Our approach to Valentine’s day: built on love, but not on “stuff”

Valentine's Day heartAJ & KJ: One of the key themes that we’re always searching for in a gift is for experiences and not stuff. We have been very fortunate to have enough stuff, and over the years, we have learned that it’s the experiences we spend together that will last us a lifetime. And thus was born our Valentine’s day tradition that’s been going strong since our college years. Some people loathe this Hallmark holiday, and others cherish the opportunity to build their collection of *stuff,* but we’re more middle-ground when it comes to our tradition for this particular holiday.

Keeping it simple
We don’t buy one another gifts or have really complicated plans for what we want to do on Valentine’s day to share in the special moments, but we do have a long-standing tradition of a nice, relaxing couple’s massage and then an all-you-can-eat churascaria extravaganza (read, lots of high quality beef on skewers at our disposal! – Texas de Brazil and Boi Na Braza among our favorites). It certainly isn’t one of the cheapest Valentine’s dates we could have, but it’s what we do each year to spend the day together and treat ourselves to a great experience that really matters. The exact day itself doesn’t really matter to us – as we often don’t celebrate on the actual day since our go-to restaurants can be quite crowded, but we always celebrate Valentine’s day and relax from our busy lives either the weekend before or the weekend after. We’re going for simple, and we feel that we’ve kind of found a sweet spot.

Building a tradition
Traditions are great and they help you build a nice foundation. You’re not trying to continuously compete against your prior gift and constantly do more, and more, and more (as chances are, you’ll never get to the point where you’ve done the *most* you can), so you learn to really sit back and appreciate the hours, the minutes, and the seconds – those special moments to reflect on your years together and to be excited for the years to come. In this fast-paced world, we have little down-time to truly relax and catch-up, and we’ve found that our nice little tradition has not only lasted years, but it’s something we look forward to.

Find value where you can
Just because it’s fancy doesn’t mean you can’t find value, so find value where you can (sorry for all the double negatives…)! Even though it sounds quite luxurious to have a couple’s massage and an expensive restaurant, we’ve always managed to keep it reasonable and find ways to stretch our dollars. For most years, we went to Massage Envy for a great, discounted rate, since as a non-member, you can enjoy a discounted massage once every year (at least that’s how it was when we last went), and we timed it with a special pricing at one of our churascaria go-to restaurants (as it always seems at least one of them is offering discounted dinner AND dessert!).

Set expectations
My favorite thing about how we do Valentine’s day is that the expectations are known. Give a thoughtful card, show appreciation, and settle in for a nice day together.

This year’s plan
This year, we’re changing our tune just a little bit since we purchased an all-in-one massage and lunch package from a silent auction at an annual gala of an organization we support each year, but the gist is the same. Massage and lots of food! Sure, there are probably feng shui reasons for not doing these back-to-back, but hey, it works for us and it serves a dual purpose – donating to an organization we’re passionate about and indulging in our favorite things. We also agreed to make cards for each other this year. Arts and crafts 101! I think it speaks to our overall priorities – showing each other appreciation and enjoying being together.

    What traditions do you have for Valentine’s Day?
    Do you hate Valentine’s Day or love Valentine’s Day?
    What holiday traditions have you built for you and your loved one for other occasions?

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Food plan recap: how well did we fare?

AJ: How well you say? Not well :) Kirby said to me one night “have we eaten ANYTHING from the meal plan this month?” to which I responded “pretty much, no.” Some months I’m the first to admit that I’m a complete failure at sticking to the plan. We’ve been working longer days than are typical, we’ve had more schedule changes than is typical and we’ve been WAY. MORE. TIRED. than is typical. All of which result in an exhausted Angela who isn’t great at sticking to the plan and who is okay with eating Sour Patch Kids for dinner.

Food food food

The goal was to spend $55.57 on our groceries and meals out. Additionally, I planned a budget of $350 for the bridal shower I threw with the hope of saving an extra $270 from our food budget.

