-between trips, and you’ll spend significantly less.
  2. Take Inventory. As I mentioned in a previous post, making note of what you already have in your fridge or pantry and determining how best to use them in the weeks ahead will prevent you from buying duplicates or even substitutes when at the store. Know what you have and don’t buy more (unless there’s a deal really worth stocking up on).
  3. Don’t bring the kids. Easier said than done, I know. However, kids can make you stressed… stress makes you cave to convenience… and convenience costs cash. If you are able to change habits and go to the grocery store less often, you most likely can find an hour each week or a little longer every other week to go alone. It’s glorious. And necessary.
  4. Know when your store sets out clearance items. I called my local grocery store and asked what time they set out clearance items daily. At the Dripping Springs HEB, they stock those specific shelves between 6 and 7 am. Eek! That’s not even close to my usual shopping time, but I still always check the racks because I have found so many items I would’ve bought anyway marked way, way down. If your store doesn’t have a clearance rack, maybe they mark down soon-to-expire meats or day-old bread at certain times of the day. A quick phone call or short visit with a manager is all it takes to get the inside scoop.
  5. Keep your grocery list generic and shop the sales. This brilliant idea came from a podcast featuring the Saving Sherpa on Bigger Pockets Money Episode #75, during which Justin shared how low his grocery bill can go. It is completely unrealistic for me to feed a family of 6 on $15/week, which is his personal budget, but hearing how he shopped was pretty inspiring. Instead of planning very specific meals with very specific ingredients, his list remained generic so that he could shop based on sale prices, seasonal produce, and in-store coupons. His list might read “Protein, Fruits, Vegetables, Lunchmeat, Fillers (i.e. rice, potatoes, bread, tortillas), Snacks, and Yogurts”. The most important aspect of this idea is to break habits and buy based on value, not based on routine or rigid meal plans.
  6. Before you grab an item from the shelf, ask if it’s something you can make from scratch at home. If frozen waffles aren’t on sale this week, can you make extra waffles on Saturday morning and freeze them for later in the week? You can ask this same question when shopping for granola bars/balls, cookies, rice krispie treats, muffins, frozen pizza, sweetened coffee creamer, bagged popcorn, chex mix, lunchables, veggie trays, fruit salad, jars of soup, pre-made/frozen meals, and so on. Not only is it usually cheaper to make something with scratch ingredients, but it’s a lot healthier too.
  7. Make the most of store coupons and apps. Use your local grocery store app to save money on groceries. I’m a big fan of HEB… everyone in Texas is! And with the featured HEB digital coupons, I’m an even bigger fan. HEB is already known for their in-store yellow coupons and their weekly meal deals, but the app offers additional featured coupons and even sends users freebies every once in a while. If you add a cash-back app, such as Ibotta (enter referral code “wpcrvpk” pretty please), you can even double up on some coupons or on other items you bought. In fact, there have been many, many times that I’ve saved using an in-store coupon and then received additional money back from Ibotta on the same product. Ibotta pays you back on specific grocery items listed in their app, and it changes weekly, but it also has “any item” options that will earn you some money back for simply redeeming a receipt or buying bananas. All you have to do is select the items you purchased, take a picture of your receipt, and cash in. I’ve earned over $200 since I joined in Oct of 2019.
  8. Know what to buy when. Usually, vegetables and fruit are cheaper when in season. This guide might help you to determine whether now is the time to stock up on berries or whether you should wait until a different season of the year. Also included below is a guide of which fruits and vegetables freeze the best so you can stock up when they’re on sale.

To take action today, listen to the podcast mentioned above and download the Ibotta app. Also, go to your pantry and fridge to check out what foods you’re stocked up on. Come up with at least 5 meals you can make from what you already have. Then, calculate what the cost is for each of those meals. Set a goal for meal costs in your home. We aim for $2/person for homemade dinners.

Then, when it’s time to go to the store again, download your grocery store app and check what’s on sale or what coupons are offered. Make your list and your meal plan starting with those sales.

Create an Annual Budget

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 4

This step is less intimidating than it sounds, but it does require knowledge of your fixed expenses and your list of priorities with their totals from yesterday’s post. This budget can be in any format that you’re comfortable with: a spreadsheet, an app, a sheet of paper. I prefer the “Personal Budget” template in Microsoft Excel; it’s formatted for a monthly budget but can be altered to enter amounts for annual income and expenses. I’ve also added a column for “Actual” expenses on my spreadsheet, in addition to “Budgeted”, so I can track our exact spending in each category. I’m sure there are *smarter* ways to keep track of everything, but Excel spreadsheets work for me, so I’m sticking with them. All you really need is a format that allows you to list your annual expenses and subtract those from your net income.

When making this list of annual expenses, think of those that are fixed and can be predicted for the year. Some of these expenses include mortgage or rent payments, property tax estimates, home owner’s insurance, car insurance, other insurances, a regular medical expense such as contacts or prescriptions drugs, car payments, annual subscriptions such as Costco or Amazon Prime, and tithing. After recording those fixed expenses, add lines for your priorities, such as an emergency fund, monthly investing, travel plans, and/or a big purchase. I like to include these in our annual budget so that when I’m preparing our monthly budgets, I use what’s leftover to plan our variable spending. I want the fixed expenses and our savings priorities set aside before we even begin our monthly spending on groceries, experiences, gas, clothing, etc.

Below is an example of what an annual budget might look like. The “Cash Balance” remaining is what will be used for monthly budgeting tomorrow.

Calculate your Net Worth… and Prepare for It to Grow

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 1

What’s your biggest asset? Some say it’s their house, their education, their health, or even their smile. According to Ric Edelman in The Truth About Money: 4th Edition, your greatest asset is your ability to earn an income.

However, for this exercise, I encourage you to actually take inventory of everything you own that has a cash value and to determine what that value is. This list might include your home, your car, your retirement accounts, your savings and checking account balances, the cash value of a whole life insurance policy, or even a rare beanie baby collection. =) If you can trade it in for cash, it counts.

Also, take inventory of your liabilities. This means debt. Do you owe money on your mortgage or on your car? Do you pay your sister’s ex-boyfriend monthly for a personal loan? Are you still paying student loans? Be prepared to enter every dollar you owe to get an accurate account of your total net worth.

Once you have everything in front of you, plug it all into this net worth calculator. Take that number and write it down somewhere. Print it in large print on a piece of paper or start a spreadsheet to keep track of how that number will change over the year. You need to know this number even if it’s hard to look at. Don’t be discouraged. As of just two years ago, our net worth was declining rapidly, but we’ve grown it by almost a HALF MILLION DOLLARS due to making the changes I’ll be sharing this month.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s action step…