Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Financial Literacy Month 2016: Budgeting Beyond Diapers & Day-Care

I was surprised when I heard a financial expert on a podcast say that she thought her costs would go down once her child was in school. Kids do not get cheaper as they age. The costs just become less fixed.

I admit, I felt the same sense of relief when I stopped paying for daycare, but reality set in fairly soon. School supplies, after-school activities, outgrown clothes and shoes, school fundraisers, teachers' presents, birthday presents, summer camp, book fairs and so on.

Granted, there are things you can do to keep these costs from skyrocketing (buying used clothes, saying "no" to fundraisers, having your child make presents), but not spending any money is next to impossible.

The easiest way to transition from the fixed day care costs to these lumpy, don't-know-when-they'll-hit costs is to budget the money you were budgeting for day care to a "kids' expenses" category. I lumped them altogether like that so that once a year, I can look at how much I'm really spending on these things and adjust as necessary. Let me tell you, that number didn't go down until one of my kids had a job!

If your budget is still struggling to keep up, it may be time to look for cheaper alternatives.

My daughter's love of art and dance really flourished at the local Boys and Girls Club. She received many opportunities there that would have cost a lot more at private dance or art studios, and had a lot of fun. Once she was ready to move on to a private dance studio, she volunteered to decrease the monthly tuition. It never hurts to ask if you or your child can volunteer in exchange for a discount. I believe that my daughter got more out of her private dance studio experience because of the hours she spent helping there. She loved working with the younger kids and received advice and inspiration from all the teachers, not just her own.

Often, she would ask if we had a certain something for an art project. Often, we didn't. Sylvia never let that stop her, and would come up with creative solutions that garnered her more pride than merely buying something. 

Once you think your kids are old enough, you can involve them in the conversation and their answers may be the best! If your child really really wants to be on the team, they may be more than willing to contribute half their allowance or set up a lemonade stand for the uniform and association fees. And if they don't, then why are you stressing about it? Toss the application and move on with your life!

Even when they're younger, you can start talking about choices. When you're at the grocery store, and your child is asking for this, that and that and that, tell them they can choose one. Or give them a dollar amount (no more than $5, probably) that they can use on a treat. (This also helps with their boredom and impatience at the store!)

The choices are not always that easy, of course, but the more your kids practice making choices, they'll be more prepared to tackle the difficult ones.

I always wanted to give my kids more than I could afford, but they usually exceeded expectations when I couldn't.

Still, there will be those times when $$ just has to be spent. If you never count on costs going down, you'll be better prepared for those times.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Financial Literacy Month 2016: Balancing a Realistic Budget

Sure, there are plenty of blog posts, articles and books out there that may convince you that you don't need a budget, or that budgets are constricting, or maybe you've tried "anti-budgeting." I can only say that my financial life has improved drastically once I started working with a realistic budget.

So we have to talk about how and when a budget isn't realistic, and therefore, doesn't work.

An unrealistic budget believes that the numbers are set in stone, and if you overspend, you fail.

A realistic budget allows you to change the numbers.

An unrealistic budget assumes that the same amount of money will come in and go out every month.

A realistic budget knows that there's no such thing as a normal month.

An unrealistic budget believes that you can eat Ramen every day, and if you really scrimp and save, life will be wonderful.

A realistic budget has room for fun money most of the time, but if something goes wrong, the sacrifice to that fun money is temporary.

Even before YNAB, I changed my budgeting ways using the method I learned in The Debt-Free Spending Plan. Both are based on the zero-based budgeting concept and both (finally!) gave me a realistic budget.

Sylvia felt the effects the other day when I was getting the car serviced, and the total came close to $400 (we split the costs). Or rather, she felt no effect, because she knew she had double her share in her Auto Maintenance category.

Before you throw in the towel completely on the idea of budgeting, try a realistic (preferably zero-based) budget. It just might change your financial life!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Financial Literacy Month 2016: Why I Rent

The delightful Paula Pant wrote the end-all, be-all post on why renting may be financially prudent, which I can't recommend highly enough, but the overall message bears repeating as often as possible.

Of course, I can only speak about why renting is best for me, but those reasons may resonate.

About a year and a half ago, I got the dreaded notice from our landlord that my rent was increasing by $100 a month. Granted, my rent had not increased at all for years, but $100 is substantial so I started weighing my options.

First, I considered buying. It didn't take too long to discover that there was nothing in my price range in good ol' Los Angeles. But I'm still glad that I went through the process to know that for sure.

I filled out an application with my credit union, and was approved for more than I thought I could reasonably afford. It still wasn't a lot by L.A. standards, but there were a few possibilities for condos (no houses). Very few.

One by one, each of those possibilities stopped looking feasible. They were either in neighborhoods where I didn't want to live or required work or were in developments that were questionable.

It actually wasn't that much of a disappointment to discover that buying wasn't going to happen. The more I thought about it, I knew that I couldn't handle it financially or emotionally.

It would have stretched my budget so dang thin, I'm not even sure we would have been able to keep Netflix! Even though I'm still not at Warren's recommended 50%, this would have put our living expenses at well over 70% of my income.

Living that close to the financial edge would not have been good for my state of mind. Not sure how much sleep I would have lost, worrying about my job stability, trying to find extra income, never having lunch with a friend, dreading holidays and birthdays...I've been there, done that. I don't want to go back.

Things might possibly have been different if we lived somewhere else, but I don't want to live somewhere else. My job is here, my friends and family are here, our lives are here.

We did end up moving, finding a place we like even better for the rent I was paying prior to the increase. I had the funds to handle the moving costs, and even buying a washer and dryer.

Just the other day, Sylvia was telling me that she's glad we moved and she likes our current place so much better than the last. So do I.

Americans are far too wonderfully varied to have just one American dream. Some things to consider before buying into the home-ownership aspect:

  1. Down payment +: Don't just have the amount required for your loan. You will also need more set aside for closing fees, moving expenses, and the unexpected repairs/necessities you don't discover until the keys are yours. 
  2. Plus...: Do you plan on buying new furniture for the new place? Do you need appliances? Will you still have enough in your emergency savings if your car needs new brakes the same week you move? Will you still have at least a few months' worth of income if you get unexpectedly laid off the next week? 
  3. Stability: If you're married, what if your spouse gets offered a new job with ten times the income the following month? If you're divorced and the other parent is still a part of your child/ren's lives, what if your ex moves across country? Are you prepared to stay in the house for at least five years?
  4. Peace of Mind: I know, everyone wants to dream about the possibility of saying "all mine" when it comes to home ownership. But how will you feel if the roof is leaking? If your mailperson slips on your front walk? When your debt is six figures? When the property taxes are all yours? 
The farther we get from the financial crisis, the more people start to use the phrase "throwing money away on rent."

I don't think of it like that at all. Every month, I pay for the privilege of the roof over my family. Just like someone with a mortgage does. I also get to call the landlord if my HVAC stops working. I get to explore the possibilities again if I don't like my rent increase. 

Of course, this is not to say that no one should own a home, but like most things in life, it is not for everyone. And it's certainly not for me.