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Wedding 101: How Much Money To Give The Bride and Groom

How many times have you been invited to a wedding, and put off shopping for a wedding gift until the very last minute? Then, with no time to spare, you decide to just forgo the set of towels, bed linens, or wine glasses and just give the bride and groom cash – it’s what they really want anyway, isn’t it? But then, as you get ready to write the all-important check, you freeze as you get to the “Amount” box – how much money should you give the new couple?

My Past

I was one of my first friends to get married; my husband and I are closing in on a full decade of wedded bliss (well, for the most part). After our wedding – and I mean immediately following our reception – my husband and I returned to our bridal sweet and brazenly ripped off… all the envelopes on our wedding cards. Yes, we dove right into the opening of the gifts, while still clad in gown and tux. Before we departed the hotel the next morning, my parents took all the cards, cash, and checks and painstakingly paired them back together. I thought it was a futile act – after all, I knew what I needed to know in order to write my thank you cards: “Dear Aunt Joan, thank you for your kind gift as we begin our lives together…” But my parents weren’t thinking in the short-term.

My parents used that information to put together their fail-safe wedding gift guide. It’s a document that they’ve used for the past 9+ years to give appropriately-sized wedding gifts – we’re talking solely money here, although this could translate to gifts purchased off the bride and groom’s registry, too – to just about anyone you could possibly imagine.


Q: A few years ago, one of my dad’s coworkers – a guy on the executive level, like my dad – invited my parents to his son’s wedding. How much money should my parents give? A: My parents consulted their guide, and saw that the groom’s parents had given me $250. The wedding was in the midst of the recession, so my parents didn’t feel like they needed to “add” for inflation.

Q: Last fall, my second cousin’s daughter got married. What’s the right dollar amount for extended family? A: Again, my parents consulted their guide, and found that when I got married, the bride’s parents gave me $100. My parents decided that since the economy was doing better, they’d up the wedding gift to $150.

My parents’ list basically ensures that they never “under-give” when it comes to wedding gifts.

When you’re deciding on a cash amount for a wedding gift, how do you reach the ultimate dollar amount? I’d love to hear your insights!


Christmas Budget Reality Check

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 started the holiday shopping season with $1,000 in my pocket. I had $1,000 Christmas budget for the entirely of my shopping list, including:

  • 5 teachers
  • 4 grandparents
  • 3 coaches
  • 2 children
  • partridge in a pear tree husband

When I first started out, I thought my Christmas budget was more than comfortable (I’d been setting aside $100 during each of the first 10 months of the year). $1,000 is a lot of money! I made sure to follow my 5 rules of holiday shopping: trimming my list, comparison shopping, and instituting a December 10th cut-off date, to ensure I didn’t have to pay trumped up shipping prices to get presents to out-of-town family.

So how do I do? Let’s do a holiday shopping reality check:

The Important People in my Kids’ Lives

This is the first year both of my kids are in school and partaking in extracurricular activities. Between the 2 of them, I bought presents for 3 in-classroom teachers, my daughter’s dance teacher, her acting teacher, and their swim coaches/teachers. I know I didn’t have to buy presents for these people, but the fact is, they are important to my kids, which makes them important to me. After all, I’d budgeted with the intent to buy for them.

  • Classroom teachers (3) received a $10 Starbucks gift card and a full-sized Yankee candle that I got for 50% with a Buy 1, Get 1 coupon. Total per teacher: $23.50
  • My daughter’s dance and acting teachers each got the full-sized Yankee candle, purchased again with that coupon. Total per teacher: $13.50
  • Swim coaches each got a $10 Starbucks gift card; I loved the “monogrammed” cards Starbucks had this year, as it made the gift feel much more personal. Total per coach: $10

When all was said and done, I’d spent $100.50 for individuals in this category.

Family and “Like” Family

My husband and I always buy for his parents; it’s a group gift from his brothers and sisters, while for my parents, it’s just me (only child and all). In addition, we did a name swap for my nieces and nephews; instead of buying for all 7, we only bought gifts for the 2 whose names we drew. We also bought a gift for family friends, whom my kids consider to be their “3rd grandparents.”

