Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My Budget Friendly Ohio Wedding Weekend Getaway

This past weekend we had the wonderful privilege of being guests at a wedding reception in Ohio for my wife’s cousin. The reception was wonderful and the newlywed couple looked absolutely amazing and they were filled with a beaming joy. But the event also provided me with a, “good practices” approach in frugality as we budgeted $300 from our travel budget for this affair, so away we go:

Getting there

As we are car-less in Chicago whenever we travel out of state our method of transportation is either train and ride share or a car rental. For this trip we went with a train ride and carpool. On our way out of the windy city we grabbed a few veggie sandwiches at Subway and used our monthly entertainment budget for dinner that night. Our train tickets ran us $22 thus beginning our travel deduction for the weekend ($278 remaining), and we stayed over night with my in-laws in Michigan having breakfast there the following morning.

For the car ride to the venue we carpooled with my sister-in-law. She drives an excellent Ford vehicle that gets wonderful gas mileage. On the way we stopped off for lunch when we crossed into the Ohio state line. It’s in places like these that make Mid-West travel destinations so alluring to me. We stopped off at a Mexican restaurant that was genuinely authentic, implemented the meat side of our flexatarianism and for $20 ($258 remaining) ate to our fill.


Our accommodations were at a hotel literally within walking distance of the reception venue. Total cost for the night stay was $110 ($148 remaining) which included a hot tub we got to hang out in and complementary breakfast in the morning.


My sister-in-law and her husband were so gracious to help give us a ride back into Chicago during NATO weekend (big-ups to them by the way), so we chipped in $40 for gas **it took $45 to fill up at this point** ($118 remaining) and started to make our way back home. We did take two stops along the way: (1) for a late lunch that was $22 ($96 remaining) and (2) to grab cheaper groceries in Indiana using our grocery budget.

So overall we came in almost $100 under our allocated travel budget, used the Hoosier state to buy groceries and come in under our weekly grocery budget and I got to hang out with my in-laws for the weekend. So there you have it, my budget friendly Ohio weekend getaway!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Problem with Hyper Consuming

I know this may be hard for some of you to believe but I was a bit irked this morning on my bus ride into work. I was in my seat reading my daily free fishwrap when I took a second to notice and realize that every single person around me was on their phone. As my fellow CTA riders were engulfed and engaged on their mobile devices, I took the liberty to glance at some of their screens to see what was so interesting.

One gal was searching for “on sale specials” for purses FOR ONLY several hundred dollars, as she sat with a coach purse in tow. A guy was checking out new smart phones while on the one he has.  And another guy was checking out borrowing options for a jet ski.

When in the hell did we get to be so stupid with our personal finances? Granted I don’t know these people, whether they were searching for gifts, what kind of debt loads (if any) they are carrying or whether they were just checking these things out for fun. But I do know that what you spend your money on is a reflection on your values. Show me a month’s worth of receipts and I will show you what that person places as a priority in their life.

I’m not against stuff. I am against stuff having me. There’s this warped perception in our culture that hyper consuming is a sure way to feel good about yourself and that the latest and greatest trends and gadgets are all must have items.

A month and a half from now my wife will join me in the debt free club. During this time we have cut our cost of living down to around $20,000 a year and have found greater value in time spent together over stuff. Stuff really is just stuff. Very little of it I have found has improved my quality of life. My fondest memories from this past weekend included lunch out with friends, a quiet afternoon laying near the lakefront with my wife and talking with my nephew about what is going on his life. Designer clothes, expensive watches, and a smartphone never entered the equation.

Instead I buy “experienced clothing,” and save 15% of my income towards retirement vehicles. I do not own a cell phone, but you better believe the second my kid is born I’m opening an ESA and contributing the maximum amount every year for their college education. My wife and I have passed on lavish vacations, but I write a check out every month to my home church.

Stuff is just stuff. No peace of mind nor financial security comes from a fleeced car, a chic closet or endless information at your fingertips. One intentional choice leads to another and for me I will take financial peace over “things” every day of the week.

Monday, May 14, 2012

My Open Letter to: People who need to Occupy a Job

Dear morons,

Welcome to my beautiful city of Chicago. I could not be more eager to see you all leave. But while you are here it has already been entertaining watching you all learn firsthand about this awesome thing in capitalism that we call property rights. You see, ignorance is no excuse to violate property rights, and when you do so there are consequences. So it’s wonderful for me to know that you are receiving a hands on learning experience about capitalism, and it's also funny to see you get arrested, it really brightens my day.

