What makes you happy?

Smiley face image
KJ: What makes you tick, what makes you happy, what gives you joy? Quite a loaded question I know! Well, let’s take a step back a little from the purely philosophical and look at it from the perspective of personal finance. Finding the things that make you happy can spell financial success for you and your family.

AJ: So often personal finances and any discussion of money can feel overwhelming, but there’s so much happiness in life that money is really just a means to an end and keeping that perspective changes the conversation completely.

So, which of the following make you happy?

What about paying your bills on time. Does that give you warm fuzzies?
Um, absolutely. Being ABLE to pay our bills on time is something I’m endlessly thankful for. Being able to leverage credit card perks to our benefit relies entirely on our ability to pay the bills on time each month in full, so this is a huge source of comfort.

Being in control of your finances.
Sure, this one is a bit of an accomplishment, and I don’t think there’s anyone who feels they are in TOTAL control of their finances. Why else would it be called an emergency fund? You never know when that emergency will come up be it medical, home, job interruption, etc. Find the specific method that helps you stay up on your expenses: good old pen and paper (AJ’s preference is the Moleskine Classic Notebook since you can store receipts in the back, plus it’s a good carrying size), Mint.com, Quicken, Yodlee!, or whatever other app suits your fancy.

Being in control also means that you’re having conversations, you have plans in place and you’re in agreement on how money is earned and spent. Control in our house looks like KJ managing investments and AJ managing variable expenses.

Having no debt.
If it gives you personal satisfaction to pay off debt, then start paying off your smallest debt first. You’ll see the quick progress you’ve been able to make, and then it can give you just that motivation you need to keep paying the same amount until the next card (or debt) is paid off. And so on and so forth. Keep the course, and don’t get frustrated along the way. It’s a process, and it’s something that your future self (and family) will surely thank you for!

Building up your savings? Retirement, emergency, or just because.
Doesn’t it feel great to watch those account balances increase month-over-month? Sure…there are market forces that can cause a temporary pause (or pullback), but watching it quarter over quarter and year over year can be a great way to see the kind of progress that you are making. And, for me, it really motivates me to try and do MORE.

Getting to work early.
Maybe getting to work on time (or early) will help you invest in yourself and earn that next promotion. At the very least it shows your employer that you’re invested in what you’re doing and in your role within the company. Creating a point of differentiation between yourself and your peers is instrumental in helping your boss see your potential.

Getting a pat on the back for a job well done.
Find out what it is that got you that pat on the back. Was it being timely (or early), securing a large client, passing a certification, your communiation skills among your team members (or cross-team)? Whatever it was, repeat to assure you’re doing what you need to at work!

Watching your kid graduate (kindergarten, high school, college).
Sometimes this is a financial commitment, and other times it’s just a matter of the time you spend with your kids to help them learn and teach them.

Giving back in a meaningful way.
For us, the earning money piece is a small piece in what brings us financial happiness. Being able to share what we’ve been blessed enough to earn is very closely tied to our overall happiness and giving back in ways that improve our community ultimately benefits us all.

So, what makes you happy?
If you can reflect on what has brought you enjoyment over the years, then plan your next month around how to make that a priority to replicate that. Help yourself and your family align around the things you all agree are important and fulfilling as a source for discussing finances which is much more fun than talking about cutting costs to stay within budget!

What makes you happy? is copyrighted by TheSimpleMoneyBlog.com without consent to republish.

Some of the links in the post above may be affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. We feel strongly about only recommending products or services we use personally and/or believe will add value to you, our readers. Read more about our commitment to providing quality product recommendations.

Five smart ways to maximize your budget starting today

AJ & KJ: With a fresh start to the new year, here are some ways you can stretch the value of your dollars just a little bit more. Most of these are so simple, you’ll probably wonder why you haven’t done this before. With this year just beginning, sit down with your budget and see which of these options you could adopt for your family to stretch your bucks just a little bit further in 2015.

Buy in bulk and store smartly
Whether you’re trying to plan for just yourself, you and a significant other, or an entire family, buying in bulk can be the best way to stretch the value of your dollars.

