2015 summary

In terms of finances, 2015 was a pretty great year. We were able to travel to the Netherlands in May. My husband was able to quit his job in late August in order to begin his graduate school internship. We paid the last tuition bill for graduate school in December, without loans of any kind. And we received word that my husband got a very helpful fellowship, which will see him through his last semester of graduate school and into the job market in 2016.

I’m already gathering tax documents for 2015, as well. I adjusted my withholding in late 2015 in order to have a bit more in my checks to see us through that last tuition payment; this worked out well, even if we owe some taxes in April, we’ll have our savings built back up by then.

One thing that’s totally up in the air at the moment is a future job for my husband. We are, obviously, hoping and praying that he finds something wonderful very quickly after graduation, but we have planned for a period of unemployment.

Some of our major savings efforts slowed in 2015, mainly due to paying tuition and living on one income, but we did manage to save a significant amount nonetheless, close to 30% of our income. That percentage will likely drop in 2016, as we will have one income for more of the year, but we have accounted for that in our planning.

We are both looking forward to a trip to Indianapolis later in the year, as part of the fellowship award. We are hoping that I can go on the trip and and find fun things to do while my husband has training during the day. Indianapolis isn’t exactly Amsterdam, but it is the current city of author/vlogbrother John Green, so we may run into him and become best friends.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2016!

 

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Reality

This blog may make it seem like everything always goes “our way” and that we never have setbacks or disappointments, and that things are just easy for us because we have good incomes. Well, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as we just returned from our trip to Amsterdam and people have directly told me, “I’m so jealous!” or “You’re so lucky!”

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail, but I just want to be clear that my husband and I don’t always have it so easy, we aren’t really any more lucky than the next person, and that the good things that happen for us are usually the result of a significant amount of hard work, planning, and usually budgeting.

We are very lucky to have each other, and to each support each other’s dreams in very tangible ways. A small example of this is that I’ve been talking about learning to skateboard for over two years, and finally, my husband had a co-worker with an unused longboard and he decided to make her an offer for it. He’s now teaching me how to ride, and made sure we both got helmets soon after this photo was taken:

skateboardA larger example is his graduate school experience. We discussed him going back to school for quite a few years before he actually took the GRE, looked at various online programs compared to classroom options, applied, and was accepted to both programs he applied to. We have managed to put him through school without student loans, thanks to many people–primarily his supervisor and co-workers who have adjusted to his changing schedule each semester and worked to help him reduce his hours as he transitions toward full-time student status with no job. He is basically paying his own tuition, and my income covers all of our regular expenses so that this can happen.

But we’ve been through some pretty crummy stuff, too. There have been professional setbacks of various types, personal disappointments, strained relationships, and medical issues. And don’t forget that we started our marriage in quite a bit of debt, with a long period of unemployment for my husband while I was only working part-time. I don’t write about these things, but it doesn’t mean they don’t happen to us, just like they happen to everyone else. The best we can do is try to make better decisions and think of our future selves.

It’s likely going to be a significant amount of time before we can take another vacation that involves getting on a plane, since my husband will (God willing) be graduating next spring and also (God willing) starting a new job sometime (hoping very soon) after graduation. This is one reason we decided to get back to Europe this spring, so soon after our last trip, because school schedules and life are quickly going to get in the way of any trips. And our hope is that we will eventually be able to save up a down payment for a house, maybe by our 10th wedding anniversary. All of this is a long way off, but I’ve always been motivated by long-ranging goals.

Trip to Amsterdam: the details and the budget

I promised I’d write a blog post on the details of our trip, so this is what I hope to accomplish:

  1. Details of planning
  2. Costs
  3. Assessment

After our trip to Europe last summer (Cologne, Germany and Paris), we decided our one day in Amsterdam wasn’t nearly enough to see everything the city has to offer. We made it to the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh Museum on that trip, and even though we were both recovering from terrible colds, it was a highlight of the whole trip. I started watching airfares to Amsterdam pretty much as soon as we got back from Paris. I did a bit of research and decided we could likely make it back in May, just after my husband’s finals week and just before the tulip season ended (the major garden, Keukenhof, closes mid to late May).

bikeIn October, I got an alert about a low fare from Kayak.com, and almost couldn’t believe it: $838/ticket, with one layover each way in Philadelphia. Compared to the $1,575 we paid for airfare in July, this seemed an incredible price. I decided to snap it up, and also bought insurance for about $50/ticket, just in case we ended up needing to cancel since we had booked so far in advance. Total: $1,776.72 for airfare and insurance.

