Christmas for the Destitute

First, my disclaimer:  I’m not destitute.

However, I’m trying to spend Christmas acting like I am a pauper.

Why, with small children and beautiful-and-more-than-deserving wife, would I want to deprive my family of a bountiful holiday?

Before we get into the reasons for being a horrible grinch bent on depriving my children of their god-given right to rampant consumerism, let’s look at the Philosophy of Destitution.

The primary reason to pull back and tone it down is basic frugality.  Excessive anything is not frugal. I am training my children–and for that matter, my wife and my self–in the finer arts of personal responsibility and frugality.   Accumulating debt for a fleeting holiday is insane.  If we can’t afford to buy it, we certainly can’t afford to give it.   Anything else would be setting a bad example and children learn best by example.

Another piece of the Philosophy of Destitution(when I read this word, I hear a deep, booming voice in my head, like a 30s radio superhero voiceover)  is “green”.    I consider myself a conservationalist rather than an environmentalist, so don’t read too much into that color.  I try to be responsible, instead of destructive and I try to avoid being wasteful.  Toys that won’t be played with are wasteful. A garbage can full of packaging for those same toys costs money.  It is much cheaper to avoid the landfill here.

Back to “Why”. Why would I be willing to deprive my family?

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Naked Money

In our house, the bills don’t get hidden. I’ve never tried to hide our finances from our children. I believe doing that is part of the reason I reached adulthood with no brakes. Growing up, finances were almost entirely invisible.  Now, I believe is financial transparency.

Now, as a father, I balance the checkbook and pay bills on the laptop in the living room where my children can see me. They see the stack of bills and they watch me balance the checkbook. We discuss how much things cost and how we can cut expenses while the bills are being paid.  Even the toddlers know Daddy is doing something important.

My ten-year-old son knows what sales tax is and where to find it on a receipt. He knows what property taxes are and how much they are in our neighborhood. He knows roughly what percentage of a paycheck gets withheld. I work to make my son financially aware. My girls are too young to understand the concept of money, but they will be receiving a thorough financial education as soon as they are able to grasp the concepts.

The hard part is explaining to my son how we screwed up our finances. I’ve shown him my paycheck and discussed our debt. I have explained to him that we were making much less money when we accumulated our doom debt, while maintaining a higher standard of living.  Now, when we go to the store, he doesn’t even ask if he can borrow money until we get to his bank account.  He has learned to dislike debt in almost all forms.  I’m fairly proud that my kid voluntarily practices delayed gratification.

What he doesn’t quite grasp is the idea of living within your means, even if your means are limited.   “But, Dad, what if you don’t have much money?  Then you have to borrow money for nice things, right?”  I’m not sure how to break him of that.  Delayed gratification is an understandable concept for him, but the difference between wants and needs seems to be missing.   Any ideas?

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10 Things to do on a Cheap Vacation.

This summer, my family  took a six-day cheap vacation.  Technically, it was a “stay-cation”, but I hate that word.  Our goal was a fun time, on a budget, for 3 kids–one, two, and nine–without driving the adults nuts.   Obviously, if you’re not herding small children, some of these choices may not be for you.

  1. Zoo.  In St. Paul, there is a free zoo that is more fun than the paid zoo in the area.  There’s a small amusement park, a playground,  lots of picnic benches, and even animals.  We packed a cooler full of food and drinks and hauled the kids to Como Zoo for a day.  If there isn’t a free zoo near you, find a local petting zoo.  They are good for a few hours.
  2. Go Antiquing. Make sure you stay on a budget.  It can be more fun to feel the history in antique stores than to feel the fleeting thrill of an off-budget purchase.  This isn’t much fun for small children.
  3. Children’s Museums. We have access to a “Museum Adventure Pass“.   We used one to go to The Works Museum, which is a hands-on science exhibit not far from our home.  It wasn’t busy and the kids had a blast.  Most metropolitan areas have a wide variety of childre-friendly museums.
  4. Municipal Pool. We spent an afternoon at the city pool.  Aside from gas, this was one of the most expensive events for our vacation.   Residents get a discount, but it was still $30.   I discovered that my two-year-old loves big waterslides.  She comes out of them with a death-grip on the inner tube and a huge smile on her face.  It was a double tube and she sat in my lap.
  5. Game Day. Spend a day with the TV off and games on the table.  Make some snacks and prepare for some of the best quality time you can have as a family.
  6. Picnic. Pack a lunch and go somewhere quiet.   Go to the park.  Go to the country.  Grab a bench on a sidewalk somewhere.  Just have a leisurely lunch and take the opportunity to connect with your family.
  7. Hike. Find a trail somewhere and just walk.  I’ve found that it easy to have deep or sometimes even awkward conversations while walking.  You may find out things you never would have guessed.
  8. Visit Family. Hotel on the go?  My parents live more than 2 hours away, so they are always thrilled to have us visit with the grandchildren.   Be nice, bring some food to help out.
  9. Bike. The final day of our vacation, my wife and I left the kids in daycare and kept the day to ourselves.  We had breakfast in a nice little cafe.  We went antiquing.  Then we went out to the park where we were married, had a picnic lunch and went for a bike ride together.  It was our anniversary.
  10. Apple Orchard.  Around here, they are everywhere.  Pick-you-own apples, a petting zoo, pony rides.  If you go in the fall, there is usually a corn maze.  You can by real apple cider and any number of baked goods.
  11. University Exhibits.  Check your local colleges, especially the public universities.  Most of them have a PR program to maintain public interest and funding.  Even the private schools will usually have fund-raisers for some programs.  We recently attended the raptor show at the University of Minnesota for free with our Adventure Pass.

