Posted in Blog

My Pandemic-Friendly 2021 Goals

Oh thank goodness, 2020 is about to be over. Mr.-7-year-old asked me today if that meant the coronavirus would be gone after tonight. I wish, kid. I wish.

I’m excited for today because I feel like the entire world will unite (virtually, in their own homes) to make sure 2020 leaves and welcomes 2021 in with the hopes that it is just not as dramatic as 2020. I’m under no illusion that 2021 will be significantly different from 2020, at least for a good portion of the year. The bar is low for 2021 to outperform its predecessor.

Although my 2020 goals are laughable now with hopes of increased travel and tons of date nights with my husband, that’s not going to stop me from creating some plans for 2021. I did, though, geared my 2021 goals so they are more pandemic friendly.

  1. Continue my daily gratitude journal entry – Earlier in December I started writing three things I’m grateful for every night before I go to sleep. I didn’t get any fancy journal or spend time making it look pretty. I picked up a $2 little fat notebook from the supermarket and leave it on my bedside table as a reminder. It takes 60 seconds to write my thoughts. I have to say that it’s been doing wonders in making me feel better already….though my two-week vacation from work may be helping with that too. Time will tell!
  2. Read 50 books – I had a goal of 25 this year and blew it out of the water by reading 72 books with so much unplanned time at home. I feel like 50 books will be doable. I’m hoping to weave more classics into the rotation this year too.
  3. Explore 4 new hiking trials – One activity we can still do it get outside, and boy am I tired of walking around our neighborhood! Having this goal will help me to get out and explore more. (Plus, I think this will be an easy one because the kids’ Cub Scouts have several planned trails picked out for families to hike each month, so I won’t even have to do a ton of research.)
  4. Have Mommy/Son days – I want to have mommy/son days at some point this year, assuming my husband is up for it. I rarely get any one-on-one time with the boys anymore because we are always all home together…24/7…morning, noon, and night. By scheduling “Mommy/Son days” with each kid, I’m guaranteed to spend some focused time with them. Perhaps I can weave this goal in with the new hiking trials I want to explore.
  5. Try six new meatless meals – I’ve been trying to add some tofu or veggie meals into our rotation. It’s been difficult finding recipes that all of our like, though that’s a challenge even if it’s not a meatless meal. I want to dedicate some time to exploring new options here. I may leverage a service like Hello Fresh to make it easier. We haven’t tried one of these food services yet. It might be a good substitute for takeout.
  6. Walk at least one mile per day – I recognize this isn’t much, but I want to make an effort to get on the treadmill or walk around the neighborhood more often. The thought is that if I can motivate myself to get started because I only have to walk a mile, I may decide to walk longer or perhaps jog instead. If I just want to walk for a mile, great! It’s better than not moving at all.
  7. Meditate for at least two mins a day – Again, this is another small habit I’d like to start that may grow over time. It’s two minutes. I have time for two minutes, even if it’s right before bed after thinking about what I’m grateful for that day. It sounds like a wonderful way to wind down.
  8. Increase our savings and monetary charity donations by a set percentage – This goal helps to keep me focused on watching our finances and knowing that if/when there’s extra money available, we know where we want to put it. If we are offered raises at our jobs this year, then we’ll add the extra money to these goals.

That’s it! Though I feel like eight goals is a lot, I feels achievable. My perspective has changed over the years, though. Even if I only reach half of these goals, I’m still better off and have made progress over inaction. I’ll take that.

Happy New Year!

Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Mid-Year Goals Review

Earlier in the year, I posted my 2020 goals. Whelp, I had no true idea how badly the crap would hit the fan this year, so I’m going to need to modify these a bit. Ha!

