Graduated Learning: Life after College

I got my degree, I got a job…now what?

How I am coping (and not coping) with the COVID-19 crisis April 18, 2020

Filed under: Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 9:05 pm
Tags: , ,

Let me preface this post by acknowledging how fortunate we have been during this. So many people are sick, dying, or out of work. Or they are forced to continue working in situations that put them at risk of catching the virus. We have been lucky enough to keep our jobs and be able to work from home. Sure, it’s been challenging keeping the kids occupied and happy while also trying to get work done. But that pales in comparison to some of the dangerous and frightening conditions and situations so many people find themselves in.

We are in an unprecedented situation and I’m trying to figure out how to keep a level head even as everything can get so overwhelming. I’m still figuring out how to keep my mind in the right place without spiraling.

We’ve been watching plenty of Frozen and Frozen 2 these days (two kids under 5 years old) and every time I see this quote from Olaf, I think of how apt it is in these current times:

“We’re calling this ‘controlling what you can when things feel out of control’”

Many things I’m doing these days are just me trying to make things feel a little less out of control. Hopefully some of these things also have an actual positive impact on a broader group of people.

Number one, of course, is limiting our physical contact with anyone outside our family. I’ve shifted to grocery shopping only once every 2 weeks, rather than my usual once a week. The trips are more stressful as I navigate the aisles trying to avoid people and get enough food to last us for the next two weeks. And making sure my homemade mask stays put on my face. But limiting those trips helps reduce the chance that we could get/spread the virus. I’ve considered trying the delivery services but time slots are hard to come by and I’d rather let folks who are higher risk or otherwise unable to go grocery shopping have those time slots.

I haven’t set foot at work in over a month (again, we’re lucky enough that we can do a good amount of work at home. I’m not working in the lab right now, but I’m getting a bunch of other things done). It’s definitely a juggling act trying to keep the kids safe and happy while trying to do at least a little bit of teaching (whether it’s practicing writing letters with the older kid or identifying colors and shapes with the younger kid).

We are trying to stay in contact with as many people as possible. So far it’s lots of FaceTime with family and texting with friends. I’m trying to reach out to folks I haven’t heard from in awhile; I’ve found that catching up has really helped both me and the people I’m talking to. We all need to talk! The kids have even been able to have zoom meetings with their daycare classmates, which has been fun for them.

We try to get outside on the nice days. Whether it’s a quick walk, or just having a snack outside with the kids, some sunlight and fresh air (and a little bit of exercise) gets us feeling better.

I’m growing a victory garden. Angela at Tread Light Retire Early had a great post about this. I’ll admit, my garden is basically a sad attempt at getting just a little bit of fresh produce to make me feel a little more secure in our food supply. In a true food crisis, a few tomatoes or pea pods aren’t going to save us. But it helps me feel better having this extra bit. I’ve planted some seeds from some tomatoes we had, and have found some seeds packets I had stashed away that I will try to plant soon. We’re still signed up for our local farm’s CSA, and the last we heard, they’re still planning on doing it, and have added a curbside pickup option to reduce potential viral transmission. So we will hopefully have access to fresh produce one way or another!

I’ve started composting. Well, really at this point it’s more of a squirrel buffet than a compost heap. I’d been meaning to get an actual composter from the town for awhile now (they offer ones at a discount) but it sounds like I won’t be able to get one from our local DPW until the end of May. But I’m getting into the habit, and I like reducing how much we are throwing away. And if we actually get some good compost out of this, it will help with that victory garden.

I’m raising money for Walk For Hunger. I’ve done the Walk for Hunger quite a few times and was going to sign up again this year until they cancelled the event (for obvious reasons). Project Bread turned it into a virtual fund raiser, and I decided to sign up for that. This is a cause I really care about: making sure our most vulnerable neighbors have access to healthy food. Especially now, with so many more people out of work, we really need to help feed folks. Here’s a link to my fundraising page if you’d like to contribute.

How are you coping with the chaos and uncertainty? What has been hardest for you? What has helped you the most?