Now believe me, if I could completely avoid your wretched existence I would, and I sincerely mean that from the bottom of my heart. But your planned and unplanned demonstrations will reroute my bus ride to work, and we are all but sure to bump into each other while I’m commuting to and from work.

**oh, so I don’t lose you this early in the letter, work is this place you go to where you contribute job skills to a company and they say thank you by putting money in your bank account every month. It’s really cool, you can use that money to buy groceries, go out to eat, travel and save for retirement and your kids’ college, but I digress**

Now when I see you face to face I won’t be able to tell you how I really feel about you nor engage you over conversation. Why? Because my need to gag and vomit will be greater than your need to occupy a shower, yea, it’s that bad, and please remember that this is coming from a veteran red line rider who knows all too well the foul and drunken shenanigans of Cubs fans. So I would like to use this space today to share with you some truths in life that are contrary to what you are crying about. Translation: I think you are stupid and here’s why:

Outcry against Government

Now you might be inclined to think that I would be on your side on this one, but let me assure you that I am not. When it comes to the awful, stupid and irresponsible decisions and actions of our government we have no one to blame but ourselves. Take Afghanistan for an example. We have been in the process of “liberating” this country for over ten years now. There have been several elections for president, congress and the senate since our military set foot in that land. Collectively, we have not rallied behind peacemaking politicians who will actually do the work of ending the waste of our people and resources overseas. We have continued to elect those who see the need for war and politicians who lie to us in saying that they will get our soldiers out of the Middle East.

Government is inept. Yes, as hard as it is for me to wrap my head around, politicians are actually dumber than you. There’s only one way to get what you want from a politician: make them unemployed. And if the next moocher lies to you, keep voting them out until you elect someone who keeps their word. I personally believe and have seen firsthand that government is wasteful, useless and thoroughly incompetent. Now when in fact you have your trustworthy politicians elected and they enact government actions that actually benefit someone other than themselves, please feel free to look me up and tell me that I have been proven wrong. I’ll be out on Lake Shore Drive skiing in the middle of August, because hell would have frozen over by then.

Income Inequality

About three and a half years ago I had a negative net worth and was overwhelmed by student loan debt. Since that time I’ve had just about a $200,000 change in financial position. I am debt free, live below my means while on a budget and am saving for retirement and WILL save for my kids’ college tuition. I did not, am not and will not whine that the CEO of the company I work for makes more in a year than my entire division’s budget. Executive salaries are decisions made by a company’s board of directors, translated: NOT YOU! It’s none of your damn business because it doesn’t concern you. If you don’t like it, don’t work there. Oh wait, I forgot, you don’t work. In that case if you don’t like that company’s policies then don’t buy their products. Companies don’t print their own currency and pay executives with that, they use dollars and cents from profit generated by economic activity. If you don’t buy their product then they see a drop in revenue, and if there’s a drop in revenue then they can’t pay salaries.

I didn’t find financial peace by crying, whining and moaning about somebody else’s financial situation. I grew up, I got a job, I live on less than I make and I have worked hard for everything that I have. Someone will always make more than you. But you have control over your spending and saving habits. In my minimum wage project I outlined how you can buy a home and retire with dignity having made minimum wage your entire working lifetime. Your laziness to bootstrap your personal finances is not an excuse to point your greedy and entitled finger at someone else.

Student Loans

The last of your gems that I’ll talk about is debt, specifically for student loans. Lately I’ve been amazed at your stance on this (not in a good way). You signed the promissory note. It’s likely that your ill-advised parents cosigned the promissory note. You know that debts have to be repaid. Yet I cannot understand why, after all of this damning evidence, you think it is everyone else’s fault that you were stupid and did not think through what you signed up for.

If I had the opportunity again I would have applied to an in state and low cost university. I would have worked with an academic advisor at the in state university to plan how many classes could transfer from a local community college, and I would have taken as many allowable classes to transfer up to the maximum. I would take night, weekend and online classes at the community college while working full-time either washing dishes at a restaurant or being placed in an entry level position through a temp agency, whichever was available. I would work and save and save and work, paying myself through community college and eventually finishing the 4 year degree at the 4 year college. All in all it may have taken me 6 years to accomplish this. So if things pan out, I would have a college degree, 6 years of working experience and no debt.

But you never stopped to think for yourself now did you? You simply picked the best party school or the snobbiest one that would let you in, and you just went, never asking how much.