Next came apartment hunting. We prefer apartments to hotels, since you get a kitchen and laundry, plus a bit more space to spread out and relax, for either less money or similar to a hotel, plus more privacy and the feeling of living like a local. Similar to finding a place to live, you want to maximize certain things and minimize other things. My main tips for searching for an apartment are:

  1. Figure out priorities before even looking at listings. For us, this was: comfortable bed, location relative to sights and transportation while being relatively quiet, and little amenities like a well-equipped kitchen/bathroom and laundry in the unit so we could pack light. I also noticed that women’s apartments generally appear more comfortable and have more of the little comforts that we’d expect: throw pillows and blankets, a real couch vs. a futon, cooking utensils, nice shampoo you can use so you don’t need to pack it, and even a bottle of nail polish remover if you need it.
  2. Look at the location using Google Street view to get a sense of the neighborhood and what’s nearby. By “walking” your neighborhood before you even arrive, you get a great idea of how it may fit your needs. By doing this, we discovered our location was very residential but was just around the corner from an ice cream/coffee shop and a grocery store.
  3. Check out public transportation to and from the apartment, from the airport, from all the locations you hope to visit, etc. Our location meant we got to skip visiting the Central Station on our first day in Amsterdam, which was good as we were both sleep deprived and carrying heavy backpacks. We got to hop a bus that dropped us less than a mile from the apartment. It was also close to two tram lines: one took us to the Museumplein and one took us toward Centraal Station.

We found a balance of these things with a place in de Pijp, the former student area of Amsterdam that’s south of the canal belt. For 11 nights, it cost $1,484 total, with all fees. It was exactly as we expected, and our host was very lovely, meeting us there and explaining how to use the washing machine, the coffee maker, etc.

apartmentNext was our travel budget and daily activities. This is the one area where you really don’t want to scrimp, because you’re there to see and do things, and you don’t want to be thinking, “Ah, I can’t really afford to go to this museum…” Thankfully, many large cities overcome this by offering a discount card of some type, and Amsterdam is no exception. In our guide books and online, we kept reading about the Museumkaart (Museum Card), and how it was about 60 Euros but got you into over 300 museums in the Netherlands, and over 30 in Amsterdam alone. This generally would pay off if you visited five places with the card, and since we were planning to hit all of the major museums (Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh, Stedelijk), plus whatever else struck our fancy on our 11 day trip, it made a lot of sense. Plus, you can use the card as many times as you like for admission to the same museum, so you can visit for a short period of time and decide to come back if you didn’t have your fill. Also, if you didn’t much like something, you don’t feel like you “wasted” the entry cost.

rembrandtSouvenirs is another area where you can either spend a lot or very little. My limit was about 10 Euros for a single item for myself, plus we brought back many little gifts for family and friends, mainly small things like postcards of art, key rings, notebooks, bracelets, etc. My favorite item I got was the little Playmobil Milk Maid after Vermeer’s painting in the Rijksmuseum. It was 4.90 Euros. I also picked up a little seed pearl bracelet at the Hermitage Museum and basically haven’t taken it off. My husband got a few nice art-related things: a journal, some colored pencils, a Museum Guide for the Rijksmuseum, and a book called “Art Is Therapy,” but none of them cost more than about 15 Euros.

milk maidOne area we didn’t economize as much was on food. We ate out about twice every day (breakfast was always at our apartment), and got coffee many times to help overcome to time change. We could have done more meal planning and packed lunches, but Amsterdam prices are similar to the US: if you’d feel uncomfortable wearing jeans into a restaurant, it’s probably too expensive, whereas we stuck with restaurants filled with people in their 20s and early 30s and the menu items were around 5-10 Euros. This meant that our most expensive meal, after we visited Keukenhof and got over 20,000 steps on our FitBits, was a lovely Neapolitan pizza place where we each got a pizza, plus each got beer, and split a large piece of tiramisu for $41.29 total. Most meals were around $20 or less. Lastly, transportation within the city was easy with our OV chipkaarts for the trams/buses and even the train we took to The Hague. We spent $132.40 on our cards and the costs to load them, and we each had a bit of money left on the cards after our trip to the airport, so we can bring them when we go back someday.

tulipsTotal for food/souvenirs/transportation: $1,794.45 (we had exactly 15 Euros left in cash after leaving the Schiphol airport, so we gave 5 to my cousin who just graduated from high school and kept the 10 for our next trip!).