How learning more about FIRE gave me an existential crisis February 25, 2020

Filed under: Books,Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 9:55 pm
Tags: , ,

(Disclosure:  The Amazon links in this post are Amazon affiliate links.  You can read more about this on my Disclosures page)

Okay, the title might be a bit extreme. But as I’ve mentioned before, I hadn’t really thought about FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) as something we would do. But about a year few ago, a new book came out about FIRE that caught my interest. The book is Work Optional, by Tanja Hester. Surrounding the release of her book, there were plenty of articles in both news sites as well as personal finance blogs.

A few articles in particular got me thinking a little too much!

One of the articles discussed one of the reasons Tanja and her husband Mark wanted to retire early. They wanted to be able to do things sooner, before Tanja’s illness progressed to the point where her options became more limited. This article got me anxious about running out of time to enjoy life! What am I doing wasting time on work?

The other post was at Tread Light retire early. It was Angela’s review of Tanja’s book. She reviewed the book, but also delved into the part that asks you to consider what you would do with your time. And then prompted her readers to answer that the question: “What do you want your life to look like?” And I felt like I had no idea. My response was basically to live a more relaxed (less stressed) life.

A combination of thinking about these ideas and a little bit of postpartum depression (and also listening to The Good Place podcast which talked a lot about the meaning of life and other heavy topics) led me into quite the meltdown one night. I started wondering: what is the point of anything? What’s the point of working or advancing in your career (besides earning money) if your goal is to retire early? Should I optimize my life for saving money? For earning money? What do I even enjoy? Am I running out of time? What am I doing with my life?

Oof. I definitely was spiraling there…

Well, the good news is I started feeling a bit better. I took advantage of my EAP again for some free therapy sessions. So I was able to talk through some of my PPD and my concerns about trying to figure out what I actually enjoy. Turns out, once you become a busy mother of two, you tend to get lost in just making sure the kids are cared for, fed, and sent to bed every night rather than concerning yourself with pursuing your own interests.

All of this to say: after a year of Tanja’s book being out, I finally finished reading it. The book itself didn’t give me existential dread, so that’s good! There was a whole section early on in the book where you were asked to brainstorm about what is important to you, what you would do if you had the time to do it, etc. and I actually sat down and made the list for myself. Which helped remind me that I do in fact have interests and goals for my life. Phew.

I also found her book helpful in general to understand the ways that people can pursue FIRE. I always felt a bit lost trying to catch up on FIRE bloggers’ steps towards FI or FIRE. But the book shares various ways that you can make progress towards a work optional life. There were tips on growing your income, reducing your spending, how you can invest, and how much you should actually be saving to reach your goals. Overall, it was very useful whether or not you are planning on retiring early!

I still don’t think I’ll be pursuing early retirement, but I feel like I know a bit more about how to continue to build our wealth and identify what I want for my future, including getting a better idea of near term vs long term goals. I very much admire so many folks in the FI and FIRE community, including Tanja and Angela and so many others. They and others have found a great path that helps so many others!

Have you read Work Optional by Tanja Hester? What other books and resources have helped you?


2019 Net Worth Update January 23, 2020

Filed under: Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 10:11 pm

I went ahead and reviewed my net worth changes for 2019, just like I did at the end of 2018. Our net worth went up a lot more this time compared to last time. Which is exciting. But pretty much all of that increase was due to the stock market. In the grand scheme of things that seems good, because if I see significant gains in my investments, then I’m on track for being financially independent, right? Letting my money make more money for me?


So yes, the biggest increase in our net worth came from the gains in the stock market. And also from contributing to our 401ks and IRAs. When I logged into my 401k on December 31, 2019 (like the personal finance nerd that I am) it said my personal rate of return on that account was almost 26%. This is bonkers. It still slightly worries me seeing that growth because, hey, it could also have gone down 26%.  Volatility makes me nervous, but we’ll stick with it and keep investing through the ups and the downs.

Let’s review all the money categories:


Total cash (checking and savings): went down. Which could be expected, since we made 3 big purchases and pulled money out of our “sinking funds” to do it.  The good news about this drop (if you can call it good news) is that the drop in cash was $X thousand (keeping it a mystery) smaller than the amount we spent on the purchases.  Translation?  If we hadn’t made these big purchases (and we don’t plan on these same expenses any time soon), our cash would have increased by about $X thousand.  (alternatively, we probably can put about that extra amount into retirement accounts next year)  So, here’s hoping we don’t have too many big expenses in 2020!

