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The Best Financial Advice for Every Year: Age 20

Libby is a jack of all trades, master of… well, you know how the saying goes. Media consultant by day, mommy by night, you can usually find her with a glass of wine in hand, provided the kids are in bed!

This is going to be the first post in a new series I’m writing about the most important financial moves you need to make year by year throughout your 20s. So naturally, what better place to start than with age 20 itself?

I don’t have a very clear memory of my 20th birthday. I remember 19 (my dormmates took me to dinner at a fun tapas restaurant just off campus); I remember 21 (I danced with a member of our college basketball team who is now an NBA star while the band serenaded me with “Happy Birthday” at my favorite frat’s annual spring party); but 20 must have been rather unmemorable, because for the life of me, I can’t remember a thing about it.

But what I do remember about those early years in college is a message my dad literally repeated about a dozen times each August as we made the 8-hour drive from my hometown to campus: No matter what free stuff they offer you, do NOT GET A CREDIT CARD.

Now, that seemed very unfair, coming from a man who had several credit cards to his name. I thought it was very hypocritical of him to tell me I couldn’t have a credit card when I saw him use one on a regular basis. But I heard him loud and clear; what he was really saying was, “If you get a credit card, I will not pay for it.” So, being the rule follower that I was (and still am), I said no to the free t-shirt, the free ballcap, the free frisbee, and the $50 credit on my first month’s statement.

For you see, although I graduated from college with modest student loan debt, I entered the adult world with absolutely no credit card debt. Not only that, but by the time I finally did get my first credit card – about a month after graduation – I was so paranoid about racking up huge bills that I only used it when I knew I had enough cash in my checking account to cover my purchases.

In other words, I learned how to handle credit with maturity. I never used my credit card to book a flight to Cancun over spring break with some of my sorority sister (though I know many who did); I never used my credit card to buy hundreds of dollars in clothes and shoes (though I know many who did). My dad put the fear of God into me, and the ultimate lesson was one of responsibility.

So the most important money move you need to make as a 20-year-old? It’s the same advice my dad offered me years ago:

No matter what free stuff they offer you, do NOT GET A CREDIT CARD!

Note from Crystal:  I have slightly different advice – get a credit card with no annual fees and good rewards as soon as you can, BUT never charge anything you wouldn’t have bought with cash you have AND never carry a balance.  Then you can build your credit without falling into astounding consumer debt.  Willpower is crucial – if you think you’ll be a big spender, no credit card!!!


The “Baby Recession” Is Over

Libby is a jack of all trades, master of… well, you know how the saying goes. Media consultant by day, mommy by night, you can usually find her with a glass of wine in hand, provided the kids are in bed!

It was September 14, 2008. Lehman Brothers was still – technically – in business. And I was in labor.

The signs of economic collapse had been plentiful: gas prices had been on a crazy roller coaster, up one week, down the next; Bear Sterns had already collapsed months prior; homes in my neighborhood – which once sold in a matter of days – remained up for sale in an increasingly stagnant market; my employer had already been through its first round of layoffs, and unemployment across the country was climbing towards double digits.

But unbeknownst to me, the subsequent economic recession wasn’t the only recession in America at the time. Apparently, there was an overlapping “baby recession.” Starting in 2007, America’s birth rate entered a prolonged drop, which we’re only now pulling out of. According to the latest government data, 2014 was the first time since 2007 that the birth rate went up (though it’s still below pre-recession levels).

Why is a high birth rate important? Just ask Japan. The nation is in the midst of a decades-long drop in birth rate, which has put it on the verge of economic ruin. It’s meant a population that is disproportionately older, putting a strain on social and economic systems. The Japanese birth rate has stagnated at just 1.4 (that means 1.4 live births per woman of child-bearing age); by comparison, a healthy birth rate is closer to 2.1 – just enough to keep a country’s population gradually on the upswing. The US birth rate, at 1.9, is far from Japan’s catastrophic levels, but after nearly a decade of declines, it’s nice to see it moving in the right direction.