ACTUAL JANUARY FOOD SPEND: I spent less on the shower than I expected to, but we did eat out a few more times than I had originally planned for. All-in I spent $256 on food for the shower, under $20 on non-shower-related groceries, $130 on meals out and saved an extra $370 from food this month to recoup on my over spending on shopping in December on hugely discounted clothes for both of us, a giant Christmas tree on clearance and all new lighting and backsplash tile to round out our major home upgrades. Not bad for almost never sticking to the plan. Regardless of veering drastically off-course, we still have the same goal at the end of the day – save so much that it shocks us into saving even more. And without any further comment, here’s how we adjusted:

1/1 Poached Eggs on Toast – a family favorite featuring my perfectly poached eggs on boiling, bubbly cheese.
1/2 Kirby’s company Christmas party.
1/3 We were supposed to have dinner with friends, but they had to reschedule, so we’re grilling steaks with creamed corn (even our back up meals are awesome).
1/4 Coconut Shrimp with broccoli – Kirby “wasn’t that hungry,” and I “didn’t feel like shrimp” after I already thawed them and we didn’t even have broccoli (add to my to-do list to come up with a better system for tracking foods I have in my freezers and pantry!), so we went to Taco Bell. I turned the thawed shrimp into shrimp tacos for lunch on 1/5. Don’t waste food just because you’re feeling flighty about what you planned!
1/5 Chicken pad thai with double sauce (because we like it saucy) – We weren’t hungry for dinner on Sunday, go figure. So we just moved the Pad Thai to Monday.
1/6 French toast with sausage links We’re big breakfast for dinner people, but we substituted for chicken pad thai with double sauce instead.
1/7 Pecan crusted chicken tenders with roasted brussels sprouts – We went out for Mexican and spent $29.31. Not earth shattering!
1/8 Chicken fried rice – I had a last minute work dinner pop up, so we got to indulge in a cost-free night out which is always a treat! Chicken fried rice made an appearance later this month, though, it’s a crowd favorite!
1/9 Baked chicken parmesan
1/10 Grilled chicken with roasted sweet potatoes. – we turned this into pork chops and sweet potatoes, and it was delicious.
1/11 My parents’ anniversary dinner that we got to tag along for. This was terrible for the New Year’s resolution of losing weight but was good for morale and good for the soul.
1/12 Crock pot chicken tortilla soup I wanted to bail on this but Kirby held me to it! We ate it for lunch leftovers for three days each. Talk about a bang for your buck meal!
1/13 Shrimp & veggie stir fry This just straight up didn’t sound good to us. We had quesadillas instead.
1/14 Breakfast burritos with bacon I was too exhausted, so we went out for dinner and it cost us $33.66.
1/15 Taco turkey chili with cornbread We still had leftover chicken tortilla soup from earlier this week, so we moved breakfast burritos with bacon here.
1/16 Broiled steak with corn and green beans
1/17 Shrimp & orzo with lemon beurre blanc sauce We Papa John’s'ed it after a long charity event instead.
1/18 Whole roasted chicken with roasted potatoes (that’s a lot of roasting) – we swapped potatoes for Brussels sprouts.
1/19 Chicken and cheese enchiladas…Didn’t happen, not even a little bit.
1/20 Parmesan chicken with roasted broccoli (important to note that this is different than chicken parm from 1/9, as these are little chicken nuggets with parm on top, no marinara sauce)
1/21 Pierogi’s with beer cheese sauce…mmmmm….
1/22 Chicken n dumplings note though that we ran out of milk, and I used sour cream in my dumplings instead. It was funky and delicious! Not having an ingredient isn’t a good enough excuse to quickly decide to go out to eat.
1/23 Thai red curry shrimp with brown rice delicious!
1/24 Chicken pot pie – didn’t happen at all.
1/25 I hosted a bridal shower for my soon-to-be sister-in-law, so I banked on us being worn out and Papa John’s was the plan! – Needless to say, we had TONS of leftover food from the shower, so we didn’t even need pizza!
1/26 Cheesecake factory shrimp with angel hair Yeah, no. Still leftovers.
1/27 Chicken piccata with parmesan roasted potatoes AND leftovers.
1/28 Cheese and avocado quesadillas – AND more leftovers
1/29 Hard shell tacos – I kind of forgot I was traveling, so guess what Kirby’s was eating without me? Leftovers :) or Taco Bell.
1/30 Chicken “alfredo” (air quotes because it’s a cheese sauce I make that’s better than alfredo, but don’t tell him that) poor, poor Kirby.
1/31 Spaghetti with meat sauce

And so, despite all of those changes and shifting meals around, we were able to stay true to the challenge we presented ourselves with: save extra on our food.

    What do you do to stay on plan in your household?
    How much do you think you could realistically cut from your incidental food budget?
    Tell us what makes a food plan work for you.