One example of when we did this recently that was an AWESOME find was our recent fruit purchase at Sprouts. They were doing a special on fresh berries for very cheap, so we did what we always do when something is heavily discounted – we buy a TON! We probably spent about $70 on fresh fruit alone, and you’re probably wondering how we didn’t have so much of it go to waste since berries are obviously (pretty quickly) perishable. Angela laid out the berries on several baking sheets in one layer and threw them in the freezer. After about a day or two, we essentially had individually flash frozen berries that could then be pilled into ziplock bags for future use. A month later, we’re still filling our smoothies with the fruits of our labor (pun intended!).

Also, anytime chicken, steak, pork, you name it, is heavily discounted, we buy about as much as we can. Then, as soon as we get home, we portion out the food into individual ziplock bags and store it in the freezer, so we don’t have to thaw the whole package when it comes time to actually use it.

The key to success with buying in bulk is knowing what you typically pay for specific items prior to buying large quantities of it. Even when we don’t need something, I’ll stock up on it because it will ultimately save us money though at times it can feel like I’m a food hoarder!

Track your expenses
If you’re not tracking your expenses, how will you be able to identify ways to trim your expenses? The answer is you generally can’t! So, jump on the bandwagon for Mint.com, Quicken, or any of the other expense tracking sites to find one that works for you and your family to keep you on track.

For us, the wheels come off of our bus completely when we’re not properly tracking our expenses. We each manage expenses in a different way, so we can compare notes on what’s already hit the accounts vs. what is still left to hit in that month to ensure we’re staying the course.

Credit cards with rewards points
We’ve recently reassessed our credit cards that we use to see if there is a way to maximize our purchases. It ultimately came down to making a few changes to the cards we have on hand.

We now are utilizing the Fidelity American Express credit card where we can earn 2% back on ALL purchases. Sure, Amex isn’t approved everywhere, but it’s now our main go-to card for purchases. Previously, we used the Chase Freedom card where you would get 1% cash back on all purchases, but 5% back on certain rotating categories. Then, you would get an additional 10% bonus on your rewards each year. After 2015, Chase is no longer going to be offering the 10% bonus, plus, the rotating 5% categories are seldom how we actually spend our money, so it’s really not all that great of a card for us anymore since the card only ends up offering just slightly more than 1% on average.

Fortunately too, we found another card through American Express that offers 6% back on supermarkets and 3% back on gasoline with 1% back on other categories, and despite it’s annual fee, it’s worth it for us based on our home’s expenses in these categories. Not all credit cards with an annual fee are worth it, so you just have to run the numbers and see how your family spends money to know if it’s worth it. The key is first tracking your expenses, so you can be able to easily do this assessment!

This is something that Kirby manages for us, as I have a hard time keeping up with which expenses can be maximized on which cards. It’s SO worthwhile to get your credit cards to work for you, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and it’s not a set it and forget it approach.

We only recommend products that we feel strongly about, so for more details on these cards, please contact us. We can send additional details on these cards. With the the regular Amex with the extra grocery rewards, you can get a $150 bonus after spending $1,000 in the first three months (plus it will help support our blog a little bit) – win/win!

As a final caveat, don’t get a credit card unless you will be paying it off in full each month. Carrying a balance is a surefire way to eliminate ALL of the rewards benefits in an instant.

Grocery rewards
Join your local grocery store rewards programs, and read the fine print! Our preferred grocery store is Tom Thumb, and their Just 4 U program is excellent and super easy! You can pre-load coupons to the card for instant savings the next time you’re at the grocery store.

Also, Tom Thumb (and a lot of other grocer stores) offer 2-5X rewards points for gasoline by purchasing gift cards. We’ve not yet found this AS valuable – unless they’re doing an additional discount on gift cards – since we use Cardpool.com quite religiously, but it’s something on our radar nonetheless.

Use Cardpool.com
If you haven’t checked out Cardpool.com, then you should head on over there ASAP. We’ve spent a lot of money through them throughout this last year for a lot of our major projects and expenses, and we’ve saved TONS of money on items we were going to spend on anyways. The key (with this and with all gift card discounts) is to only purchase items you would normally buy! Don’t use it as a way to spend extra money when you’re at [insert store name here] if you weren’t going to spend the money anyways.

This site is a great way to stretch the value of your dollars too. Plus, if you got a gift card that you know you wouldn’t want to use, you can sell it to them and put the money to better use.