Last year, I wrote a post about whether or not anybody is ever really ready to have a baby. At the time, I said that my family’s decision came down to 3 main points: health of our relationship, professional concerns, and financial situation. For so many people, the Great Recession of 2008 (and beyond) absolutely crushed their professional and financial security – and anyone who’s ever battled through tough financial times knows that all that stress can put a strain on your marriage or romantic relationship.

So in hindsight, I guess it’s not surprising that a baby recession overlapped the actual recession; what is surprising is that I had two children during that period, and somehow failed to realize what was going on beyond my own front door. Yet the proof is all around me: my daughter’s class at school – the first group of children born during the Great Recession to head off to kindergarten and first grade – is significantly smaller than the older grades in our district.

What about you – did you realize there was a “Baby Recession” going on? Did you alter you or your family’s plans because of the tough economic times?


Budgeting After a Raise

Libby is a jack of all trades, master of… well, you know how the saying goes. Media consultant by day, mommy by night, you can usually find her with a glass of wine in hand, provided the kids are in bed!

If the Great Recession taught Americans anything about personal finance, it taught us how to be unapologetic pessimists. Case in point? Although GDP, unemployment, and stock market averages have climbed back (or, in some cases, beyond) pre-recession levels, you’ll still routinely see the talking heads on TV lamenting on the sorry state of our economy. Sure, there’s still progress to be made – too many people working part-time who’d rather be working full-time, depressed wages for the middle class, etc. – but to hear these folks talk, you’d think it was still 2010.

When you surf the web, you see plenty of articles talking about how to manage your family’s budget through a crisis: job loss, medical bills, sky-high debt. But what you don’t see is a lot of financial advice for how to manage your money when something good happens. How does budgeting change when you’ve received a raise, a bonus, an inheritance?

Plan After a Raise

That’s the situation my family found itself in a few months ago. My husband and I were both fortunate enough to earn substantial raises which increased our household income by about 20%. And we didn’t know what to do with it.

For a few pay cycles, we let that extra money just sit in our bank accounts. We had the gratification of knowing it was there, but the money wasn’t doing anything for us. So we started to toss around some ideas:

  • Paying down our mortgage. Paying down debt is usually a good thing; however, we’d bought our house when interest rates were at historic lows (we’re locked in at 3.67%). We knew our money could do more elsewhere;
  • Adding more money to our retirement accounts. These raises meant that for the first time in our adult lives, we could max out the annual contributions to both of our Roths and one of our 401(k) accounts. But we knew that once the money was diverted to those retirement accounts, we’d be unable to touch it (well, for another 30 years, at least!);
  • SPEND IT! I think this is the complete opposite reaction to letting it just sit untouched in our checking account, but it’s another knee-jerk reaction that many people experience after getting an influx of cash. My husband bought an expensive new phone that he’d been pining after, and I splurged a little on my wardrobe. In a way, I think it was helpful to get it out of our system. We came, we spent, we felt a little guilty – and probably won’t make a habit of it in the future;
  • Engage in lifestyle inflation. This is similar to simply spending the money, but it’s a little bit more insidious. Lifestyle inflation tends to creep up on you; maybe you start dining out a few more times each month, add in a Hulu Plus subscription, and get addicted to $15/class Pure Barre workouts, and voila! You’ve succumbed to lifestyle creep. You may even figure out a way to work those items into your monthly budget, at which point they start to feel completely valid.

