After our engagement in 2012, Vanessa and I began evaluating our individual possessions and spending habits to prepare our finances for marriage. After much discussion, we decided to combine every aspect of our financial lives.
All of our existing debt, all of our possessions, and all future income would be managed jointly. We discussed the roles that each of us would play in managing our finances and agreed to make joint decisions with regard to spending, saving, and investing our financial resources.
After defining our respective roles and coming to an agreement, we began planning out our financial future. We calculated our expected incomes and began estimating the amount of money that would be required to live a simple, but fulfilling life in our first year of marriage. Having just graduated from college, we were both accustomed to living simply, and we felt that marriage was the perfect time to design and implement the unified lifestyle we both desired.
After many late night talks, we set a goal to spend less than $12,000 in our first year of marriage (roughly $1,000/month). We set this goal for several reasons:
- Financial Progress – Vanessa and I entered marriage empty-handed. Outside of a small savings account, neither of us had any type of accumulated wealth. More importantly, we were both terribly worried about entering marriage with more than $25,000 in combined student loan debt. As we began discussing these topics, we both agreed that eliminating the student loan debt should be our primary financial goal in the first year.
- Intentionality – Having both come from standard American homes, we both desired more simplicity and intentionality in our lifestyle. We wanted to eliminate the accumulation of “stuff” around the house, and instead, focus on maintaining fewer possessions that would be used regularly.
- Perspective – We wanted to fully appreciate the material possessions that we brought into the marriage, instead of worrying about the possessions we didn’t have or couldn’t afford.
- Discipline – We wanted to refine the art of self-discipline – learning how to say “no” when pressured to spend frivolously on goods/services that had very little value to us.
Table of Contents
Did We Succeed?
As I originally shared in early 2014, when this website and community were far smaller, we achieved our spending goal. You’ll find our first-year expenses broken down into meaningful categories in the table below.
Since sharing our results, we’ve had hundreds of readers ask for an update. Most were flat-out shocked by our minimalistic lifestyle and asked about our intentions after the first year.
Well, five years into our marriage, this article will provide the long overdue update. Our decision to embrace minimalism has paid lasting dividends – allowing us to accumulate significant wealth while reducing waste, clutter, and daily distractions. Vanessa and I are extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished, and as you’ll see in the discussion below the table, have no plans to change our lifestyle.
In the table below, you’ll find a detailed breakdown of our expenses in both time periods. The first column is a description of the expense, the second column details our first year of marriage (2013), and the third column details our expenses over the last year (2017). The section of content that comes after the table provides a detailed discussion of each major expense category.
|Expense||First Year (2013)|
|Last Year (2017)
|Rent/Utilities (2 months)||$690||$0|
|Total Living Expenses||$4,034||$10,802|
How is That Possible?
We spent $10,629 in our first year of marriage (March 2013 – February 2014).
We spent $17,998 in 2017, which is $7,369 more than we spent in our first year of marriage.
If I had to attribute our success to one thing, it would be unwavering intentionality when making lifestyle and financial decisions. By monitoring, analyzing, and discussing our lifestyle regularly, Vanessa and I found a way to simplify our life and reduce spending in almost every major expense category.
Why is there an increase in spending over the observed time periods? As the sections below demonstrate, we have worked tirelessly to cut spending in the categories that mean nothing to us, but we have also decided to spend a bit more on the goods, services, and experiences that enrich our lives. That simple idea captures the entirety of our intentions – to eliminate wastefulness wherever and whenever possible so we can use those resources to build a better life.
The sections below include a detailed discussion of our lifestyle choices in each of the major expense categories. Feel free to read from the top or skip around by clicking on an icon of interest.
Our first two months of marriage were spent living in the apartment Vanessa rented prior to marriage. It was an older apartment that included all utilities for $690 per month. She split the rent evenly with her roommate (Vanessa’s close friend), with her half totaling $345/month.
In May of 2013, we moved to Texas and purchased a 1980’s model, 2 bed, 2 bath (1025 sq.ft.) mobile home for $11,500 cash (shown below). After moving in, our only monthly housing expense was $208/month to lease the land beneath our mobile home. We incurred a few maintenance expenses that were necessary to improve the functionality of the home, including a new(er) refrigerator from Craigslist ($100), weather stripping and caulk to better insulate the windows ($87), new light bulbs in most fixtures ($24), cleaning supplies ($23), low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators ($21), and one gallon of white paint ($16).
We researched every type of available housing for months before purchasing our home. When we saw our little mobile home listed for $12,500, we discussed the purchase decision for hours and spent a lot of time crunching the numbers. In the end, we only had $11,500 available to spend, so I negotiated with the seller for two weeks before he finally agreed on the $11,500 price point.
$11,500 might not seem like a lot of money, but to us, it was everything. We sold Vanessa’s Toyota Camry (see the “transportation” section below), several of our most valuable electronics, and had to burn through the entirety of our savings to purchase the mobile home. Remember from the intro, Vanessa and I still had significant student loan debt at the time, so $11,500 was a huge sum of money that could have alternatively been used to eliminate a good chunk of the debt.
Nearly five years later, we still happily reside in the same mobile home. The land lease has increased slightly at $228/month, but our mobile home has required zero major repairs of any kind. A new kitchen faucet ($33) was our only maintenance expense in 2017.
Financially, the mobile home has already paid for itself multiple times over when compared to renting an apartment. For comparison, a decent 2 bed, 2 bath apartment runs between $900-$1,000/month in our area. The difference between our monthly lease (let’s use $220/month as the five-year average) and the average cost of an apartment (let’s assume $900/month) leaves a surplus of $680 each month. If we take $680 * 12 months/year * 5 years, we arrive at an estimated cost savings of $40,800. Even accounting for the $11,500 purchase price (which will be recaptured upon sale) and the time value of money, I’m extremely happy with our financial decision.
All financial metrics aside, there are other important differences that should be highlighted. To us, an apartment is a temporary housing solution, while the mobile home is our home. We’ve had dozens of close friends and family members stay in the spare bedroom. We’ve hosted parties, gatherings, and special occasions in our living room. We’ve played countless hours of KanJam in the front yard. In summary, the mobile home is, and will forever be our first real home. The emotional ties are real and valuable in their own right.
We could find additional savings through land ownership (eliminating the $228/month expense), but we decided against purchasing land for several reasons.
