Why I’m Doing More This Holiday Season

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Last year we had a very quiet holiday season. New baby + illness = I’m impressed we actually got a tree up. Last December is a bit of a blur to me now. I have some photos of the older two putting out carrots for Rudolph and cookies for Santa and I remember they slept in on Christmas morning, but I couldn’t tell you much more. I know they didn’t get out to a lot of the town holiday events because of inclement weather and the new baby.

This year is different: we’re in a big city, we’re near family and our baby is sleeping through the night (for now!). I am so jazzed for this Christmas, for how excited my older boys are by just about everything and that we are near our family, that we’re doing as much as we can. Yes, I’m not simplifying the holidays this year and I’m doing more than we have before.

I read Laura Vanderkam’s post 5 Reasons I’m Not Simplifying Christmas This Year and many of my do more reasons are the same as hers. *Laura’s blog and books are a must read for productivity lovers/seekers, particularly those with kids and those working a long hours job.

When you keep things pretty simple and low-key for most of the year, you can go big on the holidays without burn out. My kids have a light schedule of classes and activities and my husband and I are home most weekday evenings during the year. If there’s a once a year chance for some weekday evening fun that the kids will love, we’re going. We had a full day out the other weekend with mini-train rides, meeting Santa and getting pictures taken and watching a big Christmas parade. The kids loved it. We loved it. At the end of November we went to a street festival and watched ice carvers make holiday themed sculpture and checked out locally made crafts and goods.  Most of what we’ve been to has been within a five block radius of our home – yeah city living!

This year I’m also just letting gifts ‘happen’ instead of asking/begging Grandmas to give them a bit less. They know by now that we can’t keep large items in our small home and that we really love experience gifts. They also know we don’t keep everything. If a gift isn’t being played with or used, we’ll donate it. So my kids will get the fun of opening a gift and the person giving the gift will get to enjoy that experience. Five years into trying to ‘live a rich life with less stuff’ I don’t have to explain any of this to well meaning, love language = gifts, family members: they all know it by now.

We’ve already changed the how and how much of our gift giving. Almost fifteen years ago my siblings and I stopped buying Christmas gifts for each other and instead bought gifts for families in need. It’s now a Christmas highlight for all of us. I don’t exchange gifts with friends – we put the brakes on that years ago. Instead we try and meet up during the holidays for a meal and a good in-person catch up. My kids get gifts but I would say they receive a very modest amount compared to their peers. Sure, I could see us doing a no-gift Christmas someday but likely it would be when they are quite a bit older. I’m pretty happy with our already simplified and feel-good gift giving traditions so I don’t feel the need to simplify it even more.

I’m a domestic slacker for most of the year. Most of our meals are simple and made with a few ingredients. But I actually really like complicated and extravagant cooking and baking: I used to own a creme brulee torch! I just don’t like them enough now, with three kids and limited time, to make a complicated dish regularly. So, I might just spend an afternoon or evening with a bunch of one off ingredients making something delicious, exotic and complicated. *Heavy emphasis on the might. It’s fun to cook something not on our regular menu and the holidays is a great time to splurge a bit. Because we keep it simple most of the year and I’ve got the energy to make a tourtiere from scratch, bake cookies with the kids and their cousins or take a stab at my husband’s favorite Christmas dessert, Buch Noel.

This age won’t last forever. Our almost three year-old is knocking it out of the park with adorable phrases right now. I need to record some of them because this time is fleeting. Christmas magic and believing doesn’t last forever either. So I’m soaking it up while we have it. It is so fun. I keep saying that lately: these parts of parenting are so much fun. The Halloween costumes, the thrill that they are making gingerbread houses at school, the anticipation, the wonder. This parenting gig has really hard days to it. I’m trying to enjoy the great and magical ones to their full extent. So that means a bit of decorating, Christmas songs and candles at breakfast and letting the kids stop at every Christmas tree they see as we walk around town.

So far we’ve done a lot of holiday activities by our standards and I don’t feel burned out or stressed. We’ve done the big things like the Polar Express and the Christmas Parade and for the rest of the pre-Christmas time we’ll do some activities at home like baking and then get out to see some Christmas lights. For the holidays we’re having a planned low-key at home Christmas Eve and then back to back days of Christmas with each side of the family. I’m expecting the kids to be cranky and under-slept and overstimulated by the 27th at which point we’ll get back to somewhat normal bed times.

When you keep it simple most of the time you can go big and busy for brief periods of time and really enjoy it.

I know I’m not alone on this one: Evelyn and I had the same discussion when we chatted recently. Her children are also at great ages for the magic of Christmas and, like me, they want to enjoy all of it that they can.

How do you get the most out of the holiday season? Do you try and carve out time for relaxing or do you make it a priority to see and do as much as you can?

Do You Need a Budget?

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Are you a budget keeper or maker? I’ve made lots of budgets but only consistently kept to one once I started tracking all of my spending. It was a financial game changer. Entering each purchase has made me pause and assess if what I was buying was a need or a want and if I really wanted it and, big one, if I had the budget for it. I cannot recommend this method of tracking spending enough. If you are trying to get a clear picture of your expenses, if you’re trying to spend less, if you’re trying to pay off debt, you need a budget and you need to track your spending.