Ultimately, my husband and I sat down and discussed what we wanted to do with this extra money from a big picture perspective. We don’t carry debt beyond our mortgage (but if you have personal, student, or credit card debt with a high interest rate, this should be your starting point), so we saw this as an opportunity to really shore up our budget and investments. Here’s how the money has been allocated:

1) 30% of it is going directly to our retirement accounts; we don’t even see the money in our checking account, because it’s funneled off right from the get-go;

2) 20% is going to a newly created “vacation” account. We’ve really slacked on traveling over the past few years as we climbed the corporate ladder (I hate that phrase, but it applies here), and want to use this money to ensure that we’re seeing the country and experiencing new places and things with our children;

3) 40% is going to our renovation budget. We’re in the middle of renovating our home, and have done much of the work ourselves. But there are certain things – like taking out walls, running complicated electric cables, or moving plumbing fixtures – that are beyond our area of comfort, let alone expertise. At least over the next year or so, we’ll use this money to ensure we can hire professionals when the need arises to make sure a project is done right. Eventually, once the major reno projects are finished, we’ll siphon a large chunk of this money off into our retirement accounts;

4) 10% is our “discretionary” fund – in other words, our fun money. We knew that lifestyle creep was inevitable, but we felt that by setting aside a certain amount of money in this way, we’d at least be able to keep it in check.

Have you ever experienced an influx of money? How did you learn how to manage that money, so that it worked in your favor?


Helping the Syrian Refugees


Libby is a jack of all trades, master of… well, you know how the saying goes. Media consultant by day, mommy by night, you can usually find her with a glass of wine in hand, provided the kids are in bed!

It’s being called the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. So if you want to donate to the plight of the Syrian (and Iraqi, and Kurdish… the list goes on) refugees, how can you do it safely, responsibly, and – perhaps most importantly – effectively?

There are hundreds of thousands of global charities out there, all begging you to donate. But not all charities are created equally. Some donate virtually every penny of your money to the cause; others donate just pennies on the dollar. The tough part is sorting the good from the bad… and the downright ugly.

Thankfully, there are websites devoted to helping you make the right choice with your charitable donation. Three of the best are Charity Watch, Charity Navigator, and GiveWell. These organizations are constantly rating charities to help you determine not only how much of your donation actually makes it to those in need, but to help you see exactly what your money will provide once it reaches its destination. For example, you could donate through a big name like Amnesty International or a lesser known charity, like the American Refugee Committee. What’s the difference?

According to Charity Watch, Charity Watch: Amnesty International of the USA spends $14 in order to raise $100… then turns around and spends 20% of those funds on overhead – things like employee salary, public relations, advertising, etc. Charity Watch: American Refugee Committee – which, confusingly, often goes by ARC, the same acronym as the American Red Cross – spends just $5 to raise $100, and only spends 10% of its annual yield on overhead expenses. In other words, if you gave $250 to each organization, ARC would get $25 more to the people you intended to receive it.

If you’re looking for a great way to get involved in the global – and, specifically, the Syrian – refugee crisis, these fact-checker sites have already done much of the work for you. Just click over to their pages on Syria to find out how you can make a difference.

Charity Watch

Charity Navigator


Start as you Mean to Go On

When you are starting out on a career, retirement seems so far away. In one way it is, but in another it isn’t. It is never too early to start to plan financial provision for retirement. You may think it is difficult to save anything just after you have finished college with so many demands on your money; rent, automobile, general bills and student loan to settle. In some ways that is true but it is important to look at your finances and make wise decisions from the start.

Credit Cards

You will have been eligible for your first credit card when you reached 18 years of age. Suddenly you will have credit which allows you to buy without handing over cash. Your initial credit limit may well have been fairly low but it will rise if you use your card wisely, paying promptly each month anything from the minimum required to the full balance. The responsible thing to do is to pay off the full balance then you will not be tempted to live beyond your means. In reality the signs in the USA, and indeed in many countries where the population has credit cards, are that users build up credit balances. Often these balances have become difficult to manage and at the end of each month a high rate of interest is applied.

True Cost

When you look at your finances have you got a credit card on which you have built up such a balances? Just because others do that it does not mean that it is wise to do so. You may think you are buying a bargain so that you have an excuse for buying something on offer when you cannot really afford it. It is not a bargain if you add the interest that you will be paying each month until you have paid the bill in full.