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New Year’s resolutions: month one gut check

KJ: Part of any proper goal setting process is to periodically check to see the progress (or lack thereof) you have made, so you can hold yourself accountable. And with that, we have committed (no, not been committed) to accomplishing all of our goals for the year. Read more about our intro post on our 2014 goals here. Here’s our update after having a month to progress toward our goals, and let’s see what we have been able to accomplish.

AJ’s 2014 goals (drum roll, please!):
- Read 5 specific books. BLEH! I read one professional-development-type book and were it not for a work trip with a four hour flight that lacked TVs I wouldn’t have made it through. Even though it doesn’t count, I also read 3 mindless books to save the creative side of my brain from shriveling. I’m almost done with my 2nd book, too, which was supposed to be a fun book, but clearly I didn’t read enough about it prior to buying it, as it’s actually about murder. Bad call!
- Learn to knit. I looked at my knitting needles twice this month. I’m considering this progress. I also think that this might be more of a late-February goal because early February isn’t looking so hot.
-Learn how to bake. This is happening. I made cupcakes from a box without screwing them up AND I made homemade cream cheese frosting which is probably more like cooking than anything like baking but still. Let’s consider this a success! ALSO, I made biscuits from scratch (no yeast required, BUT I have purchased yeast, so hey, there’s that!). And I bought bread flour, which clearly implies intent to bake. Pizza dough, cinnamon rolls and bread are all on the horizon. Commence carbo-loading!
-Make money money, shake money money. It’s only been a month, people, let’s give this one some time to breathe :)
- Just say no. Thus far I’ve gone over and above on not drinking for one week of the month, actually not drinking for a solid 18 days! I was not quite the social leper I feared I may become, and I felt as good physically as I had hoped. This might convert into allowing only one week a month where I do drink, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s only January after all.
- Bring in $100 more per month. Even as I made this resolution I wasn’t sure how we’d get there and while we didn’t quite MAKE $100 more this month, we did all kinds of things that reduced costs. Thanks to the pair of AT&T sales kids who interrupted my dumpling making at 8 pm we got Time Warner to lower our bill by $35 a month and kick in an extra DVR. We also replaced all of our light bulbs with super energy efficient light bulbs which helped contribute to $112 in savings on our monthly bills. We saved LOTS of money by purchasing gift cards for home improvement items from Cardpool.com. And lastly, we saved several hundred dollars on the installation of our kitchen backsplash by installing it ourselves. Not too shabby!
Backsplash Counters Cupcakes and Biscuits Photos
-Maintain my ideal weight. I made it 40% of the way to getting back down to my ideal weight. I had hoped to get there by the end of January so as to start February from a place of maintenance but given all the schedule and meal plan changes, I’m not shocked I didn’t hit that target. I have worked out a minimum of two times a week, though, which accomplishes an important piece of this goal. We also plan to do the Advocare Cleanse again starting in mid-February (thus our carbo loading in early February), so by the end of February I hope to be at my ideal weight.
-Create and maintain a garden. The seeds are purchased, the drive is there, if only the weather would stop freaking out (it snowed again yesterday in Texas, for real) long enough to stop freezing (thank you Tom Thumb for carrying these new seeds on the cheap)! March is the month of planting according to plant whisperer Bob so I’m standing by, on the ready!

KJ’s 2014 goals:
- Read 5 books. I started reading the book American Gridlock: Why the Right and Left Are Both Wrong – Commonsense 101 Solutions to the Economic Crises. I haven’t quite finished it, but I am about half of the way through. It’s a book from an economist I follow, and there’s definitely a unique approach he takes to his writing style. He even has a fake back-and-forth conversation with the President…a bit quirky, yes, but I’ve been meaning to have this read from when it first was published.
- Professional development. This goal relates to continuing to invest in my own “human capital” (i.e. unique earning potential from the ability and skills used to generate an income). I haven’t learned any new technologies lately, but I did earn two hours of Continuing Education (CE) this month. Also, I’ve placed a larger emphasis on prospecting more (…that’s half the battle, right?), and I’m heading to a technology conference this week, so progress is being made.
- Maintain my ideal weight. I have lost a couple of pounds, but some of the working out has fallen by the wayside (quickly). I have been able to workout twice per week for most weeks (except this last week was only one time, so hopefully that’s an anomaly).
- Double blog readership. Thanks to a shout-out we received from BudgetsAreSexy.com, the month was off to a great start! We haven’t quite reached the audience we want to build good personal finance and savings habits, but January was a good start to the year!

