Category Archives: making good choices

February Spencer update

We got another monthly report to update you on. We have been doing pretty well with our budget and trying to cut out a lot of extra expenses, such as going out. Because of this, we are feeling a little better about the amount we need in savings for emergencies and are tapping into that to really get things moving. Stay tuned for a couple of posts from me regarding some of the ways we are trying to cut down on big portions of our budget.

Here is our updated Spencer. He is filling out pretty nicely.

debt snowball spencer rhino

starting total (12/1/10): $69,176.76
paid so far: $28,500.00
left to go before 12/31/2011: $40,777.09

I noticed a minor detail with the numbers and that a small part of our money does go to interest each month. Should I worry about that calculation? I could add a line that shows that and also add how much interest we are saving by paying extra. Would this be of any curiousity to you?

January 2011: challenges

January was a tough month. After holding out for so long I finally hit a wall– after my little happy hour breakdown halfway through the month…. downhill from there. Suddenly, it seems like I should “just this once” indulge in things – whether at the grocery store adding a few too many luxury items to the cart, or sliding into a booth at Burgerville that one lunch hour when I was really hungry. It strikes me that this is a really basic principal of frugality at work — that when you try to deny everything, your willpower breaks down and the flood lets loose. (Reader Micah also pointed this out on the 1/15 post).

Being prepared with food is the best way for me to avoid extra expense incurred by eating out. Ali is my personal chef and gets lunches ready every morning, I’m thankful for that. I also try to keep some packets of cashews or almonds, along with fruit snacks in the car for emergency blood sugar situations. Having a plan for dinner – something in the slow cooker or an idea of what I’m craving that day – also helps avoid thinking too much about eating on the way home. I don’t WANT to think about food so much, and I’ve never had a problem with food aside from needing to make sure to regulate blood sugar. But this longing for what I’m not supposed to have goes deep – a little bit of the ol’ “forbidden fruit” mentality? Definitely a little of “awakening the dragon” and a little bit of boredom (beans in a crock pot only stay exciting for so long).

What should I do about this food issue? I have been thinking about food a lot lately. I think the denial of eating out in some way triggers a little bit of survival instinct (scarcity mentality), which is a tiny bit ridiculous since our fridge and cabinets are full. I have thought about giving myself one day a week to eat a moderate lunch out… I may try this for February and see if I can curb some of the appetite for luxury and convenience¬† – or maybe that will make the longing worse. We also have a gift certificate for a really excellent restaurant a client gave me as a thank you for doing some family portraits, so I am looking forward to the opportunity to use that.

Any other suggestions? I am fascinated to explore these new and unexpected issues — the psychology behind desire, contentment and longing, and reaching for a big goal that necessitates lifestyle shift. The goal is abundance mentality in all areas of life.

the grocery shopping conundrum: local, or inexpensive?

There’s so much I want to write on this site every single week, but since picking up the day job to help us work off our $70k in school debt, I have been limited on time and energy.

The grocery shopping conundrum: local, or inexpensive? You can’t have both.

Ali and I love the idea of spending a little bit more to get local, fresh goods that taste better and support local businesses. Luckily, Portland has a wonderful farmers’ market system for much of the year that makes it easy and convenient to find a market close to your home or daily route. But… what to do in these winter months when the markets are on hiatus and local produce is limited to tubers and beans? We like and have a membership at our closest co-op, a tiny but mighty little store on Alberta Street we frequent for bulk foods, greens, and quick refills that fall outside of our big shopping trips. It certainly costs more to shop in a place like this, and I try to avoid buying any non-food items (toiletries, paper goods, etc.) here due to the huge markup.

But then you get into the other issue — the places where I know I can get paper products or the toiletries we like for a good price — such as Tom’s of Maine, Dr. Bronner’s, or Burt’s Bees… well, traveling outside of Portland to get to a Target isn’t exactly helping the local economy in any way. And me going into Target isn’t exactly encouraging toward staying on track with spending…. AND THEN there’s the whole issue of all the “natural” brands selling out to bigger companies, who use the good reputation of the little guys to make themselves look better.