We used the opportunity of our big move back to Canada to try out another budgeting tool: You Need a Budget (YNAB). The first budgeting app we used was called Budget and it was okay but was a bit too basic for our needs. We switched to using Home Budget three years ago on the recommendation of my sister. Home Budget is good and met most of our needs but it had syncing troubles. This is bothersome when you have two people using the app and syncing to one account. Every month we would reconcile what our Home Budget app showed and every month we were off: my husband’s account showed different balances than mine. This became a lot of work because we would have to hunt through transactions to find duplicate entries that Home Budget had made and delete them. Often we couldn’t find them.  At one point we had to delete the app, and all of our data, because it wouldn’t run on my older model iPod. Frustrating.

With a new budget to make and a switch in currencies, accounts and income, it felt like the right time to try a new budgeting app.

YNAB, You Need a Budget, has been around for quite a few years and I’ve heard great reviews from blog readers and via other financial blogs I read. I’ve been curious but the price tag and the fact that it runs off a Drop Box stored database were initial turn offs. Sue me! I am cheap and lazy. But after testing running YNAB I decide we should give it a go because the functionality looked great and after a bit of poking around I realized using DropBox for the database was a) not a big deal and would b) reduce or eliminate our issues with multiple accounts and incorrect transaction syncs.

YNAB has import features for credit cards and bank account transactions but we don’t use them. For us, entering the purchases is the biggest part of keeping our spending in check. YNAB also advises that people enter transactions manually because it promotes knowing your finances and spending patterns well. And knowing where your money goes is, in my experience, one of the best ways to get in the mindset of spending less.

What I love about YNAB:

  • The sync system for multiple devices and accounts WORKS. This is key if you have shared finances and/or budgets with a partner or you want to use YNAB on multiple devices. The sync system uses DropBox on a desktop computer to store files. Sounds confusing but once you get it installed, it’s not.
  • It shows your net worth. This can be a bit scary, hahaha really need to save for retirement!, but we wanted a better system for seeing our savings, hopefully, grow.
  • The app interface is really easy to use. I love that it remembers categories based on payee name. YNAB’s interface is far superior to the other budgeting apps I have used.
  • Fantastic resources on YouNeedaBudget.com. If you’re new to budgeting and/or new to the software YNAB does a lot of hand holding via their website. They have excellent start up videos and materials to help you use YNAB and get a budget running that works for you. Far superior to any of the previous budgeting apps I have used.

What could be better with YNAB:

  • Better mortgage function. I would like to be able to put our mortgage information in and have it update by itself. Right now we manually update it each month. But I want this function offline and not synced to a financial institution. I’m picky like that.
  • Option to not run a zero based budget. One of the bigger adjustments for us was setting a zero based budget. We have to account for every dollar and ‘spend’ them either on things or moved to savings. In the past we set a budget that was less than our monthly income and just put whatever was left into savings each month. Because we had a lot of roll over categories we would have a cushion in our checking account but those dollars were accounted for in budgets. YNAB is making us adjust more for spending fluctuations in categories.
  • Price? YNAB is $60. Pretty steep if you are coming from using free or very low priced budgeting apps. But, I think YNABs price is justified. The app is excellent ant they have great support and resources on their website. I’ve been budgeting using an app for four years but I needed some help making the jump to YNAB. They made it easy. I watched a video and read a few things on their site and I was ready to use their app. They also have a big and helpful and fun online budgeting community that you can access – highly recommend joining a YNAB forum for some hand holding/cheering/extra motivation. You can get a lot out of that $60.

We’re really happy with our $60 investment in YNAB and this is me giving it two thumbs for anyone looking to start budgeting and get a better handle on their finances. Yes, you can do it all with pen and paper. But if like many of us, you have struggled to consistently track your finances and stick to a budget, YouNeedaBudget can really help.

Any other YNABers care to weigh in on their experiences? Anyone have another budgeting method or tracking method that has worked for them?

P.S. One of those BIG ebook sales is happening right now. The Ultimate Healthy Living Bundle is on sale this week: $30 for dozens of books on things like allergy free eating, Paleo recipes, Health & Fitness. I’m a big fan of these bundles both as an author and a reader. Great value!

GIVEAWAY: Do Less is now available!

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Today I am checking one big goal off my life list:

Publish a book May 2014

While I have self-published a book before, Do Less: A Minimalist Guide to a Simplified, Organized and Happy Life is my first book with a publisher. My first book that you can order in stores or online and that may be lurking on a table at your local Urban Outfitters (if you see it please let me know – no UOs in the Isle of Man). A book with an editor and an advance and a print run.

I know there are a few writers that read this blog so you’ll understand that the whole thing hasn’t felt real. Before the contract was signed I kept wondering if this was really going to happen. And when I was in the writing and editing process I wondered if the book would meet the publisher’s approval and make it to print. And after that it was a long wait to the actual publish date.

