Posts Tagged ‘savings’

Reader Transformation: Shanna’s No Spend Challenge

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

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Note from Amy- I am SO thrilled to be featuring one of my amazing friends today as we continue our m challenge towards saving money. Our family tries to take on a yearly challenge to dedicate one month towards not spending any money.  No spend challenges are something that I find help me to regain focus and discipline towards saving. They also highlight some of my terrible habits that I have towards spending money unnecessarily. I had the incredible honor of following Shanna through social media as she challenged herself to not spend money for one month. I asked if she would let me share her journey because I found her story so incredibly inspiring. Are you giving up anything for Lent? Perhaps this story of transformation will help inspire you and consider the savings a gift to those in need or to help your family save more this year. I hope you enjoy Shanna’s transformation as much as I have! 

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It’s always been important to me to do what I love. The problem is that goods and services cannot be bought with emotional contentment – you have to use money.

I’ve never been good with money, but I’m not irresponsible either. In fact, I’m quite frugal by most standards, but I don’t earn much money. With my master’s degree in contemporary dance, I’ve danced and taught classes for a small company and taught dance at a community college. I’ve held many other jobs as well; all low paying. For years I’ve pieced together a living by holding more than one job at a time. I currently work full-time for a non-profit, teach yoga twice a week and I have several regular massage clients.

But life is expensive, especially if you don’t live near your loved ones. Clothing and food also cost money. Despite being generally frugal, my deficits accumulated. After ten years of working hard and not earning much, I had gotten into some bad habits and some bad debt. My journey to dig myself out was an eye-opening experience.

In January 2014, I made some pretty lofty personal finance goals for the New Year. First, I wanted a new job that paid at least $10,000 more per year. Second, I wanted pay off my $10,000 in credit card debt (although at the time I didn’t know how I would do it). Third, I would sign up for a fitness challenge at my gym, take first place, and win the fancy $75-a-month executive membership I could not afford.

I would win 2014! I would be confident, fit, and debt free by 2015!

So it began. My husband Matt got me a new interview suit at an after Christmas sale, and then I signed up for the two-month fitness challenge at my gym, planned a strict diet, and revised my resume. I had a determined mind and a hopeful heart.

By mid-February, that vigor and determination became… well… less vigorous. I was becoming increasingly frustrated because I wasn’t finding anything but parallel moves in my job search. The lack of job prospects was crushing my spirit as well as my motivation. I felt like I wasn’t making any progress towards my prosperous new year.

I began looking for some positive reinforcement, so I decided to commit to a 30-day meditation program being offered by my friend and fellow yoga teacher Erin Menut. Every day during those 30 days I would receive an email and an audio recording from Erin. I would read along and listen to the affirmations and reflections.

On day six the affirmation was: “I am here. I have arrived.” Erin talked about being present by acknowledging the present situation rather than ignoring how things are and looking toward brighter times. She told a story about her friend with credit card debt and called it “an extreme example of this.” Her friend was struggling with credit card debt and when Erin asked if she had a good repayment plan in place, she said “I don’t even know how much I owe. I don’t like to look at all of that stuff because I am afraid to find out how bad it is.”

Yikes! Erin and I never talked about my financial issues, but she might as well have been quoting ME! I too had never sat down with all my credit card bills to really look at the interest rates and fees and come up with a consistent plan to pay them down. I had been simply ignoring all that stuff and hoping for a brighter future. Not only did her friend say exactly what I would have, Erin also called her friend, and by proxy called me, an extreme example! In her reflections on her indebted friend, Erin went on to talk about what it means to be brave—the ability to face and conquer our fears so that they no longer control us. I needed to be brave – I had to figure out how I would tackle my financial mess.

On one of the days that followed day six, I was standing in Mountain pose repeating the affirmation “I am here. I have arrived.”, when I suddenly realized that part of the reason I was feeling so helpless was because I never actually asked for help. After that realization, it didn’t take me long to contact a credit counselor. I made an appointment and, to my absolute terror, would face my fears by sitting down and looking at my financial mess. I would go over a budget with my counselor. I would put a repayment plan in place. I would force myself to take control.

