Last few wedding posts: Why avoiding DIY worked for us!

Hi y’all. I’ve had a CRAZY fall/winter, between work, becoming an aunt, getting married, honeymooning, traveling for work, hosting/being hosted for the holidays. Plus I’ve been writing quite a bit for my side gig at Investopedia.com. You can check out some of my newer articles. I especially recommend the advice I give about retirement planning, grocery shopping tricks and probably the most important article I’ve ever written, about the horrors of payday loans. (Although if you are reading a personal finance blog you hopefully don’t have any payday loans, but I was so horrified by the industry that I want everyone to know how terrible they are!)

Ok so. I’m writing one more post about my wedding because

1. it was SO fun so who doesn’t want to hear about it?

2. I am at wedding age and would like to impart my wisdom to my friends who are planning too

3. I learned some lessons, and I’m never planning to get married again so someone might as well learn from my mistakes.

So here goes!

Lesson 1: DIY was not for me

I love crafting. I refinish furniture, I’ve just taken up sewing, I’m a terrible but earnest knitter. In the world of Pinterest, you’d think I would love DIY-ing my wedding. We basically came down to two venues- one that was cheaper but DIY heavy, and one that was pricier but did everything for us.

We chose the non-DIY wedding and I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH how incredible it was. Here’s why:

  • We lived across the country from our venue. My mom and my pregnant sister would have been on the hook to deal with all the local coordination. I love them and I did not want them to spend as much time on MY wedding (aka, my responsibility) as I did. DIY= Do it YOURSELF, not asking other people to do things for you.
  • It turns out that even though I love weddings and I loved my wedding, I don’t especially enjoy event planning. Coordinating schedules, keeping track of contracts, following through with vendors who don’t call you back for weeks at a time (it happened a lot)…to me that is BORING. I didn’t want to spend my time or energy doing it. Our venue did nearly everything for us.
  • We didn’t have to decorate! We chose a gorgeous church for our wedding and an art museum for our reception. Like I thought I was going to DIY better than ACTUAL ARTISTS? Forget it. And one less thing to worry about!
  • We didn’t have to worry about food or alcohol! While we did get sucked into the “you have to use our caterers with our venue” trap, it actually turned out to be just fine. Catering prices weren’t that far off from what was offered at the venue (plus I didn’t have to coordinate). Our venue only offered heavy hors d’oeuvres and we added on a pasta bar so that no one would be hungry- and it was great. Bonus: no one had to sit near anyone they didn’t like during a formal dinner.
  • I priced out the two venues and our non-DIY one ended up being about $3k more than the DIY venue (that’s in total, including food and decorations and  setup and renting equipment and lighting and linens and security and cleanup and liquor licenses and alcohol and bartenders all of these things that I just did not care about). You better believe that not having to worry about where to get glassware and who was picking it up and returning it was well worth $3k to me.

The two things we did DIY were the invitations and the flowers (more on the flowers later). The invitations were super cheap to make, I thought they were so cool and creative, but they took forever and I would never do it again. Here’s basically what I did:

 

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Instructions: Buy “Mexican confetti” (which will arrive with leaves and sticks mixed into your giant, multi pound bag of confetti. Do not let the cat near the confetti bag.), glassine bags (which are literally those wax paper bags used to hold fast food cookies), envelopes and clear printable label paper. Print on the labels, cut them out, stick them on the glassine bags. Fill with confetti. Glue shut. Stuff envelopes, and TEN HOURS LATER you and your fiancé will have sent out 150 wedding invitations. The invitations cost me maybe $35 in supplies, but was it worth the time? Nope.

My advice? Send an evite.

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Healthy Living on a Budget

I was diagnosed with and cured of cancer this spring (hooray!), which has made me more aware of my health and body than ever before. Before I get into the details of my life changes, here are some things I will ask you to consider:

  • It is easier now than ever before to have health insurance, regardless of your health status. If I had been diagnosed just a  year or two earlier, I would have been in debt for the rest of my life. I am 29 years old, otherwise healthy, and never expected to have major health problems. It feels super crappy to have cancer, it feels crappier to have cancer and then have to pay it off for the rest of your life. Get good health insurance.
  • Remember how I believe in giving back? Many, many people have been touched by cancer. Consider making a donation to the American Cancer Society this year- tax deductible and you never know whose life will be changed.
  • If you can’t afford or choose not to give money to the American Cancer Society, consider registering with the National Bone Marrow Registry. It’s a painless cheek swab, and you can save someone’s life- imagine what a wonderful relief it would be to need a transplant and then find out there is a generous person who is your match out there.