Grand total: $5,055.17. It was worth every penny.

One other thing I should add is that we have the BarclayCard Arrival MasterCard with chip and PIN, which was absolutely essential in the Netherlands–many places ONLY took cards with chip and PIN, not cash. With the rewards we have racked up this year, we have saved $450 so far, and now that we’re back, we have more points and more reimbursements to do over the next three months, so that $5,055.17 is actually $4,605.17 and dropping. Update: as of 6/5, the new total is $4,486.17. Depending on the bills that come in over the next couple months, that will likely drop by another $73.66 for a grand total of $4,412.51. Not too shabby for a lavish 11 day European vacation!

OBA view

How to get married for less

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How to get married for less than $25,000

Every year, we hear about the average cost of weddings, and every year that goes by that I’ve been married, I am thankful that we spent about $5k for 50 guests to share our wedding day with us instead of something larger and more costly. So today, I will share our wedding budget and how we kept costs down. We also planned the whole thing in about 6 months (engaged in early February, married in early August). I’ll add some photos, but you can see more on my Pinterest board. Our wedding happened pre-Pinterest, so now there are many cost-saving ideas out there. Our goal was to have an elegant, low-key wedding with our closest family/friends. My parents liked this idea a lot, and were supportive of a small wedding, and so paid for nearly all of it. I think the ultimate breakdown was that we paid about $1,000 and my parents paid about $4,000.

Wedding Budget

Reception:
Food and Beverage        $1,600.00
Books for table numbers        $200.00
Wine      $0.00
Total:    $1,800.00

For our reception, we chose a local fancy restaurant, with no dance. We really just wanted to be able to talk to each of our guests, and we had no desire to dance the night away. Originally, we were going to use the restaurant meeting room space, which had no rental fee, but they generously offered to set aside part of the main restaurant (they have curtain things to make areas more private) so we could more comfortably seat 50 people, also with no fee. They also happened to have musicians that evening (a pianist and violinist) so we got to enjoy the lovely music without dancing. We used our favorite children’s books as table numbers (I think we had 7 tables) so the restaurant staff knew where to seat folks based on our rather complicated seating chart (we didn’t want chaos with seating since we were in a small space). We did pay a corking fee to bring in our own wine for toasting (most of our family aren’t big drinkers and DH’s aunts gifted us with the wine), and we limited meal options to two selections so we could anticipate the cost. At the end of the night, my dad just paid the check like you would at any restaurant, and the owners generously gave us a $50 gift card as a wedding present-we used it on our 1st anniversary to go back and celebrate.
2955940894_8016003670_oAttire and Beauty:
Gown/Alterations        $175.00
Headpiece        $50.00
Bride’s Shoes        $75.00
Groom’s Suit        $200.00 (gift)
Total:    $300.00

My gown was a J.Crew wedding dress on sale which I bought before we were even officially engaged (short story: I had loved the style for a long time and so when I saw it went on clearance, my now husband said to just get it, since he was in the process of ring shopping). I had a custom floral hair piece made by Myra on Etsy (no veil), and I got my ruby red silk Caparros shoes on Zappos, which went perfectly with my silk wedding gown. My husband’s godmother is a tailor/seamstress and helped with slight alterations to my gown and also generously purchased a nice black suit for him to wear, and we got a red tie that matched my shoes. My sister did my hair on the big day and I did my own makeup.

Ceremony:
Location Fee        $300.00
Officiant Fee/Donation        $100.00
Musicians        $250.00
Total:    $650.00

We got married at our church, which happens to be the local Cathedral, an already beautiful space. We didn’t add any decorations, since the space was newly remodeled. They charged parishioners $300 for the location, plus suggested a $100 donation for the priest. We hired one of the regular church cantors (songleaders) to sing, and one of my cousins played the piano and helped us choose wedding music, which was a very lovely personal addition to the ceremony/mass.

Flowers and Décor:
Roses        $135.00
Hypericum        $109.00
Ribbon/pins        $10.00
Bird nest for rings  $10.00
Total:    $264.00

We used Fifty Flowers and Grower’s Box for the bouquets that we put on the tables at the reception venue and which I held, plus boutonnières for our attendants and petals for the flower girl. My mom and a close friend helped me put together the flowers, and my mom had purchased clear vases at Goodwill and Savers to put them in–probably paying about $.50 per vase, so I didn’t include that in the price. We then let folks take home the vases/bouquets to enjoy, and we kept one. I made a little bird nest for the ring bearer to carry in our rings with supplies from a local craft store.

