Graduated Learning: Life after College

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

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.

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Paying someone to manage my finances June 15, 2019

Filed under: Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 3:29 pm
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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?

 

Our experience with a CSA from Smolak Farms May 25, 2019

Filed under: Boston,Food,Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 10:03 pm
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Smolak Farms Crate

For years, I’ve heard about friends getting weekly fruits and vegetables from a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). It seemed pretty simple: you sign up with a local farm, and every week you get a crate full of fresh produce! We never signed up for one because we didn’t know of any ones that would be close enough to where we lived that had an easy pickup schedule.

Well, once we moved to our new house in the suburbs, we finally had an opportunity! Smolak Farms was just a few miles from our house. And we really needed to get more fruits and veggies in our diet.

We signed up for the “half share”, which is supposed to be enough for two people. But an additional add on available for this CSA was an ice cream CSA! If you followed me on twitter this summer, you probably heard me bragging about all the tasty flavors we picked up each week.

pumpkin-chip-ice-cream.jpg

One of many delicious ice cream flavors: Pumpkin Chocolate Chip

As is typical with these farm shares, we got a variety of fruits and vegetables each week depending on what was in season at the farm. Early on there was an overabundance of summer squash and zucchini. As we entered fall, we got some winter squash like butternut squash, a blue Hubbard squash, some sugar pumpkins, and then lots of potatoes. We also got herbs occasionally (especially earlier on) and at least one bouquet of flowers.

sunflowers

Some sunflowers we got from the CSA!

Overall, I enjoyed doing the CSA. We got fresh produce (and delicious locally made ice cream!) every week. Sometimes it was a little tricky figuring out what to do with all of our food, but luckily we got an email every week listing what we’d get in our share, and they’d include a few recipes to try, especially with unusual vegetables. Over the summer, I ended up collecting a few go to recipes to handle that week’s harvest.

It was a little pricey, but seeing as you’re getting lots of fresh produce, and supporting a local farm, it still felt worth it. Picking up our share was a little tricky; the CSA season started right after I had baby #2 so at least for the first few weeks my husband was off on parental leave and could pick up, and he actually was still able to do pickup once he went back. There were two days you could pick up, but only certain hours, so he ended up going on his lunch break (and the few times he couldn’t, I ended up going on my lunch break).

We were able to make good use of most of the produce; because I was on leave for a few months, once I was recovered enough to stand for longer amounts of time I could experiment with new recipes.

Speaking of recipes, I started compiling my go-to recipes:

For cucumbers:  Thai Cucumber Salad

For lots of the vegetables (summer squash, zucchini, carrots, etc):  Pasta Primavera

For even more zucchini:  Chocolate Zucchini Banana Bread (I usually made a double batch, and also had to bake it a bit longer than indicated)

Chocolate Zucchini Banana Bread

One of many chocolate zucchini banana breads we enjoyed that summer

We signed up again this year for the half share of produce and full share (two pints a week!) of ice cream. Like I said, we found value in participating in this program, even if it was sometimes a little tricky finding ways to use up all the food in time!

Have you ever done a CSA or farm share? Do you have any favorite recipes you’d like to share?

 

Pulling yourself up by your boobstraps: parallels between the “mommy wars” and poor shaming May 11, 2019

Filed under: Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 10:52 pm
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I was inspired to write this after seeing a recent article about the World Health Organization revising “screen time” guidelines for kids as part of an overall update to their “guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children under
5 years of age“. As of 2019, the new guidelines are:  No screen time for kids under age 2, and just 1 hour maximum per day for 3 and 4-year-olds.

Okay. I try not to let my kids veg out in front of the TV all day, but sometimes I just need to keep my older child occupied while I make dinner or take care of her baby brother.  And I know I’m not alone in allowing my children to watch TV.

But apparently that’s a sign of failure. How do I know? I read the comments on that news article. I know, never read the comments. But the responses I saw were mostly of the “of course MY kids don’t watch TV, I’m raising them right” variety. As if to imply that any parent who lets their kids watch tv or use tablets is just not trying hard enough. That if you’re an actual “good parent” your kids will be disciplined enough to not need a video or game to keep themselves occupied.