- We planned on living in the mobile home for approximately four years while I completed a PhD in financial planning at Texas Tech University. I’ve completed the degree, but we have no immediate plans to move. Frankly, we love it here and the tax benefits make it hard to leave (see below).
- Our mobile home is classified as personal property under Texas law. Realty taxes are comparatively high in Texas (to compensate for no state income tax), but we avoid a huge chunk of the tax liability with the mobile home. Our property taxes totaled $52 for the 2017 calendar year, while the average local resident will pay 2-3% of their home value in property taxes. For comparison, a professional friend of mine in the area recently told me his 2017 property taxes totaled approximately $11,000 on a 3,800 sq.ft home.
- The monthly lease payment provides several benefits. We live in a fenced and gated mobile home community that provides 24/7 security. The front gate is guarded 24 hours per day, and all visitor information is collected at the gate, including vehicle and license plate information. This provides privacy while eliminating 99.9% of potential crime (we regularly forget to lock our car and haven’t had one problem in five years). The mobile home community has more than a dozen full-time employees that perform basic maintenance on the land and utilities (not the home itself, which we own). The community also includes (and maintains) two pools, a pond, and several acres of open land for walking/biking.
Growing up, I would have never considered purchasing a mobile home. Like many, I thought that mobile homes were reserved for people who couldn’t afford “a real home” (what a bunch of uninformed nonsense). Today, I have a hard time finding a reason to leave.
Sure, it’s old. The wood paneling on the walls, the flooring, and the finishes are far from perfect. But who cares? The appliances work perfectly, the roof doesn’t leak, and the windows and walls have withstood 60 mile-per-hour dust storms. As a home, it has provided consistent and reliable shelter. As an investment, it has saved us thousands of dollars in property taxes over the last five years, while also allowing us to capture the 0% state income tax benefit in Texas. These tax savings alone have far exceeded the initial purchase price.
Some of you may be wondering what other people think. There have been a few naysayers over the years, both implicitly and explicitly, who have belittled our home, and in turn, our decision to embrace minimalism. In our first year of marriage, Vanessa and I were hurt by the negative remarks. At the time, we carried significant debt, so our mobile home was a prized possession.
Over time, we simply stopped caring. As our relationship and financial life grew, we quickly realized that our lifestyle will never appeal to those individuals who are most concerned about maintaining outward appearances. Our housing situation isn’t glamorous, and it won’t work for everyone, but it is fiscally responsible. The friends and family who mean something to us fully understand and support the decisions we’ve made. Many have outright complimented our lifestyle choices and our ability to remain steadfast in the face of criticism (even if they wouldn’t choose the same path).
In many ways, our mobile home is symbolic of our life as a whole – simple, intentional, and extremely cost-effective. But to see and understand those attributes, you must first look beyond the surface-level imperfections.
After getting married, we sold Vanessa’s Toyota Camry to help finance our mobile home purchase. We then shared my 1996 Saturn SL1 for three years after selling the Camry. The Saturn (shown below) was an outstanding daily driver for us. It was inexpensive to operate and maintain, averaged 40 MPG on the highway, and required virtually no maintenance over its six-year lifespan.
In 2016, we sold the Saturn for $1,500 (I paid $1,700 in 2010) and purchased a 2015 Mitsubishi Mirage for $6,300 cash. There were no immediate concerns that prompted the exchange, but I believe it was an excellent financial decision. The Saturn ran well, but the windshield was cracked and the tires needed to be replaced within six months. Routine maintenance like this is never recaptured during a sale, so I knew it was time to look for something newer.
The Mirage has been an excellent car thus far, averaging 40 MPG in the city and on the highway, while requiring no maintenance of any kind. For the sake of clarity, please understand that the “maintenance” category shown in the 2017 expense column isn’t maintenance, but rather a variety of automative-related expenses:
- Single oil change ($14 labor + $9 oil) – Sears regularly offers discounted oil change coupons (join their email list for the best offers). For $15 or less, I’m not going to crawl under the car to change the oil. In this instance, I took the Mirage to the shop and told them I didn’t need the conventional oil included with the coupon and was only interested in having them change the oil (the labor) using Mobil-1 synthetic oil I previously purchased at a massive discount.
- Window Replacement ($135) – While edging the lawn, the line trimmer flung a tiny rock that somehow managed to shatter the rear passenger window in the Mirage. We called every glass repair shop in town and were quoted $145 by several different places. Leveraging that information, we called the most friendly shop to negotiate, and they agreed to repair the window the same day for $135 cash.
- New wheels and tires ($216) – As a graduation gift to myself, I finally pulled the trigger on a set of 15″ wheels I’ve been watching at Discount Tire Direct (DTD). Several times per year, DTD offers a massive sale that combines several different discounts. When I made the purchase, they offered nearly $200 in combined rebates for purchasing a set of wheels and tires. They offered another rebate to their credit card holders, so I applied and was immediately approved. The tire manufacturer, Hankook, offered another mail-in rebate on the tire purchase. In total, I received $320 in Visa gift card rebates. I shipped the wheels to a family member’s home in Missouri (to avoid any sales tax), and BeFrugal, the cash back shopping portal, paid me another 6% on the $571 purchase price. In sum, $571 (purchase price) – $34 (6% cash back) – $320 (mail-in rebates) = $216 for a very nice set of wheels and 50,000-mile tires (shown on the Mirage below), mounted and balanced, shipped to my door.
Sharing a vehicle was (and still is) an excellent financial decision, allowing us to cut our total auto-related expenses (insurance, gasoline, taxes, maintenance, etc.) in half. Additionally, we cut our total automotive emissions in half, which provides a positive environmental impact.
As with every important decision, Vanessa and I discussed our options before selling her Toyota Camry. We knew it would be inconvenient to carpool and coordinate our daily schedules, but we also realized that a sale would allow us to purchase our mobile home with cash and further simplify our lifestyle.
In agreeance, we sold the Camry and modified our morning routine to embrace a new adventure in carpooling. There were some slight annoyances at first, but once we found a rhythm, carpooling became part of our daily routine. Today, we find no reason to change our ways and have no plans to purchase a second vehicle.
Vanessa and I both maintained basic flip phones until 2015. Before the smartphone transition, we paid a flat $20 per person for basic talk and text through her parent’s AT&T family plan. Once smartphones became a standard requirement for service, we transitioned to Republic Wireless (see my detailed review). I still believe that Republic represents an excellent value, offering unlimited talk and text for $15/month (plus taxes) on the reliable T-Mobile network.