Ok. Now that my pitch is out of my system….here are some of the changes I have made and how I have been financially savvy about making them!

One of my hardest guilt struggles is with produce. I almost never buy organic produce because it is SO pricy in grocery stores (especially when compared with nonorganic prices) but then I generally feel guilty about eating pesticides and supporting a system that just isn’t what I root for (hehe, get it?). I work in the environmental field, I make choices every day that line up with my values- I drive an electric car! But for whatever reason, I just cringe when I see a steep grocery bill and couldn’t make myself go for the $3 apple. But I am trying to help my body recover as much as possible, so if I am ever going to switch to organic, now seems like the perfect time.

We also just moved from our super expensive city to a much more affordable part of the country, and as part of my goal to live healthier and also to live more in line with our values, we decided to actively try to up our intake of organic produce. Our rent is cheaper, so our grocery bills can be higher. But….so far, they haven’t been! Here’s why:

-We joined a CSA that delivers a huge box of organic product TO OUR DOOR once a week. It’s $30 and honestly we have to work hard to eat it all before the next batch comes in. It is just gorgeous. We also have been learning about new foods and new recipes, and haven’t had a loser yet!

-I have a garden now. I found amazingly cheap seeds at Goodwill (?) that have grown (?!?) so I have the world’s most beautiful and inexpensive garden. Also organic because I know what goes in it!

-I got a juicer. Here is the story behind this juicer- I know they aren’t as healthy as say, an amazing blender (because you are removing fiber), but I have ALWAYS wanted one. I got this juicer for $5 shipping because I joined a goods trading website called Yerdle (shameless plug, you get $35 Yerdle dollars and I get $10 if you sign up through my link). I got rid of stuff I don’t want anymore, and I put a “wish” for a juicer in, and when one came up I got a text alerting me that a juicer was available and I got it! The only real money spent is for shipping. I’m pretty into it.

Anyway, juicers have such a bad rap because they will gobble up your entire produce drawer….but not mine! I have been saving the parts of produce that you don’t eat normally (broccoli stalks, cantaloupe seeds/goop around the seeds, melon rinds, carrot ends and tops, mushy fruit) and once or twice a week I juice them! I then use the leftover pulp to feed my compost worms. It’s also a great way to get use out of fruit or veggies that are alllllllmost not good anymore.

So there you go. I am eating healthier, wasting less, and not breaking the bank!

How we are saving for our wedding

Did you know weddings are ridiculously expensive? They are. If you are planning one, I would recommend reading the book A Practical Wedding by Meg Keene (who also runs a blog by the same name). It details the history of weddings (and more importantly, the development of the wedding industry) and helped me feel really good about saying NO to things I felt weren’t needed and/or wastes of money (it turns out you can skip a lot of “wedding” things and still have a great party!)

That being said, my squeeze and I are still having a pretty big (simple, but big) wedding. We really wanted to celebrate with our family and friends. With an open bar. And cake! So we are going to- but of course we didn’t want to spend with abandon and wake up the day after our wedding with a new marriage and a boatload of debt, so here is what we are doing to prepare financially for our wedding:

  • Remember how I told you you should start saving now for your wedding? Well, I wrote that post 5 months before I got engaged. Guess who hadn’t gotten very far in her savings plan yet? (I had one, though!) So I had an account with some money in it already that was earmarked. Getting organized is the first step, and I had already done myself that favor!
  • My emergency fund was 80% complete (after saving aggressively for 2.5 years). D. and I decided that 80% of my goal combined with his emergency fund would be more than enough to cover us in case of emergency- so we felt we had a few thousand to be flexible with in our previously separate emergency funds. I started funneling the money I had been saving for my emergency fund into the wedding fund instead.
  • Our engagement is 14 months long. We both decided to save $500 a month for the wedding (remember, this is money that I used to put towards my emergency fund, so my daily spending wasn’t impacted that much). 14 months x $500/month  x 2- $14,000. Our budget goal is $12,000 but we expect it will be over budget by a couple thousand (I am a savvy savvy saver and even I can’t throw a wedding on such a tight budget without a big backyard and 25 crockpots, but believe me, I looked into it!)….but we have that spare few thousand in our dual emergency fund.
  • We are registering for very few actual things because we both already had full households and are trying to downsize instead of build up. So instead of a traditional registry the main things we are requesting are donations to charity and support for the honeymoon fund, as well as activities that we can do together in the first year of marriage.