  1. Take a family trip to Florida – I just don’t see how a trip to Florida will happen this year. We were hoping to visit during spring break this year, so perhaps we can make it happen in 2021.
  2. Read 25 books – With the extra time at home, I’ve already hit 37 for the year and updated my goal in the Goodreads app to 50. I’ll have to post my recommendations from the second quarter of 2020, but my favorite reads from Jan-Mar are here.
  3. Donate a set amount of money to charity – Thankfully, we’ve donated a good portion of our plan already this year and are on track to meet this goal. I’m thankful my husband and I have reliable incomes that allow this goal to be met.
  4. Go on at least 25 dates with my husband, with at least four of them being to new locations – Well, we got about halfway to our goal before COVID started. In its place, we are occasionally adopting screen-free nights to sit outside on our deck or by the fire pit and talk.
  5. Complete two home projects – Done! Our deck has been stained and redecorated, and we created a mudroom space in the garage. I may attempt to talk my husband into working with me to tackle a few more projects this year.
  6. Complete a 5K race – Ugh, well I was hoping to sign up for a race in May, but the ones I was considering were cancelled. Perhaps this fall?
  7. Floss daily – I’ve officially made a habit of flossing. Finally! Yay!

So, I’m going to choose to take the good with the bad and be happy with what I can accomplish and not focus on what can’t be done. I have an easier time accepting these goals won’t all be met because the cause is outside of my control. There was a time that the lack of control would really get to me, but I’m okay with it in this instance. At least that’s some growth, and that’s really my driver behind having annual goals in the first place.

Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

2020 Goals and Progress So Far

As much as I identify as a planner, I never used to be into creating personal goals and New Year resolutions. But, I gave it a try at the start of 2019 and kept it simple. I had goals to drink so many ounces of water a day, cut out evening snacks, and other small steps to lead to healthier life choices. On the whole, I stuck to the plan and am happy with the results.

I wanted to build on my momentum, so at the start of 2020 I created seven personal goals and put them in my planner. I thought about what I wanted to do outside of work that would bring me personal fulfillment that relates to myself and my family. (My professional goals are a separate list.)

Again, I kept them simple or fun. I actually want to do these, not challenge myself so much I get disappointed or feel guilty for breaking them. Here are the goals and my progress so far.

  1. Take a family trip to Florida – On the books, as long as this coronavirus business doesn’t get more out of hand.
  2. Read 25 books – I’m 18 books in already. I’ve cut out a lot of wasted time scrolling online (goodbye, Reddit app!) to read instead and “magically” found the time to devour books. I’ll probably up this goal to 50 later on, if I feel like it.
  3. Donate a set amount of money to charity – This is a fun one! Our family has been discussing what efforts we want to support but haven’t made any final decisions yet.
  4. Go on at least 25 dates with my husband, with at least four of them being to new locations – We are at least seven dates in already, mostly to restaurants. We both work from home on Wednesdays and make lunch a date by going out to eat. So far, we have tried a new Italian restaurant nearby and visited The VOID (an immersive virtual reality experience). Side note, Matt loved The VOID. I was less impressed because it was short and expensive.
  5. Complete two home projects – No progress here yet. At the very least, I want to remodel our half bath and stain our deck.
  6. Complete a 5K race – I have a couple of race options for May. I just need to pick one and register, then I know I’ll train and actually do it. I need a goal to work toward or it will never happen. I’m not super interested in running or exercising in general, but I’m a fan of being healthy.
  7. Floss daily – I have a daily habit tracker (shown above) hanging in my bathroom to remind me to floss. The visual cue is essential or I’d totally forget. I’ve only missed a few days so far!

I review these goals about once a month, just to see how I’m doing and whether I want to focus on any of them for the month. For instance, this month I know I need to actually register for a race and start training. I haven’t run a mile in ages! It should be interesting….

Posted in Blog

My Top Ten Reads in 2020

I started 2020 with the goal of reading 25 books throughout the year. Little did I know that I’d be home so much and able to get in significantly more reading time. With just a few days left of 2020, I’m up to 72 completed books! Thanks to the Goodreads app, I know that’s 24,389 pages read. Certainly my highest number ever.

Apparently, I rate books highly. My average rating is 4.2 stars out of five. Even though I read a book as short as 144 pages (Laura Vanderkam’s Juliet’s School of Possibilities) and one as long as 818 pages (Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton), I average books with 338 pages. I will admit that books in the 300-400 range are my preference. There’s enough time to set up strong characters and a good plot without dragging it out forever.

