Invest This!

Sometimes I wonder if financial planners are out of touch with reality. Because I have read so many articles in magazines, online, heard it on the news—the best ways to invest, to save money, to cut back. Now I know they’re educated, I know they’ve been trained in what to say, and most of them have a good deal of experience, but I’m sick of reading the same old things.

The one that bothers me the most is: put money into savings first, and then pay off debts. That makes no sense to me. Why should we let debts add up, along with their ugly interest rates, and not eliminate them as quickly as possible? The same thing applies to their advice about mortgages (the biggest debt of all, right?). They always say to save money in Roth IRAs, 401Ks, or other retirement accounts, and then save six months’ salary, before paying extra on the mortgage.

I get the retirement thing, I do. I realize how important that savings is, and how quickly it will disappear having seen many of my grandparents’ generation foot the exorbitant bills in assisted living homes. What I don’t understand is how the average family has enough money to sock away six months’ worth of living expenses. Really?

For us, that’s $3100 a month. We can barely pay our bills after I have money set aside for retirement, let alone SAVE money. And I mean it. We don’t have many debts other than our mortgage. Every year at this time we’ve piled up some debt on our credit card that we must use the tax return to pay off. The rest of our tax return goes into savings, but it quickly depletes in the ensuing months. Can we live a little, just a little, please?

I have figured this out time and again. It would take us, saving every remaining penny from our tax return, more than six years to save six months’ worth of living expenses. That is absurd. Are we supposed to stay locked at home, never take our kids swimming or roller-skating or on the inexpensive family-visit road trips our family takes, just to have this little safety net?

What makes more sense to me, and what I have seen both sets of grandparents and my parents do, is to pay extra on the mortgage. We may not be able to pay that much (only $50 for us right now), but I bet it will add up. The previous generations of my family may not have been highly educated financial planners, but they all paid their mortgages off early and reaped exemplary rewards from this: early retirement for one set, selling one house and paying cash for another for the other two sets. Doesn’t that make more sense than socking all your money away? Your home is the most accessible investment of all.

It’s not that I spend all my time reading financial advice from people I usually don’t agree with. But as a one-income family in a world of doubles, I’m a “frugalista” who’s always looking for another way to pinch pennies. The way I see it, I’ll stick with what I know we can afford, and what I have seen firsthand success with, rather than “investing” in the advice of strangers who seem to have no idea how anyone could actually live on what we live on. (Side note: the one time a financial planner did come to our house, he about shit his pants, after driving up in his Mercedes, when we told him we had no car payments. Is this really the person I need to be listening to?)

Can’t I Be a Little Bitter?

Bitter, me? You’re forgetting that I went through this last year. YOU didn’t. Can’t I be a little bitter? Can’t I complain just a bit, please? Do YOU have your entire family dependent on YOUR salary? Can you afford to lose $300 in a month, times three? Because I can barely pay my bills with what money I make. And even if I do have my job again next year, I will have to go through all of this again. But if I get moved to another school, which I probably will, I will have to spend extra money on gas and car maintenance. It may not seem like a lot, but it is when the entire spending money my family has in a month is less than $100. What am I supposed to do when my daughters need new shoes or have to go to the dentist? How is our family supposed to sacrifice any more than what we have already sacrificed? Do YOU know what that’s like to go from two salaries to one, to live on $37,800, only slowly rising to $50,000, which has barely made it tolerable to support us all? Have YOU ever had to decide between paying exorbitant medical bills or going into debt over health insurance costs?

Can’t I be a little bitter? Can’t I come to the place I work and share camaraderie with people who are all frustrated, downtrodden, stressed, and where the morale is lower than it’s been in years, and say what I think? Say how I am feeling without you smiling to my face and going behind my back and complaining to my boss and making me cry for three days and feel that my entire character has been destroyed in front of the person who is responsible for me having a job???

Can’t I be a little bitter? At least you know who I am, know what I think, and never question the validity of what I say and the truth of my soul. I don’t hide who I am from anyone, and if you can’t handle it, tell me, leave the conversation, relate it to a friend who can approach me, fuck, send me an anonymous note. But don’t backstab me when our employers, the recession, the taxpayers, the state are already twisting a knife into each of our backs.

