Tag Archive for reviews

How I Created a Budget: A Story Involving a Church Plant, a Spreadsheet, Cash, and Envelopes

Yesterday, my post on 12 Tips for Saving Money resonated with you. Within 4 hours, this blog post quickly moved to fourth on my list of most-read blog posts. The three posts receiving more hits than that one are these:

#1: Running around Like a Crazy Woman: Why Less Is More
#2: Up In the Clouds or Down on the Ground: When Marriage Is Difficult
#3: Why I’m Uncomfortable with Mother’s Day

Since you seem somewhat interested in money and how to save it, I decided to follow yesterday’s post with another post on this topic. Today, I’m writing about how (and why) I created a budget and what it has done for me and my family. This process involves a story, a spreadsheet, cash, and envelopes.

Cash System

First, the story. In 2006, Shane and I lived in Gatesville, Texas. We had been married for four years, and Shane was a preacher at a church there. I had just finished my Ph.D. in May of that year and began working at Baylor in August of the same year. I was finally making a salary after so many years living off of Shane’s salary and a meager graduate school stipend. We were excited about almost doubling our income and beginning the process of paying off school loans and other debt we had accrued, including our car loan, loans on some appliances, and our mortgage. Luckily, we did not have credit card debt. We only had one kid. We didn’t really need a budget.

Shane liked his job, and we loved that church (our first child was born there and those people and that church will always hold special places in our hearts), but we felt a desire to reach out to “non-church” people. People who didn’t know about Jesus. People who hated the church or who had been burned by “church people.” We wanted to reach out to, meet, and befriend the so-called “unchurched” or “dechurched.” We had heard about Mission Alive, a church-planting organization, and became interested in this thing called”church planting. After many months of praying and planning and preparing, we decided to move to Waco at the end of 2007 to plant The Grove Church.

During the transition time (or the “in-between” time as Shane called it in one of his blog posts at the time), from the time we decided to plant until we moved (which was about one year), I began to think seriously about our money. Like I said before, I’ve always been a saver, but now we were about to have to raise money for Shane’s salary and the church’s operating expenses. This was not a part of the church planting process that we liked. So much was unknown. We didn’t know how much money we could raise or how much money we would need to live on in Waco where we would soon be moving to a new, bigger, and more expensive house. We did not want to rely on the generosity of others for very long (less than three years). In the worst-case scenario, I wanted to be prepared to live off my salary alone if we had to.

So, in late 2005 at the very beginning of our dreaming and conversations on church planting (years before we took any action), I created a budget in an Excel spreadsheet. I looked online to determine what categories I needed for my budget. I decided on 18 categories, ranging from Household Purchases, Saving, and Groceries, to Giving Student Loans, and individual bills (cable, internet, phone, water, electricity, etc.). I then input Shane’s salary (I was writing my dissertation and bringing home zero dollars) and divvied up the money according to his paycheck. I followed the budget for three months, all the while adjusting it according to what I really spent.

After I started working and bringing money home a few years later, I decided to implement a cash envelope system. Here’s what this system entailed: I wrote out all the categories in our budget on various envelopes (see picture), which had been extended to about 35 different items.

Some of the Budget Categories I Use

When we got our monthly paychecks, I went to the bank and took out the amount of cash I needed for that month’s envelopes. I then put the right amount of cash in each of the envelopes. We used the cash until it ran out, and we were very diligent about not stealing from one envelope if we had run out in another one.

I took the envelopes with me when I shopped. I even found a nifty checkbook-size organizer that had eight different sections in it to carry around the cash I needed when I shopped. The system worked great. It did take me a while to get “caught up.” What I mean by this is that before beginning the cash system, I paid my bills based on the paychecks for that month. With the cash system, however, I had to have enough money in the envelopes before I spent the money. This meant that I had to have money in the envelopes and the bank. It was a process to be able to save enough money for this to happen, but it did.

Around this same time, I also decided to read Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover. I found many of his principles helpful, especially the ones about reducing debt, namely paying off the loans with the least amount of debt (which we did with my student loan, our freezer purchase, and two of our car payments). I also liked his suggestion to have a $1,000 emergency fund for use in, well, emergencies. If you had to use the money, then your immediate goal was to replace it.