So, which were my favorite out of the 72 books I read? I gave more books than just these 10 five stars. I’m calling these out in particular because I still think about them. I remember their characters and story, plus the way they made me think or feel. If you are looking to set a 2021 reading goal or add to next year’s “to-be-read” list, consider these.

Historial Fiction

The Nightingale – I’ve always had a fascination with World War II stories, particularly those related to the Holocaust. I think it’s largely because I just can’t imagine how people can allow something like that to happen and the great admiration I have for those who endured and risked everything to help the Jewish people. I picked up this book after I really enjoyed We Were the Lucky Ones when I read it in 2019. The Nightingale is about how the Nazi invasion of France impacted two sisters and their relationship.

Fiction

  • Verity – Here’s a caveat from the get-go. I haven’t read a thriller in years before this book in 2020, so I haven’t explored this genre since my high school years of devouring Stephen King novels. However, I’ve read a few other thrillers since in 2020, and Verity still stands out as a favorite thriller and overall book for 2020. I don’t want to give much away, but it’s about an author who goes to live with a family. She moves in to help finish a novel the mother of the family (Verity) started before she had an accident and couldn’t finish it.
  • The Hate U Give – This is a novel written for young adults, but I suggest a broader audience. It’s about a high school girl of color who lives in a poor neighborhood and goes to school in a neighboring fancy school district. She is forced into the public light after her best friend is murdered in front of her eyes. It’s a thought provoking and moving read.
  • Little Fires Everywhere – I enjoyed the interconnectedness of the characters in this novel as a single mother and her daughter move into a progressive, planned community. You see how this family reacts to and intersects with the Richardson family.
  • Such a Fun Age – It’s a realistic tale of how a young Black babysitter and white suburban mother react and relate to each other when the babysitter is accused of kidnapping the baby one evening at the supermarket. Disclaimer: I cringed reading the perspectives of multiple characters in this book and didn’t really like any of them, which is why I initially gave the book only four stars. However, the plot and points I walked away with afterward jumped it to five stars a few months later.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – This is a classic book I read in high school years ago. I sort of remembered the plot and the main takeaways, but I wanted to reread it. I’m so glad I did! It is a powerful story of life in a small Southern town in the 1930s through the eyes of a young girl named Scout. The story is in many ways a coming of age tale as Scout sees how her community reacts to the trial of a Black man. Now I have to decide whether I’m going to read Go Set a Watchman or not because I’ve heard mixed reviews of it.

Nonfiction

  • Alexander Hamilton – This is a lengthy and detailed biography of Alexander’s incredible life and exploration of his accomplishments. It’s dense and long, but a thoroughly good read. I’m not typically the type to pick up a nonfiction title like this, but after being swept up in the Alexander Hamilton musical craze this summer with many others, it was a great deep dive into one of America’s Founding Fathers.
  • Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy By Getting More Done – This is another title by Laura Vanderkam that details time management strategies and time tracking in a way that makes sense to me as a busy and structured working mother.
  • The Four Tendencies – Rubin’s book details four main personality types that give some insights on how you may respond to expectations. This book really helped me relate to others and see their perspectives of work and expectations. It led to some great conversations with my husband, even though he didn’t read the book himself.
  • The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 – Out of all of the books I read this year, this one was the highest rated on Goodreads. I’m not surprised. This book provides accounts from hundreds of individuals significantly impacted by the events of 9/11. You are hearing directly from those involved. Each chapter takes you to a different place as the day progresses, ranging from the Twin Towers, Pentagon, PA, and the President’s plane. It was not an easy read, but it was impactful and well done.

Well, geesh, this exercise was enlightening. I seem to have an interest in exploring the many facets and manifestations of hatred: where it comes from, what people do with that conscious or unconscious hatred, and how we can overcome it. Hatred can be covered by how people view each other so differently (all of my fiction titles), what people do with hatred directed toward them (Alexander Hamilton), or how to help others when they are being targeted (The Nightingale and The Only Plane in the Sky).