It’s not my fault that you cannot think for yourself. It is your fault that you are sitting in a financial mess overburdened by debt and unemployment. You’ve got to leave the cave, kill something and drag it home. There’s no shame in washing dishes, delivering pizzas or throwing newspapers, especially when you are working two or three of these jobs at a time to keep your head above water. It’s not easy, building wealth and living responsibly below your means is hard and requires everyday intentional action…it’s just worth it. But until you do this, until you have this never say die attitude and you are willing to do whatever it takes to support yourself rather than waiting for the government to do it, you will never get sympathy from me.


My New Arrival

My brother gets a newborn baby girl and I get a (younger) 20 something, how’s that for poetic justice? In all seriousness my wife and I have a new roommate. My (younger) 20 something nephew has moved in with us for the next few months. Having earned his B.A, he is completing a certification course for teaching English overseas. We’ve always put the offer to close family that our home is open to them if they ever find themselves in the Mid-West and this one called us on it.

I already knew that getting your financial house in order makes it easy for you to give, save and spend like no one else, but this has been awesomely exemplified during this time that our new roomie has been here. I can only imagine the amount of stress this scenario would have brought if he had come when my wife and I were “pre-Ramsey:” Living paycheck to paycheck, still with my student loans around, dollars in-dollars out and only the names are changed to protect the innocent, and in that scenario, honestly needing my nephew to help chip in for rent because our own spending was out of control.

Thankfully having lived on a monthly budget for almost three and a half years now when we got the heads up he was coming, we made a simple adjustment to the grocery budget and viola! We were ready. I would like to say though that we aren't a worry free household. Leading up to and (truth be told) to this day I am worried about being a good center of influence for my nephew, and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t want him to start picking up the personal financial practices that my wife and I follow.

But Rome was not built in a day and lives do not change overnight, mine certainly didn’t. So slowly and through baby steps we are in essence living out our sermon rather than preaching to him. He is seeing that we pay for things in cash. He is witnessing my wife and I openly talk about personal finances and making decisions together. He is being exposed to people who thoroughly despise debt, live on less than they make and prioritize saving and giving.

During my nephew’s time here, in addition to his classes, he is on the job hunt and planning to work. We don’t “need” him to contribute rent for expenses. What his uncle “needs” is to look in the mirror everyday and know that he lived out, in front of a family member he loves, God’s ways of handling money. Will that inspire him to live like no one else? Well, that’s up to him, only he can control his destiny and financial decisions. So I  am excited that he is here and once his first paycheck comes rolling in, instead of asking for rent or “needing” the money to help with groceries and utilities, I’m going to show him smart things to do with every paycheck and how money is a tool to build your dreams and grow in relationship with God. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

My Total Money Makeover Live Event: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Up until this past weekend I have only experienced Dave Ramsey through his books, radio show and FPU course. I now can say I have experienced Dave’s energy and straight talk live. I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and along with 8,000 of my closest friends got to be apart of Dave’s Total Money Makeover Live Event.

For long time members of the Ramsey Nation there’s not a ton of new material covered. For us it’s kind of like going to a pep rally before the big game. Thankfully the steps to a total money makeover are common sense, hard to do but still common sense. But the energy, the vibe, Dave’s straight talk, it can’t help but pump you up. One of my favorite memories was waiting in line at the concession stand. I waited with my budgeted dollars in hand to buy a pop and a few waters, and as I got closer to the cashier my grin turned into a full blown bright and glowing smile. I saw no one pay with a credit card and the cashiers were starting to run out of coin change. I love being in the Ramsey Nation, seriously people, we need to build and move to our Atlantis ASAP. It seriously was a breath of fresh air being around so many other weird people just like me. Letting my mind wander during the breaks, it was unbelievable knowing that the Ramsey Nation is out there alive and well, and in working the baby steps and handling money God’s way, that in just a short decade or two we are going to change the world. It’s motivating to me to know that my wife and I aren’t the only ones out there working the steps.

For the newbie to Ramsey I can see how the material presented can be intimidating and overwhelming. Essentially Dave covers the material in FPU – his 13 week course- and boils it down to about five hours with two 20 minute breaks. Without much time to catch your breath, Dave blitzes you through the baby steps and in his fun style tells you the smart and biblical ways to handle your money.