Oh, did you think I was bitter before? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

How to Live on ONE Salary in Today’s World, Day Three

Without a doubt, living on one salary has its challenges, and by far the biggest one for us, or anyone, is health insurance. This is tricky. We have dealt with health insurance over the years using many different methods, none of which are ideal. When I stayed home with the girls and Bruce didn’t have health insurance through his employer, we bought independent health insurance that covered NOTHING. I mean, we were paying almost $400 a month and every time we went to the doctor we had to pay towards our deductible, meaning the full bill. We finally just gave up, because all we were doing was paying, paying, paying, and receiving no benefits.

So when I returned to work as a teacher, I received full benefits, but the costs for the family were exorbitant: upwards of $500 per month. We knew that there was no way we could afford it, so we didn’t even consider it. I know what you’re thinking: what would we do if something tragic happened? Is it worth the risk? No one can answer that question for us; it was a risk we were willing to take at the time.

Luck plays a hand when you are making good choices for your family, I think. Just a few weeks into teaching I came across a flyer that advertised CHP+, the state-funded health care program for children. Of course, with my minuscule salary at the time, we qualified! So since we put our kids on that health insurance, we have an annual bill of a whopping $35 and co-pays of just $5.

Unfortunately, we could not afford to have Bruce on any health insurance until I had been working for more than two years and I received a couple of raises. Even then, it was a struggle to afford, but we managed until they changed the insurance. Now we are back in the same boat, risking the possibility of injury or illness to save money… but what can we do? What else can we cut? It is a terrible choice for a family to have to make, but it is our choice.

Back to our remaining $350… that easily covered the trash, about $20 per month, $80 for the phone bill, $150 for gas, and just a measly $100 for EVERYTHING else. I’m not going to lie. It wasn’t always easy. When we had to get the car fixed, when pipes froze, or when some other emergency happened, we had to put everything on a credit card, which I hate to do. But another huge benefit of having one income is a large tax return every year, so whenever we have to use the credit card, we are always able to pay it off with a portion of our tax return. And we never, in the four and a half years of living on one salary, have had to pay off more than $1500 on our credit card, leaving us with spending money!!

Yes, spending money! We have actually been able to take at least two vacations every year since this shift in salaries. One year, when I gave birth to baby number three and had an enormous amount of medical bills related to this, our tax return was so generous that we were able to take the whole family to Mexico for a week.

Vacations aside, what we have truly purchased with our one income is priceless. With a full time dad taking care of the children and the home, the errands, the grocery shopping, the cleaning, and cooking dinner every night, I do not endure the harried existence of many working mothers. And because of the multiple weeks of vacation time and holidays a teacher has, we have more family time than almost any other family I know. So, despite all the sacrifices and stresses we have faced over the years, it has been worth every minute of worry and every penny not received. We have a stronger, calmer, healthier, happier family, and no one could ever put a price on that.

How to Live on ONE Salary in Today’s World, Day Two

So, $1200 per month to pay the remainder of the bills for a family of four with two stubborn girls still in diapers? Well, it’s not so hard really if you’re willing to sacrifice a few things. For one, neither of us had a cell phone, gasp! I mean, what is the purpose of a cell phone, really? It’s to communicate during emergencies, and in that case, Bruce could just call me at work. Since then, we have purchased cell phones, but even now, we only use pay-as-you-go phones, paying probably less than $10 a month, TOTAL.

Also, we were not paying for cable TV and at that time had dial-up Internet, which I know isn’t the greatest, but it still worked. These are all simple ways to cut costs: think about what you REALLY need. MUST you watch HGTV or have the highest connectivity, or can you make some sacrifices?

Without those expenses, we still easily spent $500-$600 per month on groceries, but cut our food expenses tremendously by almost never going out to eat, a habit that was admittedly difficult to drop, as we had been accustomed to that lifestyle for six years of marriage. But you have to do what you have to do. Part of that also includes switching stores, though it’s tough to give in to this, and primarily shopping at Wal-mart. Their prices are easily half, and at the very least thirty percent, less than a typical grocery store. Once I discovered this, I knew we had to make that choice, grievances aside.