My 2021 list is not particularly long at the moment, and I’m hoping to read at least 50 books next year. Please share any particularly good books you’ve read that others should check out. I’m always looking to add to my to-be-read list!

Posted in Blog

Work/Life Balance Will Come Another Week

Woah, this week has been crazy.

My husband has been in training. It’s virtual, so he’s still home, but he’s been totally out of commission to support the kids during virtual learning all day. I’ve gotten used to working in our prearranged two-hour shifts so I could do some level of focused work throughout the day while my husband is in charge of the kids, and that’s understandably not happening while he’s in training.

This has in turn made my days so much longer. I continue to get up before the sun to focus before people begin to stir. This remains my best chance to get any deep work done for the day.

From 8am to 5pm I’m running around like crazy feeding people and animals, guzzling more coffee, picking up, answering email, doing laundry, getting myself ready for the day, attempting to get through my work to-do list, washing dishes, helping with virtual school, and jumping on conference calls. It’s a lot, and I get frazzled easily these days.

Yeah, yeah. I hear you.

“Forget about cleaning up, leave the dishes, and let the laundry pile up. It will always be there tomorrow.”

That’s true. However, chores are about the only thing I can do well while being repeatedly interrupted by children in virtual school. Plus, you know, they have to get done at some point.

I’ve also heard the advice to “just pick one to three work tasks to complete a day, get them done, and call yourself accomplished for meeting your goal. Don’t overdo it right now and coast.”

Well, do you even know me?!

My largest hang up with this advice is that as a consultant I’m billing my time to clients. I’m not sending an invoice requesting payment for an hour of my time if in that time period I’ve had to stop seven times for multiple minutes each time. So it ends up taking me all day to get a justifiable number of measurable and meaningful work hours in each day. And I’m already working a reduced schedule of 30 hours a week!

I’m spent and tired. I’m finally getting a few minutes to write a blog post now because it’s Wednesday and it’s “my night off.” I’ve banished myself to the basement to watch a shirtless Kevin Pearson on the big screen since I missed last night’s episode of This Is Us.

Lesson learned for the week: Duel parenting during a pandemic and virtual school > single parenting during a pandemic and virtual school

But, I already knew that before this week started, so I feel like I should have been allowed to skip this lesson.

Photo by Mel Poole on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

How Is One Working Mom’s Time Being Spent Differently in 2020 vs. 2019?

My husband thinks I’m nuts, probably for several reasons, but this week’s justification is my detailed time tracking exercise. I’ve talked about this practice before. I tracked about three months of my time in 2019, and it gave me a great perspective about where my time was going throughout the day. And, bonus, it convinced me I really did have time to start blogging.

I view time tracking as no different from budget tracking. There’s only so much money to play with in my budget, and there’s only so many hours in my day. Time and money are both limited resources. I want to use them in the best way possible.

If I want to make the best use of my hours, then I need to know where my time is going. I’m not completing this exercise to maximize my productivity but rather to maximize my happiness. It is a helpful reflective exercise for me. Am I spending my time on activities that are shaping my life’s narrative in the way I want it to be written?

I track my time in a simple Excel file with the first column dedicated to every 30 minutes of the day. Then, each remaining column is a day of the week. For each 30-minute cell, I note what I was doing at that day and time.

I also shaded each cell based on how I perceive that time in the moment. Some activities are always coded the same way. Naps and sleeping are always blue for “sleep.” Any time I’m doing activities for my job, it is “work.” Other activities vary from day to day. For instance, when I make dinner while my husband is playing with the kids outside and I can listen to music or a podcast, then it is “leisure.” If I’m making dinner while kids are complaining they are hungry, my husband is watching TV, and the dog is under my feet, it’s an “obligation.” If the kids help me, then it’s “family time.”

I was really curious on how my weeks look now in 2020 with virtual school while working from home. I feel so much more drained, but why is that? So I set out to explore what’s going on. I tracked the week of October 19 both in 2019 and 2020.

When I compared this one week in 2020 to how my time was spent on average in 2019, it’s not strikingly different. I’m getting the same amount of sleep and spending the same amount of time on planning activities. For the most part, my time spent working and with family is largely unchanged. At first, that was a bit surprising because I feel like I can’t separate from my family right now with us home all of the time.

