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How did I get so lucky?

When you’ve worked hard and sacrificed to achieve a goal, it’s difficult to know how to respond when people say “You’re so lucky!” or “You have no idea how lucky you are” or “It must be nice” or something else to that effect. I heard it all the time when I first quit my job to be a stay at home mom, and I still hear it once in a while now.

Napoleon Dynamite lucky

It used to hurt because people didn’t realize that my circumstances didn’t just happen, or that it’s not always easy and fun. I didn’t quit my job because my husband makes so much money that I didn’t need to work (actually, I had been earning more than him). We had a goal, we made tough choices, and we went for it on an income that most people would say isn’t nearly enough. They didn’t see the low points, like when I cried because I forgot my store loyalty card and had to pay full price for diapers, and they didn’t feel my stomach churn every time I needed to make a big purchase.

Now, as a blogger who writes to try to enable others to have the same “luck”, such comments are deflating for another reason. “You’re lucky” feels like a dismissal of everything I try so hard to do. It’s like telling me, “It’s great that you can do that, but I never could.” But I don’t blog to show off. I blog to share ideas and to help. I don’t want a fan club, I want friends with similar goals. And if I can, I want to help you reach those goals.

One of my many quirks is that I tend not to put other people on a pedestal. I look at achievement, and I think “Hmmm…another human being did that. Maybe I could, too.” Many times I am wildly off base (like when I thought I could totally sculpt a wedding cake topper in the likeness of my husband and myself, or when I tried to patch cracks in our plaster walls after watching YouTube videos), but the many things I have learned and done happened because “I can’t” never really entered my mind (at least not until I actually failed).

I am not offended, depressed, or jealous because of the achievement of others. You shouldn’t be, either.

I thought I’d give you a look under the hood, so-to-speak, to see some of the ways my family lives on a rather modest income (when I’m not busy eating chocolates, watching soap operas and soaking in bubble baths).

As the mother goose in Charlotte’s Web said of her seven hatchlings:

Luck has nothing to do with it! It was good management and hard work.

Housing

leaded glass windows

One of the nice features in our 1918 home.

We bought our first home in 2006 after renting an apartment for a year. In hindsight, we would be so much better off financially if we had just continued renting, but home ownership was important to us. We got pre-approved for a mortgage, laughed at the amount the bank said we could afford, and purchased a tiny home that cost much less. It needed a lot of work, even more than we realized when we signed the contract.

We saved our money when we were both working and paid for improvements like a new roof, painting the house, and new flooring with cash. When we outgrew our first home, we sold for a profit. It was a much smaller profit than we had hoped for, but considering the market, we were fortunate we came out ahead at all.

Our current house is much larger and much older. It has some nice features like a beautiful porch, gorgeous woodwork and leaded glass windows. What people can’t see lurking underneath is knob-and-tube wiring that needs updating, nightmarish plumbing in the single bathroom, drafty windows, and other odds-and-ends that will need seeing to. It stresses me out, but I try to focus on the positive.

We live in an area that is kind of dull and boring, but the cost of living is low, the pace is relaxed, and we have great schools.

Our home has been furnished almost exclusively with hand-me-downs and Craigslist purchases, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Food

homemade pizza

I was excited when I finally mastered homemade pizza.

Meal planning is the best way to save money on groceries. Before heading to the grocery store, we have a list of meals for the whole week, and the ingredients we need to buy to make them. Of course it’s best to match meals with sale items and in-season items, but even if you don’t, you’ll save a lot of money just by sticking to what you actually need. Our current grocery budget is $400 per month.

We buy very few convenience products, and instead make most meals from scratch (including baby food). I’ve talked about couponing in the past, and we still use coupons a bit, but less so than we used to.

My husband has always brought his own lunch to work, even when we were both working and had a lot of money to spare.

Eating out is something we enjoy doing once in a while. We can trade in credit card reward points for gift cards to some of our favorite restaurants that we use for date nights. Other times we might go out for a pizza, or to some inexpensive family restaurant. Usually when we do splurge it’s because my husband has worked some overtime and we have a little extra money.

Transportation

My husband and I have never, ever, owned brand new cars.

I entertained the notion of being a one-car family, since I drive very little during the week, but with my husband working almost 30 miles away, it was impractical. In a typical month I fill my gas tank once.

We currently have a car loan because my husband’s car unexpectedly bit the dust in spectacular fashion before we could save up enough cash to buy another one. I was very disappointed since we had only recently paid off all our debt except our mortgage, but sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. We intend to pay it off much earlier than scheduled.

We landed a great interest rate (less than 3%) to purchase a low-mileage pre-owned economy car with an excellent reputation for reliability. Its gas mileage is so much better than my husband’s old car, which makes a big difference for us — he commutes almost 60 miles per day. His previous car lasted 11 years (we owned it for 8), and we hope to get just as much life, if not more, out of his “new” car.

Entertainment

old TV

We ditched our hundreds of cable channels years ago, and have just basic cable (which I also plan to cancel soon because the price keeps creeping up). We now supplement with Amazon Prime Instant Video after deciding that it could replace Netflix.

We use the same big boxy TV that my husband and I bought in 2005. It’s a piece of junk — the buttons on the front perform the wrong functions (the volume buttons change the channel, for example), and we need to turn it up almost all the way to hear DVDs, but it’s still not so bad that we want to spend the money to replace it.

We pay for high speed internet, which makes blogging, streaming video, talking on the phone and working online possible. For our home phone we use Vonage, but I plan to replace that with MagicJack or something similar in the near future to save even more money.

We spend $200 per year for our two cell phones. We do not have data plans. It’s amazing to me how many people cannot fathom living without expensive cell phone plans, when a couple decades ago, everyone was doing just that.