Your logic in buying may be that you face a number of bills anyway so taking a little credit over a few months is no bad thing. The problem is that you may well slide into do this as a matter of habit and suddenly find your balance is way beyond the amount you wanted it to reach. Providing for retirement is likely to be something that is dismissed as unimportant if you are struggling to live within your existing means anyway.

Consolidate Your Problems

You really should act; ironically one of the things you can do is to borrow. Personal consolidation loans provide the means of paying off debt that is incurring a high rate of interest. If you have a regular income, you can apply for a realistic installment loans online which will not carry such a high rate of interest, even if you have a poor credit score. Lenders are far more concerned that you can afford the future repayments; that is the case you need to make. As long as you use the loan to pay off your credit card balances and other liabilities carrying a high rate of interest your one monthly payment on your consolidation loan will be less that the sums currently going out of your account each month.

Budget Now and Forever

This whole exercise should be part of your strategy to get your finances in order. A budget which identifies your income and expenditure will soon show you your current position. If you manage to get rid of credit card debt that is one reduction on the expenditure side. You may decide that you can save money elsewhere as well. It does not automatically mean you will have to make major sacrifices but perhaps you can cut back on your social spending. Utilities and insurance are also areas to look at where possible savings can be made.

Once you reach the point where you are comfortable that you have addressed your expenditure problems you may well be in a position to save a little each month. There may still be many calls on your money; the need to save a deposit to buy real estate, your recognition you need an emergency fund, and of course retirement. No one is suggesting it is easy to manage your finances especially early in your career but it helps to start out with a discipline approach that you follow in the years to come. It can be almost guaranteed that you will have fewer problems in the years to ahead if you have a financial plan.


The Education Funding Debate

Libby is a jack of all trades, master of… well, you know how the saying goes. Media consultant by day, mommy by night, you can usually find her with a glass of wine in hand, provided the kids are in bed!

Let’s put this out there right now: I’m a Liberal. I am a rainbow-heart T-shirt-wearing, climate change-embracing, immigrant-loving Lib with a capital “L.” At least, I always thought I was…

Maybe Less Liberal than I Thought…

My foray into reexamining my political bent began innocently enough, with an article in my local newspaper. The front page headline blared, “District Could Lose 18% of State Education Funding Over Next Three Years.” Wow, I thought to myself, that sounds pretty serious. As I read the article, I discovered that our financial situation was part of a broader state-wide plan to revamp education funding. Sparing you the gory (and boring) details, the basic idea was to rob Peter (wealthier districts like mine) in order to pay Paul (poorer districts, which in my state encompasses both urban and rural schools).

My husband and I moved to our district a few years ago, as our oldest was getting ready to start kindergarten. We chose the district because (A) it has a solid tax base which (B) leads to solid schools. In fact, our school district is a staple on World News & Report’s annual “Best High Schools in America” list. We knew when we moved in that we’d be paying higher property taxes than districts in other parts of our area, but that money, in turn, would go directly to our local schools, ensuring their stability and success.

So when I read about the state’s plan to slash that funding – to take our money an reallocate it to districts elsewhere – the progressively-minded liberal in me turned pointedly red in the face.

It’s not that I’m against giving equal opportunity to poorer-performing schools in under-funding districts. Go ahead, increase my state’s income tax or our sales tax, something that’s going to affect all taxpayers equally (or, at least, proportionately). But asking – no, ordering – my school district to take away some of our funding to give to another district seemed blatantly unfair.

Ok, now I know what you’re thinking: how on earth can she fault an already failing education system for being unfair? Isn’t she reaping the rewards of classism? Of her access to good education?

Indeed I am. But I have good reason to worry.