The appointment came, and my terror was realized. I remember the gulp of emotion that swelled up in my throat when we added everything up. My credit card debt wasn’t $10,000, it was $13,860.84! Through heaving sobs, I asked the counselor if I could call her back, and hung up with her. How could I let this happen? How did I continue to allow myself to spend? After I wiped the hot angry tears from my face, I felt my mind beginning to clear. Sure, I was angry and embarrassed, but knowing the number actually relieved my fears. It wasn’t a million dollars. It certainly wasn’t zero dollars, but it wasn’t insurmountable. In being known, the number lost its terror.

$13,860.84 was surmountable, if I could only figure out a way to surmount it.

Then I remembered Amy Clark. I read Amy Clark’s blog post about her no-spend challenge a few years prior. I decided to go back and read her post again. She and her husband and two children (one in diapers) budgeted $250 for groceries (including diapers), and declared that there would be no other spending outside of gas and utility bills for an entire month. I did a quick calculation of my prior month of spending. HOLY CRAP! I spent $300 alone at the grocery store! Yep, alone… that doesn’t include what my husband spent—AND we don’t have little mouths to feed or butts to diaper! It took me until April to get my mind set, but on May 1, inspired by Amy, I committed to a no-spend challenge of my own. I would pay my bills as usual and give myself $150.00 to spend on gas and groceries through May 31.

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Coincidentally, I actually got to see Amy in April when she was in Salt Lake City attending a crafting conference. We were able to steal a little time together. I told her that I was planning on doing the challenge and she was more than encouraging.

On May 1, the no-spend challenge began. I found myself posting on social media about my progress and experience, which forced me to be accountable.

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This photo is from day one. I’m very happy that I live only two miles from work. During my no-spend challenge, I rode my bike to work every day. I spent no money on parking and no money on gas.

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Day two, and the no-spend challenge was already inspiring me to learn new skills! Before the challenge, I would have just walked my bike two blocks over to the bike shop and had someone else change my tire for $10. There was no way I was going to cheat on day two! So, with a little help from Matt over the phone, I was able to change my own tire. He was beaming with pride.

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During the no-spend challenge I was constantly reminded that there were plenty of ways to entertain myself for free. On day eight, I remembered how to use the public library.

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The challenge also inspired me to get creative with spend-free gifting. This is Anna. I like to call her my gluten-free girlfriend. Day sixteen of no spending was also her last day as my co-worker. Just because I couldn’t spend, didn’t mean I couldn’t give her a great parting gift. I made her Super Power flaxseed bread entirely out of ingredients I already had in my pantry. A plain lunch sack and reused ribbon made for quite a lovely gift wrap. (If I do say so myself.)

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In case anyone was wondering, I didn’t win first place in that fitness challenge… I came in second, and won a six-month executive membership! I had FREE access to this gym including laundry service during the entire no-spend challenge. What a luxury!

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Committing to the no-spend challenge not only opened my eyes to all free resources I had access to, now my perspective was beginning to change. I noticed my thoughts moving away from scarcity towards gratitude.

This photo was taken in City Creek Canyon on day twenty during a seven-mile run. I remember feeling overwhelmed with joy and gratitude for all this beauty and fresh mountain air that I get to enjoy near my own back yard.

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“Cleanliness is next to godliness.” My thoughts were also moving away from I can’t afford…, to I can afford…

I can always afford a clean home. This photo was taken on day 21. I spent hours cleaning the apartment and I was pretty proud of the results. Just look at those shiny wood floors!

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Remember all that money I was spending at the grocery store before? During the no-spend challenge that wasn’t much of an issue. I stuck to the budget of $37.50 a week on groceries (including wine). I rationed. I clipped coupons. I dug deep in to the pantry to use what I already had. Instead of spending so much money at the grocery store, I was spending quality time with good friends. This photo was taken on day 23 when my sweet friend Amelia made me this beautiful and delicious vegetarian dinner. We ate it on her porch where we spent the rest of the evening sipping wine and dreaming out loud.

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Throughout the month, in addition to dinner invites, I was also receiving gifts from many of my friends who found out I was doing the no-spend challenge. Chocolate bars, flowers, garden veggies, and more! Jenita, my best lady from Cleveland wanted to send me a bottle of wine. She knows me well and probably figured that I would run out of that first. However, she found out that sending alcohol to Utah is a felony. (Ridiculous) So instead of wine, she paid for a Gallup strengths finder test and emailed a link. The test was intended to help me understand how to use my strengths at work and find out what kind of environment and team I need to succeed. Jenita is a good listener.