OUR combined 2014 goals:
- Work out twice per week. Mostly accomplished. We were able to do this for most weeks (except the last one, as AJ attempted to sacrifice a body part on behalf of throwing a great shower and wasn’t up to snuff) so all-in-all, not too shabby.
- Increase our net worth by 35%. And this is probably one of the least successful months we’ve had. From having to pay for a fence ourselves (since our neighbor backed out from any help in the final hours – we’re not bitter, we’re not bitter, we’re not bitter) to poor market performance for January, we haven’t made any progress on this goal yet! Such is the ebb and flow of expenses over time (and markets too!), so hopefully we can make up some ground in the remaining eleven months…

    What’s the most challenging resolution you’ve taken on?
    How do you motivate yourself to stick to it?
    Where do you find your renewed commitment?

New Year's resolutions: month one gut check is copyrighted by TheSimpleMoneyBlog.com without consent to republish.

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State of the union: what is MyRA? Success or failure? What we know now.

State of the Union #myRA My Retirement AccountKJ: So without getting into any of the politics from the State of the Union, we wanted to bring a quick summary about what this new myRA account is all about (i.e. with many wondering if myRA is a new account, if it’s like a Traditional IRA, or is myRA more like a Roth IRA?…all things we hope to clarify in this post). While there are a lot of details to be ironed out, the program is designed to be made available in 2015 with some early adopters starting the program in late 2014. There are quite a few good articles out there, but here is the Whitehouse.gov press release with some additional reading. Here is what you should know now:

What it is:
(1) Another confusing acronym that sounds eerily similar when pronounced to the already existing IRA. Wait, are you saying myRA, my IRA, or just IRA? Are you saying Myra (as in the person – a mistake a number of people have made on Twitter putting @myra instead of #myRA – oops!) or my RA (as in rheumatoid arthritis or residential adviser – college dorm term). All-in-all, just a bad name choice in my opinion.
(2) A Roth IRA equivalent – The participant does not get any tax advantages today for contributing to the account today (it is “after-tax” money meaning you don’t take any current year tax deductions for what you put into the account), but it grows tax-exempt, just like a Roth IRA. Plus, an account owner can roll the funds over to a Roth IRA at a financial institution (and will be required to do so after they have accumulated $15,000 or have been invested for 30 years) at any time.
(3) Your own savings. It’s not a plan or account that the employer controls or has any say in. Really, their only involvement is to process payroll deductions and then send the funds to the Treasury for deposit into your myRA. Plus, if you leave your employer, the account is yours to take with and do what you want – and fund it again with your new employer. Thus, it has a lot of the portability benefits that a Traditional IRA or Roth IRA has.
(4) Your myRA contributions are protected from investment loss. Guaranteed by the Treasury, and the same “G” – government securities – investment option in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) for government employees in their workplace retirement programs, it will not lose principal. Check out the TSP website on historical performance for more on this fund.
(5) A way to help those save for retirement who don’t have a workplace retirement option available. However, just because you don’t have a workplace 401(k), does’t mean you have NO options on saving for retirement. See our post on how to save for retirement if you don’t have a 401(k) for some further reading.
(6) There are no tax penalties for taking a withdrawal. Much like a Roth IRA, for money you put into the account, you don’t have a penalty or taxes owed on money distributed. However, there are likely to be restrictions (much like a Roth IRA) for earnings in the account if withdrawn before a certain age and an exception doesn’t apply (read, taxes and penalties could apply to the earnings).

Who it is for:
(1) It’s touted to be for anyone who doesn’t have a workplace retirement account they can save for. Well, not EVERYONE would be eligible. It is designed to be a retirement plan that you can contribute to at work through payroll deductions, but the employer has to actually offer it as an option when processing payroll. At the current time, it sounds like it could be in addition to a 401(k), instead of a 401(k), or instead of another workplace retirement account. So, while it could be available for all, there currently isn’t a mandate that employers actually offer it as an option.
(2) Couples making less than $191,000 per year (and a lower threshold for single tax filers at $129,000 per year). It doesn’t quite say that this is when the phase-out begins (or ends) for being able to make contributions, but it sounds quite similar to the maximum income to be able to contribute to a Roth IRA for married couples.
(3) Those looking to start saving for retirement with very little money each paycheck. With contributions as low as $5 per paycheck, and minimum investments of $25, it is arguably both approachable and affordable for all families.