Our Worries

When we moved to our current district, we were coming from a state where education dollars are meted out on a county-wide basis. Although we lived in one of that state’s largest counties, it still encompassed a large area of urban, suburban, and rural dwellers; likewise, it brought together people of all races, creeds, and socio-economic backgrounds. At first, I thought this was wonderful. Then I started hearing stories from inside the school district, from students, parents, teachers, and administrators. The result of spreading the money evenly across every district in the county was that every school could afford to put books in the library; none of the schools could afford to hire the “best” teachers at the expense of a neighboring district; everyone had, in theory, access to the same resources.

But that didn’t mean the county had solved the problem. Because while each school had access to the same resources in the classroom, what the students were bringing into the schools each day were vastly different. Students in more affluent neighborhoods were bringing parents with stable jobs who could provide adequate housing, proper clothing, access to tutors and after school activities, healthcare, and healthy food; students in the less affluent areas were bringing in the baggage of gunfire in their streets, parents who worked two or three jobs to meet ends meet but were rarely home to help with homework, less than adequate healthcare, food, clothing, and housing. In reality, they were coming from two very different worlds.

So, no surprise that the schools attended by the affluent schools did ok; they weren’t great – after all, the district had cut the arts and many languages and upper-tier courses to accommodate funding cuts – but they weren’t failing, either. But the interesting thing was, even though schools in the same county were receiving the same funding, they weren’t performing any better than they were when the financial support was inequitable.

Basically, it boils down to this: our schools aren’t failing because School A spends $2,000 per student and School B spends $4,000. Our schools are failing because poverty is a serious issue in this country, and throwing money at the schools, rather than the problems our children are bringing into the schools – violence, poor nutrition, lack of access to healthcare, little or no preschool, lack of support at home – isn’t going to solve the problem.

Poverty is real. Hunger is real. Sickness is real.

So at the end of the day, I’m still a Liberal. I still believe there are social injustices in the world, but I also realize that these are social injustices that money alone cannot fix. We need to completely change our way of thinking, we need to change the culture. We need to craft policies that will support families and children, to give them the right start, so that, down the line, equal funding can and does make a difference.

Because right now, robbing from Peter to pay Paul isn’t benefiting anybody.


The Starbucks Generation

Libby is a jack of all trades, master of… well, you know how the saying goes. Media consultant by day, mommy by night, you can usually find her with a glass of wine in hand, provided the kids are in bed!

Millennials. We’re the generation that’s been slammed in the media for our sense of entitlement, our lack of gumption, and our inability to grasp the fact that the “real world” is vastly different from the safe confines created for us by our parents.

Starbucks to the Rescue

When I picked up a recent issue of my favorite magazine – The Atlantic – I was intrigued by the The Atlantic: The Upwardly Mobile Barista, about Starbucks’ recent partnership with Arizona State to help finance its employees’ college education. “Brilliant!” I thought, “What a way for Starbucks to give back to its workforce.” (Confession: my mother and I are once-a-day latte people, and have quite the relationship with our local baristas – to the point that they actually took me out for my last birthday.) What I didn’t expect to feel upon the conclusion of Amanda Ripley’s article was a sense that – perhaps – Starbucks and Arizona State are merely perpetuating the problems Millennials like myself are facing when it comes to cutting the proverbial cord.

Throughout the article, Ripley interviews both academic professionals, Starbucks executives, and the company’s employees to examine exactly what about the coffee company’s new program is so transformative. Hint: it’s not the promise of free education, although that is a key perk. Rather, for many of the Starbucks-employees-cum-undergrads, it boils down to support. The following passage really encapsulates my concerns:

“It’s not just about ‘Send me to college,’” says one high-ranking Starbucks exec. “It’s about providing support along the way, at every step.”

This so-called “support along the way, at every step” sounds a lot to me like hand-holding. It sounds to be like coddling. It sounds to me like we’re failing to give these students the skills that they will most definitely need at the next level.