Vacations don’t have to be expensive to be fun.  Counting gas, food, and the occasional souvenir, we took a 6 day cheap vacation packed with activities for well under $400, possibly even under $300.

How do you save money on a vacation?

Update: This post has been included in the Money Hacks Carnivals XCV.

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Babies Are Expensive

From the comments here.  The discussion is on how much it costs to have a baby.  Edited for clarity.

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Actual birthing costs vary. We’ve had three kids over ten years and birthing costs have varied from $250 out of pocket to $8500.   Our highest and lowest price births were 20 months apart. The highest price birth involved induced labor with an epidural. For the lowest out-of-pocket price, I added my wife to my policy before the birth, so she was double-covered. If one of your policies is less than ideal and there are multiple policies available, I recommend doing this. It saved us thousands.  All told, If things go well, you could slide for as little as $1500 total.

For the highest price birth, we threw ourselves on the mercy of the finance department. They have a charity fund to pay the bills of the less fortunate. We qualified…barely.  If you have a medical bill you can’t afford, ask if there is a grant or donation you can apply for.  Always ask if there is some way the bill could be lowered.

Breast-feeding beats the heck out of formula, financially, but breast-feeding doesn’t always work. Ignore the boob-nazis who insist you are slowly killing your kid by using formula. I’ve got 3 kids, and each had different feeding issues.

Baby formula runs $19 for a big container at Sam’s Club, or a large percentage of your soul at most other big box stores.  Formula alone will pay for your membership in under a month. For a big eater, that’s $20-30 per week. For a normal eater, 2-3 weeks. For planning purposes, assume $100/month in formula costs for the first six months, when food starts coming into play heavily. After that, the formula expense goes down, but not away for at least 6 more months.

Diapers are painful. Not just the smell–though that hurts, too, sometimes–but the expense. I currently have 2 in diapers; one is potty-training. Our monthly costs for diapers, now, are about $75. It was easily twice that when they were younger. Figure at least $100 per month in diapers.  Unless your baby has irritation problems, go with cheap diapers. Leak-guard is a joke.   If you are relying on leak-guard to keep the contents inside the diaper, you aren’t changing your baby often enough.

I couldn’t begin to guess at how much you’ll spend on baby clothes.  I have never bought clothes for our kids. Whatever didn’t come free from friends and family walked into the house of it’s own volition, following my wife home from the store.

Toys are an almost purely voluntary expense. You’ll get as much as the kids needs free, as presents. You’ll go overboard and give the kids 10 times that, without realizing it. Don’t. For the first four to five months, its fingers and toes will be entertaining enough. After that, if there are more than about ten toys, it’s too many; the kid will never get attached to any of them. Keep it small. It’s better for the kids and the budget.  Little kids prefer boxes to toys, anyway.   Give the kid a shoebox instead of a Leapfrog.  Really.

Portraits suck, too. If you have to get them done professionally, get a membership that covers sitting fees, and use coupons. I recommend JC Penney’s. Using judicious coupons and the membership, we get portraits for under $20.

Baby food is probably cheaper to make in a food processor, but you can’t beat the convenience of the little jars. If you watch sales, you can stock up affordably. Mix every meal with some rice or oatmeal mush to stretch it, without making it unhealthy. Depending on your kids, and how much you listen to the “experts”, this is a nonexistent expense before six months. Our kids started eating baby food in their second months, at least a little bit.

Babies are expensive. Don’t doubt that for a second, but ignore the polled averages when it comes to expense.  Hand-me-downs, thrift stores, and good sales cut the expense a lot.

How do you save money and value with a baby in the house?

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