Investments:   went way up.  We contributed to our HSA, 401ks, Roth IRAs, and 529s.  Technically the 529s aren’t “ours” (they’ll go to our kids when they’re ready) but for now since they’re categorized as investments in Mint, we’re calling them that.  We contributed the maximum allowed for our HSA.  We contributed beyond getting the match but NOT maxing out 401k.  I plan on increasing my percent contribution by the same percentage as whatever my next raise ends up being, so I won’t see much of a difference in my paycheck.  We (kind of) maxed out our Roth IRAs (I think actually we both still need to contribute for 2019 (before tax day), but we contributed the max in 2019 for 2018).  We put some money into both kids’ 529s but nowhere near the max.  This is an area we need to re-evaluate, since at the rate we’re currently contributing, their accounts wont be super helpful when it come time for them to access the funds for school.

Car values:  went up.  Which is not surprising, since we bought a new car.  But since we don’t actually intend on selling the car, and we plan on driving it for as long as it will let us, it’s kind of a silly number for us to pay attention to.  My car has quite a few miles on it, but we’ll build up another sinking fund for when we eventually need to replace it.  Hoping both cars give us a lot of years of safe driving!

Overall, we could be putting more money into our retirement accounts, but of course we have two quite large monthly bills. Living in a high cost of living (HCOL) area like we do, things end up being a lot more expensive (plus, you know, a bit of lifestyle inflation).  Between our house and daycare, we spend A LOT.

In fact, a few weeks ago I tweeted out how much we spent on childcare in 2019:

Yep.  You read that right.  Almost $46k for daycare last year.  And it’s going to be similar again this year.  We wont see a big decrease in childcare spending until our son moves up to the next age group at daycare, or when our daughter starts kindergarten at the local public school.  So we probably won’t be maxing out our 401ks or paying extra on our mortgages until we have more wiggle room in our budget.

As a side note, that tweet generated A LOT of conversation.  “Conversation” may be generous in some cases, as a lot of comments came with some pretty rude remarks about me and my choice to work rather than stay home with the kids.  Many couldn’t believe daycare could cost that much.  Also a lot of people seemed to think I was asking for advice?  I was not.

Luckily, a lot of great people also came to my defense (and defended working parents, and working moms in particular).  They helped point out plenty of benefits of daycare.  And wrote about why they value daycare.  Some even just shared how exhausting being with your kids can be.

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know that we thought very carefully about what our childcare would look likeKids can end up costing quite a lot!  So it was definitely frustrating hearing from strangers passing judgement on our decisions as if I was being selfish and uncaring about my kids.  I love my kids so much it’s ridiculous!


Student loans:  Completely paid offMy husband paid off his student loans! We are now student loan free!  Hooray!

Mortgage:  Only slightly less since most of what we paid was interest and taxes (oh, the pains of those first few years of a 30-year mortgage!).  I look forward to the days when our payments will go more towards principal than interest…

So, how do I feel about 2020?  We’ll be making a few small changes, but honestly I don’t have big plans to change things.  So much of my finances are on autopilot now, so we basically will keep on the same path for now.  I know we’re doing well, which is quite a lucky situation to be in.

How did your 2019 go, moneywise?  Or in other categories?  What are your big plans for 2020?



How big expenses in 2019 made me re-examine my cash hoarding and love sinking funds January 1, 2020

Filed under: Personal Finance,Personal Finance Confessions — Stephanie @ 7:55 pm

In a previous post, I confessed to being a cash hoarder. After saving money for so long, I was hesitant to let our savings accounts drop below an imaginary threshold.  After some big purchases (new car, new heat system, central air conditioning), I realized that I needed to redefine what our money is for.

That’s when I remembered hearing about “sinking funds”.  I’d seen a few discussions about it, but hadn’t really thought much about it or looked into it.  Luckily Penny (from She Picks Up Pennies) shared some really helpful posts about sinking funds from Women who Money:

What Are Sinking Funds And Are They Smart To Have?