I know I’m not the right “audience” for this kind of message. I went to a high school with a rigorous college prep program and access to guidance counselors; both my parents are college grads, so they brought their experiences to the table as well. But once I got to college – a prestigious East Coast university – I was largely on my own to wade through course catalogs, negotiate my time management skills, and register for courses in a timely manner. Nobody was there to hold my hand, and you know what? When I graduated, I was significantly more self-sufficient than when I started.

What made college so important for me wasn’t the shiny degree. It was – for the first time in my life – getting the chance to tackle these real world problems without someone looking over my shoulder and checking my work. It was the first major step in becoming an adult, and the responsibility I took on helped me grow into a person more equipped to handle the demands of the jobs my education was preparing me for post-graduation.

I applaud Starbucks – and Arizona State – for making college more accessible from a financial standpoint for thousands of people. The privilege is well-deserved, and the company’s intentions honorable. But I can’t help but wonder if all the “support along the way” will have unintended consequences, further enabling a generation of Millennials to look to someone else to solve their own problems.


Kitchen Makeover: How I Saved $5,000 (Pt. 2)

Libby is a jack of all trades, master of… well, you know how the saying goes. Media consultant by day, mommy by night, you can usually find her with a glass of wine in hand, provided the kids are in bed!

A few weeks ago, I shared how my husband and I had saved thousands of dollars by painting our wood cabinets instead of hiring a professional for our kitchen makeover. Now that the project is complete, I’m ready to share step-by-step details of how we made it happen!

Step 1: Deconstructing Your Kitchen

This may seem like the easy part, but if you cut corners here you’ll pay the price when your kitchen is ready to be put back together again. My husband started by mapping out our kitchen, every last cabinet door and drawer-face. We planned on reusing the hinges, so he packed and labeled those as well. This way, he didn’t have to drill any new holes when rehanging the doors at the very end.

Step 2: Prepping Your Surfaces

You may think your kitchen is clean, but think again. Those wood surfaces are magnets for oil, grease, and grime, particularly the areas near your cooking surfaces. We used Murphy’s Oil Soap ($4.99 from my local grocery store) and microfiber cloths to clean the cabinets – doors, drawer faces, frames and all.

You now have a choice: you can either use a stripper to remove the stain from your cabinets, or you can sand them down. We chose the latter option, because not only did we want to remove the existing stain, we wanted to minimize the oak’s natural grain as much as possible, too. We used 240 grit aluminum oxide sandpaper to get the job done – though it wasn’t a simple task! This step required a lot of elbow grease. My husband had read that sanders can be too intense on wood surfaces, so he actually did all this by hand!

If your wood surfaces have any damage to them, you’ll want to use a wood filler after sanding, then sand over them to help them blend into the rest of the surface. Fortunately, our wood cabinets were in good shape, so we didn’t have to make any repairs.

Step 3: Time to Prime

Our local Ace Hardware suggested Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Water-Based Primer (we got it on sale for $35/gallon), because this helps to minimize the grain without going overboard on sanding. Why a water-based product instead of oil-based? While we’d definitely read about the benefits of an oil-based product, we had 2 key concerns about using one:

1) The smell. We knew this would be a long project at the outset (we both have full-time jobs, so we’d be working on our kitchen here and there over the course of several weeks… ok, months), and we needed our kitchen to be functional in the meantime. Quite simply, we found the smell of the oil-based products recommended to us to be a dealbreaker!

2) Longevity. We were concerned about an oil-based product cracking or fading over time, especially because of the colors we ultimately chose. I didn’t want my cream-colored cabinets to end up looking yellow a few years down the road!

Unfortunately, the Zinsser didn’t cover all of the grain, so in certain spots, my husband applied an oil-based primer (Benjamin Moore Fresh Start, $20 for a quart), but was careful to ensure that we could use a latex paint on top of it (some oil and latex products don’t work well together!).