High-speed cable internet (20 MB/s) costs $20.14/month after taxes. That rate is guaranteed for 12 months at a time, but we’ve been offered promotions repeatedly in the past. If the company tries to raise the rate, I simply call and tell them I’m ready to cancel. One time in the past, they wouldn’t budge on pricing, so I followed through and canceled service. For the next month, we had to find free WiFi at a variety of public places. But sure enough, the cable provider sent new flyers in the mail and we resubscribed for $20.14/month.
Managing the utility bill is straightforward, even in a poorly insulated mobile home. Outside of basic lifestyle modifications and a few of the beneficial products described below, I have no magical strategies to share with you. Most of our cost savings are realized by maintaining a disciplined lifestyle.
Vanessa and I believe that clean water is a precious resource that should be conserved whenever possible. By restricting the flow rate of water (using this showerhead and these faucet aerators) and reducing the length of time spent in the shower, we conserve a significant amount of water and save some money along the way. We haven’t set any time restrictions when bathing, but a little common sense goes a long way.
Our oven/range utilize natural gas, as does our hot water heater. The oven uses roughly the same amount of energy each month because we cook many meals at home. The hot water heater is insulated and the water temperature is dialed down to a reasonable setting. Both adjustments are important because significant energy is wasted by maintaining a constant water temperature that is too hot to enjoy.
By acclimating to our home’s natural temperature fluctuations, we are able to reduce the monthly electric bill. When the local climate is reasonably nice, we never run the heat or air conditioning. We deploy several large fans (purchased on closeout from Sears) and allow the natural airflow to heat and cool the house, depending on the season and time of day. The West Texas environment assists in these efforts. During the winter, it’s often sunny outside, which helps with heating. During the summer, temperatures can reach over 100 degrees in the day, but we open the windows to capture the cool desert breeze at night.
When the climate is unbearable, we focus on controlling the temperature in a single room (the room we occupy) using a window A/C unit (summer) or single space heater (winter). The only time we heat or cool the entire home is when several rooms are occupied at the same time, which happens infrequently. A significant amount of energy is required to maintain constant temperatures throughout a home, and the inefficiency is particularly bad in our 80’s mobile home.
Beyond HVAC considerations, we use surge protectors to completely power down any unused electronics. We use LED light bulbs in every light fixture, and make sure all of the lights are turned off when leaving a room. These small, common sense strategies make a big difference over time.
The overall increase in utilities shown in the expense table is reflective of our lifestyle. In our first year of marriage, we didn’t yet own any type of window A/C unit, so we did without. Because the insulation in our mobile home is quite inefficient, the central A/C was expensive to run regularly, so we refused to use it. Literally, we used the central A/C three times in our first year of marriage. There were dozens of summer days with temperatures in excess of 90 degrees, so we did a lot of sweating. When temperatures reached 100 degrees, we’d escape to the local library or a nearby restaurant to continue working.
I’m not entirely sure if we’d suffer like that again, but I’m proud of our determination. Sacrifices like that are what allowed us to crush our financial goals in our first year of marriage. And the truth is, individuals across the world have endured far worse conditions. Sometimes it takes a little hardship to truly appreciate the small things in life – like air conditioning.
These days, we’re spoiled. In our second year of marriage, we purchased two window A/C units for $51 each during a Target closeout sale. After mounting a window unit in each room, we moved all of our computing equipment to the spare bedroom and established a home office. We now focus on heating or cooling one room at a time, which explains the slight uptick in electricity observed in the expense table.
The sections below are divided into health, dental, home, auto, and life insurance. We don’t maintain coverage in every area, so I’ve included a detailed discussion in each section that explains the personal choices we’ve made since getting married.
In our first year of marriage, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) allowed us to remain insured through our parents until age 26. Vanessa was covered at no additional cost under her father’s existing family plan and had no medical expenses other than a routine checkup which was fully paid by insurance. My coverage required an additional $75 in monthly premiums through my father’s plan, and I incurred another $138 in medical copayments.
Neither of us was eligible for extended coverage in 2017, so we had to explore other options. I was offered medical insurance through my employer, with both parties sharing the monthly premiums equally. Unfortunately, my half totaled almost $300 per month, so I declined coverage. Vanessa’s employer covered all monthly premiums, but she left her job near the end of 2016 to focus on growing the businesses we own. As a result, we both needed to find viable health insurance.
After significant research, we decided to enroll in a medical cost-sharing network called Christian Healthcare Ministries (CHM). Qualified medical sharing networks satisfy the health insurance coverage mandate under the Affordable Care Act, which was only recently repealed by President Trump. Several members of our extended family are also enrolled in CHM, and the coverage has been tested in several medical emergencies. For example, two immediate family members had major surgery, and everything was paid in full by CHM after satisfying the deductible.
To enroll in a CHM plan, you must adhere to Christianity. There are no restrictions based on age, weight, geographic location or health history. Similar to traditional health insurance, there are three plans available through CHM:
- Bronze ($45/month) – $5,000 deductible, per incident, up to $125,000 per illness.
- Silver ($85/month) – $1,000 deductible, per incident, up to $125,000 per illness.
- Gold ($150/month) – $500 deductible, per incident, up to $125,000 per illness.
The great thing about CHM is that the “deductible” includes any self-pay discounts. Technically, CHM is not medical insurance, it’s a cost-sharing network that reimburses member medical bills. So when you interact with a healthcare professional, you have to tell them upfront that you are a self-pay customer and ask for a discount. Most providers will offer a self-pay discount because it’s far better than hassling with insurance (and most insurers already negotiate heavily discounted rates). For example, in many hospital procedures, the self-pay discount will often exceed the CHM deductible, which means everything is fully covered by CHM.
The downside of CHM is that none of the “small things” are covered. If you need to see a physician, you pay out of pocket (but it would count towards your incident deductible). Even prescription drug coverage is limited, with only the Gold plan participating. In a sense, CHM is the purest form of high-deductible health insurance. If you are healthy, it provides a great safety net. If you need major surgery or something similar, the self-pay discount will probably cover most out-of-pocket costs. But if you like to regularly visit a physician for preventative work, CHM will likely be more expensive than traditional health insurance.
It’s worth noting, there is an optional add-on service called Brother’s Keeper, which runs approximately $150 per year. This service is effectively a form of reinsurance, increasing the $125,000 limit per illness. For individuals on the Bronze or Silver plan, Brother’s Keeper provides an additional $100,000 of cost support per illness. With each annual Brother’s Keeper renewal, participants receive an additional $100,000 of assistance, up to $1 million per illness. Individuals on the Gold plan receive unlimited financial support per illness with Brother’s Keeper.