What Is The Difference Between Needs And Wants? [& How Do I Afford Both?] (scroll down to the section “Emergency Funds, Sinking Funds, and Why You Need Both”)

It looks like sinking funds are money that you’re putting away with the knowledge that you’ll be spending it within a set amount of time.  You can add that savings line-item into your budget, knowing you are not planning on spending that amount of money until it is needed in the future.

I’d been stressing myself out thinking about our savings all being for unexpected expenses or loss of income. That I should be afraid to spend money because what if something bad happens? But if we separate the money into “in case of emergency” and “new xyz”, “replace abc”, etc, we can relax knowing we still have a certain amount set aside for unplanned expenses or a loss of income.

Hopefully we don’t have any new big expenses in 2020 (we already know we’ll be spending another $45k on childcare…).  We’ll continue putting some money in savings for our next house expenses (you’re apparently supposed to put away 1% of your purchase price every year).  But I’m going to try to look at our savings accounts differently.  I won’t be as afraid to spend on what we actually need, knowing that we have accounts set aside (and building) for the things we need.

What kind of sinking funds do you have?  Have they helped you feel a little more at ease knowing you’ve got the money put away?


Another big expense: installing central air conditioning December 26, 2019

Filed under: Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 11:05 pm

Let’s just say that we end up being big spenders every 3 years. Three years ago we bought our house. This year we spent a good amount of money on our various heating and cooling needs (in addition to replacing a car).

We never had central air conditioning in our apartments we lived in before buying this house. And the house didn’t have air conditioning, either. We’d been able to get by with fans and window air conditioning units. But the past few summers here, especially this year, proved we needed to do more. I could usually tough it out, but that didn’t seem like a good idea for the kids. Plus we only put window units in the bedrooms upstairs, which meant if it got too hot, we’d just hide out upstairs in a bedroom with the door closed. Which didn’t seem great for the kids either. And the thought of cooking anything in the house just seemed impossible, and even just eating dinner in the kitchen on the really hot days was awful.

Also? I became so cranky. It was like the heat version of “hangry” (angry because you’re hungry); I was so short tempered when it was hot. Which is also no good for anybody.

Yes, we could have continued to be uncomfortable, just suffering through the unbearably hot days and nights.  I wish I could.  But I didn’t want to keep being so uncomfortable.  Just like Penny discussed awhile back:  I could live without air conditioning, but I didn’t want to.

We got a few different quotes from local HVAC companies (one from the people who installed our heat system, and one from a different group). The second quote came out lower and their proposed plan sounded good to us.

So we got our house retrofitted with vents for air conditioning (since we don’t have vents for our heat because we have forced hot water). They ended up installing a smaller air conditioning unit than they originally planned after getting a better idea of what our house needed, which made the final cost a few thousand dollars cheaper than the original quote! We also got a split-type unit installed in our family room due to the layout of our house. The split can do both heating and cooling, which is a nice feature for the winter if we have any trouble heating the room (which has happened on really cold days in the past).

We don’t plan on running the air conditioning a whole lot. We don’t want to freeze ourselves! We plan on only running it as much as we need to feel comfortable while we’re home. So hopefully our electricity bill won’t be too much higher. It’s possible it could be lower, since I’m guessing the air conditioners we’d been using may not have been as efficient as a new system.

What big purchases have you made that have been worth it for you?


We Finally Got Our Heat Replaced November 5, 2019

Filed under: Environment,Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 9:34 pm
Tags: , ,

(FYI, this is NOT a sponsored post, but I do reference the Mass Save program and benefits a bunch of times, mostly to make sure folks are aware of programs like this that provide home energy audits for free or for a fee, depending on the state.  These programs also recommend upgrades and other options that may be highly discounted or come with great rebates)

As if spending money on a new car wasn’t enough, we also just got our heat replaced. When we bought our house, the home inspector pointed out that both the furnace for the forced hot water and the water heater were nearing the end of their useful life.  And then when we had our free energy audit through Mass Save a few months into home ownership, we were also told that we should try to get a new, more efficient system.

Well, time got away from us (which tends to happen with one, then two kids), so we kept putting it off.  But then the furnace sprang a leak and flooded our basement, which kicked us back on track.