One note about the book: I did not implement Ramsey’s principle of abstaining from giving (or “tithing”, as he called it) until you are completely out of debt. No matter how much money you make or have or how much debt you are in, I think it’s important to give some of it away throughout the process of getting out of debt. If we all wait until we are completely debt-free, we will NEVER give anything. Remember the widow in the Book of Luke? She gave all she had, even in her poverty. One of my friends did recently tell me, however, that he has since revised his stance on this issue (good!), but I’m not sure what he advocates now.

For several years, I carried around a lot of cash. Cash for groceries, household purchases, baby, haircuts, medical expenses, and a few other categories. However, this all changed two years ago when my husband and I went to see Wicked at Faire Park in Dallas. While we were eating lunch, someone stole my big organizer with all my cash right out of my purse (my driver’s license, social security card, and credit cards were also inside–ugh). I lost thousands of dollars.

I thus discovered a flaw in the system. A HUGE FLAW.

I began looking for other ways to utilize this system. I decided to still utilize the cash system but to do so without having to take out so much cash each month. I decided to organize it all in a spreadsheet and to just keep track of it electronically. It has worked even better.

Today, our budget contains 57 items in the list. Shane thinks I’m crazy for how detailed it is, but it works for me (and him, I think). I am constantly adjusting the items and the amount designated to each item because different expenses come up as your situation changes.

And what have been the results? We have a balanced budget. I don’t stress over money. I adjust the budget when necessary. We have paid off or gotten rid of at least seven loans (2 school loans, 2 car loans, 1 furniture loan, and 2 large appliances). We have not accrued any more debt. We now save in advance for cars rather than paying for them after we buy them. We only spend what we have. We have gained financial peace.

I want to leave you with a list of five budget categories that have helped me in one way or another. These may not be the typical items you will include in your budget, but they have been helpful to me so I’ll share them with you.

1. “School Fees”, one envelope for each child you have (this includes teacher gifts, school supplies, school pictures, field trip money, t-shirt money, and all those other expenses that come up once kids start school).

2. “Extracurricular Activities.” Includes tee-ball and other sports for your kids, as well as piano lessons, swim lessons, or art lessons. It can also include art, cooking, or tennis lessons for yourself (This category could also include the gym, but I typically have a separate item for it when I have been a member of the gym since it’s a recurring fee). You could also include going to the movies or other family activities.

3. “Babysitting.” If you want to have a Date Night with your significant other, or if you are a single mom/dad and want to go out at night, this envelope is a MUST. Saving for a babysitter is also good incentive to actually go on the date. You already have the money saved, so go spend it.

4. “Christmas.” I have a “Gift” envelope for birthday parties, holidays, and other special occasions, but I have found that I am more conscious about how much I spend on Christmas and what I buy when I have a special envelope designated for Christmas. Beginning in January, I start putting money in this envelope. By the time Christmas comes around, I know exactly how much I have to spend, and it is there before I spend it. No worries. No fuss. I have also noticed that I spend much less than I did before. It’s not because we don’t necessarily have the money to spend; it’s just that I became aware of how much money I spent on Christmas and realized that it was way too much…and not even what Christmas is about for me anyway. If you don’t celebrate Christmas (or if you don’t spend enough to warrant a separate enveloped), then maybe you can think of a different occasion.

5. “Work Expenses.” I have two separate Work envelopes–one for Shane and one for me. We both have expenses for our jobs (most of them are for books we need to buy). It’s important to itemize all of these small items so that you don’t mess up the budget.

Thanks for reading.

My Favorite Children’s Books

One of our favorite things to do during the long summer days at home is to read. We like to read throughout the year, but we designate more time during the summer for reading because we are home almost every day, we like it, and it’s a good skill to practice and learn. It also fosters bonding, confidence, and independence.