I know not everyone is in the same position as we are in, with an emergency fund built up and the ability to save so aggressively- but a long engagement can help give you time to save as a couple and prepare your financial futures together. Another thing that can be freeing is knowing that you don’t have to say “yes” to everything (or anything) that everyone else has in their weddings. Before spending money that you might not have on menus, matching shoes, aisle flowers or favors, ask yourselves:

  • Is this one of our priorities for our wedding day?
  • Will anyone other than me/us notice if I skip this detail?
  • Can we afford it?
  • Does it have meaning for us?

If you said no to any of these, you have my permission to skip it with zero guilt. Happy wedding planning!

Student Loan Forgiveness

Hey y’all.

I am working VERY hard to pay off my student loans before the normal scheduled 10-year payment plan. I’d like to not be in debt, I’d like to be saving more quickly for exciting future things like a house or a pony, and I’d like to not pay interest! (I hate interest unless I am earning it).

That being said, I also know that life happens sometimes and there is a chance I will still have student loan debt in 10 years. Did you know that if you work in a public service job (like for a nonprofit, as a teacher, public aid lawyer….that sort of thing) you can have your Federal loans FORGIVEN if you have made 120 full monthly payments while working for that public service job? (And no, it doesn’t have to be 10 consecutive years or 120 consecutive payments, as long as you haven’t defaulted).

By getting your loans forgiven I mean–you won’t owe any more money! At all! Free money! It’s a lovely perk.

But did you know there is some paperwork you have to fill out to get that perk? Here it is. It’s easy. You fill out the top, your employer fills out the bottom (thanks, HR!) to say yes, you do work there and yes, it is a qualifying public service job…and then you mail it into your loan servicer! Easy peasy!

If you are on a payment plan such as “Pay as you earn” that stretches out over more than 10 years and you work in a qualifying job….well, it just makes sense to take the 15 minutes to fill out the paperwork! Wouldn’t it be a huge weight lifted if one day you just didn’t have loans anymore? I sure think so.

Now, that being said- just because I know this is out there doesn’t mean I am going to make tiny loan payments now and rack up huge interest in the hopes my loans will be forgiven in 10 years. Life happens both ways- and I can’t guarantee I will have a nonprofit job still in 10 years (or even that I will still have a job!) So my advice is: prepare the paperwork, and carry on your payment plan as if this forgiveness plan didn’t exist.

Hope this helps!

All About Credit

I’ve started volunteering as a personal finance educator, and a lot of the questions I get are about credit- here is some information for y’all!

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I’m sure you have heard quite a bit about credit. Good credit, bad credit. But what exactly is credit?

Quick answer: “Credit” generally refers to your credit score, which is a number that grades you on how risky it may be to give you a loan.

Having good credit means that you are expected to be a responsible money borrower- you will probably pay your loans back in full and on time. Good credit is often rewarded with the ability to borrow more money and lower interest rates on loans (you REALLY want this, because of compound interest!)

Bad credit means you are considered a higher risk loan customer. It might be harder for you to get a loan, and your interest rates will probably be higher than someone with good credit.

So what is a credit score? A credit score is a number between 300 and 850. Seems…

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Two savvy wedding planning tricks

The internet is FULL of tips for saving on the cost of a wedding, and this is not a wedding blog, so I will try to keep my posts on the topic to a minimum (even if I can’t, just remember this is only temporary!). Even though I am trying to limit the wedding chatter, there are a few things that I have done that I feel super savvy about, so I am going to share them anyway.