This recent post from Chief Mom Officer also hit on a similar vein. There’s so much pressure for us to do everything exactly the “right” way all the time, whether it’s in parenting or personal finance.

Both of these got me thinking about how judgmental we can be of others in different situations. I see lots of people suggest that poor people should merely “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” (ignoring just how ridiculous that is). They point out “if I can succeed, then so can you”, that the only thing standing between you and massive success is if only you tried harder.

And of course this isn’t true. Everyone has different challenges and circumstances, and we can’t assume everyone will make it without extra help and support. And the same is true for parenting. These days we have “mommy wars” or “mom shaming”, pitting breastfeeding against formula feeding, stay at home moms against moms working full time, even comparing the “right way” to give birth!  Then every decision along the way, we are somehow expected to be perfect: clean house, elaborate parties, well behaved children.

And others judge with something like “I was able to do this while also doing that” (working full time while also preparing healthy meals and keeping a clean house; survive a weekend alone with the kids without letting them watch any TV).

I’m sick of this constant judging.  Just because something came easy for you, doesn’t mean it will be easy for everyone else.

Let’s stop the poor-shaming, the mom-shaming…let’s stop shaming people already!

 

The Cost of Having Children April 7, 2019

Filed under: baby,Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 8:45 pm
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Every once in a while I come across an article talking about the cost of having children. Many posts try to advise you on ways to save.

Get clothes second-hand!

Use cloth diapers!

Don’t buy many toys! Just give them a cardboard box to play with!

I get it. We try to save on lots of kid expenses, too.

We’re fortunate to have very generous family and friends who love spoiling the kids with lots of new clothes, books, and toys. And especially with our second kid, we’ve gotten lots of hand me downs from his older cousin. We go to the library a lot, too, to find new books to read.

But when it comes to having kids, there are so many other costs to consider.

I’ve discussed before how we’ve decided to send our kids to daycare full-time while my husband and I both work. Overall, we still come out ahead, but this year alone we’ll be spending over $45k for our two kids to be in daycare. We’re lucky that we both have well-paying jobs that make this the more obvious choice for us. So many parents have a much harder time coming to a decision of how they’ll deal with child care, if they find the cost of childcare too overwhelming. Stay at home parent? Alternating shifts so someone is always home with the kids? Having grandparent or other relatives help out? A combination of every option?

On top of that, let’s add medical costs: Add in the costs of labor and delivery (and prenatal care that may not be part of your health insurance plans) plus the kid’s medical needs and health insurance premiums.

You’ve got to keep them fed! Starting out with formula and/or breastfeeding (which is only “free” if you consider the nursing/pumping mother’s time to be worthless) then healthy foods as the kids get older. (Though luckily there are programs like SNAP and WIC for lower-income folks to at least help keep them fed).

Some people can still live in the same place that they did before they have kids, but many families find they need to move after having kids, either due to lack of room, to be in a safer neighborhood or better school district, or need to be closer to work/daycare to make sure they’re spending less time commuting and more time with their kids.

And even if you get hand me down or second-hand items for clothes, books, toys, furniture, etc. you still will need to buy some items new: car seats and other safety gear are not something to take a chance on used. It’s possible the car seat has been recalled, and even if it hasn’t been, car seats have a finite life due to degradation of the plastic and other components over time.

Last year, I sparked quite an interesting conversation with this tweet:

I got so many responses, some sharing that their careers shifted significantly after kids, some for better, some for worse. Others said having kids had no impact on their careers. Alyssa at Mixed Up Money wrote a whole blog post inspired by my question.

And then Bridget chimed in with her own experience, and I felt that her response aligned closely with what I wanted to say. While she is a single mom and I’m married, we still had similar experiences of having to opt out of longer hours, business trips, networking opportunities, etc just because it’s so hard to navigate the childcare situation (and the utter exhaustion of parenting). While I’m able to trade-off on daycare drop offs and pickups, it’s more difficult when my husband has his own business trips and meetings to attend as well.

So, add to this discussion the idea of opportunity cost: are you working less, missing out on potential promotions and career paths due to having kids? You may be completely fine with this, but it’s something else to consider.  Right now, I’m working part-time with flexible hours, which really helps with my work life balance, but also means I can’t always get as much done as my colleagues can.  And I took 12 weeks of partially paid maternity leave for both babies.  So overall this means less time at work, less money earned, and potentially fewer growth opportunities.