One thing we did for the first time last year was participate in a couple of summer reading programs. Our local library always has a summer reading program. They participate in the State of Texas’ Library Association’s reading program. This year, the theme is “Get a Clue…at the Library.” Last year the theme was “Dig Up a Good Book.” Both Peyton and Elizabeth, with my help, read 100 books during the month of July. I don’t know about you, but that is A LOT of books to read for one month (25 per week), and since I was helping both of them read, that was double for me! But, we all persevered, (somewhat begrudgingly by the end), and the kids felt so much pride in having read so many books and completed the program. They especially liked the celebration at the end where they earned certificates and prizes. They were successful consumers of literacy, or “literacy winners” as I call it in a recent article published by CCC.

Other companies like Barnes and Noble and Scholastic also have summer reading programs that often offer free books or incentives for kids who participate. All in all, these programs can motivate kids to read, encourage parents to read with their kids and older siblings to read to younger siblings, and get you through the “I’m bored” talk of the long summer days.

For today’s 12 series, I am going to list my favorite children’s books. Children’s books are both visual and verbal, beautiful in words and in art, and I really, really like them, especially as a teacher of writing and multimodal composition (using words and images and other modes together to make meaning). I have a lot of favorites, but these are the ones that top my list right now.

1. How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You by Jane Yolen. This book is silly and fun to read. It’s also poetic and clever, especially for rambunctious children. My son Peyton had it memorized after the 4th or 5th reading and loves reading it as we go to bed. (Also, check out How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? and other titles int he series)

2. There Is a Bird on Your Head by Mo Willems. I discovered Mo Willems last summer during our reading extravaganza, and I enjoy many of his books. My kids laughed out loud at this book and most of the others we read. This specific title is part of the Elephant and Piggie series about two friends experiencing life together. He has another series about a pigeon, and the kids liked those, too. I highly recommend this witty author. Both the words and pictures will crack you up.

3. The Pencil by Allan Ahlberg. Creative, suspenseful, and fun to read. It will keep your kids attention and keep them guessing throughout the entire book about what would happen next.

4. The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room by Stan and Jan Berenstain. We like so many of the Berenstain Bears books, but I listed this one because of our recent emphasis on simplifying and de-cluttering and “less is more”. Last summer, Elizabeth only wanted to check out these books.

5. Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall. I had the joy of hearing Donald Hall give a wonderful presentation a few years ago when he came to Baylor as part of the Beall Poetry Festival, which the English Department here puts on every Spring. My children love this book. It’s a sweet story about a hard-working family who lives on a farm and makes their living by working with their hands. It’s simplicity at its best. The images are evocative and the message is simple, yet profound. It’s an oldie, but a goodie.

6. The Runaway Garden: A Delicious Story That’s Good for You, Too! by Jeffrey Schatzer. This book is about a garden that runs away and what happens to the individual vegetables as a result. This book contains a lot of literary devices, including homonyms and puns, which make it fun for older children as well as adults. And I always like books about food.

7. Sir Cumference and the First Round Table by Cindy Neuschwander. What a fascinating, original book. The author has several books in the series and I recommend them all. This book teaches math terms (radius, pi, circumference, diameter) in a very creative way. You definitely should check it out (my daughter didn’t like it as much as my son because “it’s a boy book”, but I disagree with her!).

8. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Classic book about imagination and dreaming. I didn’t read this book as a child (probably because I was almost a teenager), but I highly recommend it. Beautiful pictures.

9. The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. My sweet mother-in-law gave this book to Peyton recently, and it’s a wonderful book about taking care of the planet and being good stewards with our resources. Big change starts small, and this book emphasizes this throughout. The artwork is amazing.

10. Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin by Marjorie Priceman. When I give someone a book, this is the book I give them, especially younger children because it emphasizes counting and music. But older kids like it, too. You must read this at least once. Great story about an opera.

11. If I Ran the Zoo (and many more…) by Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss is, by far, the most often read author in our house. Between The Lorax, Oh, The Places You’ll Go, Green Eggs and Ham, and The Cat in the Hat, we feel like Dr. Seuss is a member of our family. What an amazing talent he was. His legacy lives on in kids and adults all over the world.

12. Aliens Love Underpants by Claire Freedman. I tend to be a little bit of a prude (I was raised that way), but having sons has changed me. Boys like to talk about pee and poop and underwear and penises and all other sorts of things that used to make me very uncomfortable (the fact that I even wrote the word penis shows how far I’ve come!). This book is wonderfully hilarious and great fun for boys (at least for my son) who like to talk about these things at the dinner table.