So, we got a quote from the same company that did the last few minor repairs on our old heating system.  The quote was quite reasonable, and included a few of the rebates available through Mass Save. We probably should have gotten more quotes, but the price was just about what we expected based on estimates from our home inspector, and we did get them to install new programmable thermostats for free.

So, now we have a new, more efficient system for our heat and hot water. Plus with our new thermostats, we can actually program different temperatures for different times/days to save money. Before, only one of our thermostats actually was new enough to be programmed properly.

We’ve scheduled another free energy audit for a few weeks from now (we’re eligible every 2 years) since we want to find out what their newest recommendations are for saving energy.  The last time they came, they replaced our light bulbs with new, more efficient light bulbs, gave us a few free power strips to help us lower “standby” energy use, and gave us some recommendations (along with quotes for those upgrades).  We didn’t end up doing many of their recommendations since we wanted to figure out our heat system first, and some couldn’t be done until after some fixes were made to the heat anyway.  So hopefully they’ll provide us new quotes for adding insulation and sealing up drafts in the house, along with any other good ideas they have for us.

It will be interesting to see just how much we’ll save on our gas bill this winter!

Have you ever done a home energy audit?  Was it worth it for you?  What are the biggest changes you’ve made to save energy in your home?


We bought a new car! October 12, 2019

Filed under: Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 8:48 pm


My last post was about hoarding cash. I guess now we have a little less cash in that stash!

My husband’s car was getting pretty bad. He’d bought it used over a decade ago and had put at least 150k miles on it. The last time he brought it in for repairs and maintenance, the quote to fix everything was pretty much about what the car was worth. So we decided it was time to get something new.

My husband took the lead on shopping around for the best deal (mostly because I don’t like trying to negotiate with people). We knew what kind of car we wanted, so he sent emails to all the local car dealers who were selling that car. He collected the offers in a spreadsheet and continued to negotiate with the different dealers, sharing what the best offers were to see if they could beat it.

We finally made our way to the dealership that had the best offer. We took a test drive just to make sure we liked it. And while we were on the test drive my husband got an email from another dealer with a competitive offer. When we got back to the dealership from our test drive, my husband told them about the competing offer. He showed them the email, and they were able to match it!

We had to transfer money from our savings accounts to our checking account so we could pay for the car, but after that went through a few days later, we picked up the new car!

I know a lot of folks focused on personal finance suggest that you should only ever buy a used car, and even then, don’t spend a ton of money on it. Yes, we know a new car loses value immediately after buying. But we plan on having this car for a long time, and it fits our current and future needs, and we plan on getting our money’s worth from it. Like Tanja of Our Next Life wrote, “decide for yourself what spending you value, then spend without guilt“. We are frugal in a lot of ways, and have been saving for a long time. We wanted a car that was safe and reliable, and could accommodate our family’s needs now and for years to come. And we believe that’s what we got.

When’s the last time you bought a car? (It was over 11 years ago for me!)  What purchase have you made recently that goes against standard personal finance advice?


Adventures of home ownership: a flooded basement and dealing with insurance September 8, 2019

Filed under: Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 8:40 pm

Back in April, I woke up to hear what sounded like water running. Since I was still half asleep, it didn’t really occur to me what it was. My husband had gone out for a morning run and I must have rationalized he was back and showering or something.

All of a sudden, I heard him from the basement yelling for help (and lots of cursing). Our heater had sprung a leak, and water was gushing out! The basement utilities room had water everywhere and was starting to seep our into the rest of the basement. Luckily my husband ran to turn off the water to the whole house, which stopped the flow of water.

An emergency visit from our local HVAC company resolved the source of the leak (replaced the broken parts, tested the system). But the carpeted floors were SOAKED and our attempts to use a wet/dry vac and dehumidifier to deal with it was not enough. We suspected we would need to get our homeowners insurance involved. Between hiring professionals to do a thorough cleanup of the water and associated damage, and replacing ruined carpets (and possible walls), we were thinking the overall cost to get everything fixed would be enough to merit going through insurance. We knew we’d be on the hook for the deductible (in our case, $1,000) and it was possible our insurance company could raise our rates. But if the cost to fix our basement and ensure we wouldn’t end up with a huge mold problem down the line was going to be a lot more than the $1k + potential rate increase, it made sense to us to go through insurance.