In 2017, Vanessa and I both enrolled in the CHM Bronze plan, because we had no immediate medical needs. A cost of $45/month * 12 months = $540 per person. We also enrolled in the Brother’s Keeper service, which was approximately $150 for the year. Therefore, the total cost was $540 + $150 = $690 per person.
The Affordable Care Act also included an extension for dental insurance, and both of our parents had family plans in place that required no additional monthly premiums. Vanessa had a few cleanings and paid nothing out of pocket, while I paid a $40 deductible to have one cavity filled.
In 2017, my employer offered fully paid dental insurance through an HMO. We both had one routine cleaning and paid nothing out of pocket.
We do not maintain insurance on the mobile home. This is yet another way in which our mobile home has provided significant financial savings when compared to traditional homeownership. In many parts of the country, annual insurance premiums total 1-2% of the home value. Insurance is required by most mortgage lenders, but even those individuals without a mortgage choose to remain insured because very few people can afford to lose the equity in their home.
Even if disaster struck and we lost everything, we could afford to purchase a new home and replace the few valuable belongings that we own. The experience would be extremely painful, but that doesn’t change the financial facts.
After deciding to share one vehicle, Vanessa and I began shopping around for auto insurance. By far, the easiest way to compare different insurers is through The Zebra. Using one form, their price comparison engine pulls real-time quotes from all of the major insurers. They also protect your personal information so you won’t received calls from insurance salespeople. If you’re looking to switch carriers, or would simply like to window shop prices, I highly recommend The Zebra.
After shopping around, Liberty Mutual offered the cheapest monthly rate for the policy limits we desired. Because I was enrolled in a PhD program, we received numerous discounts and Liberty Mutual had no problem rolling everything into a combined family plan with my parents. Nothing has changed since 2013, as we are still insured through Liberty Mutual.
It’s worth noting, Vanessa and I both have perfect driving records, which has a profound impact on our monthly insurance premiums.
Life insurance comes in a few different flavors. There are various permanent life insurance policies, which combine life insurance and an investment component. Permanent life policies often carry significantly higher fees than term life insurance and typically make sense in very specific situations.
Term life insurance is far less expensive and far easier to understand. You pay a flat monthly premium in exchange for insurance coverage. Should you die while covered under the insurance policy, the life insurer agrees to pay a sum of money (called the death benefit) to a person of your choosing (called the beneficiary).
This money can be used for anything, but generally, the death benefit is used to repay any outstanding debts, cover funeral expenses, help fund your family’s educational expenses, and to provide a safety net for the surviving spouse.
For Vanessa and I, life insurance would have made the most sense in 2013. With more than $25,000 of debt, very few financial assets, and a lifetime of expected earnings, we were perfect candidates for term life insurance. However, at the time, we were worried about improving our monthly cash flow and eliminating the student loan debt, so we never got around to shopping for life insurance.
In each year since our financial situation has drastically improved. We no longer have any debt and have built substantial financial assets along the way. Arguably, life insurance is no longer necessary because either of us would be “just fine” without a lump sum settlement.
With that said, I’ve actually been shopping for life insurance and might purchase a policy this year. Although it seems unlikely, there is always a chance that I pass away prematurely. Should that happen, I would like Vanessa to have substantial wealth, and a term life insurance policy is one of the most cost-effective means of securing that desire.
As with most industries, technology is disrupting and rapidly improving the life insurance industry. Earlier this year, I was able to compare dozens of different life insurers using one form through Quotacy (see my detailed review). Some insurers have also started offering “simplified underwriting,” which means that some healthy applicants are no longer required to complete a medical exam before finalizing coverage. There are a few companies offering this benefit, but Haven Life (see my detailed review) is the clear frontrunner in pricing and process.
Vanessa and I love to travel. What started as a shared interest has grown into a joint passion we continue to pursue. We both love meeting new people, seeing new places, and experiencing different cultures.
But a passion for travel won’t get you very far without a supporting wallet. As we began researching possible honeymoon destinations in 2013, we quickly realized that something had to give. We couldn’t spend a few thousand dollars on a vacation, because we didn’t have a few thousand dollars to spend. We certainly weren’t willing to sacrifice our primary financial goal (eliminating our debt) by racking up more debt.
So instead of taking an expensive vacation, we took a short weekend honeymoon and made the most of it. We stayed at the Australian-themed Outback Roadhouse Motel (shown below) I found on Groupon, ate leftovers from our rehearsal dinner, and experienced every free activity we could find in Branson, Missouri. In the end, our expenses totaled roughly $195 over the entire weekend.
We recently looked through our photos and had a great time laughing and reminiscing about the trip. Looking back, it might have been the cheapest honeymoon in American history. But as Vanessa and I know firsthand, inexpensive and fun are not mutually exclusive. Even though we spent next to nothing, we made the most of every moment and shared some hilarious experiences that will last a lifetime.
Later that year, we took a short road trip to visit extended family. Knowing we were broke, they were very accommodating, offering us a spare bedroom at night and offering to cook many meals using their own resources. Their generosity allowed us to spend roughly $100 on the trip.
Although these early travel experiences were very basic, they left a lasting impression. Vanessa and I found ourselves frequently discussing the importance of travel and scouting future vacation destinations. Over the course of two years, we spent hundreds of hours reading about travel. During this time, I was introduced to the world of credit card rewards.
In America, credit cards are extremely profitable for the issuing banks. There are millions of American consumers who spend more than they earn, and in turn, realize massive interest charges and fees that are collected by these financial institutions. To encourage this behavior, banks frequently offer huge signup bonuses on their credit card products in the form of airline miles or hotel points.
For example, it’s not uncommon to see credit cards offering 60,000 airline miles, or 80,000 hotel points, after applying and spending $2,000 in the first three months of card ownership. If you’d like to see current, real-life examples of these offers, feel free to browse my airline comparison page or hotel comparison page.
After applying for credit cards and earning the rewards, I spent hours learning how to maximize the redemption rules for each airline or hotel. I then used our travel rewards to book entire vacations for next to nothing.