Aside from Home Depot gift cards, we typically purchase e-gift cards that we turn around and use within the same day for online purchases we’re already planning to make. It’s definitely an extra step and if you think you might be returning the items it can be a little annoying because then you will mostly receive your money back in the form of store credit, not ideal. Several of the retailers we shop with have more than a 6% discount on them and when you tack on other discounts and coupons you can find through sites like Retailmenot.com, maximizing online purchases is fast and can save really significant amounts.

Five smart ways to maximize your budget starting today is copyrighted by TheSimpleMoneyBlog.com without consent to republish.

Some of the links in the post above may be affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. We feel strongly about only recommending products or services we use personally and/or believe will add value to you, our readers. Read more about our commitment to providing quality product recommendations.

New Year’s Resolutions

Happy 2015

AJ: We knew months ago that our resolutions for 2015 would be hugely focused on finances, and we’ve been mentally preparing ourselves for tightening our belts.

KJ: 2015 is a year of refocusing on building up some of our emergency funds and regular savings that 2014 demanded from the various unexpected turns for some of those emergency fund items spent on our home and health.

Such an important part of giving you and your family direction throughout the year is setting good goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely (S.M.A.R.T.), so we wanted to dedicate another post this year to the goals we have set for this year (we’ve spared you some of the nitty gritty of the specificity part though!). Hopefully you’ll be inspired to do just the same!

It doesn’t help to create goals that sound good but that you don’t actually put pen to paper on what you need to do to keep the goal in front of you to actually achieve it. If you say you want to read 12 books a year, then set specific targets of which book (or types of books) you want read at certain milestones, so you can better hold yourself accountable.

Most of the goals for this year aren’t as personal as they are financial. Ultimately, we ended 2014 about where we hoped to be despite some of the financially significant setbacks. The good thing (for what it’s worth) about having a lower net worth, is it’s easier to increase it from a percentage standpoint in the early years – something not likely to be true as we continue to build and grow. I.e. 35% increase on $100,000 is more palatable with setbacks than 35% on $1,000,000. Not so easy to just “trim” your way to get to such a large increase on $1,000,000!

Here are some of the goals we have set for ourselves looking into this next year:

Net worth – More lofty goals here for 2015, but again, the benefit of coming from a lower net worth is that large percentage increases are generally easier to maneuver through. Absent any big market disruptions or large unforeseen expenses to derail the plan, we might just hit it, especially with our major home renovation costs behind us. This means saving more and spending less, easy as pie, right?
Charitable efforts – We are working on creating a specific target for this year (slap on the hand for not having a SPECIFIC goal yet!), and we plan to look more closely in the next month at the time and monetary commitment to see where we can do more than we did in 2014. The important piece for us with regards to charitable efforts is to be realistic. We have demanding jobs and lives, so ensuring we commit to what we can feasibly give of our time is even more challenging than what we give financially. Thus why having a plan is so important!
Continue to maintain a healthy style – This one involves some impact to the budget each month through our boot camp we participate in and gardening costs. Although there are a number of ways to make this expense lower, the boot camp is just what we need in order to keep us motivated and on track. There’s something about not having to think about planning the workout itself, mixing it up for variety, and actually getting some motivation from those around us that makes the boot camp we’ve been doing since July a perfect fit. Other items impacting our healthy lifestyle are eating more vegetables thanks in part to our gardening efforts as we head into our second year of having a garden with fresh arugula, potatoes, green beans, squash, and tomatoes to name just a few. Yumm!
AJ: As the planter of said garden I’m committing to better mapping out what we can realistically plant and grow vs the two acre garden I apparently purchased for this year. I’m not sure how all home gardeners feel, but I spent way more money creating, filling and re-filling my garden than I ever would have had I purchased the same amount of produce from the store, so this year I’ll more accurately plot out my beds and not over buy seeds and plants.