  • My parents: My dad got a new yoga mat ($45) while my mom got a photo calendar ($16) and – don’t laugh – a pair of Maleficent ears that I bought using my Disney Movie Rewards points… in other words, free. Total for my parents: $61
  • We went in with my husband’s siblings on a firepit for my in-laws. Total for my in-laws: $50
  • We set a $20 per child limit for the niece/nephew gifts. I got a great deal on shirts from NFLShop.com and was able to get both kids t-shirts for their favorite team with tax and shipping included. Total for BOTH nephews: $38
  • Our family friends always take pictures of our kids using an ancient film camera. Seriously? I had a friend who was selling a year-old digital camera she’d never even removed from its original packaging. Total: $45

When all was said and done, I’d spent $194 for individuals in this category.

My Husband and Kids

My husband never gives me a Christmas list, but I always work hard to buy him gifts he wants but wouldn’t expect. This year, I’m really pleased with what he ended up with. As for my kids, they are NOT toy people, so this is a category where I was really able to pare down.

  • My son needed a new bike (he’s still using a tricycle he’s long outgrown), but he wanted his “own big boy tools.” So when I found a new Huffy bike that came WITH a set of kid-friendly tools, I knew it was a must-buy. He also got a robe (his most bizarre request) and a mad scientist kit. Total for my son: $150
  • My daughter also wanted a robe (seriously, are my kids that weird?) and new clothes for her American Girl doll. Rather than spending $25 for a dress from AG – I don’t spend that much on clothes for my actual children, let alone their dolls – I shopped local and bought a whole bunch of clothes from a woman in town. I am most excited to give my daughter her very own mermaid tail – a gift I know will get a lot of use this summer. Total for my daughter: $235*
  • My husband is a police officer, so I used some store credit I had at our hometown jeweler (I’d traded in some gold necklaces I never word) to buy him a St. Michael medal, which I had turned into a pin for his uniform. He’s also getting an Amazon Fire Stick, which he’ll really like – and I got a great deal on, thanks to my Amazon Prime membership. He also asked for – and got – several kits to continue with his home brew hobby. Total for my husband: $128

When all was said and done, I’d spent $513 for people in this category.


It’s a sad, sad day when I can’t come up with a Christmas list for myself – and won’t let my husband shop for me (he LOVES to buy extravagant gifts, and never sticks to a budget; the result is I get expensive things I didn’t need – and don’t necessarily want). So I did my own shopping – new workout clothes for me. I thought about buying a higher-profile brand like Lululemon or Athleta, but at the end of the day, I went with the Champion line at Target because the brand really fits me well and I know from experience it’ll hold up.

Total spent on myself: $106.

The Grand Total

So was I able to stick to my Christmas budget? In all, I spent a grand total of $913.50. That left me $86.50 under budget. I used the extra money to buy gifts for our holiday giving tree at Church and donate to the food and clothing drives at my kids’ schools.

How did YOU do when it came to your holiday shopping budget? Did you stick to your budget?


When A Tree Falls Between 2 Yards, Who Pays?

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!

All morning, I’d heard a pop-pop-popping sound coming from outside. At first, I thought it was a pair of squirrels having a war with the hickory nuts that fall in my yard this time of year. When it didn’t subside, I wondered if one of the neighborhood kids was home sick from school and playing with a cap gun. An hour passed, then two – then the popping ceased for just a moment, before I heard a huge CRACK followed by a whirring sound… watched as my neighbor’s 100-year-old oak fell into my yard, just barely missing my deck.

Who Pays?

When the tree fell, it took three smaller trees in my yard right along with it. I immediately texted my neighbor, who texted me back to ask, “So when a tree falls between two yards, who pays for it?”

A little research – and a call to my insurance provider – resulted in a quick answer. When a tree falls from one person’s property on to another, each party is responsible for the clean up – and related cost – for whatever portion of the downed tree is on each person’s land. That’s the legal thing to do – but what’s the right thing to do?

Handling It

Since I was already home (and since my parents had just had several trees removed from their property), I called a few companies for quotes. Before my neighbors even made it home from work, I’d already gathered two sets of very different quotes. The one quoted me $525 for the removal and haul away of the fallen tree, as well as clean up and removal of the other trees that were damaged; he quoted my neighbor at $1200 to get rid of the part of the tree that was in his yard, removal of the other half of the tree that was still standing, and grinding up the stump (the second quote was TWICE as expensive as the first). That night, my neighbors and I gathered around my kitchen table to talk it over.