In 2014, we planned a 2-week tour of Texas with my parents. I paid for every hotel room using hotel points, and in return, they purchased most of the food. Of course, they didn’t pay retail – I helped them find discounts on a variety of cuisines (see the “food” section below). That’s the definition of a win-win. I used my skillset to save them hundreds (maybe thousands) of dollars on hotels, and they repaid that generosity by purchasing many of the restaurant meals.
In 2015, Vanessa and I enjoyed a “real” honeymoon with an 8-day vacation in Aruba. We flew free using Southwest Airline miles and stayed eight nights total between the Hyatt and Hilton resorts. Our only cash expenses included airport taxes, entertainment, and food.
In 2016, we flew first class to Thailand on Japan Airlines (using American Airline miles). During the 2-week vacation, we sampled a variety of different hotels using a combination of hotel reward points and Airbnb gift cards (which I purchased at a 50% discount through an American Express credit card offer). The U.S. dollar goes a long way in Thailand and local hotel rooms can often be found for less than $25/night, which is why it sometimes made sense to use cash equivalents instead of points.
In 2017, we returned to Thailand for 2.5 more weeks of bliss. Our 2016 trip left us feeling inspired by the culture, the cost of living, and the food. This time around, we flew business/first class on Turkish Airlines and Cathay Pacific (again using American Airline miles). When planning our flights, we cut out Bangkok and spent our time discovering the north and south of Thailand. We spent a good amount of time exploring Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in the north, and the island of Ko Lanta in the south.
Chiang Mai is a wonderful place, offering bustling night markets, fantastic and affordable cuisine, and a wonderful “Old City” that is fully surrounded by ancient walls and moats.
Chiang Rai felt far older and less modern than Chiang Mai, but we enjoyed exploring the area and staying at the Le Méridien Chiang Rai Resort for just 3,000 points per night (sadly, the rate is now 7,000 points/night).
Ko Lanta is also highly recommended by the Cash Cow Couple. It’s a beautiful island still largely unspoiled by the outside world. The cost of living is cheap by American standards (meals are $5 or less) and you can rent a scooter for $5-$10 per day. There is one main “highway” that runs north to south through the island that is constantly populated by foreigners on small scooters. We had a blast cruising up and down the island, stopping at every beach, bakery, and coffee shop along the way.
We also took several short domestic trips in 2017 and invited several friends and family members to stay with us in Texas. When driving wasn’t an option, we offered to book their flights using our own airline miles.
Every single flight that we booked in 2017 was paid for using airline miles, leaving airport taxes as the only cash expense. Hotels in Thailand were financed using a combination of hotel points, cash, and discounted gift cards. Domestic hotels were booked entirely on points. With flights and hotels covered, we *spent freely* on food and entertainment while traveling.
We bathed with elephants at a Chiang Mai conservation shelter, participated in several local Thai cooking classes, caught-and-released dozens of 50-pound Mekong Catfish on a private fishing charter, and purchased a variety of gifts from the local night markets.
*When I say that we spent freely, please understand the context. As the Cash Cow Couple, we took advantage of every possible deal during our vacations.
Domestically, we saved money by utilizing discount networks. The Entertainment Book provides thousands of BOGO and half-price discounts at every major city in America. You can select between physical books, which are specific to one geographic location, or the digital app which includes slightly fewer discounts at all locations. CityPass offers unlimited visits to a bundle of discounted attractions, but the overall value really depends on your preferences and the travel destination. Groupon and LivingSocial also offer substantial entertainment discounts in major cities across America.
While in Thailand, we sought and found wonderful happy hour specials, selected highly-reviewed but still budget-friendly food options, and pursued dozens of free outdoor activities, shows, temples, and beaches. But unlike our lifestyle at home, we happily paid retail most of the time.
In summary, we enjoyed almost a month of full-time travel and spent less than $1,700 on all travel-related expenses in 2017.
But don’t miss the takeaway – none of these amazing experiences happened by chance. As with every expense, our travel expenses were planned in advance. We didn’t stumble into Thailand by accident, we purposefully planned to vacation there. Vanessa and I were reading about Thailand as early as 2014 – falling in love with the people, the culture, and the comparatively cheap cost of living.
I spent hours mastering credit card rewards before we ever began traveling – collecting the correct airline miles that would allow us to fly first class to SE Asia. We spent hours researching local hotel options, before ever booking a room. I even opened a new checking account for the trip, which reimbursed all foreign ATM fees in real time. The fun and relaxation were realized only after a significant amount of research and planning.
I’m working on a guide right now that will teach you how to apply our personal travel approach to your own life, allowing you to travel the world for pennies on the dollar. Our email community will be notified first when that guide is published.
In our first year of marriage, Vanessa and I established a very simple, minimalist shopping strategy – purchase nothing unless (1) it’s necessary, and (2) the price is right.
Marriage was the perfect time to determine (1) the necessity of possessions. After moving into our mobile home, we created an Excel Sheet and documented all of our existing possessions. Yes, all of them. We then separated our possessions into two categories:
- Unnecessary existing possessions – to be disposed of
- Necessary existing possessions – to be kept
As a testimony to our minimalist lifestyle, all unnecessary possessions were sold, donated to charity, or given away as gifts. Anything that couldn’t be sold, donated, or gifted was recycled or thrown in the trash.
As we sorted through our existing possessions, we were able to distinguish wants and needs. Between wedding registry gifts and existing possessions, Vanessa and I needed to purchase very few items. Any remaining necessities were purchased using gift cards obtained through our wedding registry. Some attendees gave us gift cards directly, while others offered household gifts. Some of these household gifts ended up being duplicates, so Vanessa and I made the most of the opportunity. One afternoon before our move to Texas, we piled every duplicate gift into four Walmart shopping carts and exchanged everything for gift cards. In the end, we received more than $1,000 of gift card money to spend at Walmart.
After taking care of the necessities, all that remained were wants – a high-definition TV, quality blender to make green smoothies, pressure cooker, Xbox One gaming console, new Christmas tree, etc. These items are enjoyable, fun, and even useful, but they are not necessary to live a full life.
When shopping for the items we wanted (not needed) to purchase, we waited until the price was right before pulling the trigger. Determining when “the price is right” is a skill that I’ve honed over 22 years of practice. I started buying and reselling laser pointers in first grade at the age of six, and haven’t stopped hustling since. It’s not something I can convey in one short paragraph, but I’ll do my best to provide some context.
First of all, savvy shoppers leave no room for impulse purchases. When Vanessa and I visit a retail store, we know the purpose of the visit. Never once do we say, “well, this random vegetable slicer looks interesting and it’s 20% off this weekend. Should we buy it?” The answer is obviously no – unless we came to the store to purchase that exact vegetable slicer, combining the 20% off promotion with another discount.