But here it is.

I’m very proud of this book. My husband has been telling me for a long time that I should be working on a book, one that encapsulates all the things I’ve learned and tried over the years, all the stories that have been shared here on the blog in the comments section and in guest posts. All the ways people have told me they’ve simplified and de-cluttered so they could focus on the things and people they really care about.

We kept talking about it and I kept procrastinating on starting it. And then F + W Publishing asked me if I was interested in writing just such a book. Writer + deadline = action.

This is a book for everyone. There are some radical ideas in it, plans for people that are looking for big change, but there are also small ways to live a bit simpler and easier. You’ll find a few lists in here, ideas for shaping and leaning out the corners of our lives that we often forget about until they overwhelm us.

Four sections make up the book – Home, Work, Money, Life – so there’s more to this book than a guide to cleaning out your garage. There are lots of ideas for spending less, enjoying the free things in life more and finding energy and time for those things we often skip out on like sleep and exercise.

As the title suggests there are also a lot of ways to Do Less in this book. Less time at the office, less housework, less obligation. Consider this a rebuttal to all those books and articles about how to do it all. This is a book about embracing that you don’t want to do it all, you want to do a handful of things, things that you actually feel fulfilled by, well. Do less and do it better.

Thank you so much to everyone that has pre-ordered the book and bought it when it hit the virtual shelves yesterday. I am so grateful for your support and I hope you find lots of ideas and inspiration in Do Less.

If you’ve found this blog helpful I would really appreciate any support you can lend as my little book launches. Tell friends about it, share it on Facebook, request it be stocked at your local library and, if you can, purchase it on Kindle or paperback. The print copy is beautifully laid out and a great size for toting around in a handbag or backpack for in-transit reading. The Kindle version is light as a feather.

This week I’m also giving away five hard copies of Do Less. Open to anyone with a North American or Western Europe mailing address. Closes this Friday at 5:00pm EST. Just follow the Rafflecopter instructions below and leave a comment on this blog post telling us about any items you recently donated, recycled or sold.

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Value Buy: Our French Roller Skate

My mother related our new car to her first car when she was a teenager in Glasgow: a Lada.

Yes, it was a value buy.

There is nothing cool about our car.

For the record it is a 2000 Citroen Saxo. I call it the French Roller Skate.

It was a bargain, drives well, was in good shape and only had 23,000 miles on it. The boys car seats just fit in it.

It is neither cool, nor very comfortable but it does the job.

We may laugh at this purchase sometimes, it often makes me feel like I am seventeen again and driving the 1980 VW Rabbit I shared with my sister, but our three year-old thinks the car is awesome.

Preschoolers give great perspective on things.

Our French roller skate doesn’t meet all of our needs.

We can’t transport more than our family and a few bags at once.

It’s not that comfortable so a driving tour of England and Scotland isn’t in the cards with it.

To meet all those needs we would have spent at least four times what we got the roller skate for (about $1100) and that vehicle would have used up a lot more fuel, cost a lot to insure (current insurance: $300 for the year) and been more expensive to maintain and repair.

So instead of getting a car that would fit every possible use in our lives, we got one that worked for 99%.

We all fit in the car and it can get us around the island when needed. Should family visit, as they have, we’ll rent something bigger. Road trips off the island will be in rental cars. Even with those costs we’re still farther ahead financially with our little car.

Buying this car has been a milestone for us. Bittersweet but mostly positive.

We made a pretty big purchase without worrying about what other people will think or buying something to feed our egos.

Four years ago we wouldn’t have bought this car.

In fact, four years ago we rented a car for a weekend and discussed trading in our perfectly fine Nissan sedan for something new.

Not because we needed it or could afford it but because it would be fun and nice.

Please note, I think there is nothing wrong with buying a fun and nice car for yourself if you can afford it. But we definitely couldn’t afford it back then and now we prefer to spend our fun and nice dollars on things like travel.

Chris went to fill the car up for the first time and a teenager driving a BMW pulled up at the pump over from him.

They both entered the store to pay at the same time.

Chris paid cash.

The teenager, car rich and cash poor, asked them to try to take £30 off his card before he started pumping. He said there was £10 available and he had a £20 overdraft.

At least that’s what he hoped he had.

Anyone other reformed over-spenders make a milestone value buy recently?

How To Be Rich (Without A Lot Of Money Or Stuff)

There are two ways to be rich:
One is by acquiring much,
and the other is by desiring little.
~Jackie French Koller

I am very wealthy. Rich in fact.

Of course, we’re not able to retire early.

We have a lot of years left on our mortgage.

We don’t own a car. I ride the bus. We do a lot of walking.

My wardrobe is small, and the labels are not designer.

Our home is simply furnished and relatively small. The decor is kid friendly and welcoming.

I track every penny we spend. Our budget is debated and examined often by me and my husband.

Our oldest son has a small collection of toys many of which were bought second hand.

Our new baby plays with plastic cups and chews on well worn receiving blankets.

They are both clothed in a mix of hand-me-downs, second hand purchases and…
Read the rest of this post at Home Your Way

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