My wife also got to meet and grab a photo with one of her favorite authors, Jon Acuff, and even got a copy of his book, “Quitter,” with what I refer to as a truly quality use of entertainment budget! J So whether you are brand spanking new or a long time Ramsey listener I highly recommend attending one of Dave’s live events, so get those travel budgets ready!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

My Spirituality

Now I don’t intend to get religious here but I would like to get spiritual with today’s post. I’ve come to know God and grow in our relationship together as an adult. As a child and teenager I was spoon fed what to believe, why to believe and was told what was in the bible. In college I drifted away from my superficial relationship with God in the name of finding the truth out for myself.

As an adult this led me from being agnostic to a hybrid of Zen-Buddhism and Christianity called Christian-Zen to the Christian that writes to you today, who knows a lot more of his bible and what God actually says about life – including money and marriage. The real turning point began when I started Dave Ramsey’s baby steps. I engrossed myself and sprinted towards his practical and tangible approach on everything about personal finance as if I had seen a glorious oasis in the middle of the Sahara. The fact that Ramsey includes scripture as the basis for his teachings, at the beginning was merely a bullet point to me.

The formula above reads Focused Intensity over Time multiplied by God equals Momentum. I first came across this formula in Dave’s book, “Entreleadership,” and as I walked the baby steps, this perceived theorem eventually became law in my life. The process of opening my heart and soul to an entity greater than myself didn’t happen with a single transformational event. There wasn’t the feeling of a chorus of angels singing or the dazzling spectacle of having the spirit run through me. Instead, much like wealth building, it is something that occurred slowly and over time through intentional baby steps. The glorious thing is that most of these baby steps were made with and without my intention.

Some of the baby stepped revelations I’ve made along the way:

Proverbs 21:20: In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.
Translation: Smart people save, stupid people borrow against their home

Proverbs 22: 6 – 7: Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.
Translation: Our children should learn from our example to prioritize saving and live on less than you make

Proverbs 17:18: It’s poor judgment to guarantee another person’s debt
Translation: You are also stupid if you co-sign a loan for someone **in the immortal words of Dave Ramsey, “Don’t get mad at me, God said it”**

Luke 14:28: Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. He will first sit down and estimate the cost to see whether he has enough money to finish it, won’t he?
Translation: Plan ahead

Ecclesiastes 11:2: Give portions to seven, yes to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land
Translation: Keep your investments diverse and never put all of your eggs in one basket, no matter how great that single mutual fund is

Proverbs 13:11: Wealth from get rich quick schemes quickly disappears; wealth from hard work grows over time
Translation: Make the tortoise your mascot

After having followed Ramsey for years, I finally turned to my bible to see that God talks about money throughout the entire book. He doesn’t sweep it under the rug like our parents did; it’s out in the open and He’s not afraid to lovingly tell us when we’re being stupid.

But there’s also scripture that’s been misused by Socialists who call themselves Christians which I will address as a grand finale:

Matthew 6:24: No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
Matthew 19:24: Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Matthew 19:21: Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.

Truth: Money is a tool that should be used to build, grow, deepen and strengthen your relationship with God or (for those of you who do not believe in God) be part of the foundational work in being a good and decent human being. My Spidey-sense tingles with this one: With great power comes great responsibility. Money is not like greed, envy, jealousy or any of the other “deadly sins.” Money allows you to make good or bad decisions, inherently in itself money is not evil, the love of money is.

It’s so much more direly important to have a loving soul and a giving spirit as you build and create wealth. Whether you are a saint or a jerk, no amount of money, little or huge, is going to change your heart. Jesus is absolutely right when he said that it is incredibly hard and difficult for a rich man to find treasure in heaven. Money can afford you physical protection like security systems, a 25 acre compound, a moat and all of the bells and whistles that places like The Hamptons can offer. But money can never buy you financial peace, security in your heart nor fulfillment in your life. Only a strong and deep relationship with your loved ones, working in your strengths and for me a developing relationship with God has given me real security in life.

Jesus didn’t ask that guy to live a life of poverty, struggle and strife that comes with making one unbiblical decision with money after another. Jesus looked into that man’s heart and knew that he trusted wealth and possessions to bring him security and not God. Jesus just called him out, knowing he held onto this world in detriment to his spiritual life. Whether you sell everything and give it all away or write a monthly tithe check, ALL of your income and wealth, every last penny of it, belongs to God.