There are a few notable differences. First, I get a bit more leisure time, up an additional 36 minutes per day. Second, my daily obligations dropped some, which appears to be because I’m not driving people to school or activities every day. That’s saved me about 24 minutes per day. There’s a correlation here that suggests perhaps that fewer obligations means more leisure time for this mom. I’ll take it! I’m speculating that because my children are getting older, I can use that free time for leisure while they are home because I’m not constantly on top of them supervising every move.

For a more detailed look, here is the week of October 19, 2019 and 2020 side by side (with the color coding only so my life is still a bit of a mystery).

During this week in 2019, I took a day off of work on Thursday to join my younger son for a school field trip. (Remember those?!?) Our nights were filled with watching the World Series, and the weekend included birthday parties, shopping trips, and soccer games. A different world.

In 2020, my work is largely broken into two-hour shifts with exceptions and flexibilities along the way. There’s a family trip to Skyline Drive within the Shenandoah National Park and some outdoor events with friends and family included to break up the week.

When I dove into the narratives for each week, I saw that I spent 2.5 more hours reading and 4 fewer hours watching TV this one week in October 2020 than I did this same time last year. That wasn’t too surprising to me because I’ve already doubled the number of books I’ve read this year compared to 2019. Reading and watching TV are both leisure time activities (most of the time), so if one goes up, the other likely goes down.

What really surprised me (though it probably shouldn’t have) is how much LESS time I have by myself in this pandemic world. The week of October 19, 2020 provided me with 20.5 hours of alone time (that’s 18% of my awake hours); whereas the same week in 2019 gave me 45 hours of alone time (a whopping 40% of my awake time). That’s a HUGE difference to this introvert.

Now, logically, this is not surprising. I used to work from home all week while my husband was typically commuting 1.5 hours away and my kids were in school. I was still home a lot, but there was silence. There was focus and a time for deep work. Today’s required multi-tasking and division of my attention is what is eating away at my energy. (Exhibit A: I have spent almost two hours writing this blog post and have been interrupted by virtual schooling kids approximately 50 times to help brainstorm writing assignments, see what shade of black a crayon makes, let the dog out, see another student’s “cool” selfie icon, let the dog in the house, etc., etc., I’m tired. It’s surprising this post makes any sense at all.)

So what are my takeaways?

I’m going to plan more “off duty” time and actually take it! My husband and I already give each other a night off a week, but maybe we need to do something more like that?

I also need to lower my standards during school and work hours. (Shocker, my standards are too high!) I’m finding it extremely frustrating to try and write and focus on something while being interrupted constantly, so I need to reframe my perspective on these shifts with the kids. My goal is to help the kids. It is a bonus if I get anything else done. I better move my writing time to another part of the week.

I’ll probably conduct this exercise again in the future when I fill particularly balanced or overwhelmed to see how life has changed. Here’s to more balanced days ahead!

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Benefits to Staying Home During the Pandemic

It’s been an off week for me. I’m not feeling this routine anymore.

I have to admit that I’m tired.

I’m tired of being home so frequently. I’m tired of everyone else being home with me so frequently. I’m tired of only working two-hour shifts at a time so my husband and I can trade off watching the kids. I’m tired of virtual school. I’m tired of making everyone three meals a day. I’m tired of it all.

I have been trying not to complain because I fully recognize how lucky we are here. My husband and I are each able to work from home and maintain our incomes. We have access to food so I can make us three meals a day. The weather is nice, so we can get outside and do things around town and in the neighborhood. We are all healthy, and the kids actually seem to be mostly thriving in this new normal. We have it good.

The days aren’t hard, really, just the same day on repeat – a perpetual Groundhog’s Day.

My husband has kindly suggested taking some time off of work, and I see where he is coming from. Honestly, I don’t want time off of work. I want to be able to focus on my work tasks for more than 2 hours at a time. I would like to 100% focus on something for a significant chunk of time (and not have to be up at 6am to do it). I miss silence. I would like a little more separation between work and life, but that’s not in the cards for now.