They profusely thanked me for getting the quotes so quickly, then got down to business. The tree showed no sign of ill-health before its monumental demise, so there was no obvious “neglect” on their part; additionally, the tree had (blessedly) missed my deck, meaning there was no structural damage to any of the buildings on either property. All that meant that neither of our homeowner’s insurance policies would cover the cost of clean up. I was on the hook for the $525.

Yet my neighbors didn’t see it that way. While I may have been legally obligated to pay for the tree removal, my neighbors felt it was unfair for me to shoulder the cost for a tree that they saw as their responsibility. They immediately offered to pick up the entire $525 – they said it was the neighborly thing to do. I countered – I thought it would be neighborly for me to pick up some of the bill, since this act of nature wasn’t their fault. We decided that I’d pay $200; they’d pay the rest.

Here’s the thing about money: sometimes, doing the legal thing isn’t the same as doing the right thing.

Have you faced a situation like that? What did you – or would you – do if you were in my shoes or my neighbors’ shoes?


Giving To Charity: Why Do You Do It?

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 like to think I’m a charitable person. I open the door for people when I’m heading in and out of my local Starbucks; I’m happy to dig in my purse at the grocery store checkout line when the lady in front of me (who insisted on paying with exact change) comes up a nickel short; I have my weekly church offering set up with electronic “Autopay,” so even if I choose to sleep in one Sunday morning, my donation will still make it to the church on time.

But have you ever stopped to think – I mean, really think - about why giving to charity is (or, perhaps isn’t) important to you?

To be honest, I never have. I’ve always just written the check, signed the pledge card, clicked the “give” button out of the belief that it’s just what good people do.

I’d held that belief – that good people make charitable donations, and therefore I must be a good person – close to my chest for years. Then a few months ago, two phone calls made me completely reconsider my motivations.

The First Call

The first phone call came from the March of Dimes. I’d recently made a $100 donation to the organization; it was actually an unplanned, unsolicited charitable donation via the MoD website. The call was to thank me for my contribution, but the MoD representative also had a question for me: what had inspired me to donate? Was it the tax write off? (Nice, but not a factor.) Was it the free return address labels? (If you’ve ever donated to March of Dimes, you know what I’m talking about – and yes, this is a perk, but no, not my main motivating factor.)

The short answer was that I’d just read a very compelling story from a friend of a friend of a friend (thanks, Facebook) whose micro-preemie had overcome the odds, and her parents had specifically asked people moved by their daughter’s story to make a donation in her name to March of Dimes. But the longer answer went deeper – my own cousin had given birth to a micro-preemie, who also overcame the odds. So the real reason I donated? The organization had personally affected someone I loved and cared for.

The Second Call

The second phone call came from Catholic Charities. Again, the representative was following up on a donation I’d made to the organization during my parish’s annual campaign. We chose to donate $250. Again, it wasn’t for a tax write off, and this time, I knew I wouldn’t be receiving free return address labels as a “Thank you.” The CC representative once again thanked me for my donation, then asked me why I’d chosen to give; she also asked me if there was any particular division of Catholic Charities to which I wanted my money to go. Yes, I told her – if possible, I wanted it to go to adoption services. She applauded my decision, and asked again: why?

My answer gets to the very heart of who I am – an adopted child. 32 years ago, I was adopted via Catholic Charities in the same diocese in which I currently reside. In other words, I was getting the chance – for the first time in my adult life – to give back to precisely the same people who facilitated my adoption. As I explained my motivation for giving to charity to the representative, I suddenly felt the urge to give more: $500? $1,000? $5,000? I knew that no matter how many zeroes I added to my donation, the dollar amount would never be enough to sufficiently thank this organization for giving me life, for giving me a family.

So why do we give to charity? I think it boils down to one of two things: the organization has either helped, inspired, or influenced us or the people we love. Simple as that.

In writing this article, I did a little background research on charitable giving, and came across this amazing interactive tool from the Chronicle of Philanthropy. If you’re curious about the charitable activities of your neighbors – right down to your zip code – you’ll love this tool. Definitely worth a few minutes of your time!