Second, savvy shoppers are patient and methodical when making purchase decisions. Over the years, I’ve created the following four-step process that can be used to evaluate any purchase:
- Identify an item you would like to purchase in the future (the want).
- Using either your mind or a spreadsheet, create a process to evaluate price fluctuations and establish a “bargain” fair market value.
- Using this pricing information, determine a target purchase price (or range of prices).
- Wait until your item of interest reaches the target price point, then purchase.
This might sound like a lot of work, but it becomes second nature over time. I mentally practice every one of these steps, automatically, every time we make a purchase today.
Even if you never master the process, technology will now do most of the work for you. Using Slickdeals (a forum with thousands of active deal-hunters), it’s extremely easy to replicate our process.
- Create a free Slickdeals account
- Sign into your account, and then navigate to “My Deal Alerts.”
- Create a deal alert for the item(s) you want to purchase. The best strategy is to set a target keyword for each item separately, selecting “hot deals” as the “target forum” within the deal alert options.
- When a new deal is posted matching your deal alert keyword, Slickdeals sends an immediate notification to your email and/or smartphone.
- Evaluate the deal price and make an informed purchase decision. If you still aren’t sure about the pricing, you can search Slickdeals for the same target keyword and evaluate previously expired deals. This will help you evaluate price fluctuations over time.
Beyond Slickdeals, there are always local deal opportunities to explore. These vary by geographical location and time of year, so you’ll have to do some hunting to find the best deals.
When it’s time to make a purchase, there are two ways to further reduce the net cost.
- Make sure you are using an appropriate credit card that offers the most rewards or cash back from your chosen retailer. Most credit cards also include extended warranty and purchase protections for free, which provides additional value.
- Try to make your purchase online – selecting either free store pickup or shipping. Online purchases can be made through a cash back shopping portal, further reducing the net cost.
Using these exact methods, I’ve purchased hundreds of items over the last five years for a fraction of the retail price. We’ve kept some of the items, given away some of the items, and sold the rest for profit. The sections below will provide some examples.
First Year (2013)
In our first year of marriage, we purchased (and kept) the following items:
Professional Blendtec Blender ($145 on Ebay via Slickdeals) – Through a Slickdeals thread, I figured out how to stack 10% Ebay bucks with a 20% off coupon, and paid using discounted Ebay gift cards that I obtained through another Slickdeal.
50″ Element LED HDTV ($237 at Walmart) – During a Black Friday / Cyber Monday deal, Walmart offered 50″ 1080p TVs for roughly $220 (+ tax). With the help of family, we purchased five TVs and sold four on Craigslist. We profited a total of $455 on the deal, which easily covered the cost of the TV we kept.
Kenmore Microwave ($29 at Sears) – Sears and Kmart used to offer the most lucrative rewards program ever invented – Shop Your Way Rewards. It’s still around, but it’s been gutted since the good old days in 2013. I paid $29 after combining discount coupons and received more than $40 back in Sears points to be used at a later date.
HP Desktop Computer ($162 at Staples via Slickdeals) – Staples used to offer printable email coupons that could be stacked with their local selection of clearance computers. My local store offered a deal on a nice HP desktop for just $150 (+ tax) after coupon. I purchased three – kept one, sold one to my parents at cost, and sold one for $350 on Craigslist.
24″ Asus Monitor ($89 at Newegg via Slickdeals) – To compliment my new desktop computer, I purchased an Asus monitor for $89 after a few discounts, free shipping, and no sales tax.
Christmas Tree ($8 at Walmart) – Vanessa and I wanted a Christmas tree to celebrate our first Christmas together but quickly realized that we’d pay a huge premium to purchase the tree before Christmas. Instead, we celebrated our first Christmas with family and chose to wait. After the new year, the local Walmart discounted all Christmas supplies by 90% or more and we purchased a nice artificial tree for $8.
Personal Care ($108 locally) – We received a lot of the necessities as wedding gifts, leaving only basic toiletries. Things like paper towels, toilet paper, toothpaste, floss, soap, etc., can be found at the Dollar Tree for …$1.
Clothing ($93 locally) – We each had a closet full of clothes before marriage, so there were no real needs. Throughout the year, we found a few outstanding closeout sales and a few thrift store specials.
Do you notice how many of the electronic items were actually purchased at a net profit after accounting for resale opportunities? If I were being technical, I probably shouldn’t include most of the items in the shopping expense category because we incurred no out-of-pocket expense. In most instances, we turned a profit.
When you wait for an excellent deal before making a purchase, you can also elect to purchase multiple copies for resale purposes. This skill is something I’ve mastered over many years of practice, allowing us to continually upgrade our possessions without spending a dime.
Last Year (2017)
Our 2017 expenses follow the same pattern of patient deal hunting. There’s very little benefit to providing a line-by-line expense breakdown, so I’ll share a few highlights.
(2) Dell Laptop Computers ($587 at Best Buy) – Best Buy very briefly offered a Dell laptop for $329 (originally $529). I stacked an American Express credit card offer ($25 back on $250) with a 10% discount coupon for a final cost of $271 (+ tax). I then sold our existing laptops on Craigslist for $330 and $290, collecting a net profit while upgrading our laptops.
Pet Expenses ($87) – We adopted our dog, Pepper, from the local animal shelter in October 2016. At the time, we purchased a harness for $1 at the Dollar Tree and a wire crate for $19 from Amazon (regularly $39). 2017 expenses included American Journey dog food that was purchased in bulk from Chewy.com at a massive discount. Combining several deals over several orders, we purchased roughly 150 pounds of dog food (6 bags) at a net cost of $7 per bag. We also purchased several bags of treats at a cost of $20 after BOGO sale. Heartworm medication (ivermectin) is the biggest scam since Bernie Madoff, being sold under various brand names for 100x the actual cost. You can easily (and legally) purchase generic, pre-packaged ivermectin through the internet for a fraction of the price. We paid $25 through JR Enterprises and the bottle will last several years in the refrigerator.
We incurred a variety of other shopping expenses throughout the year, but I think by now, you understand the process and methodology. Plan purchases in advance, create a process to evaluate pricing and then make an informed purchase decision.
Never underestimate the importance of patience when shopping. With 22 years of deal hunting experience, I can confidently say there have always been deals available. If you can wait for a deal, you can always find one, and the savings can be massive over time.