So, instead, I’m going to reground myself and focus on the benefits and my favorite parts of being home so much now:

  • Our afternoons, evenings, and weekends are a lot less hectic without a ton of after-school activities.
  • I can give my kids hugs when they want them, even in the middle of a school day.
  • My husband can make dinners more frequently since he’s not commuting.
  • I always get to go shopping alone while my husband stays home with the kids.
  • I’ve far surpassed my reading goals for the year.
  • The weather has been nice since the pandemic started.
  • At least the neighborhood pool was open this summer so we had somewhere to cool off outside in the heat.
  • The kids reading levels have improved with more one-on-one attention.
  • I’ve gotten the chance to deeply explore how my children learn best, where their strengths are, and their areas for development.
  • We have been able to have more family time playing outside, watching the Great British Baking Show, and reading Harry Potter. (We’re up to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which may take us a few months to finish.)
  • Mr. 7-Year-Old learned to ride his bike. Mr.-Then-4-Year-Old finally got the courage to regularly ride his big-boy bike rather than a tricycle.
  • We tackled home projects we’d been putting off because we finally had the time to focus on them together.
  • I have been on SO MANY walks.
  • Our house has been cold and illness free since March.
  • The boys are having playdates outside exploring creeks, playing on swings, and generally running around together rather than inside playing video games.
  • My house is now REEEALLY organized.
  • I haven’t felt the need to buy the boys new clothes. Jean got a hole in the knees? Oh well, we’re not going anywhere.
  • Our senior pup and my husband are closer than ever. She’s basically become his shadow.
  • But…we spend so much time at home now that the dog doesn’t sleep at the foot of our bed anymore. She stays downstairs, I presume, to get away from us for at least part of the day. I have room to stretch my feet out now, until about 5am when she strolls upstairs to join us.
  • We’ve all become a bit more resilient in times of uncertainty and change.

Just the act of writing out the upsides makes me feel a bit better. I still miss silence and being able to write without being interrupted fifteen times. But, the only thing constant is change. I will get silence again someday, and then I’m sure I’ll lament about the absence of regular commotion. It’s best to enjoy what you have and while you have it.

Photo by Chris Ross Harris on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Reflections On How Time Is Perceived

I’m currently reading Laura Vandercam’s book Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. Of course, with that title, I couldn’t pass it up. Plus, I’ve been following Laura on her Best of Both Worlds podcast for some time. I like what she has to say.

My October book recommendations post will surely rate this book highly. But, even now, when I’m only halfway through it, it’s made me reevaluate about how I’m using my time. It’s a concept I circle back to regularly in my life, and I guess we all should revisit the idea from time to time. Am I spending time on pursuits that I value, bring joy, and make this one life we are living better for me and others?

I remember going through this reflective exercise after my older son was born. I have always been a list-maker who only feels accomplished as plans are executed. Babies and toddlers don’t follow plans. Ha! Nope, not at all. I had to shift my mindset. My goals were no longer to spend the weekends getting dishes done, laundry washed and folded, etc. as fast as possible so I could relax. My focus was on spending time with my little guy. Now the chores still needed to happen, so when my son was old enough, he helped. Sure, it made the whole endeavor take three times longer, but my perception of how I was supposed to be spending my time changed, so it didn’t matter.

I went through this exercise again right before I started this blog. It had been a daydream of mine for years to start a blog, but I never began. Oh sure, there were tons of reasons. I didn’t know how to start. No one cares what I have to say. I didn’t have the time. These were “reasons” and fears that I could overcome. After going through a time tracking exercise, I realized I did have the time to blog. I Googled a bit to figure out how to do it, picked a path, made a loose plan on what to write about, and started writing. I hope others read it, but I’ll write nonetheless.

I’m starting to get that itch again that I want to experience more in life. There are things I want to do with the kids before they are too big. There are places I want to explore around where we live that we never go to because we live here and “we can go any time.” Well, “any time” needs to happen. And as much as I want someone else to plan all of these adventures for me so I just have to show up, that’s not going to occur. I need to make the plans for any activity our family deems safe at the moment and just do it.