Back to the point of writing this blog post. Ali and I have patched together a reasonably satisfying mix of shopping at our little co-op for small weekly trips, and stocking up at a big employee-owned warehouse store WinCo on the edges of town every 10 days or so. In doing so, I’ve been able to purchase enough food for daily lunches and dinners, with enough variety to avoid the felt need of eating out because we’re bored or lazy. Wintertime cravings for warm comfort food translates into soups and warm stew dishes with the slow cooker, which means dinner is almost ready when I walk in the door after work. IT’S GREAT!

We’re curious: how do you handle the local versus inexpensive conundrum in your house?

busting open the bread bag on the way home from the grocery store

This afternoon I was driving home from the Saturday errands and realized I was ravenously hungry. I’m one of those people who stops functioning when my blood sugar is low, so I NEED TO EAT when I feel hungry. As I drove out of the WinCo parking lot I noticed a Sonic next door. Before going on our “budget diet”, I would have pulled right up to the little order station and gotten hooked up with some tots and lime-cherry soda to tide me over until I got home. The hugeness of our financial goal means eating out is not really an option. [Ed. note: I just realized how gross fast food tater tots and soda are for a messed up metabolism! What was I thinking?!] And then… THEN I saw a Burgerville — a highly-regarded local chain that features locally sourced “slow” fast food and a seasonal menu in some ways similar to the relationship Californians have to In-N-Out. I was so tempted to pull over and try their food after hearing friends rave about it – and I was SOOO HUNGRY I could have easily justified it. Then I thought about Dave Ramsey and how he always counsels people trying to get out of debt “shouldn’t see the inside of a restaurant… unless [you’re] working there”

This story has an up-side. I had a little victory when I realized I could take some bread and hummus that I had just purchased fair and square with our grocery budget and make a nice and MUCH HEALTHIER snack for the 25 minute drive back home. Food budget victory! I would have never even thought about that before we put this budget into place and started heavily concentrating on ways to quickly eliminate our debt. Constantly treating yourself to small indulgences can become the equivalent of “death by paper cuts” in the financial world.

While we’re talking about food vignettes and in the spirit of transparency I should also admit that I had a food-related failure this week as well. There was one day this past week when I didn’t take my lunch break until 3:30pm and had to go back for the last 30 minutes of the day anyway. I was innocently going by the local library to pick up a book when I noticed that there was a McMenamins next door. I found myself heading inside to take advantage of happy hour at the bar — I ordered a beer and an appetizer. It was ‘only’ $7 with tip but it felt like a total rebellion because I was spending money for food I didn’t need to buy, and also because I was drinking a beer and then going back to work. A little like a decadent Mad Men-esque triple-martini lunch. Obviously I didn’t drink enough to even get tipsy or I would NOT be admitting this to the internet. I am sad that we are now $7 further away from meeting our $70k goal.

So there are my food stories of the week. Is this the equivalent of tweeting what I ate for breakfast? Or is it relevant enough to be interesting?

January 1, 2011

The first day of the new year seems like a great time to make a large payment. Ali managed to lock up my online loan account with too many password guesses (!) but we managed to move money around to accommodate the first large regular monthly installment. We calculated the remainder of Spencer into 12 projected payments of about $5000 each month for 2011. The secret goal is to throw any extra income we can at him every month, in order to end our debt repayment early and free up cash to apply toward saving for holiday travel in December 2011, and then a big anniversary trip in February 2012.

I chose to apply an extra $1350 to give us a strong start in January, applying a “paycheck” from my photography business toward our goal. Since my business here in Portland is only beginning, I won’t have regular business cashflow to contribute in future months. I was able to do a few family portrait sessions in Boston in late September, and just recently did my first Portland boudoir commissions. I worked really hard for that $1350, and it makes me feel good that the fruit of this labor is going toward a tangible goal.¬† My goal for the photography business in 2011 is to make four times as much as I spend on the business, which I know from years of experience will be surprisingly difficult to accomplish. The challenge of keeping overhead down will be my worthy opponent.
One significant business-related thing I did recently was purchase all new photography equipment which seems ridiculous given our goal of saving as much as possible. The kit totals about $5000, between two camera bodies (F100 and D700) and two Zeiss lenses. I’ve been shooting on Canon equipment for the past few years, but wanted to make the switch back to Nikon for the lens interchangeability between film and digital bodies. This was a HUGE decision for me, and I did not make it lightly.¬† I was able to make about $3000 back toward the new equipment purchase by selling off my Canon kit (5d body, 2 speedlites, and 3 lenses) via Amazon marketplace, and then used money I had squirreled away in my business account to make up the difference.