So we did. We opened a claim with our insurance company. We spoke first with a desk adjuster who said we could go ahead and start getting the clean up company involved. She said a field adjuster would be in touch soon to schedule a visit to evaluated the damage and estimate what would need to be replaced/repaired.

The cleanup folks came by for a few days, vacuumed up as much water as possible, and set up fans and dehumidifiers. I don’t know how great a job these fans and dehumidifiers were doing, as it still seemed damp. They ripped up the carpet in the utility room. They cut away about a foot of the wall all along where the water had gone.

During the “clean up” step, the field adjuster came out and evaluated the damage. He agreed that the carpet should be replaced, and that section of wall removed and fixed up. Luckily he even reported the entire basement carpet be replaced, just in case (plus then we wouldn’t have two different carpets). He sent in his report. But then things stalled out for awhile.

There was a disconnect between what he sent in and what the other parts of the company said. It sounded like only part of his report got sent in. And when we got the contractors out to give us an estimate of what would need to be fixed, the insurance balked at the plans and total cost. We had to have the field adjuster come out again and meet with the contractors at the same time to hash out what insurance would cover.

Finally, everyone came to an agreement on what would be covered by the insurance…AT THE END OF JULY! Yeah, this process didn’t move too quickly.

Within a week of the approvals, the contractors came over and started the necessary repairs and painting, and removing the rest of the old carpet. But then it was a few more weeks before the replacement carpet arrived and they were able to put it all down. But finally, at the end of this past week, everything was DONE.

So, an incident in April, approval end of July, final repairs beginning of September. Not the quickest timeline, but luckily it all looks good.

As we feared, our homeowners insurance premium did go up, but overall the financial hit would have been much higher if we had tried doing it all without going through the insurance.

We now have plans to fully replace the furnace, since it’s probably as old as the house, and we wouldn’t want another leak ruining everything again! We have an appointment to talk options with an HVAC company this week. Here comes more spending! I guess this is what happens when you buy a house: the spending never really ends.


Paying someone to manage my finances June 15, 2019

Filed under: Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 3:29 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

I know what you’re thinking: Stephanie is wasting her money! Doesn’t she know you just put everything in low cost index funds and call it a day?

Well, here’s what I’m doing, and why.

Remember years ago when I tried out Financial Engines? I was given a free trial to have someone manage my 401k for 3 months.  It was beneficial for getting some of my portfolio re-balanced, but it wasn’t quite enough to make sure I had everything in order.

So, now, we’ve signed up with Financial Engines again (FYI, this isn’t a sponsored post, just sharing what we did).  Luckily, my employer still has a deal with them, so managing the 401k portion of our portfolios will be cheaper (only a fraction of a percent for managing this part of our money). They are also managing our IRAs for a higher fee.

Why did we do this? Honestly it’s because we were stuck in “analysis paralysis”, unsure if we should have everything in one index fund or many, how to balance between lower and higher risk options, and just needed to make a move. We had too much money sitting in the “cash” part of our accounts that we never invested, and we knew if we didn’t pay someone to take care of it for us, our accounts would continue to sit stagnant and poorly invested.

We discussed our risk threshold and retirement goals and they selected the funds that matched our needs. I confirmed with them that they’d be doing mostly low cost index funds and ETFs, and that they were a fiduciary (working in our best financial interests). They were!

Our intention (and we should make sure we set a calendar reminder for this) is to cancel the service after 6 months. This was basically our way of jumpstarting our retirement accounts and getting things in order. We don’t plan on staying with this service long term, as the fees definitely would add up over the long run.

Yes, it will cost us a little money for these 6 months, but compared to how much gains we could potentially lose out on having our accounts sitting mostly in money markets and a few target date funds (that were a little bit more expensive than standard index funds), I think (and hope) we’ll come out ahead. I liken this decision to signing up for a personal trainer: you might hope to get in shape, and you have a basic idea of what you need to do, but you need that extra push and guidance to get you going in the right direction and kick you into gear!

Have you ever paid someone to manage your finances? Was it worth it?


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