  • Negotiated with the photographer. So far the most confusing part of wedding planning is understanding the price ranges for things like photography. I have found prices between $500 and $4900 for the same deliverables- so the difference must be in the experience of the photographer (and theoretically the quality of the photos). My fiancé and I both agreed that photos are a budget priority- but can we get the same product if we spend $1000 vs $3000? We did a lot of research, looked at a lot of portfolios, and chose a mid-price photographer whose work we really liked. What was savvy about what we did (I think) is we looked at her packages and saw there were a lot of extras thrown in- things like engagement photos and money towards a photo album. We already have a ton of photos of the two of us together looking like we are in love-because we are!- so we didn’t feel like we needed engagement photos (plus we already ordered the save the dates). I also like to put together photo books on my own- they make great gifts, are easy to make and they aren’t expensive. So we asked if we could cut the price if we forgo engagement photos and the album credit and voila! $200 back in pocket!
  • Used “business marketing” postcards instead of “save the date” cards. I was looking at Vistaprint and saw that they had business marketing postcards (that you can customize and put photos on) at the price of 100 for $20. The save the date cards (virtually identical except you would need to buy a separate envelope to mail them in) are 10 for $4.86 (aka 100 for $48). That is over double the price for the same product! PLUS did you know that postage for a postcard is $.34 each, while postage for a letter (or a postcard put into an envelope that you also had to pay for) are $.49/letter? Buying 100 business marketing postcards and mailing them at the postcard rate will cost us $54 (well actually not quite that because I used a 50% off coupon I found on retailmenot but then decided to use 100% recycled paper, which cost a little more). But in THEORY it would have cost us $54, while if we had used the cards labeled as “save the date” cards, they would have been $97 plus the cost of envelopes! So I saved another $43.

$243 saved and all we did was get exactly what we wanted! Plus now we don’t have to stuff envelopes, hurrah!

Taxes Can Be Scary

I think taxes really stink. And it’s not because I think no taxes should be paid. I love smooth paved roads! I love having someone come rescue me if my house is on fire! I appreciate that the government isn’t allowing poison in candy anymore. (Kind of upset that they needed to make a law about it, though….)

What I hate about taxes is how FREAKING HARD THEY ARE TO FIGURE OUT. I am pretty smart. I can read. I have a dictionary. I have the internet. I have no idea what tax words mean and I am terrified of interpreting them wrong. I got audited one year and it was so embarrassing and terrible (and what a stigma!) I am a good person! Why do I need an audit? Don’t they trust me?! (No. They don’t. And I did my taxes wrong. So that is why I got audited.)

So here are two things to think about as tax season comes around:

1. You know how I am your personal finance guru, with all the answers about everything to do with your money? I have tens of thousands of admirers around the globe and I have helped a gajillion people get their finances in order? I have been audited (described above. An emotionally traumatic experience). So when I started writing for Investopedia and my paychecks didn’t have taxes taken out, I knew I had to pay some sort of independent worker tax but I had no idea how much or to who and I didn’t know where the paperwork was. I knew I would be penalized if I just ignored it (and I hate paying fees!). So I put it off from March to DECEMBER 27. That is a lot of procrastination. And I have a relative who works in tax-things who told me which form to get! (It’s this one, in case you were wondering). I had no excuse at all, except that I was scared of doing something wrong again and embarrassed that I didn’t know what to do (given my status as an international financial whiz).

So, it’s completely normal for you to be scared and embarrassed about not knowing about taxes. Unless it’s your job, it’s kind of lame to have all the answers about taxes. But we still have to pay them, and this year is a good year to get over your fear! Why? How? Glad you asked.

2. The IRS has a set of really great volunteers who will help you do your taxes. FOR FREE! You don’t have to know all the answers because these lovely people do! I started volunteering as a financial coach with a number of these folks in my state and let me tell you, they are smart and sharp, funny and kind people. They have also seen everything there is to see in terms of rough tax preparation, so you don’t have anything to be embarrassed about. You get hand holding during the tax prep process, you get to meet some nice, capable people, and you don’t have to live in shame and fear like me.

I hope this makes everyone’s tax season a little less scary.  Fingers crossed for an audit-free 2015!

Some financial tricks I used this year

Here are a few tidbits and tricks that I have learned about finances this year:

Tip 1:

I joined a credit union. Don’t worry, I still have my amazing checking account (I just recommended Charles Schwab to a friend going to Europe so that he can take advantage of their no-charge foreign ATM options- free currency exchange, y’all!) I joined this credit union for three reasons.

  1. They have amazing interest rates on auto loans and mortgages. I don’t need a mortgage right now, but one day I will, and I wanted to set myself up as a customer so that in the future I will have access to awesome interest rates.
  2. They have amazing interest rates on CDs. (A CD is a Certificate of Deposit. It is basically a higher-rate savings account where you promise not to touch the money for X amount of time, and you get a higher interest rate than a normal savings account where you would have access to your money whenever you want.) This year, they ran a promotional special for a 1 year CD that returns 5%! I don’t know if y’all are paying attention to interest rates, but this CD is like a miracle. I’m making $150 by letting them sit on my cash for a year. I put in cash I have earmarked for our wedding so I wasn’t going to spent it in the next year anyway, and the CD will mature two months before the wedding….so now we can have a bigger cake!
  3. They have a coin sorter machine that doesn’t charge anything to use (like a Coinstar but free) and the money gets deposited directly into your account. Which is just so cool!