As you purchase new things at discount prices, embrace the minimalist philosophy and sell your used possessions on Craigslist. As you refine the process, you can simplify and upgrade your possessions without spending much of anything (as I demonstrated in the examples above).
Food is an important expense for us, and the amount of money we spend is driven by three interrelated facts:
- Diet plays an important role in overall health and longevity, according to a growing body of scientific research.
- The price of food varies dramatically according to seasonality, geographical location, and weekly sales.
- Vanessa and I are both foodies – We love to eat and drink delicious, nutritious foods and beverages.
Food expenses are broken down into two categories – groceries and dining out – in the expense table, so I will address each topic separately.
Because we are foodies, we had to be very disciplined in our first year of marriage when shopping for groceries. The desire to try new things can be expensive, and we both agreed that eliminating our debt should take priority over sampling new food items at the grocery store. At the same time, we were wholeheartedly against purchasing cheap, pre-packaged foods and unwilling to sacrifice our health to save a few dollars. This dynamic drove us to find a better process for food discovery and purchase.
As we experimented with various money-saving strategies, we were able to create and refine a grocery shopping process that continues to work very well:
- Collect the mail on Tuesday and take 10 minutes to browse the weekly grocery ads.
- Create a basic grocery list that is comprised of the weekly sale items – with a focus on fresh produce, lean meats, and healthy snacks.
- On errand day, head to the grocery store to purchase the sale items on the list.
- Find healthy recipes that utilize the purchased ingredients on Pinterest.
- Create several meals, enjoy, then repeat the following week.
The ironic thing about our process is that it defies most traditional meal planning advice. There are a lot of talking heads who encourage people to plan meals in advance and then shop for groceries. That’s entirely backward, assuming you care about saving money and eating well.
There have been modifications and additions to our grocery shopping process, but the core strategy has remained the same since 2013. We still focus on preparing meals using weekly sale items, but there are more layers in the process. Before ever visiting a grocery store, we now do two things:
First, we make sure to have an appropriate credit card for grocery purchases. There are a variety of credit cards that offer category bonuses for grocery-related spend. Some of these cards provide straight cash back, while others provide the airline miles or hotel points discussed in the travel section above. We have a variety of open credit cards, which allows us to choose the most valuable rewards structure at any given time.
For example, some cash back credit cards offer 5% cash back on rotating quarterly categories, with a maximum quarterly spend of $1,500. Very recently (in 2018), we used one of these cards to purchase $1,500 of Costco gift cards, effectively locking in 5% cash back on all future Costco purchases for the year.
Second, we check Ibotta and other cash back apps to see if there are any overlapping deals with the weekly grocery ads. Ibotta is a free app that pays cash back to users who purchase certain food items or food brands. It’s literally free money when one of these apps offers cash back on an item we already plan on purchasing. For a detailed discussion of money-saving grocery apps and strategies, please see our guide to saving money on groceries.
The biggest change in 2017 came after finding a deal on a Costco membership. My goodness, Costco is awesome. The generous daily lunch samples, the overall product quality, and the regular sales have us hooked. But at Costco, everything is supersized, which means we have started purchasing in bulk. At any given time, we might have 100 steamed dumplings in the freezer or three pounds of hummus in the fridge.
We’ve also started spending more money on specialty and luxury foods – including craft beers, wines, and coffee, organic greens and vegetables, specialty cheeses and dark chocolates, and much more. Vanessa now sprouts a variety of seeds, grains, and legumes to use in homemade bread and other dishes. She also ferments a variety of vegetables and produces Kombucha and other delicious fermented beverages that benefit gut health.
The combination of Costco and specialty foods has increased our overall grocery expenses as displayed in the 2017 expense column, but we aren’t worried about it. As I stated in the intro, we work tirelessly to cut other expenses, so that we can spend freely on the products and services we enjoy. Food and drink are things that we enjoy very, very much.
We haven’t neglected our basic shopping strategy along the way. Whether at Costco, a local grocery store, or an internet retailer, we always remain focused on sale items.
At one point in 2017, Martha Stewart Wines offered a massive introductory wine sale that included 6 bottles of wine, a $50 gift voucher, and bottle opener for $52 (including tax and shipping). This sale could be stacked with an American Express credit card offer, which promised a $40 statement credit after spending $50 at the retailer. Combining both offers, Vanessa and I placed six orders at a net cost of $12 per order, or roughly $2 per bottle of wine. When the 36 bottles arrived, we quickly realized that the $50 gift voucher included in each box could be applied toward any $75 wine purchase. The American Express offer later returned, and we stacked another deal using the gift vouchers. In the end, we ordered almost 100 bottles of wine at an average cost of $2.62 per bottle. The average retail price was $22 per bottle.
If you are looking for something to replicate, World Market marks all beers 50% off once or twice per year. During the most recent sale, we purchase almost 100 craft beers at an average cost of $0.99 per bottle. And in case you are wondering, we don’t drink that often. Alone, it could take several years to consume all of the beer and wine we purchased, so instead, we take the opportunity to share with family and friends.
In summary, our grocery shopping strategy can be boiled down to creating a sale-item shopping system and finding opportunistic times to purchase sale items in bulk.
Let’s get one important thing out of the way early – dining out is a luxury.
When you visit a restaurant, you are asking someone else to source the ingredients, prepare and serve your meal, and then clean up after you. Each step in the process creates inefficiencies. For example, some inexpensive restaurants source and serve terrible ingredients – including refined, bleached flours, unhealthy sugars, and cheap oils. If you want to eat real food, you must find a restaurant with a chef who knows how to combine quality food ingredients into a nourishing, delicious meal. By definition, the restaurant must pay this talented chef a reasonable wage, and therefore charge higher prices. In addition, there are other inefficiencies like food waste, terrible service, tip expectations, and sales tax.
You directly or indirectly pay for all of these inefficiencies at some point in time. If you are focused on finding the cheapest restaurants, you may be ingesting ingredients which could negatively impact your health and longevity. If you dine at quality restaurants that serve quality foods, you are likely paying more than retail price for the ingredients (including overhead to source said ingredients, inefficiencies in portion sizing, and food waste) while also compensating the chef for his culinary expertise. On top of that, you will owe sales tax on the entire bill and are expected to leave a minimum of 20% as a service tip.