Step 4: Adding the Color

Finally, it was time to start really “painting.” I’d fallen in love with Benjamin Moore’s Historical Collection, and loved their Advanced series ($48/gallon). We selected a satin finish, as I wanted my cabinets to have more of a matte look. My husband’s plan was to use a paint sprayer, borrowed from my father, and paint everything en masse in our garage. However, my dad hadn’t properly cleaned the sprayer and it was clogged! We tried unclogging it, and ended up breaking a key component in the process.

So my husband decided to paint by hand.

Each cabinet got 2 coats of paint. The key here was time. This particular type of paint is a slow-drying material, with a suggested wait time of 4-6 hours between coats. Additionally, it’s a heavier paint, so Benjamin Moore recommends keeping it on a flat surface – eg, not hanging it up or standing it upright – for 1-2 days, while the paint sets. Talk about time consuming.

Step 5: Some Reassembly Required

Once the paint was dry, it was time to put my kitchen back together. Because my husband had been so meticulous about disassembling my kitchen, reassembly was like putting together a puzzle you’d played with dozens of times before. I was actually shocked at how quickly this step went.

Step 6: Optional Steps

There are still a few steps my husband and I are entertaining. One is whether or not we want to “antique” our cabinets; we’d do this by using a smaller brush to apply a dark colored glaze to specific parts of the doors and then wiping it off. I want to get used to my new kitchen first before deciding whether or not to tackle this.

The second thing we may still do is apply a finishing lacquer. We want to on the antiquing first, though, as this final coat would go on top of the glaze.

That’s it!

If I said this was a simple process, I’d be lying – at least partially. While there aren’t many steps – and no single step is really all that difficult – this is a project that requires a HUGE amount of time and energy. But knowing that we’ve come in $4000 below the cheapest estimate (and a whopping $9700 below the most expensive quote we received) feels pretty good – it was all worth it.



Kitchen Makeover: How I Saved $5,000 (Pt. 1)

Libby is a jack of all trades, master of… well, you know how the saying goes. Media consultant by day, mommy by night, you can usually find her with a glass of wine in hand, provided the kids are in bed!

My home is a sea of oak. And not a rich, dark oak; not a light, bleached oak. Nope, a honey oak color that screams, “I haven’t been remodeled since New Kids on the Block were actually new kids!” My floors are oak; the doors are oak; the trim is oak; and every last cabinet – from the kitchen to the bathroom – is oak. It’s oak overload.

Kitchen Remodel Thoughts

One day about a year ago, I visited a new friend at her house. Her home had been built around the same time as mine, but it was totally bereft of oak. Turns out, she’d hired a painter to not just paint the wood, but to minimize the amount of grain peeking through. How much had it cost her, I asked? Brace yourself: the total price tag was thousands of dollars.

But I was completely enchanted. I knew this was the way to update my home without completely replacing everything. Resurfacing, I believe is the technical term for what I wanted to do. I started gathering estimates – hoping there were cheaper options to my friend’s high-end finishes – and was sorely disappointed. One guy gave me a pretty bare bones quote at $4100; another gave me a thorough quote at $5600; yet another guy left me slack-jawed with his quote of $10,000. “It’s just paint,” I thought to myself. “It can’t be that hard.” My husband agreed; and that, more or less, is how he accepted responsibility of the job himself.

DIY Kitchen Remodel

Yes, we (errrrr, he) decided on a DIY approach to our kitchen makeover. He did all the research; he went to home improvement stores – big box stores and small mom and pop shops where customer service and an intimate knowledge of the products reigned supreme – to find out what materials he should use. He watched tutorials online, picked up old issues of This Old House at the library… and he waited… and waited… and waited. He waited for what seemed to be an impossibly long time, simply preparing and mulling this kitchen renovation over in his mind. Then one day, I came home from a business trip to discover all the cabinet doors in my kitchen had disappeared. The remodel had begun.

It’s been 3 months since that day. Technically, it’s been 14 weeks, which is a long time to have your kitchen in a constant state of chaos. Part of the hold-up was me; I had a devil of a time deciding on paint colors and waffled back and forth more times than I’d like to admit. We’re now about 80% of the way through the process… the finish line is within sight.