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I had a special moment on day 28. Here the photo caption reads “Studio time! In the home stretch and finding more and more gratitude for what I already have. I get to spend time alone in this beautiful space before class on Mondays & Wednesdays. This morning at Avenues Yoga was particularly uplifting – doors open, birds singing, clear mind, not a want in the world.”

This was day 28 and I wasn’t even thinking about what I would be spending my money on after the next three days. On that morning, in that solitude, I was complete. I felt like I could go on forever without a spending fix.

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Here it is, the moment of truth. On June 1, I sat down and added it all up. I saved $702.90 during the 31 day no-spend challenge! My husband and I used $400 of that to buy plane tickets to Chicago for our one-year anniversary trip, and I threw the remaining $302.00 at my credit card debt. In September, we stayed on the lake where we got married a year prior and spent quality time with my side of the family. While $400 only covered the cost of one ticket, we didn’t have to use a credit card to cover the rest.

I haven’t used a credit card since before the challenge. I believe the no-spend challenge actually cured me of my debting and credit card use. Now, if I have a big expense coming up, I save my money and plan for the expense instead of automatically pulling out my credit card. That’s huge for me, because I feel more in control of my own finances. In October, I took another 31-day no-spend challenge and used the money I saved to buy plane tickets back to Indiana for Christmas.

It’s been a year now and I only used that interview suit twice. I didn’t get a new job, and I’m certainly not debt-free. I didn’t succeed in meeting those lofty goals, but I think I still won in 2014. Some financial success did come my way. I received a nice bonus a work back in July, and got some new Thai Yoga Massage clients and gigs throughout the year. Most importantly, I learned a few things. I learned that I can’t run from my fears and expect anything to change. I learned that in order to be able to take control, I have to be brave enough to bring my full attention to the present situation. Presently, I am healthy and I am loved. I know that I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m here in the present, and I’m resolving my financial problems.

 

Do You Really Need That Degree? College Loans, Options, and Savings

Monday, October 27th, 2014

From our money & finance contributor, Kelly Whalen.

College debt has reached an all-time high in the United States. Collectively, we owe over a trillion dollars in student loan debt. Yes, trillion with a capital T. It’s actually over $1,200,000,000,000. Ouch.

Is that degree really worth it

Student loan debt is unlike most other debts though in that it is nearly impossible to get rid of, known as forgiveness or discharge. This means even if you fall on hard times, lose a job, or your life circumstances change drastically it’s extremely uncommon to have that debt wiped away – you’re pretty much stuck with it. For some adults this means they will be carrying debt from choices made in their teens and twenties well into their middle age and often they’ll still be paying off those debts while paying for their children’s education.

When considering our finances it’s important to look at the impact student loan debt has since many readers are impacted by college debt. It’s likely you still owe for your college education if you have one (and often even if you don’t have a degree!). Others may be considering college costs for their children whether they’re toddlers or getting ready to head to college. Finally, there are many adults who go back to school when they change professions or need additional education to improve their earning power.

Since there are a lot of scenarios to cover here I’ll break them down, and you can head to the subsection that applies to you.

Already in Student Loan Debt

You already have a degree and the debt to prove it. While you may owe anywhere from a few thousand to tens of thousands the advice to not get into debt doesn’t apply. You need solutions and advice on getting out of student loan debt.

Consolidate

If you have multiple loans look into consolidation. You can consolidate loans with your spouse as well. This may allow you to get a lower interest rate or lower monthly payment, but it also makes it easier to manage than several loans.

Pay More than the Minimum

While it’s common sense, paying more than the minimum means you will pay it off sooner. Some ways you can ‘find’ more than the minimum in your budget include: slashing expenses (like dropping cable or getting a cheaper cell phone plan) or adding any pay raises to your loan payment.

Work a Side Gig or Second Job

Need to earn extra money to meet your loan payments or increase your payments to pay it off quicker? Get a side gig or work a second job to earn extra money to put towards your college loans.