I’m not trying to be negative about all this, or try to convince anyone not to have kids. I absolutely adore my kids, and all of these “costs” are totally worth it for me. If people want to have kids, they should!

But I get tired of people claiming that kids are cheap because they don’t buy a lot of “stuff” for them. Or fail to include the costs of childcare (or dropping out of the workforce to care for the kids full-time). And like I talked about in my latte factor post, the big expenses like healthcare and housing are still unavoidable and going up.

Kids are only inexpensive if you don’t include all of the expensive things.

I realize how much of my observations may come from a place of privilege: we make good money so daycare (even at high prices) makes obvious sense. And some families have no choice but to make certain difficult decisions about kids, childcare, housing, and other things because they don’t have the financial wiggle room that we do.  And I know people have found so many creative ways to make it work, and I’m glad that they have.  But it’s not always easy.

Also, my observations are based on the United States, where certain policies (or lack thereof) for (paid) parental leave, healthcare, and childcare have a big impact compared to other countries with a much more comprehensive safety net.

Society needs people to have kids.  They’re our future teachers, healthcare workers, mechanics, leaders, scientists, cooks, and cleaners. And our future taxpayers. Hopefully some reforms will come that make having kids less of a financial burden for so many people.

How have having kids impacted you financially?  What changes have you made to make it all work?

 

My thoughts on The Latte Factor February 19, 2019

Filed under: Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 2:59 pm
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By now, you’ve probably heard of the personal finance idea of The Latte Factor. It’s the idea that your small expenses add up over time, and instead of spending your money on daily fancy coffees (or other splurges), you could be saving (and investing) that money and come out much richer.

I’ve seen this theory used as a way to shame people (“you’re poor because you buy yourself a treat/lack willpower”) and it frustrates and angers me. As Helaine Olen discussed in her book, Pound Foolish (and in plenty of other places like her blog post here), the real expenses keeping many of us from building wealth aren’t the $3 coffees, but the $300 doctor appointments or the $3000 monthly rent or mortgage payments. The huge cost of education, housing, childcare, and healthcare are almost unavoidable (and seemingly always increasing, and increasing faster than wages are growing).

I’ve also seen plenty of people take the positive spin: that cutting out an expense (of something they don’t need anyway) can help them reach a goal for something they really do want.

I’m somewhat in both schools of thought at the moment. As I discussed in my previous post, our monthly expenses are quite high. We’re paying a lot on our mortgage every month, and even more on childcare! So, cutting out a small daily luxury (or a larger luxury or two) seems insignificant by comparison.

But I also mentioned in that post how I am going to look for ways to save money, including trying to buy fewer lunches at the cafeteria.

And guess what? I did! My new rule for myself is that I can buy lunch once a week (which gives me wiggle room) but that the rest of the week I’m bringing leftovers or sandwiches. I’m not just saving on lunches, but I’m also earning a bit more money this way. Eating lunch I brought from home is quicker since I don’t have to go all the way to the cafeteria and then wait for my food to be prepared. So I’m able to get back to work sooner, and with my current schedule, that means I’m back “on the clock” earning money and getting things done!

How do the “savings” look? Assuming a lunch in the cafeteria is $9, and if I were to buy every day for 50 weeks every year (assuming holidays/and some full days off), bringing lunch every day instead I’d save $2,250 a year. Which is pretty great! But I’m also still spending on lunch foods to bring in, just not as much.

It still seems like a great amount…until I realize that’s less than one month of childcare (cost for both kids combined). Yeah. Ouch.

Still. I like doing it. I like knowing I can just eat quickly and get back to work. I like being able to control something, even if it’s small compared to everything else. It’s the same reason I get a big rush out of using cash back websites or coupons at my favorite stores, even if it saves me “only” a few dollars. It feels good.

I know I’m fortunate enough that I don’t have to count every penny. And I do like the idea of finding ways to save money. The concept is fine for encouraging people to think about a new way to save. I just don’t like when it’s used as a way to blame and shame people.

How do you feel about the latte factor? Have you changed your spending habits? What did that change in consumption do for you?