And we’ve done it all for a fraction of the cost we would have paid to an outside contractor:

– Sandpaper: $8

– Primer #1: $35

– Primer #2: $20

– Paint (3 gallons): $144

– Brushes, drop cloths, and other painting supplies: about $100

All in all, we spent just over $300. By now I’m sure you’re wondering exactly what we did to make this dream a reality. Don’t fear, I’m going to share it all with you (with some help from my husband). But you’ll have to come back in a few weeks for the step-by-step details!


Is An Elite College Worth The Money?

Libby is a jack of all trades, master of… well, you know how the saying goes. Media consultant by day, mommy by night, you can usually find her with a glass of wine in hand, provided the kids are in bed!

I decided what college I was going to attend when I was 9 years old. Of course, it was another 9 years before the acceptance letter making my dream a reality arrived in my mailbox, but in my mind, it was a done deal at that point: my mind was set.

Elite College Cost

It didn’t matter to me that my school of choice – an elite East Coast university – came with a hefty price tag. At the time, annual tuition plus room and board was roughly $44,000. Multiplied by the cost of books, travel to and from campus (it was located a day’s drive away), and all the other ancillary costs associated with college attendance, it came out to closer to $50,000/year.

My parents, to their credit, didn’t shoot down my dream; they later confided in me that although the final costs of my collegiate experience were higher than they’d anticipated, that they realized to keep me from going – after nearly a decade of obsessing over this particular school – would have been cruel. They told me that if the costs had truly been too much for our family, that they would have shot me down before I ever got close to sending in an application.


Along the way, my dad lost his job, spent 6 months out of work, and ended up taking a lower-paying job during my first two years of college. This significantly impacted our financial aid package – for the better, actually – and I ended up with just under $20,000 in student loan debt on graduation day. Although I went to grad school (which was FAR costlier) and initially into a relatively low-paying field, I was able to pay all my loans off within 10 years of graduation.

I’ve had friends and extended family argue that I could have gotten my degree (a BA in history) from a cheaper state school. It’s a tempting argument for people to make: why go out of state to attend a college with a prestigious reputation when you can save money while earning the same degree?

My View Now

It’s a question my mentee – a high school senior attending a local private school – asked me this spring as she ruminated over her own college choice. She was deciding between our state’s marquee public school, and the best private school in the state. While she felt pulled by the “lower cost, same degree” argument, she knew there must be more to the story. Knowing my history, she asked me for a candid response.

This is what I told her:

When I first got to campus, I was overwhelmed. I’d gone from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond – everyone had come to campus with academic, artistic, and athletic accolades. For the first year, I seriously considered transferring home to a big state school, where I could get the same degree for less money, and lose myself in a sea of fish. But then my parents told me something that’s stuck with me ever since: college is about more than the classes you take. Over the next 3 years, I realized they were right. I started working with a professor on a research paper he was writing for a major academic publication; I joined a sorority, a campus dance team, and other university groups that gave me the chance to work with people from all over the world. I made contacts that have helped me to this day, both professionally and personally. Ultimately, your degree is a piece of paper; it is what goes on behind the scenes that maximizes your collegiate experience.

Could I have made those connections at a less-expensive school? Yes, I’m sure that I could have. But the name on my diploma might not have carried the same weight. When I tell people about my alma mater, it immediately affects how they see me. They make assumptions about me: that I must be smart, that I must be driven, that I must be a bit of a snob (all 3 are more or less true). But for prospective employers, the name on my diploma tells them that I’m willing to work hard and make sacrifices to attain the very highest levels of success, no matter what the cost. There are good and bad things to that perception, but it’s a perception that opens doors nonetheless.

There’s not a lot of hard data on earnings potential for students who attend prestigious schools vs less-prestigious schools (note: a prestigious school can be a top public school, like UVA or Berkeley). But for me, I know it was the right decision.