Clothing

clearance kids clothing

An example of some clearance clothing finds when my oldest boy was a toddler

We shop for clothing infrequently, and when we do, I always head to the clearance racks first. If I can’t find what I need there, I’ll wait for sales and coupon codes. I also occasionally find things for myself at thrift shops or consignment stores, and I have sometimes benefited from hand-me-downs from relatives.

My oldest son has always worn new clothes because we don’t have anyone to hand things down to him, and there are slim pickings in thrift shops around here. We saved everything and haven’t had to buy very much for his baby brother.

Whether I’m shopping for myself or my family, I always try to find the best quality for my money, and choose classic looks that will stand the test of time.

Personal Care

I don’t get my hair highlighted, I don’t go for manicures or pedicures, and we don’t belong to a gym. I use drugstore beauty products.

I taught myself to cut boy’s and men’s hair, so my guys don’t have to pay for the barber. That’s one of the more extreme money-saving things I’ve done. I never in a million years would have thought that I could cut hair, but it turned out to be easier than I expected.

Travel

Smithsonian gem exhibit

My son still talks about a trip to the Smithsonian museums we took when he was three.

We don’t go on expensive vacations. My husband and I sadly haven’t been to England (where he’s from) since our oldest was born. That is one of the first things we’ll do once we’re able to save up the money.

I would also love to take our boys to Disney World someday. But, for now, we keep our trips inexpensive by driving to our destinations, and doing free or cheap activities, like museums and parks.

Toys

Christmas presents under the tree

We give our boys new toys on Christmas and their birthdays. That is pretty much it. We sometimes reward good behavior or celebrate holidays like Easter with an inexpensive toy, a new book, or some kind of treat. We always have a set budget whenever we buy gifts.

Yes, we’ve had to deal with begging and pleading in the toy department, but I just ask my son “Do you have the money for that? Well, I don’t either.” It’s getting a little trickier now that he’s older and thinks that cashiers or banks hand out free money if you ask, but I’ve never been successfully pestered into buying something.

School and Activities

Petting a turtle

A visit from the Zoomobile at the public library is good, free fun.

My oldest son is five and he isn’t in extracurricular anything. This is for both financial reasons and lifestyle reasons. School takes up a lot of time and energy as it is, and we like to enjoy meals together as a family each night. I don’t like to rush around. That said, we will probably add some inexpensive activities to the mix as he gets a little bit older and has narrowed down his interests.

Before he was in school we enjoyed the wonderful free programs offered by our public library, including a Kindermusik program. I’ll do the same with my younger son when he’s old enough. We skipped pre-school (with no regrets), and now we use public school.

Debt

Other than our car loan, we have no debt besides our mortgage. We use a rewards credit card to manage bills, but we pay off the balance every month. We paid off the remainder of our student loans ahead of schedule.

It’s automatic for us to think in terms of cash. Financing a project or a large purchase is an absolute last resort. In fact, when I’m considering how we’ll pay for a large project or purchase, I often forget that financing is even an option.

Saving

As I mentioned last week, we have various savings accounts that see us through the year and ensure our financial stability. We have money set aside for special occasions, emergencies and recurring expenses. If we have extra after everything is paid for, we save it.

We have also saved a small amount for retirement for as long as we’ve been working. We never stopped, even when we were working on paying off debt, and when times were really tough. It’s not as much as we should be saving, but even a little bit will really add up over time. In fact, the stock market has been doing so well that we are currently on track to retire early. I’m expecting things to come crashing back down to reality any time now, but it’s still exciting to see what just a little bit of saving can do.

Extra Income

Even with all the frugal measures we’ve taken, there have been times when we really needed a little more money to keep our show on the road. This was especially true when my oldest son was a baby and we were completely unprepared for the several hundred dollars per month it would cost to feed him hypoallergenic baby formula.

I have taken on a variety of side jobs that I worked during naptime, in the evening, and into the wee hours, to help us make ends meet. I’ll write more about that in another post.

It takes effort

I very much enjoy the “finer things” in life, so living more simply is definitely a sacrifice that doesn’t always come easily. However, the longer I do it, and the more financial security we build for our family, the easier it becomes.

Once you start seeing real results, it’s a lot easier to make relatively small sacrifices that at one time would have seemed big. It’s also, of course, very rewarding to be able to watch my sons grow — the years fly by.

Maybe you’re doing just fine without having to make all of these sacrifices. That’s okay, too. I’m not jealous. This is what we have to do in order to make our enviable lifestyle possible, and I’m okay with that.

Make your own luck

thomas jefferson luck quote

I know that the economy is bad, and people are struggling. Many of us are not living the lifestyles we imagined for ourselves when we first set out on our own, full of hope.

When you’re stressed, depressed, disappointed or feeling beat down by your circumstances, it can be hard to recognize opportunities to change course. I used to spend my days thinking “If only I could win a sweepstakes. If only my husband could get an awesome new job. If only I could land a book deal.” Really.

Then, a lightbulb went off in my head and I realized I had the power to do something about our situation now instead of waiting for and depending on something that was unlikely to happen.

I’m not here to trumpet my own horn or play a pathetic song on my violin. Some people are much more disciplined about their spending habits than I am, and others have much tougher circumstances to deal with than I do.

But the fact is, if you are reading this in the United States, or another developed “first world” country, you are lucky.

No matter what cards you have been dealt, never dismiss something you wish you could do as somebody else’s luck; little changes and a lot of determination can add up in a big way. If you’re resigned to life being all about good luck or bad luck or other factors outside your control, you’ll miss those opportunities to make your own “luck”. Hang in there, and never give up on your dreams.

Image source: shamrocks (quote added)

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