It’s That Time of Year: Christmas Shopping 101

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!

Last year, I made a huge mistake. It was our first year in our new house, and I started the Christmas shopping season off by purchasing a new 10-foot pre-lit tree for our great room. Then, I sat on my laurels, enjoying the beauty of that mammoth evergreen until mid-December… before realizing I had nothing to put underneath it but underwear and socks for my husband and two children. So what did I do? I overcompensated, of course. I started buying everything under the sun, knowing that I needed big gifts to go under that big tree.

The result? I never even considered a Christmas shopping budget, spent far too much money, and ended up buying gifts that now - 11 months later – my kids haven’t even touched.

This year, I’m going back to the basics. For years, I’d followed 5 simple rules for Christmas shopping that consistently left me under-budget, under-stressed, and pretty darn pleased with my purchases. So not only am I sharing these shopping tips with you, I’m putting pen to paper (or, in this case, fingertips to keyboard) in hopes of holding myself accountable this holiday season.

Rule #1: Set Your Budget Early

This was my single biggest faux pas of last year. When I bought those first few gifts, I hadn’t even considered what our family’s holiday shopping budget would be. Needless to say, by the time I did set a budget it was too late: the first few gifts under the tree broke the bank, and I found myself thinking, “Why stop now?”

Setting your budget before you buy a single gift is the most important step you can take this year to make sure Rudolph’s nose – and not your bank account – is the only thing in the red this holiday season.

Rule #2: Make A List

Sure, you have to buy gifts for your parents, your kids, your spouse. But do you really need to go Christmas shopping for all of your siblings? For each of your 12 nieces and nephews? For your kids’ kindergarten teacher, dance teacher, soccer coach, assistant soccer coach, swim instructor, and the mail man?

C’mon, you know the answer.

It’s easy to get swept up in the spirit of giving and go over board. And it’s nice to be able to show the people who are important to you and your family just how much you care. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend $50 on a gift for someone you see only a handful of times each year.

This year, my solution is $5 gift cards to places like Starbucks and Target. Sure, $5 might not be an extravagant amount, but it does let people know that you’re thinking about them and that they are important to you. Pair that with a beautiful Christmas card, and for many of those secondary players in your life, you’re all set.

Rule #3: Now Check That List Twice

Now that you’ve set your budget and decided on who you’re shopping for, it’s time to hit the stores! But not so fast. Not only do you need to make a list of the gifts you’d like family and friends to purchase for you, you need to get an idea of what those family and friends would like to receive. 

You can also make this list yourself, but if you’ve waited until now to start compiling the wants and needs of your family and friends, you’ve waited too long. I start making a list of what my husband, kids, and other close family or friends might appreciate during the summer months; I take note of what they post on social media, what they talk about needing or wanting, as well as the things they oooh and aaaah over when we go shopping together. By the fall, I’ve compiled a pretty long list for each person, and have a variety of gifts – with a variety of price tags – from which to choose.

Rule #4: Check Online First

Before I hit the stores, I always check online first. It’s how I made sure I was getting the best deal possible on my son’s first big boy bike, but maintaining my budget isn’t the only reason to follow this step. It’s also helpful to read customer reviews, especially when you’re deciding between two similar versions of a product; that’s how I learned that the Huffy bike I was eyeing had gotten poor reviews, while the Schwinn model knocked it out of the park. When you shop online first, you may also discover web-exclusive deals, or find downloadable coupons to help you save money if you choose to go to a brick-and-mortar store.

And remember that shopping from online retailers isn’t your only option when it comes to Christmas shopping on the web. You can also check out sites like Craigslist or Facebook for gently used or re-gifted merchandise in your area, which will help you stay even further under budget. I used this method to find a brand-new-in-box Kodak camera for a close family friend for less than half of the retail price!

Rule #5: Institute A Cut-off Date

I cannot repeat this enough: don’t continue shopping right up to Christmas Eve! Stores know that shoppers become increasingly desperate the closer it gets to the Big Day, so they incrementally jack up prices between Black Friday and Christmas Eve. If you haven’t found exactly what you’re looking for by about a week before Christmas, it’s unlikely you’re going to find it during those last 7 days – at least for a price you’re willing to pay.