To begin, of course, I made a list. Then, we talked about it as a family. (What?! You don’t spend family meals planning out a bucket list of experiences!? Ha!)

I aim for the stars. “Let’s go to the Grand Canyon!”

The kids don’t know what they don’t know and ask for the familiar. It’s evidence that we’ve made some fun memories in the past that they want to repeat. “Let’s go back to the trampoline park!”

My husband likes to relive favorites with the boys. “Let’s watch the Marvel movies together.”

I think the best way to start making these happen is to consider adding them to our seasonal bucket lists posted on our command center. Every time I make the next season’s list, I’ll try to add at least one or two items from our family bucket list so they actually get the attention they deserve and start to happen.

This is my kind of thought exercise! I’m not trying to get more productive so I’m getting 6 hours of work completed in 4 hours instead. I’m thinking about how I want to spend time with my family and get more joy out of life. This is my true priority.

Posted in Blog

Money Planning Series: #5 Tips for Making Long-Term Savings Stick

Like so many faraway goals, it is easy to say that you’ll take care of it later. I’ll lose weight after this junk food is out of the house. I’ll see my doctor after I lose 10 pounds. I’ll write a novel when I get more free time. I can fall into this trap myself, and I have many times. When it comes to our financial health, I’ve adopted a few tricks along the way to help make our long-term savings plans stick.

Right now we’re saving for some significant long-term goals including our retirement and the boys’ higher education. Now, I need to preface this post by pointing out that I was not totally on top of starting these savings funds right away. We didn’t get serious about our retirement savings and significantly up our monthly contributions until we bought our first house (and had higher incomes), and we didn’t start 529s for the kids’ college funds until Mr. 5 year old came along. My point is, it is never too late to start. Anything you do today will help tomorrow.

Tip 1: Pay Yourself First

This has been a family motto since I started collecting an allowance. The best way I’ve found to pay ourselves first has been to never even see the money. For instance, our 401K contributors through our employers come right out of our gross paychecks. We never see the money, and we don’t count it in our budget. Our budget template only accounts for take home pay.

Another way to implement this tip is to make sure your savings are fully funded for the month before spending money on any extra expenses, like restaurants, entertainment, and clothing.

Tip 2: Increase Your Savings In Time with Pay Bumps

This tip assumes some stability in your income and would be harder to do when cash flow is unpredictable. My husband and I know what month our annual performance reviews occur each year, so we schedule our retirement savings rate to automatically go up that same month each year. This way, our savings increases before we’ve had the chance to spend any of the extra money. It helps us to avoid lifestyle creep, the effect of increasing your expenses as your income rises. Items that were once luxuries can start to be viewed as needs.

Tip 3: Set Up Auto Transfers

Our children’s college funds are paid into each month on a schedule that automatically occurs without any inputs from me. My husband and I set the amount, and then it is just paid, like a bill, every month. We, of course, have the option to throw in additional money when we want as well, but it’s nice to not have to think about it. This means money is added more consistently and is able to grow more over time.

Tip 4: Don’t Let the Pursuit of Perfection Be the Enemy of the Good

In part, I delayed in setting up college savings accounts for our sons because I was afraid I’d pick the wrong type of account that would somehow screw up our chances to save enough money for them to get a benefit from the fund. Well, you know what, we weren’t doing them any favors leaving money in a low-interest savings account. Once I figured that I should stop with my analysis paralysis, I made a choice and jumped in. It seemed like a daunting task to research, select, and start funds, but it wasn’t really a chore once I began.

My point to this post is that you don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have a large income to start (although that certainly helps). Any systems and tips you can implement now to start, even a little bit, will make a big difference in the long term. Experiment and find what will help you reach your goals for the future.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Money Planning Series: #3 Rundown of Our Provided Budget Template Excel File

Happy Wednesday! This is the third post in my money planning series. The first post covered our budget tracking system. The second post discussed how we integrate Mint into this system. Today’s post combines the two to some degree. I’ll start by sharing the budget template I created that models our budget tracking system.