Back to the diapers… we used cloth diapers, so we weren’t spending $60 a month on diapers. Our water bill may have been a bit higher, but it has always hovered around $60 a month.

So where does that leave us: $540-640… Because of our good driving records and having old cars (yet another benefit of not buying a new car), our car insurance is less than $40 a month. Yes, that’s right people: LESS THAN $40 a month!! Some things, however, are out of our control, such as the energy bill, which can easily rise to $240 in winter months. We have always tried to balance this out by paying $150 every month, therefore crediting our account, even when the bill in the spring or summer is as low as $80. This is just another simple way to cut costs: look at the whole picture and make it work by balancing things out.

Assuming that we had an expensive grocery month, that leaves us with $350 for everything else: phone, clothing, trash, gas, insurance… and tomorrow, the great insurance debate… in my words and ever-so-bold opinions…

How to Live on ONE Salary in Today’s World, Day One

I am going to write for several days about a question that I often encounter from many people who tell me, time and again, that they think it is impossible for their families to live on one salary. To me, after so many years of hearing this, I find it almost offensive when I hear people say that. If it is possible for us, why can’t it be possible for other people? We are certainly not wealthy by any means. I make $50,000, but when we started doing this, my salary was just $37,800.

So many people are losing their jobs now that this might be something they not only have to consider, but have to live with. So these few blog posts will be about how we do it.

In 2005 I was happily staying home with my two young children and taking care of another little girl for $550 a month while my husband worked full time earning about $40,000 per year. We had a comfortable life, filled with vacations, and were able to save a little money every month. Then he received the news that his job would be coming to an end within six months, and I knew what I was going to have to do: go back to work. As much as I hated the idea of working and leaving my then-two-and-a-half-year-old and nine-month-old at home without me, I didn’t want to lose everything we had. Part of that everything, as a personal and VERY important choice for us, was keeping our kids out of daycare. Bruce never went to daycare growing up and had a very close relationship with his mother. I, on the other hand, spent my childhood with various babysitters, and have too many negative experiences to count (nothing horrific—just neglectful). So that was one of the many priorities we had in mind when we were faced with this challenge.

We made a plan. The first part, as difficult as this was to accept at the time, was to eliminate all debts other than our mortgage. Unfortunately, the only way for us to do this was to completely drain our $12,000 in savings. We paid off the rest of my small student loans, our credit card debt, and a loan we had taken to put siding on our house. This brought our bills down by $230 a month, which may not sound like a lot, but it can make a huge difference.

One thing that we did not have, which most people do, was a car payment. Both of us had cars and both were long paid off. I think this is the single most important factor determining a family’s ability to live on one salary. In my opinion, there is almost NO reason to ever have a car payment. What is the purpose of a car? It is to get you where you need to go. There is no reason that I can imagine why anyone should ever buy a new car. And if you need to upgrade to a larger car, as we found out later that same year, expecting baby number three, that we would need to do, find a way to make it work! We used our tax refund ($4000) and sold our old Explorer ($3000) and bought a minivan with cash.

So, to return to my story, the only debt we had, and more or less still have, is our mortgage, which in my mind hardly counts as debt. Another thing to consider is where you live. We certainly don’t live in a fancy house in the most beautiful neighborhood around. We live in, gasp, Aurora!! Ghetto central, right? Come on, your home is what you make it. We have never experienced any crime that I know of. We don’t lock our doors—car or house. We live in a quiet cul-de-sac that our kids play out in with the neighbors’ kids just about every day of the year—similar to any other cul-de-sac in any other suburb, but without the fancy HOA or whatever it is that makes people feel so special about where they live. That being said, our house payment is around $1400 a month.

When I first started working, I was bringing home $2600. Ouch. Do the math. That left us just $1200 for all the rest of our bills. Much higher than the 51% or less of the take-home income that you would get approved for if you were applying for a mortgage… But we did it… and if you read tomorrow’s blog post, I will tell you how.