So in being an asset manager for God, I have to ask myself: Am I purchasing things and supporting companies that further peace on Earth? Do I live beyond or below my means? Am I giving, saving and spending in ways that bring joy to my life? These are just a few of the questions that can lead you as well to financial peace. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

My Trip to Mars

Now that was a wild, fun and crazy weekend. From Friday to yesterday myself along with my wife and our new 22 year old relative/temporary roommate (more on that in a future post), went from volunteering at a charity event here in Chicago, to seeing Dave Ramsey Live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to meeting some of the most amazing people Grand Rapids has to offer, and it all culminated in a truly euphoric spiritual experience at one of the most amazing church’s I have ever stepped foot in.

I’ll save the Ramsey experience for a separate post and today I’ll share about the volunteer event and my trip to Mars. Through our church my wife has partnered with a great organization called By the Hand. This organization reaches out into some of the most impoverished areas in the city of Chicago to provide love, hope and the tools to succeed in our world to children in Cabrini Green, Austin and Englewood. By the Hands takes youth in these areas who have disciplinary records and are failing out of classes, and provides tutoring, immunizations, bible study, home cooked meals, help with college scholarship applications when in high school, and essentially shows these kids that they are valuable in this world and how they can grow and positively contribute to it as well.

On Friday for the elementary school children in the program we helped throw a party. For the kids’ in the program that have earned A’s, B’s and C’s on their latest report card we had an ABC Party. It was like a outdoor carnival inside of a gymnasium. There was football toss, bags, sack races, an ice cream sundae station, egg relays and pin the tail on the donkey just to name a few. Admittedly I was probably not the best “rule enforcer” as I manned the football toss. In a very quick manner my station went from kids’ being about five feet away trying to toss the football into the hands of the target, to kids’ launching the football from about 50 feet away and eventually into a game of catch.

As the game got away from me and for a split second I thought about confiscating the footballs and bringing the kids’ back to within the 5 foot mark I looked around the gymnasium completing a visual sweep of the area. These kids, who grow up in areas where childhood innocence is lost in a blink of an eye, where gang violence and drugs run rampant, these kids were having the time of their lives –laughing, running, playing, smiling- and through this organization and its events these kids are offered a place to get their childhood back and grow as God’s children in a loving environment. So I didn’t confiscate the footballs and instead watched with pure joy as God’s hands were at work through By the Hands and its ministries.

From there with our rental car (all already saved for and budgeted through our “travel account”) we drove off for Grand Rapids, Michigan. Which hotel did we stay in? Are there hostels in Michigan? If you are asking these questions, you haven’t been reading this blog for very long J! We couch surfed in Grand Rapids, Michigan and met some of the coolest and honestly inspiring people. Following attending Dave Ramsey’s event, we walked into a “Cinco de Mayo” party and were immediately welcomed by everyone as if we had always been friends.

If I was not convinced before, this was the exclamation point: People from Michigan flat out rock! The people we met have unbelievable integrity and are the kind of people I wish would surround me as neighbors. And our hosts were some of the coolest, funniest and awesome people I think I have ever met. They are the type of friends that help make your life better, and thinking down the road, are the kind of men I would want my daughter to date.

Through our couch surfing hosts we attended church service this past Sunday at Mars Hill. I had known the non-denominational church only by name because of its previous prolific pastor. Now it has been a while since I’ve ventured into a new church. But this particular one genuinely made an impact. As soon as I walked in I felt God’s grace. From the smiles of being greeted, to what I can only describe as a genuine and real presence of the Spirit. We found our way to our seats, and along with 2,500 Michiganders, worshipped together in what honestly felt like an intimate setting, something I’ve never felt when in church with larger sized congregations.

God then flat out amazed me. He hit me with a spot on sermon that I needed to hear. You can check out this amazingly awesome sermon herebut essentially God whispered to me that conflict within a church is not only normal, but it is essential in growing in love and relationship with God. You see, at my home church we are a piece of a greater puzzle. Within that greater puzzle, our piece has been (and will continue to be) working to help the greater puzzle get bigger, stronger so that our puzzle is more reflective of what God had in mind when He called us to love another.

Working through this conflict is what love and relationships are all about, especially and most importantly within Christian circles. Yes we disagree, but here’s a dirty little secret: CHRISTIANS ALWAYS HAVE AND ALWAYS WILL! Patience, time, consistency, discussion through personal interactions (not email, twitter, or PowerPoint slide presentations) and being/living out a sermon rather than preaching one, in the long term, will always move and change hearts. My favorite formula remains: Focused Intensity over Time multiplied by God equals Momentum.