My husband’s extended family always exchanges gifts of New Year’s Eve. It didn’t start out as a tradition – merely a fact of life when everyone got married and had hectic Christmas Day’s of their own – but it’s become one. Why? Because we know we can hit the stores and get MORE for LESS if we shop on December 26th and 27th.

Another reason to stop shopping a few days before Christmas Day? It’ll give you ample time to wrap your presents and then simply relax!


Are You Ever Really Ready for a Baby?

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 husband and I are currently locked in the battle of the century. In one corner, you’ll find my husband, happy as a canary with his one son, his one daughter, and his one dog; in the opposite corner, you’ll find me, yearning with every fiber in my being to add a third child to our family. Yes, I’ve got baby fever (don’t stand too close, I fear it’s contagious). Ten years ago, when we were first married, my husband and I found ourselves in a similar position. Were we ready for a baby? How would we know when it was time to add to our family? And now – a decade (and two kids) later – it’s baby debate 3.0 in the Balke household.

Not Taking it Lightly

Having a baby is serious business – and I do mean “business.” Experts estimate that the average American family will spend just shy of a quarter-million dollars to raise a child from birth to age 18, a number that doesn’t even include college. The simple act of having a baby is full of potential fiscal landmines: prenatal vitamins, stocking up your child’s nursery, parenting & childbirth classes, maternity clothes… the list is infinite.

My husband and I – typical “Type A” personalities – wanted to go about having a baby the “right” way. To us, that meant 3 things:

  1. Being happy in our relationship (for us, that’s marriage, but I know that’s not the case for everyone)
  2. Being conscious of a child’s impact on our careers
  3. Being financially sound

Points 1 and 2 were fairly easy for us in those halcyon days of our mid-20s, but Point 3 was a bone of contention. What did it mean to be “Financially Sound”? Did it mean having our emergency fund fully loaded? Did it mean already paving the way to a smooth retirement? Did it mean owning our own home – and if so, did it have to be a starter home or our dream home? The questions were endless.

When we ultimately decided we were ready for a baby, we were both in fairly secure careers, owned a starter home, and had a nice emergency fund in the bank. We felt ready.

When we got pregnant with our second child a few years later, I had just quit my full-time job, we’d just paid off a huge construction loan, and our emergency fund was feeling the pain. We felt intimidated.


Now, as I fight for a third, I’m working full-time in a far more exciting (and lucrative) career, we’re living in that dream home, and our extra income goes to our retirement fund. We know we’re not ready.

And that’s the bottom line: being “ready” for a baby isn’t about checking off all the boxes. Parenting hood isn’t about whether you’re in the black, or in the red, or by how much. Becoming somebody’s mother or father is a far more emotional journey than that. It’s why even the most “prepared” couples will tell you that, in hindsight, they weren’t really ready for a baby. No one can predict the emotions they’ll feel the first time they hold that child in their arms – and that’s true whether it’s your 1st, 3rd, or 10th child.

As the commercials say… having a baby changes everything.


Even Small Time Bloggers Can Make Money Blogging

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!

Whenever I first tell people about my blog I always like to wait to see their reaction. In just a few seconds I can determine exactly which direction the conversation is headed.  It’s all in their expression.

Two Types

You see, in my experience there are two types of people. The first type is firmly planted in what I call the “employee mindset” and they see anything outside a nine to five job as either bullshit or a scam. They realize there are a lucky few who come up with a great idea that earns them a fortune, but they don’t believe that can realistically happen to them or anyone they know.

This type of person greets any talk of entrepreneurship, small business opportunity, or side hustle as either a waste of time or a scam.  They tend to roll their eyes with superiority or humor you with a half-hearted “Well, good luck with that.”  You can almost hear them thinking “What a LOSER” to themselves.

On the other hand, there is another group of people that have the exact opposite reaction.  As soon as they hear about your online income stream their ears perk up and their eyes open wide.  They’re full of questions and want to know all about it…how you got started, the costs involved, the learning curve, earning potential, and whether or not your method would be a good fit for them.

Obviously, talking with someone who has an entrepreneurial mindset is much more fun than someone with an employee mindset.