Continue to develop professionally – This is the first year in the last seven that I’m going into without a really solid set of professional goals. Generally, I want to be a better employee and boss, provide value in as many ways as is possible, and I want to let go of some of the daily frustrations that detract from my overall happiness.
Stay the financial course – Shamefully it was I who wanted the house painted top to bottom, I who purchased new bedding, boat loads of plants and seeds and patio furniture to boot! It was my car that needed servicing, my wardrobe that needed mending and my trigger finger that did online shopping. Therefore, it will also be my cross to bear to ensure that we’re on the straight and narrow this year. Some months there were so many transactions I genuinely stopped writing them down – my hand was getting tired! We make an awesome team, but at the end of the day I know that my iron fist-management of our variable expenses is the only way we stay on track, and stay on track we shall.

Read four financial books – I didn’t read all of the books that I planned for 2014, but I met 75% of the goal, so some of those are making an appearance on my list of books to read in 2015. Good thing I had a random inkling to read a book a couple days ago. Great kick off for 2015 – one down!
Complete household projects – This year’s list of things to-do around the house are fortunately not improvement projects that will require some moolah, but I feel that I need some kind of list to actually check off as I go for those little things I’ve been meaning to take care of around the house. Most of the projects will just take an hour or two to complete, so hopefully I can check off all that’s on this list in the first quarter of 2015.
Continue to develop professionally – Through ongoing Continuing Education (CE) requirements, it’s not only required for many of my certifications and groups I am a member of, but it’s something that’s very important to focus on all throughout the year. I finished all of my certification requirements early this year, and I hope to do the same for this next year too. Human capital development, here we come!

We couldn’t wait for a clean start with the new year! 2014 was a doozy to say the least, and we’re looking forward to a more future-focused year.

    So, what are your New Year’s resolutions?
    Let us know what goals you have set for yourself!

Image courtesy of franky242 / Freedigitalphotos.net.

New Year's Resolutions is copyrighted by TheSimpleMoneyBlog.com without consent to republish.

Some of the links in the post above may be affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. We feel strongly about only recommending products or services we use personally and/or believe will add value to you, our readers. Read more about our commitment to providing quality product recommendations.

What a year!

What a year!
AJ: A few times in the last month I’ve found myself thinking and saying “good riddance, 2014!” and yet, when I sat down to outline this out-of-the-norm year, it had a lot of high points!

In 2013 when we laid out our budget there were all kinds of unknown variables we were up against that we couldn’t have anticipated but were able to work through given our slush fund, our years of planning and saving and our commitment to staying the course in the midst of significant expenses. Good thing for emergency funds!

We’ve covered details of what I’ve lovingly deemed “the year of spend” throughout the year, but as we prepare to move forward into a year of focused saving and re-prioritization, here’s what 2014 looked like for us:

1. Medical expenses hit all-time highs.
We discovered we’re now old, physically speaking. We kicked off February with KJ in the hospital for a week with a mysterious, very scary illness that resulted in us hitting his insurance deductible in a day. We maximized that with a year full of medication, physical therapy, doctor visits and more. Who knew there would be a benefit to hitting your medical deductible early in the year!

Then, in March, AJ got a medical diagnosis that added significant monthly expenses in supplements that were unplanned and not covered by insurance which will continue to impact our budget monthly.

After two rounds of eye-opening physical changes we signed up for a monthly boot camp in July that adds significant expense to our monthly budget, but it has reduced stress and waistlines and gives us an awesome outlet for our competitive energy, we’ll take it!

Sure there are ways to spend less in this area, but it’s what really works for us, our lifestyles, and making a commitment to actually exercising!

2. Home renovations.
Our first full year in our not-so-new-anymore-house brought with it a ton of changes that checked off a lot of our wish-list boxes:

    - We spent a few back-breaking weekends refinish our deck that’s now beautiful, sturdy, well-used and loaded with gorgeous furniture.
    - We installed a huge, privacy-giving, expensive fence that completely changed how we love and use our backyard.
    - We built raised beds for produce which we’ve successfully cultivated and enjoyed all year.
    - We painted the entire inside of the house which immediately made it feel more cozy and like our home.
    - We replaced our previous builder-grade washer and dryer with shiny, new machines that I adore.
    - We upgraded our TVs. This one doesn’t feel like a renovation but it was on the list of things we wanted for our new home, so we’re thrilled, and for budgeting considerations, this is expensive enough to count as a renovation :)

3. We committed to donating more.
We were both raised by generous people to be generous people, and it’s a combined passion of ours that becomes increasingly important to our family. Historically we’ve split our financial and time commitments 50/50. This year, our jobs and commitments didn’t allow for as much time, so we shifted to a 75/25 financial vs. time commitment. It certainly had budget implications, but the long-term benefit to our community is well-worth the budget sacrifice we made.