Credit unions can be really good because they are (usually) local businesses that provide services that might not be as good at a larger bank. It can be smart to establish yourself as a customer so you have access to their resources. When I opened by account I put $5 into a savings account- and now I am a customer!

Tip 2:

I have been paying off my student loans based on the highest interest rates first- except starting in November, I put all of my payments towards paying off the interest. This is because student loan interest (but not the capital) is tax deductible. That means that paying off the interest of my student loans can lower what I owe in taxes. I did some quick math and discovered that the amount I could potentially save in taxes (this year will be tricky for me so it is just an estimate) is a few hundred more than the amount I would save in interest if I had just kept paying off the loans with the highest interest rates.

Tip 3:

This year has been very exciting but also has required me to be very flexible financially. Here are some things that have changed and how I dealt with them:

  • I finally saved enough to afford Lasik, but my work now provides a Healthcare Savings Account that is tax-free. Instead of using the money I had saved for what I intended to save it for, I am using the tax-free HSA to stretch my dollars further.
  • I moved the Lasik savings into my wedding fund. If you remember, I recommend that each person save about $9000 for their weddings, if they want a typical American wedding (more on this later). $9000 is super daunting to save…except that when my fiancé proposed I had already saved for Lasik (and then could feel good about changing my plans for how to use the money) and I had just completed my emergency fund. I just kept saving at the rate I had been saving (haven’t missed one penny because I never had that as spare money!) and we are having a relatively long engagement. We expect to be ready to pay for the wedding in full when the bills start rolling in.

I had a beautiful “goals” tab in Mint going into the year, and now my goals will be met…but in a different way than I had anticipated earlier in the year. I was able to be flexible because I spent two years building a sturdy emergency fund and saving for a wedding fund (even though I thought it was a Lasik fund!). Slow and steady savings means we are able to do what we want when life gets exciting!

Keeping up with the Joneses

We have some friends who seem to have an AMAZING life. They both own luxury cars, they have a vacation house somewhere warm (and fly there all the time. Like every other weekend). Facebook makes them look like they are doing VERY well, financially. I am sure you have similar friends- they travel all the time to amazing places (how do they get the vacation days?? That is my biggest question!) and they have great clothes and great cars and maybe they just bought a house and you are still renting with three roommates….You wonder how they got there and why you aren’t there yet, and maybe you are jealous and you wonder what you did wrong.

I have a few things to say about this.

There are a few ways they could have gotten there, and many reasons why you should not compare yourself.

1. They come from money and their family resources are allowing them to live like this. Do you have a wealthy family who gives you money to travel or buy houses or fancy cars? Me neither. I didn’t do anything wrong, and my friends aren’t succeeding at life any more than I am. They just come from a wealthier family.

2. They are SUPER successful at their jobs and can afford it. Good for them! That is awesome and you should be thrilled that your friend has found a sweet gig that they hopefully enjoy. if they don’t enjoy it- then they will either hate their jobs and carry on, or switch to a different job which might or might not allow them to maintain this lifestyle. Everyone who works has these same questions to deal with, with varying income levels.

3. They are in debt. Do you know what their finances look like? I COULD buy a Porsche right now if I went into debt for it. I just don’t want to have to make those payments every month, because there are other things that I want my money to go to and you know how much I hate paying interest. This is a choice I am very happy with, but other people might want the Porsche enough that debt is worth it.

4. They can afford it today but they aren’t planning for tomorrow. Maybe they have a vacation house on the beach but no emergency fund, no retirement savings, and no spare money for other savings goals. Everyone makes different financial choices, but I would choose to have a cushion now and a retirement not in the poorhouse over a fancy lifestyle today.

So think about those friends who have it all. Do you know which category they fall in? Probably you don’t. You might think they come from family money, but maybe they are in debt. Maybe you thought they were loaded because of their good job, but maybe they inherited a big chunk of money. Keeping up with the Joneses is a tough trap to fall into, and it is harder to remember to that YOU make your financial choices based on YOUR LIFE. Just remember that you never know what other people’s Mint accounts look like, no matter what kind of car they drive.

I’ll leave you with this lovely article about being thankful for what you have.

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