Will You Strike It Rich As A Blogger?

No matter how hard you work and how many hours you spend toiling away at your blog, you can’t expect to become rich and famous as a blogger.  For every Pat Flynn or Darren Rowse with their legions of followers, there are thousands of struggling bloggers toiling away in anonymity.  They don’t get mentioned in the Wall Street Journal or on Good Morning America, and they may never be able to quit their day jobs and live off their online income.

But that doesn’t make them a failure.  Even an average blogger who only puts in a few hours a week can earn a few hundred dollars a month in online income.  And while that may not seem like much, it can be enough to make a big difference in your life.

Just imagine having an extra $500 a month to live on.  You can put that money towards paying down your debt, sock it away in an online savings account, or invest it in a Roth IRA.

Or you can use it to enjoy some of the finer things in life.  If you enjoy cooking you can afford to spend a little on fancy ingredients or an expensive bottle of wine to enjoy with dinner.  If you like traveling, you can afford to go on a once in a lifetime vacation every year!

With a little more work and a bit of luck you may find yourself earning $1000 or $2000 a month…and that is a lot more common than you might realize. So while that is still not enough to live on full time, it will certainly be enough to change your life for the better.

Are you a blogger?  Have you ever considered starting a blog to supplement your income?

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Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Working with a Great Broker

Is this a good time to look at refinancing your home loan?

It could be, if your reasons for refinancing are right. If you want to use some or all of your home’s equity to pay off high-interest credit card bills, you could be setting yourself up for problems in the future. Credit card debt is unsecured; your mortgage is secured by your real property. Miss paying a credit card bill, and the consequences are not dire. Fail to pay a mortgage payment or two, and you could lose your house.

On the other hand, if you refinance your home in order to obtain a lower interest rate or to move from an adjustable-rate loan to one that remains at a steady rate you can afford, this might be the ideal time to look at refinancing. According to Australia’s Reserve Bank, interest rates are currently the lowest they’ve been since 2009.

Be financially prepared before you secure a home loan

Don’t be fooled into thinking you can afford more of a loan than you really can. Make an honest appraisal of your income and debts. There’s no point in refinancing your home loan if you can’t make the new payments. Remember, the American housing market tanked a few years ago due in great part to the fact that many, many people obtained loans they could in no way afford to pay back.

Work with a great broker

A savvy real estate broker can offer reliable advice well in advance of an actual home purchase. Mortgage brokers have access to lenders you might not be aware of. The right broker will take time to explain every phase of the mortgage process in terms you can understand.

It’s worth the time it takes to find a mortgage broker you feel comfortable with. If you have family members or friends who have recently secured a mortgage or gone through a refinance, ask them which mortgage broker they worked with. Your house is probably the biggest financial investment you’ll ever make. An experienced broker can help you find the mortgage that’s right for you.


A Case Study in Living Beyond Your Means

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!

Living Beyond Your Means

Three years ago, a friend of mine – pregnant with her second child – decided her starter home wasn’t big enough for her growing family. This friend has what you might call a case of “Affluenza” – she’s got a serious commitment to keeping up with the Jones’. So she and her husband started the process of buying a house.

They wanted all the bells and whistles: a large home on a large lot in a great neighborhood near great schools. Unfortunately, their eyes were bigger than their pocketbooks; they couldn’t find a home that suited all their “wants” in their price range. Rather than settle – or stay in their starter home until their budget allowed them to afford their dreams – they took a chance on a foreclosed home.

The home, as well as the surrounding property, was in shambles. The interior hadn’t been updated since the 70s; the exterior, a densely wooded lot, hadn’t been kept up in years. The pool out back looked like a scene out of one of those “When all the people die and nature takes over” documentaries.

But they were committed to buying a house come hell or high water (actually, funny note here: the house was in a flood zone, and they face HUGE annual flood insurance payments), so they put in an offer. After several months – foreclosures are notoriously hard to buy in any type of fast or easy manner – the home was theirs. And that’s when the real work began.