 

Net Worth Holding Steady February 7, 2019

Filed under: Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 9:13 pm
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Okay, so my last blog post where I said it was okay for me to spend money because what’s the point of saving money if you never spend it?

Well, I feel a little bit sheepish about it now. Why? I finally looked at how our net worth changed over 2018.

I used to do yearly updates on my net worth, but then I got married and we combined our finances and I didn’t feel like it made as much sense to share it. Well, I decided to check again.

I didn’t have exact numbers handy from last year (since I only just decided I should do a comparison to last year). So I logged into our joint Mint account (does anyone still use Mint? I’m too lazy to try out something new). And looked at what our assets and debts were at the end of last year and compared them to 12 months later.

And…they’re not great. Well, actually, it’s better to say, they look great at a glance, but compared to last year, they look not so impressive. Because we pretty much held our net worth steady (it grew by about $10k).

$10k growth over a year is also nothing to sneeze at when you’re just starting out. Or if you don’t have a high income. Back before marriage + kids + house, I was increasing my net worth by $40k, $50k, or $60k.   But expenses now have had a significant impact.

So, by comparison, this smaller increase for a family with two incomes later in our careers should mean we should be growing our net worth even more.

But we didn’t. Ready for my reasons (excuses?)?

  • The stock market has been all over the place. I saw a lot of folks talk about how their portfolio dropped a lot due to recent stock market losses. So even though we maxed out our Roth IRAs and contributed to our 401ks (including getting our matches) our retirement portfolios didn’t do so well.
  • Our house lost value. Honestly, I include the house value (as estimated by Zillow) on my net worth as counter to our mortgage, but since we’re not planning on selling it any time soon, I’m not too worried.
  • Speaking of our mortgage, one of our major expenses every month is our mortgage payment. Between the cost of the house itself (principal and interest) plus our high property taxes, we spend a lot every month.
  • I made less than my full salary. I’m lucky enough to have a flexible schedule at work, so between my doctor appointments before the baby was born, the extra time needed each day for pumping after the baby was born, plus the general chaos of being a working mom, I don’t get my 40 hours of work a week. So, I get paid less (for working less). In addition to my schedule, I was also on maternity leave for 12 weeks, which was only partially paid.
  • Healthcare. Having a baby is expensive, even with health insurance. We easily hit the family deductible in our High Deductible Health Plan, then had other medical expenses beyond that for the whole family.
  • Daycare. We paid for a full year for my daughter and 5 months for my son. We spent about $36k on childcare in 2018.

How do we expect to do in 2019?

  • The stock market is still uncertain. But we’re in it for the long haul and actually in the process of rebalancing our portfolios, so we’ll see how it goes
  • Home value? Another one we’re not sure about (but not significant unless we wanted to sell it)
  • We still will be paying down our mortgage at the same rate
  • We should have a higher income this year. Between a raise for my husband, and me working more hours, we should be making more. No maternity leave, plus once my baby turns a year old he can start drinking cows milk so I won’t have to pump at work anymore. With my daughter, I ended up fully weaned from the pump by 13 months.
  • We hope to have much lower healthcare expenses this year, but will still be maxing out our HSA contribution.
  • Daycare will cost us even more this year with two kids in full-time care all year. Luckily when the baby moves to the toddler room his “tuition” will drop somewhat but we’ll still be paying around $45k in 2019 for childcare.
  • Going to try to look at other ways to save money. While we’re stuck with some large fixed expenses every month, there are still some things we could cut down, like lunches out and lowering our cable bill.

So, a lot of unknowns in terms of how our investments will look at the end of this year, with an increase in income but also an increase in childcare expenses. But we knew that daycare would be a lot, and we’re grateful that we have this care and can (sort of) afford it for the next few years until the kids start going to the public school.

We also realize that personal finances don’t always go on a straight path. Everyone encounters ups and downs, whether due to luck or conscious decisions. Having kids was important to us, and we wouldn’t trade them for anything. So these next few years of high expenses are worth it to us (and one of us staying home with the kids would cost us more, especially in the long run, and we find tremendous value in having them go to daycare).

How did your net worth fare this past year? Were you hit hard by the stock market mess? Any unexpected changes (big money or life wins/losses)? If you wrote about your net worth recently, feel free to share a link to it in the comments.

 

 
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