We’ve had a banner year, no question about it. We’re infinitely more appreciative of our health and our physical well-being which we absolutely took for granted. We love sharing our home with family and friends and are thankful to have a physical representation of our love for each other and our families. And most importantly, we’ve outspent our budget and have lived to tell about it. KJ is always more level-headed about spending and about small set backs being just that, small blips on the radar, not the major crises they can feel like in the throes of course-altering changes and we’re looking forward to a more lean year ahead.

We wish you and your family health, happiness, perspective and budgeting in 2015!

What a year! is copyrighted by TheSimpleMoneyBlog.com without consent to republish.

Some of the links in the post above may be affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. We feel strongly about only recommending products or services we use personally and/or believe will add value to you, our readers. Read more about our commitment to providing quality product recommendations.

Time to update your savings plan for 2015 – new 401k, HSA, and other contribution limits increased!

2015 Contribution Limits
KJ: With updated savings limits for 2015 being finalized by the IRS recently, it’s time to plan for this next year for any changes to your savings plan. Some limits were increased (401(k), SEP, SIMPLE), but others remain the same (IRA). Either way, it can mean more strategic cash flow planning for your family, so you can eek out a little more savings for your future selves.

401k Employee Contributions
The IRS updated their contribution limits for what you can save to your 401(k). Regular & Roth 401(k) contribution limits for 2014 were $17,500, and this number increases $500 to $18,000 per year for 2015. And, if you’re over the age of 50, then you can contribute an additional $6,000 for a whopping $24,000 per year.

Whether you contribute to the 401(k) pre-tax or via Roth, the limit is the same! That works out to a savings of $1,500 per month. Whether you’re early to the saving game or late to the game, contributing SOME amount is critical. Then, as you get better and better with your savings, work to try and maximize this over time.

IRA Contributions
IRA contribution limits are unchanged for 2015 from the 2014 levels. So, each person can contribute up to $5,500 for 2015. If you’re over the age of 50, then you can sock away an extra $1,000 per year for a total of $6,500.

HSA Contributions
HSA contribution limits have increased slightly for 2015. For single individuals on a high deductible health plan (HDHP), you can contribute $3,350 per year. For family plans, you can contribute just shy of double that figure at $6,650. And, if you’re age 55 or older (not to be confused that this is a different age than the IRA and 401k “catch-up” contribution limits), you can save an additional $1,000.

SEP IRA Contributions
These accounts are typically just for those who are self-employed, and the contribution maximums are quite substantial. For 2014, you can contribute $52,000. For 2015, this figure is increased to $53,000.

SIMPLE IRA Contributions
Some people have access to a SIMPLE IRA through work – not uncommon for smaller employers, and these contribution amounts have increased for 2015, too. The old figures for 2014 were $12,000 with a $2,500 age-50 catch-up. This figure is increased $500 per year to $12,500 with an extra $3,000 contribution for those who are over age 50.

Read more about SEP IRAs and SIMPLE IRAs on the IRS site about Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs).

Regular savings
With your regular savings account(s), you can sock away any amount per year or month that you want until your heart is content!

Investment savings
If you have a long-term investment brokerage account with some good old stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etc. then you have NO limits on what you can contribute each year for these accounts either. The sky’s the limit!

Setting your plan for 2015
With LOTS of ways to save in tax-advantaged ways, there typically isn’t a shortage of ways you can save. If you have a 401(K) at work, an HSA, and an IRA, then $26,850 is what you can contribute between the three accounts – that’s about a hefty $2,200 per month! For a spouse or significant other in the same situation, double that figure for a total of $53,700 for your household! Woah!

And, just because you don’t have a 401(K) through work, doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel and stop saving. In fact, it means it’s all the more important for you to contribute to your regular savings and investments to build your net worth that way over time.

    What are your savings goals for 2015?
    Will you be changing your contributions for any of these accounts?

Time to update your savings plan for 2015 - new 401k, HSA, and other contribution limits increased! is copyrighted by TheSimpleMoneyBlog.com without consent to republish.

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