Spencer’s portrait for January 1:

debt snowball spencer rhino

starting total (12/1/10): $69,176.76
paid so far: $21,500.00
left to go before 12/31/2011: $47,676.76

Reader mdog pointed out that last month Spencer got pants. Now he has high-waisted GRANDPA pants. Haha, Spencer, you look stupid!

December 13, 2010: A good start.

Since we knew we were going to be unemployed for an undetermined part of 2010 and possibly moving to Europe, we had a good chunk of money saved off. Europe did not happen, but we managed to settle into Portland quite nicely. Now that we both have jobs and kicked off this adventure we can put the savings into our debt. Here is the updated Spencer. Questions? Send us a postcard!

starting total (12/1/10): $69,176.76
paid so far: $15,159.09
left to go before 12/31/2011: $54,017.67

meet Spencer 2.0

Hi. This is Ali and I will be giving the numbers around here while Rachel will be providing the words.

Since Rachel is a visual person, I built Spencer 2.0 with some grids that we can fill in to show our progress. There are roughly 650 squares contained in Spencer with 10 of them in the horn. We will assign $100 to each of the 640 non-horn squares. The 10 horn squares are special super squares that help us get rid of the remainder. We’ll deal with those later.

For now I give you Spencer, with [zero] squares filled in.

spencer the rhino


Many people view education debt as good debt; we don’t believe this to be true. Although education loans often sit at lower interest rates than credit card loans or mortgages, they encourage borrowers to make minimum payments for many years, accruing lots of interest while continuing to purchase new cars and houses and living life as if any money that comes into their hands is not already spoken for.

We have a pretty huge goal. We are planning to pay down the remainder of our student loans by December 31, 2011.

Ali and I have been thinking about this idea and preparing our lifestyle since we moved to Portland in August. We have been experimenting with levels of frugality, envelope budgeting, and finding areas where the money leaks out. We’ve been making a grand attempt to “right-size” our lives, taking into account the fact that we don’t need as much as we think… and most of all finding ways to live in abundance mentality. Finding joy in what we have rather than concentrating on anything that seems to lack seems to be the key to success.

Frankly, we find it surprising that so few in the US talk about personal finances. We think about money constantly, but few people share details of their budgets. Since the US is at the absolute front row when it comes to personal spending, disposable income, and consumer mentality, we should know the most about how to handle our finances. And yet, few people even know how to live within their means let alone think that’s a good idea.

We’re going to open up this space and share some real numbers with readers in an attempt to encourage others who may be in similar situations. We’re withholding specifics on our salaries, but will share details of the loans and our spending/saving patterns. We understand this may draw criticism on all sides, but we’re hoping for the grace that comes from knowing we are doing our very best to make decisions that will take our little family in the direction of true freedom.

As of December 1, 2010 our loans total $69,176.76.
We have $0 in credit card debt (we no longer use credit cards), our car is paid for, and we do not have a mortgage. When we pay off our student loans, our goal is to be completely debt free.

This blog is an invitation to readers to join us as we fight our ingrained overspending tendencies and battle our student loans to the death. Are you ready for an epic journey?

If you’d like to join in the fun, we’re going to take reader submitted questions in old-school mail format. So once a week or so (or however often we get them) we will post reader questions and challenges for us and for Spencer. The more entertaining, the better! Find your stash of stamps and envelopes, and submit your message:

Ali & Rachel H
PO Box 11506
Portland, OR 97211

For future reference, you can always find this address on the ABOUT US page from the blog menu.