Investigate Options

If you’re really struggling financially like having no job call your student loan company before you skip a payment. They may be able to hold or defer payments or offer some other options to help keep you from defaulting on your loans.

Getting Ready or Going to College

If you or someone in your family is headed to school or back to school for a degree it’s the perfect time to consider all the options.

Do you Really Need That Degree?

While a college degree is still statistically going to increase your earning ability over time it’s not always a necessity in every profession. Some professions simply don’t require a degree, and many trades are desperately seeking qualified and well-trained individuals.

Additionally, the job market has changed drastically to allow small businesses with little overhead to thrive. In an age of consulting, freelancing, and startups a degree is nice-but it’s not exactly a requirement. Depending on your skillset you may not have the need for a traditional college diploma.

Check Pay Rates and Rental/Home Prices

Whether you’re going back to school or headed to college for the first time you need to consider the cost versus the income you will earn in the future. While we all know there are no guarantees of future income checking pay rates in your area and investigating the cost of housing will help you get a general idea of what you’ll have to spend on student loan repayment.

For instance, it doesn’t financially make sense to spend $150,000 on a degree if the average entry-level earnings are $35,000 per year and average rentals cost $750/month.

The math would show you it would take an awfully long time to pay back your loans, and in the end it’s unlikely to be worth the added stress and costs when you could get a solid education and degree for 1/4 that cost.

Exhaust Scholarship and Grant Options

Grants and scholarships are plentiful, but it takes some hunting and some time to getting the most money you can for school. If you dedicate the time upfront though you could end up saving thousands of dollars. There are scholarships and grants that are high value and competitive, and there are smaller scholarships and grants that are for less money and more obscure.

Consider Starting Small

Instead of diving into a 4 year college with big expenses consider a local, smaller school to get your initial credits out of the way. You could even consider an online education if you’re an adult or need to work full-time to fund your education.

Saving for Future College Costs

Saving for your children or family members who you hope to help go to college is a great gift, but you have to consider all the options before you start saving.

It’s vital to be sure you aren’t locking up money that is needed for an emergency fund or for retirement first and foremost.

However, if you have a healthy emergency fund and are (mostly) on track with retirement savings here are come options to consider:

529 Plans

529s are a great option since they offer no taxes when withdrawn for qualified education expenses like tuition. Many states also have no tax on withdraws.

There are two types:

  • Pre-paid plans: You pay for college costs at today’s rates even if costs go up when your student goes to school.
  • Saving plans: Savings plans are based on the stock market with a mix of investments that get more conservative as your child nears college age.

The downside: Funds that aren’t used for college are taxed fully and a 10% penalty is tacked on. While it’s hard to tell when they’re infants, it’s not exactly ideal if Junior decides not to go to school or ends up with a full scholarship.

Roth IRAs

Roth IRAs are a retirement savings vehicle, but they also offer the option of withdraw for college expenses. This can offer the best of both options for families who need to get the most out of their long-term savings.

With a Roth IRA you can use funds for educational expenses OR retirement meaning if your child doesn’t need all the funds you can continue to grow them for retirement without paying penalties.

The downside: Current Roth IRA limits mean you can only save $5,500 each year or $6,500 if you’re over 50 in these accounts.

Note on investing for college: You can encourage family members to add to your little tyke’s college fund (for instance in lieu of gifts for the holidays or birthday presents). For instance grandparents can gift funds to each child, currently you can give $14,000 per year without penalties. 

When Should You NOT Save?

If you’re in debt or struggling financially saving for college shouldn’t even be a consideration. High interest debt (i.e., not your mortgage or your own student loans!) should be tackled before you consider saving for college. If you’re paying 14.99% on your credit cards the math is against you saving for college costs…for now.

Parents often make the mistake of saving for college funds over retirement thinking they have less time to ‘catchup’ on college education costs, but if they aren’t maxing out their retirement savings they could be in major trouble later in life.

While it is a great goal to make sure your children enter adulthood debt-free it shouldn’t come at the cost of your own savings and financial stability-that will impact your children now.

What it comes down to is this–take care and consider all your options whether you’re paying off college costs or saving for your children’s future.

What are your thoughts on student loan debt and college savings? Do you still owe for your education or are you worried about financing your children’s education?

 

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