The first thing my husband and I did when we set up this document was determine how much we wanted to have in each virtual envelope (Column B). These were definitely goal amounts in the beginning (like making sure we have a fully-funding emergency fund). It gave us goals though and helped frame our conversations about money and our priorities.

I also needed these goal amounts because I wanted to know when we should stop filling some of these envelopes. If we put a set amount of our income into our health: medical/dental virtual envelope each month, I wanted to know when it’s full and can stop putting money in there.

Next, we had to set up a plan to get to these goals without surpassing our income. We accomplished this by documenting how much we wanted to spend or save each month within each virtual envelope (Column F). This was best guess, wish list level planning at this point. (For instance, if we want to go on vacation next year to Disney World, it’s going to cost about X. There are eight months left so X/8 is how much we need to save per month.)

Next, we wanted to compare our spending and savings plan with our monthly income. Luckily for us, my husband and I are both salaried, so we have set and regular paychecks, which is our only income. However, since we are paid every two weeks, most months we receive two paychecks each and some months we earn three. I wanted to look at our budget with and without those “extra” monthly paychecks. Once we entered our take home pay per paycheck into the budget (Column H), our planned monthly payments were subtracted from our monthly incomes and we saw how much was left over or overspent.

Armed with this information, we revisited our monthly payments (Column F) and made adjustments. We decided which expenses to eliminate or reduce or discussed how we could raise our income. When we’re saving for something in particular, like a new home project we’re planning, then we may decide to cut back or temporarily stop funding some virtual envelopes (like vacations or our fun money).

Personally, I like to plan to live off 24 paychecks from each of us per year so the two extra are surprise money we can drop into any virtual envelope we want, often more dinners out, paying down debt, or gifts/charity. So, at this point in the budgeting process, I’m making sure every dollar of our monthly income is allocated to one of our virtual envelopes (Cell H17).

The first time we used the Excel budget tracking document, we had to determine how much money to put in each virtual envelope to start. We could only put money in these virtual envelopes if we had actual cash or money in the bank for them. To figure this out, we documented how money we had (Cells B42-B51) and how much money we owed (Cells C42-C50). Whatever was leftover was free to put into any virtual envelope we pleased (summed in Cell C51). Some envelopes were easy to determine. We knew our cell phone bill would be X, so we better have X in that envelope for the month. Others were more variable, like groceries or restaurant spending. (Over time we’ve used Mint’s trends feature to see how much we spend in these categories to set better targets.)

Once our virtual envelopes were filled, we double checked to ensure everything balanced out. Every month, the money we have (Cells B42-B51) has to equal the money we owe others (Cells C42-C50) plus what we owe ourselves/what’s in our virtual envelopes (Cell C51). Mint tracks how much money is in each account, so I can easily grab numbers for the spreadsheet here. If the money we have doesn’t equal what we owe others and ourselves, then the amount in each virtual envelope has to be adjusted.

So, at this point, we have goals (Column B), a plan for monthly payments (Column F), and a way to track that the amount we have doesn’t exceed the amount we other others and ourselves (Row 53). Now we’re in execution and maintenance mode. Each month we track what’s coming in and out of each virtual envelope and how we’re tracking against our goals.

Some months will have no expenses but have a monthly payment plan. In those cases, you can decide what to do with this “found” money. For instance, some months our pet expenses are $0. We are well stocked on her food and meds and there are no vet appointments. However, every month we plan to spend $67 on her care. In this case, we keep that $67 in her virtual envelope until we get to the envelope cap. This covers us when her $350 vet bills come around. Once we meet the envelope cap, the extra money goes wherever we want (typically other virtual envelopes that overran or savings categories).

And, the best part is, when I know there’s money in the budget for it, I won’t hesitate to spend it according to our plan. I can enjoy an extra night of takeout when I don’t want to cook or splurging on a gift for someone. And I feel mighty proud of us when we meet a savings goal or pay off a major debt, even if no one else ever hears about it. As Hannibal often said on The A-Team TV show and is captured in my budget template, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash