Ways to Track and Invest MONEY!

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Last post, I recommended The Total Money Makeover book because it gave a clear plan on how to get out of debt and save money. I wanted to also share some of the tools we’ve been using to help track and invest our money.

First, for tracking purposes, we’ve been using Personal Capital because it’s free and we can use it online and as an app on our phones. This is a great tool to view all our spending and income in one place. It tracks net worth and makes things very transparent, which can be a good thing when you’re working hard to save (but it can also keep you accountable when you spend more than you thought!).

Second, for retirement, IRAs, and the kiddos’ 529 college savings plans, we use Vanguard. It’s amazing. It’s the cheapest and has the best returns. Devin thinks Vanguard’s founder, John Bogle, should win a nobel prize for creating index funds because of the money it saves investors.

Third, we’ve been using Betterment to invest the rest of our taxable savings. It’s a cheap, robo-investor. And they also do tax loss harvesting, which lowers our year-end taxes. It’s super easy to use and they have a smart deposit feature where you set your bank account balance and anything over that will be deposited into your Betterment account (great for the psychology of spending…the extra money won’t be there to spend so it’s less tempting). Also, they do a good job of closing the behavior gap, meaning Betterment decides when and what to buy and sell (people who try to follow the market and do it on their own can end up with 6 ½% less annually than the market because of bad decisions, impatience, fear, etc. Check out this article if you want more information).

Betterment does have a fee that’s more expensive than a company like Vanguard, but with the tax loss harvesting and automatic rebalancing, it makes their fee worth it many times over. If you want to sign up for Betterment, click here (you’ll get 6 months free for signing up and we’ll get 1 month free for referring…yay!).

Community Service Events = Low-Cost Fun!

Does anyone else get excited when the community service events guide comes out?! Wherever I’ve lived, I always get excited to check out the new haps around town: Halloween dog parade, ballroom dancing, letters to Santa, summer camps, swimming hours, ice skating lessons! I love to look through it and circle all the stuff we want to try!

The Vacaville Community Service Department does an awesome job with their Events Guide. (Check them out on Facebook too!) There are so many activities that it’s sometimes hard to choose.

Since August, we’ve participated in: gymnastics, Princess Diva Dance Class, and soccer.

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Princess Diva Dance Recital! So cute!!

Princess Diva Dance Recital! So cute!!

In the past, we’ve also loved:

  • Breakfast with Santa
  • Pups in the Pool
  • Swim lessons
  • Music lessons
  • Mommy and Me playtime
  • Creekwalk concerts

And the best part is that it’s usually quite a bit cheaper than specialty programs (community services gymnastics is $10/class and Aerial’s gymnastics center is $16/class. We’ve tried gymnastics at both and the coaching quality has been pretty even.) Another cool offering is the PAL programs where kids’ activities are low-cost (and only $15 membership fee for certain households). PAL has all kinds of cool stuff: field trips, boxing, judo leadership council classes, movies, study buddies, etc. The neighbor kids did Judo and loved it! Hope you get to support your community services department and have some low-priced fun too!

Splurging at Disneyland (and Ways to Save Money While Doing It!)

When Devin came home from work and said, “Wanna pack up and take the girls to Disneyland right now?” I was super excited. But we decided to wait a week, so we could have a little time to plan. And I was so glad I spent time researching before we left. We were able to make the girls’ first Disneyland trip really special, saving money where we could (tickets, princess attire, Disney t-shirts, snacks) and splurging on other things (makeover at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and character breakfast).

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Here’s what made our trip extra special:

1. We invited family to join. My parents were able to get out of work and go with us! We LOVE our Ma and Pa. And the girls were thrilled they came because they rode the rides together and got special treats with them (and Devin and I got to go on a bunch of fast rides together!). It was great all around! They made the trip so special.

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2. Before we left, we bought dresses, shoes, gloves, tiaras, and princess jewelry. It was way cheaper at home than in Disneyland. Luckily, it’s Halloween time so there was a lot to choose from. I ended finding some good prices for dresses and shoes at Target (these were comfortable and cute ones for Mira, and Audrey got these not-so-glittery-but-super-cute shoes). We presented them to the girls the second night because Mira had her makeover at Disneyland the next day (see # 6).

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3. We reserved a hotel super close to the parks. Our friends recommended several hotels, but we ended up staying at Best Western Park Place Inn and Mini-Suites (thanks, Tracy!). It was the perfect choice! It wasn’t as expensive as the Disneyland Hotels, but it was just as close (right across the street from the park on the opposite side of the other hotels, so it felt less crowded at the entrance).  And we were able to take the recommended mid-day nap because it was so close! They also give government rates too. Score!

4. Tinker Bell had gifts waiting in the hotel room (inspired from this post). I went to the Dollar Store and bought disney bags and filled them with: glow necklaces, magic wands, autograph books, stickers, jewelry, hand sanitizer, and a “Disney Buck” for buying one item in the park.  I got all these ideas (except the Disney bucks, a one dollar bill I decorated with disney stickers) from this post. I also got some cute princess jammies for the girls. We set their bags out and sprinkled glitter over everything. They thought it was so cool that Tinkerbell was there. (I also got a drink and candy for the adults, so they’d feel special too!).

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Some gifts from Tinkerbell.

Some gifts from Tinkerbell.

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5. We scheduled a character breakfast BEFORE the park opened so we wouldn’t waste precious park time and we could see a lot of characters. This post helped me decide to go to Surf’s Up Breakfast with Mickey and Friends at the Paradise Pier Hotel. It was super cute. It was pretty pricey (although I’m not sure how much it was exactly because my parents picked up the bill…thanks, Ma and Pa!). The characters were so great though. They came to our table and spent time with us. We got to hang with Mickey, Minnie, Daisy, and Stitch. The girls LOVED it! And they got to dance with Stitch at the end! 🙂

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6. We scheduled a makeover at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Disneyland (it was set for morning so she’d get all day to be a princess 🙂 ). We brought our own princess stuff (see number 2 above) and then got the cheapest package: the crown package for $59 (plus tax). It was such a fun experience for Mira! They did her hair, makeup, and nails. They also gave her a backpack with nail polish, makeup, and a brush. Her “fairy godmother” dusted an obscene amount of glitter all over her head and then presented her to everyone in the salon who clapped for her. So, so cute! Definitely worth the money.

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7. We used Fastpasses and stroller passes. Here’s a bunch of info on Fastpass, if you don’t already know. Stroller passes were a new concept to me. Basically, if one person has to stay back with a sleeping kiddo (or a kid that doesn’t meet the height requirement), then the others going on the ride ask for a stroller pass. That pass gets up to three more people back on the ride without waiting. Super cool! And this trip, we also used the handicap lane since my mom had surgery on her foot and was using a scooter. That meant pretty short lines too!

The girls riding with Ma on her scooter!

The girls riding with Ma on her scooter!

Other ways we saved moneyWe also got discounted tickets through our cousin. We DIDN’T buy the park hopper ($40 per ticket). We spent our time at one park each day (there’s SO MUCH to do) and didn’t need to waste time skipping back and forth between the parks.

We still did our fair share of unnecessary spending on food in the park and balloons, but overall, it was a super successful trip!

Breaking Up with our Cell Phone Provider

In addition to getting rid of a car and cutting out cable, another money-saving idea has been to list our monthly bills and try to reduce or eliminate them.  About a year and a half ago, Devin and I jotted down a list of monthly non-necessities in our budget. It didn’t take long and looked something like this:

  • Netflix
  • Internet
  • Cell phones (I felt like this was a necessity!)
  • And a few other things

We started with the easy one. We cancelled Netflix, which cost about $10/month, saving us $120/year. We recorded and watched shows that were on the free channels (here’s how we did it).

Next, we worked on internet. I called and asked if there was a way to lower our bill. The sales rep looked at our usage and said we could switch to a different plan that would save us about $10/month. That saved another $120/year.

The big change was with our phones. We were using Verizon and paying around $150/month for our call, text, data plan. That was a whole lot of money. But mostly, we didn’t like how the major cell phone providers had long contract obligations. It was like we were stuck in this funky, long term relationship where I always felt trapped, especially when it was upgrade time. So, we were ready to break up with Verizon. I looked up other pay-for-what-you-use options. The two we liked were: Republic Wireless and Ting. Republic Wireless didn’t service our area yet, so we decided to go with Ting.

It was pretty easy to switch to Ting. We cancelled the rest of our contract with Verizon and paid the early termination fees (like $200, but Ting gave us $75 in credit PER PHONE to offset the early termination fee). We signed up for Ting and bought refurbished Samsung Galaxy III phones for about $100 each (only certain phones work with Ting but they’re working on their SIM card program that will give users a lot more phone options). We’ve been using Ting for a year and here’s the good and bad:

Pros:

  • Much cheaper to pay for what you use (we pay about $55/month to use both phones, saving us $95/month and $1,140/year!)
  • no contract
  • no long-distance charges calling within the U.S. (I haven’t called internationally yet)
  • kept our same cell numbers
  • pretty good customer service
  • we don’t spend as much time on our phones when we’re out (and there’s usually free WiFi where we’re going so if I want to look something up, I still can)

Cons:

  • not unlimited data; you pay for what you use (this was an adjustment, but it actually gets me off my phone more and makes me pre-plan a bit. Side note: if I load Google maps at home before navigating somewhere it will still work when I’m driving away from home without data, so I can still navigate places)
  • not as many phone options since Ting only allows certain phones (but they just started using SIM cards, so there should be more options)
  • service isn’t as crisp in some areas (we rarely had a problem but my in-laws tried it and service wasn’t as great in their town)

Ting is great if you’d like to spend less and are willing to give up the unlimited everything mentality. They have a savings calculator to see what you could save. There are some other options out there besides Ting though (including ones from the major providers; check out Consumer Reports article or this blog post). I’d love to hear any other options if you’d like to share below!

Being Weird: Part Two (Natural DIY Toothpaste)

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In my previous Being Weird post, I talked about the benefits of using honey as a face wash. I’ve been using it since then and I love it! It’s less drying than soap and I can buy it in bulk from Costco. Plus it only has one raw ingredient: honey.

Our bathroom might be mistaken for a kitchen right now because we have several other food-based DIY products. In another blog called Nothing Yucky Here, my friend Melissa and I shared a natural deodorant recipe I’ve been using for almost a year (I use recipe #2). It works great for both my husband and me, and it’s made from natural ingredients (only coconut oil, baking soda, and arrowroot powder).

So in this next installment of Being Weird, I’ll share the toothpaste we’ve been using for the past nine months. I’ve only tried a recipe from Wellness Mama (she’s my go-to for DIY health products because her primary goal is health for her family, she researches and experiments before she posts, and she provides other links for further information. I kinda wanna be her! And my older and much cooler brother got me her cookbook for my birthday…I highly recommend it!).

Making toothpaste is super easy; my two-year-old daughter even helped. (And when I wasn’t looking, she poured in extra xylitol to sweeten it up! Smart kid.) The hardest part for me was getting the calcium carbonate powder, which consisted of ordering this one on Amazon. In terms of price, this toothpaste seems comparable or maybe cheaper than buying toothpaste, but I haven’t calculated the exact cost versus regular toothpaste.

So here’s how I make it:

  • 5 Tablespoons calcium powder (this remineralizes your teeth)
  • 2 Tablespoons baking soda (this makes the toothpaste taste a little salty)
  • 3 Tablespoons xylitol (this is optional but it sweetens up the toothpaste)
  • 5 Tablespoons coconut oil
  1. Mix the first three dry ingredients.
  2. Melt the coconut oil and mix with the dry ingredients.
  3. Store in a container.

Note: coconut oil is liquid at 70ish degrees and above, so when our house is warm (hasn’t happened since we’ve been in Alaska), then apply with a spoon. Since our toothpaste usually hardens, we cut it up into chunks and use it that way.

The texture is a little weird because whether it’s liquid or hard, it never really gets to that paste consistency (here’s a squeezable option, but I haven’t tried it). With the texture, I just try to be open-minded and think about what’s more important for me: a healthy option with a different consistency or other toothpastes with the right texture but lots of additives that I’m not sure about putting in my babies mouths….that’s an easy answer for me.  And if you can’t get past the texture or taste, here are some one-ingredient options (except I don’t feel comfortable orally ingesting essential oils yet because I haven’t done enough research about how safe they are in our mouths).

Cutting Out Cable

Prior to making the decision to get rid of a car, Devin and I started with smaller money-saving ideas, like deciding not to sign-up for a cable/dish bill. Instead, we opted for an antenna that could get free, local channels (like CBS, NBC, PBS, etc.). Devin is pretty tech-savvy and connected our desktop computer to our T.V. and through Windows Media, we used our computer like a DVR to record shows, like Big Brother, the Olympic Games, and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. It worked pretty well. And unlike watching it online, we were able to fast-forward through commercials (we couldn’t do that when using Hulu or watching from CBS). The down-sides were when it was super-windy, the antenna didn’t do so great. And football season could be non-existent in our house if ESPN was covering because they weren’t part of the free channels (that was a little sad when we hosted Thanksgiving at our house!).