Although they got it for roughly a third under market value, they knew that their new home was nowhere close to fulfilling their dreams at that point. They embarked on an expansive home remodel, starting from the outside and working their way in. The disgusting swimming pool – a safety and health hazard for their now two young children – was the first task. During the work, it was discovered that the fiberglass lining had a crack in it; rather than give up on the idea of having a pool, they chose to sink another $20,000 into the project to rip out the old liner, install a new liner, as well as brand new filtration and a solar heating system for it.

That same summer, my friend pulled her older child out of his preschool and decided to homeschool him. She said money wasn’t a factor; I didn’t believe her.

The next year, they started to tackle bathrooms. But they didn’t have enough money to finish the project, so they only updated their first floor powder room and the upstairs hall bath; the family shares that one full bath, and doesn’t use the on-suite master. They had to turn off the water to that room, because the fiberglass shower leaks, as does the toilet.

The next year, they moved on to the kitchen, while simultaneously doing work on their floors and deteriorating plaster walls themselves.

This year, my friend and her husband learned that the foundation on their home is sinking – something that shouldn’t happen with a 50-year-old house. Instead of moving ahead with their home remodel, they’ll be sinking big bucks into repairing and solidifying the foundation. My friend told me, “This really hurts our 10-year plan to get this house livable.”

My Opinion

My eyes nearly popped out of my head. 10-year plan???? I don’t know about you, but when I think about making a home “livable” for my family, I think in terms of months, maybe a few years, not decades. My friend has spent tens of thousands of dollars already, and obviously anticipates spending much, much more over the next seven years. Of course, my practical mind keeps thinking, “If they had just stayed in their very ‘livable’ starter home for a few more years, they would have been able to afford a home that met all their requirements, without spending all the time and money to renovate a money pit.”

The moral to my story? I think this is a prime example of living beyond your means. My friend couldn’t afford to live in the type of house or neighborhood she thought she deserved, so she bought the cheapest house in the neighborhood. That would have been fine, if the cost to bring that house up to the neighborhood “standard” wasn’t costing her a fortune – and chewing away at whatever money she saved buying a foreclosure.

What do you think? Do you think she’s living beyond her means? Do you think she should have compromised? Why or why not?


What’s the Smarter Money Move?

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!

When you’re a financial blogger, it’s tough to admit that sometimes you haven’t been as wise with your money as you should have been. A while back, I mentioned that my family was feeling a little Disney rich and cash poor; and with our big trip literally just days away, we’re feeling the financial strain.

My Situation

My husband’s locked-in, annual raise is less than 6 weeks away – but between now and then, we have another big bill to deal with: the first tuition payment for my son’s preschool. And here’s the kicker: if you pay for the full year’s tuition up front, you get a 5% discount. But there’s a problem: right now, I don’t have the extra money in our day-to-day account to pay for it all up front in cash, like I want to do. I hate losing the 5% discount – for his program, it would amount to roughly $150.

What’s a discount-loving mom to do? I’ve got a couple of options:

  1. I can cash in some of my savings bonds. My grandmother gifted me with a saving bond for every birthday, religious holiday, and graduation from the time I was born until I graduated from high school. Most were only $25 bonds, but they definitely add up. Only a handful have reached full maturity; the rest still have interest to earn – but that amount is just $214.50, and some have as long as another 10 years before they hit their full value. At a 1.19% interest rate, I know these bonds could be doing more “work” for me elsewhere.
  2. Selling some of our stocks. When my daughter was born six years ago – on the same day that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy – my husband and I started thinking about jumping into the stock market. When she was a few months old, we bought our first stocks that weren’t part of our 401k or Roth accounts. We only invested a few thousand bucks, but those investments have done exceptionally well in the time since. We don’t really consider them part of our retirement; they’re more of a “rainy day” fund. However, these stocks are solid earners, so I’m not thrilled with the idea of selling, especially since I’d be looking at capital gains taxes at year-end.
  3. Reduce my 401k contributions for a few months. I realllllly don’t like this idea; even when I was only working as a full-time freelancer and my husband was making $32k a year, we still managed to fund our retirement accounts each month. However, if I scaled back from my current contributions for a few months, I’d be able to save up the money for that tuition payment without having to pay taxes on that cash (like I would from selling savings bonds or stocks).

So what would you do if you were me? What’s the smarter money move? Or should I just give up on the 5% paid-in-full discount and pay the monthly tuition instead?