Photography:
Photographer        $500.00
Printing of photos        $200.00
Album from Target        $20.00
Videographer   $0.00
Total:    $720.00

This is the one area where I would recommend spending money, because the only thing you have at the end of the day are memories, and photos are a great reminder. We had a friend who was a skilled photographer, but who had never before shot a wedding, do our photos. He’s now a professional wedding photographer in the Twin Cities. One of my cousins did wedding videography for us as a gift, which was very generous. My uncle/godfather owns a photo printing shop and printed all our photos at a nice discount. I put 4×6 shots into an album from Target, and we also framed a number of photos which are still displayed in our apartment.

Stationery:
Invitations/Reply Cards        $300.00
Announcements:     $50.00
Envelopes        $25.00
Postage        $95.00
Total:    $470.00

We designed our own invitations in Photoshop, and had a local printer print them. We purchased fancy folding envelopes from some website I can’t remember (they were like folders), and got custom stamps with our engagement photos on them from Zazzle. Since we had a small wedding, we sent announcements out to those we didn’t invite to let them know our new names/address.

Wedding Rings:
His Ring        $325.00
Her Ring        $120.00
Total:    $445.00

We got both of our rings from e-weddingbands.com, which I highly recommend. They are great quality, and have free engraving. They were the cheapest we could find for 18k white gold bands. We tried on bands locally to get an idea of width and get our accurate ring sizes.

Transportation:
Car Rental        $0.00
Total:    $0.00

My close friend’s boyfriend (now fiance!) worked for a local car dealer, and got us an awesome vehicle as our “getaway” car, and also acted as our chauffeur. It was amazing to ride in a VW Phaeton, and we actually went through the Starbucks drive-through in it before going to our reception. This was an amazing gift.

Gifts:
Favors (Mr. B’s Chocolates)        $140.00
Favor boxes        $30.00
Total:    $170.00
Personal Additions:
Marriage license        $40.00
Premarital Weekend by Diocese        $140.00

We hated the idea of throwaway wedding favors, so we did something everybody loves: sweets. We got fancy Belgian-style chocolates in our favorite flavors and bought favor boxes online. This was the only truly “putzy” thing we did for the wedding, assembling those boxes and putting two chocolates into each box. We then set one box at each place setting at the restaurant, and we heard later that people loved this, trading each other for different flavors. Also, a Minnesota marriage license was $40.00 in 2008 (no idea if that’s gone up), and we were required to attend a marriage preparation course by our diocese, which cost $140. I would say this was worth it, as we also got to meet with a married couple for our premarital counseling and find out where we differed on our premarital assessment (required by the diocese).

Grand Total:    $4,999.00

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Marketing and the things you already own

Objectified_coverThe documentary film ‘Objectified‘ is a favorite of mine. It discusses the design of objects and our relationships with those objects. I often think of a quote from that film when I am walking down the aisles at Target or through the mall. It’s a quote about the things we already own, and to me, it’s a very powerful thought.

Rob Walker, New York Times columnist, speaking in ‘Objectified’:

If I had a billion dollars to fund a marketing campaign, I would launch a campaign on behalf of things you already own. Why not enjoy them today? Because we all have so many things that are just around – they’re in the closet, they’re in the attic, whatever… that we don’t even think about anymore because there isn’t enough room left in our brains because we are so busy processing all the exciting new developments.

At the end of the day, when you’re looking around at the objects in your house and you’re deciding what here really has value to me… they’re going to be the things that have the most meaning in your life.

The hurricane is coming. You have 20 minutes to get your stuff and go. You’re not going to be saying, ‘Well, that got an amazing write-up in this design blog.’ You are going to pick the most meaningful objects to you. Because those are the true objects that truly reflect the true story of who you are and what your personal narrative is, and the story that you are telling yourself (and no one else) because that is the only audience that matters….”

This idea really re-framed buying for me on many levels. Rampant consumerism is one thing, but even just buying that one extra “fun thing” on a trip to Target adds up to a whole lot of extra unnecessary stuff over time. And almost none of it adds anything to my overall happiness, nor is most of it stuff I’d grab if my home were engulfed in flames. This thought also helps me to de-clutter. How much do I really care about this object? Instead of looking at things and thinking they will make me happier, I look at what makes me happy and try to feed those passions instead. I recognize when I’m being marketed to; it takes some self awareness and self control, but once mastered, it’s a very powerful tool in helping to amass savings instead of collecting stuff.