Here’s what we did:

  • (We didn’t have cable to cancel. But if you already have cable, cancel it.)
  • Buy an antenna from Best Buy or wherever. Ours didn’t look like this, but it was pretty basic like this one.
  • We connected our desktop computer to our T.V. and used Windows Media to schedule recordings.
  • We watched our recorded shows on Windows Media.

We also decided to buy the digital streaming version of NetFlix. It was pretty amazing and cost like $9/month (or something like that). Another great free resource is the library or borrowing from friends or family

Recently, Devin got a Chromecast for Christmas from my mom and that can stream Netflix from our phones. It’s pretty awesome. Now that we’re living in Anchorage, Alaska, we’ve found that wifi isn’t unlimited; households pay for what they use, but that’s okay because it makes us appreciate the shows we stream a little bit more. And it makes us use T.V. a bit less and get outdoors more (unless you didn’t finish writing a blog before the kids woke up from nap time, so you put on one episode of Dora on for your kids so you could finish…yeah, that’s me right now).

Starting Our Money-Saving Journey

I want to write about my grandfather, Pops, right now as my family gathers in Oregon to scatter his ashes, but I can’t find the right words. So I’m going to write about something that he appreciated: simplifying life and finding more happiness and freedom.

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My husband and I started to a money-saving journey over a year ago. It began with my personal challenge and my husband’s New Year’s Resolution. In an effort to stop wasting money and start saving it, I made a decision to sell my car and go without one. My goal was to be car-less for a year, but to make myself less scared to walk into CarMax and hand over the keys, I told myself that I’d try for at least three months and if I didn’t like it, we’d get another car. We were living in beautiful, mild California weather, so my plan was to ride my bike or the bus when my husband was using the car to commute to work. And of course, I planned to mooch rides from my awesome family and friends. I went on craigslist and spent $180 for a great double stroller and $100 for a bike trailer for my two girls (then ages 1 and 2 ½). I did a few test runs with the bike and even went on the bus with the girls just to ease my fears. In December 2013, I sold my car.

People thought I was crazy. Some people even told me I was crazy. One of my neighbors laughed in my face. My family teased me a bit but offered lots of free rides. I was a little embarrassed but not offended. I think it’s a little tough in our society because cars and stuff equate with status and success. Once I got passed my ego and pride, I felt a lot more free though. I found that I appreciated the value of money more. And I realized that I didn’t need to have a car. Of course there were times that I wished I had a car and there were times I missed the bus and had to change plans and there were times that the girls cried in the bike trailer, but it didn’t outweigh the freedom and benefit of not paying for a car. And even if I did have a car, we’d still face difficulties of some other kind. Plus, there were benefits: it made me more adaptable and a little more patient. And I exercised more and got more outside time and sunshine with the girls. And I found that I had some lovely time for myself: I would download a podcast and put in my headphones and take a 45 minute walk to my parents’ house. The girls would sleep in the stroller and I would thoroughly enjoy myself.

At the same time, my husband made a New Year’s Resolution to NOT buy anything new for himself in 2014 (there were a few exceptions, like buying new stuff in order to fix the house or something like that). His resolution was a little too radical for me, so I didn’t join in. Devin got lots of responses that he was crazy too. His co-workers even asked what he would do if he needed underwear and socks. But I was proud of him for setting a goal that would make him change his mindset a bit and make sacrifices. He was pretty successful though, limiting his spending in general and then splurging on cool items like a coffee thermos at a thrift store and a jacket on eBay. Of course, it was also hard at times because it meant spending time trying to find something or not being able to find it. Overall, though, the benefits outweighed the difficulties: he became more adaptable, creative, patient, and thoughtful about his spending.

We both kept up our goals until September, when we moved to Alaska. At that point, there were some things that we purchased new because of transition and time issues. And I also got another used car too because I was not willing to bike the girls in the cold.

Despite not finishing our goals through to the end of the year, the nine months we spent working on those goals have made a (hopefully) lasting impression on us. We have a greater appreciation for the value of our money. And now that we have kids, I realize that when we spend frivolously, our family time suffers because there’s more pressure to work more hours or there’s just more stress at home. Money has become time. And time is much more important to me than driving an expensive car (or one at all…unless it’s -5 degrees out and then my main focus is warmth!).