Well, there’s twelve of my faves. But I do have one more, so here it is, just because…

13. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. This book is a classic. I always liked it, but as an adult and a parent, I like it even more. I understand the story differently, and I think it teaches a lot of good lessons for children.

What children’s books would you add to this list? What were your favorites as a kid? What are your favorites as an adult? A parent? Will your kids be participating in a summer reading program? I look forward to seeing what you come up with.

Running around Like a Crazy Woman: Why Less Is More

Simplicity Parenting book coverI am currently reading Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids. This book, by Kim John Payne, a school counselor and an educational consultant, has challenged me to re-think the way I parent my children. He has encouraged me to consider the ways my good intentions as a parent may have negative consequences on my child. This book is challenging, provocative, and inspiring.

Right now, Elizabeth is 6 years old. She is playing t-ball. Beginning next week, we will have practice or games 3 nights a week.

Peyton is 4 years old. He is playing t-ball. Elizabeth and Peyton are not on the same team. Shane (my husband) is the assistant coach of Elizabeth’s team and the head coach of Peyton’s team.

For the next 8 weeks, we are going to be eating, breathing, sleeping, and thinking t-ball. T-ball every night of the week, except Wednesday when we have church. T-ball on many Saturdays. Several nights, both kids have a game, so we’ll be at the t-ball fields for close to 4 hours.

But we love t-ball. We like that our children are engaging in activities (we think) they (will) like. I enjoy chatting with other parents and getting to know adults and children in our small community. We like that our children feel good about themselves by playing and accomplishing something. We like to be Jesus to the community by serving them. We like being involved. We like our kids starting and finishing something.

But that’s not all. In the Winter, Elizabeth played basketball. In the Fall, Elizabeth and Peyton both played soccer. And through it all, we had a newborn baby who is now 8 months old to cart around.

I pause now to ask myself, “What are we doing to our children by enrolling them in all these extracurricular activities?”

In the United States, parents are told the following dominant narrative: “You must enroll your children in as many activities as possible at very a young age. The more the better. Ballet. Dance. Swimming. Soccer. Summer camps. Team sports. Individual sports. And on and on.”

Just look at some of the examples of prodigy kids. Tiger Woods began golf at 2 years old. Andre Agassi started playing tennis around age 4. Cild actors like Drew Barrymore and the Olsen twins began acting when they were young. I’m sure there are numerous other stories (if you know of some, leave them in the comments).

In short, if you want your child to be good at something, start them early on the activity/task. Malcolm Gladwell even points out in Outliers that to become good at something, perfect at it, you must put in over 10,000 hours of practice.

So what have we done to make our children successful? We begin early. We want them to reach that 10,000 hour mark well before their teenagers and it is deemed too late. Just consider the book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (which I will write about soon). If you haven’t read it, you’ve probably heard about the book (it was quite controversial) and her “Chinese way of parenting.” The author–a law professor at Yale–spent countless hours every single day making sure her children had mastered the piano and violin. They practiced all the time–literally. Even on vacation. Everywhere. Every. Single. Day.

But Simplicity Parenting asks a simple question really, “Why?” 

Why do we do this to our children? What do they really gain through these activities? And what is the cost of this attitude of more, more, and more? What are the results of our over-scheduled, over-stimulated, busy lives? Especially on our children?

Throughout the book, he answers these questions, and in quite provocative terms. Put simply, he says that “less is more.” Seems simple, but when you unpack this idea in terms of schedules, television, screen time, clutter, toys, your day having a rhythm, order, and flow, stress, anticipation, sleep, food and eating, an ordinary day, and filtering out the adult world from your children, you can see how this idea becomes even more convicting.

Less is more.

We have forgotten the gift of boredom.

Less is more.

Our children need unstructured play time.

Less is more.

We need to clear away the clutter.

Less is more.

The true power of less is that it creates smarter and more imaginative, energetic, independent, creative, self-confident kids. Kids that know how to solve problems, get along well with others, figure things out, and build a deep relationship with their parents and others.

Simplicity parenting is worth the try.

For those of you interested in learning more about the book, you might like to watch this informative four-minute video by the author.