What are my thoughts?
(1) While a guarantee against loss of principal sounds (in theory) like a good option compared to the volatility you see in a private investment strategy (think bonds, stocks, etc.), at what long-term savings cost is this guarantee? Even just earning an extra 0.5% or 1% on your money over the long-term (though subject to periodic market swings) would equal THOUSANDS of dollars of extra retirement money. The key is holding your ground and staying invested and not panicking at the bottom of the markets. Markets fluctuate quite regularly (anyone look at their statements from January?), so learning this early in your investing career can equip you to focus long-term (i.e. 5, 10, 15, 20 years).
(2) Depending on someone’s income, it could be an interesting opportunity to get some additional funds into the myRA, then roll over to a Roth IRA, so you can ultimately get more funds in the great account that is a Roth IRA. Note that this could be severely limited pending further discussions on whether contributions to the myRA are the same limits subject to Traditional and Roth IRAs, so those maximizing their existing Roth IRAs may not be able to contribute anything to the new myRA.
(3) How can a maximum account value of $15,000 with the new myRA be enough to help America’s retirement problem? Assuming you spent the money in one year (not to mention trying to LIVE off of the account on an ongoing basis), that’s barely enough funds to provide for one year of income at the Federal poverty level, yet it’s the maximum you can save in the account? Sure you can roll the funds over to a Roth IRA above this threshold (then the sky is the limit on your account value), but what kind of cap is $15,000?
(4) It can be a good way to get people to START to think about saving for retirement and saving for their future at even a low threshold.
(5) Why do we need another account? Can’t there be solutions to enhance existing options? Is it me, or are there just too many account types out there: Traditional IRA (wait, is a portion deductible or non-deductible?), Roth IRA, SEP IRA, SARSEP IRA, SIMPLE IRA, HSA, MSA, FSA, 401(k), 403(b), TSP, TRS, 457, PSP, checking account, savings account, trusts, credit cards…anything I’m missing?

What is still to be determined:
(1) What are the exact income limitations, and is there a phase-out?
(2) How much can you actually contribute each year?
(3) How does the contribution impact your total contributions to Traditional IRAs/Roth IRAs (up to $5,500 per person for 2013 and 2014) and other retirement accounts? Will it be a new type and completely separate contribution limits or will it combine with your existing IRA limits?
(3) What is the process for when you have had the account for 30 years or when the balance reaches $15,000 and must be rolled over to a private retirement account (i.e. Roth IRA)?
(4) Will this become a requirement for employers to offer at some point?

    What have you read about the new myRA?
    Will you be keeping up with this new account type?
    What would motivate you to contribute to this new account?

State of the union speech: what is MyRA? Success or failure? What we know now. is copyrighted by TheSimpleMoneyBlog.com without consent to republish.

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January budget challenge: complete!

Spending challenge success checkboxKJ: We started this month with a post from Mr. & Mrs. H as they were about to lead into an entire “no-spend” month of January, and then just a couple weeks later they provided a mid-month update. Fast forward 31 days, and let’s see how they did!

Guest: Hi – Mrs. H here again, and boy – am I glad January is almost over! Just kidding…as much as it was hard to resist shopping impulses and food cravings to achieve this financial fast challenge, I’m actually appreciative of the peace of mind that it gave us. The goal was to simplify life and become intentional in consuming and buying resources, while getting a good handle on our budget.

For me, this meant:
1) sticking to a list when going grocery shopping (or any shopping),
2) reducing expenses that made sense (i.e. lowered auto insurance by $25/month by cutting out certain fringes and increasing our deductible),
3) cleaning out areas of the house (pantry, freezer, closets, attic, garage) – and use things up, donate, or throw away, and
4) be INTENTIONAL with any spending.

I think we did a pretty good job…I’d give us a B+, in fact! SOME things that were purchased we probably could have done without…but we intentionally made the plunge to make life easier (replacing the garage door, for example). However, the peace of mind this gave me in having a better organized house and using resources we already had, in welcoming friends into our home more than going out, and knowing that we CAN cut expenses – made this all worth it. I hereby declare January our official financial fasting month. I believe this will also increase our awareness to be intentional in everyday life throughout the year.

Mr H: Yes, dear.

KJ: We appreciate the “H” couple for undergoing this challenge and for sharing that with our readers! It can be budget-altering to change your perspective for a full month, and it can teach you how to differentiate between those “wants” and “needs” in your life – whatever they may be. I think we can all learn to live on just a little bit less. Every budget can stand to be a little more targeted in expenses, and putting the microscope over each item for a period of time can help you be even smarter about how you spend your hard-earned dollars!

    Did you try the no-spend month?
    Would you do this again?
    Share with us your experience!

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