Now, let’s contrast those dining inefficiencies with our grocery shopping strategy. Every week, we source and purchase a variety of delicious and healthy food options on sale, paying a fraction of the retail price. Vanessa has already made a significant investment in culinary knowledge, allowing her to prepare a variety of delicious meals in less time than would be spent at a restaurant. We control the portions, but quite frankly, we can’t stand food waste of any kind (anything we can’t eat is given to our dog Pepper). There is no sales tax on grocery purchases here, and there is no reason to tip ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with eating out. When done well, the entire dining experience can be enjoyable, relaxing, and enlightening. I’m simply suggesting that dining out is far more expensive than the average American’s mental math would suggest.
For these reasons, we dined out about twice per month in our first year of marriage. Most of the time, we chose self-serve restaurants where tipping was unexpected. On every single occasion, there were significant discounts involved. Some of these discounts were offered directly by local restaurants, while others were obtained through Groupon, LivingSocial, Entertainment Book or Restaurant.com.
For example, a local Mexican chain used to offer three tacos on homemade tortillas, rice and beans, and chips and salsa for $3.50 on Taco Tuesday. Steak n Shake once offered their double steakburger and fries for $2 with a coupon. Chick Fila used to offer a free meal when dressing up like a cow, so we hit every store in town and had a week of leftover chicken.
We also signed up for every restaurant loyalty program available locally, which has been surprisingly rewarding. On each of our respective birthdays, Vanessa and I receive an inbox full of free birthday treats from these loyalty programs. Instead of being embarrassed or ashamed by the freebies, we celebrate the occasion. It’s become a Cash Cow tradition – driving around town, collecting our free birthday meals.
Unfortunately, the birthday freebies are getting progressively worse each year. If you are looking for a few suggestions to get started, Red Robin, Jersey Mike’s, Firehouse Subs, Jason’s Deli, Steak n Shake, Zio’s Italian, Captain D’s, Ruby Tuesday, and Landry’s Select Club all provide a free birthday meal each year. Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Krispy Kreme, and A&W Foods provide a free birthday drink. Alamo Drafthouse provides a free movie ticket.
Not much has changed since 2013. We still focus on finding great restaurant deals and maximizing the value of each dollar spent, but we have loosened the reins a bit, so to speak. These days, we occasionally celebrate life events by dining at our favorite local spots. And get this – sometimes, we pay retail!
As I stated earlier, there is nothing wrong with enjoying a nice meal prepared by someone else. But Vanessa and I wholeheartedly believe that the restaurant experience is most rewarding when done occasionally. When eating out becomes habitual, the entire experience is cheapened and the cost can become prohibitively expensive.
From June 2013 through December 2017, I was completing a PhD in financial planning at Texas Tech University while teaching undergraduate courses as a part-time instructor. During that same period of time, Vanessa worked full-time in a variety of professional positions.
In addition to our day jobs, we built this website and several other online websites that have continued to thrive. On frequent occasions, Vanessa and I shouldered a combined 120-hour workweek.
All that to say, long workweeks leave fewer opportunities for leisure. As we poured all of our waking energies into work, relaxation became a profound source of entertainment. We felt no pressure to go “do something” because simple pleasures like watching a movie at home provided immediate relaxation. Over time, this mindset allowed us to design and refine our own sources of entertainment.
For physical activity, we began taking long walks and playing disc golf at the local park for free (the discs were less than $40 on sale). In place of a gym membership, we embraced a variety of yoga practices and free home exercise programs. Instead of bowling, we began inviting other couples over to play KanJam.
For mental stimulation, we purchased more than two hundred non-fiction books over the last five years at an average cost of $1.25 per book. A few are physical copies purchased locally, while most are digital copies purchased through Amazon via Bookbub (which sends one weekly email covering Amazon e-book deals). Additionally, there are thousands of books and movies available free of charge through the local library.
For mental relaxation, I enjoy playing video games. I have played dozens of old classics through emulation on a PC. I also have an Xbox One that I purchased at a massive discount in 2015. When purchasing games, I wait for a large discount on physical discs, so that I can purchase and play the game for a few months, then resell that game on Craiglist for the original purchase price or more. I have used GameFly for convenience, but I don’t have enough free time to justify a monthly gaming subscription. Gamefly allows you to rent 1-2 new video games or movies at a time with free shipping in both directions. The regular price is $15/month (single game) or $23/month (two games), and they currently have a free 1-month trial that you can cancel anytime.
We also signed up for every movie loyalty program in our area and waited for a deal before visiting a theater. For example, we used to stack BOGO movie tickets on top of the $5 Tuesday ticket price at our local Alamo Drafthouse (which also provides free birthday tickets). The net cost was actually $4 (+ tax) because we paid using Alamo gift cards purchased at a 20% discount during their annual holiday sale. Things further improved in 2017 when I was given a 12-month Moviepass subscription for my birthday. Moviepass allows you to watch one movie per day, at any local theater, free of charge. We now stack the BOGO deals with Moviepass and both enjoy a free theater showing.
For home entertainment, Netflix offers a 4-device streaming plan for $13.99 per month, which is roughly $3.50 per user. Amazon Video is included free with Amazon Prime membership. Sling TV provides the same premium channels offered by traditional cable TV for $20/month. Or, if you are good with technology and have no objections to legally ambiguous content sharing, you can stream anything for free using Kodi on the Amazon Fire TV Stick.
To find discounted local attractions, we use Groupon, LivingSocial, and the Entertainment Book. We also frequent local deal websites that maintain a list of upcoming local events. Since 2013, we have enjoyed more than a dozen live musical performances for free. Texas Tech University once offered free tickets to see The SteelDrivers (they were outstanding). Annual concert events like Denver’s Day of Rock, NOLO’s Blues and BBQ and French Quarter Fest, Chicago’s Jazz Festival, and San Francisco’s Hardly Bluegrass Festival provide free, headline performances and we often select nearby travel destinations based on an upcoming festival or musical event.
There is no shortage of free (or highly discounted) entertainment in America. It just takes a little research and planning to find the best opportunities.
The charitable giving expense column includes gifts to family, friends, strangers, and nonprofit organizations. This includes any cash donations, as well as physical goods and services we purchased as gifts.
Vanessa and I have donated to a variety of non-profit organizations over the last five years. What is important to us when selecting nonprofits is their overall impact and fiscal responsibility.
In 2013, we didn’t have a lot of money to give, and we didn’t know which organizations to support. Over the last five years, we’ve spent a significant amount of time reading about various organizations to better understand their mission and operating procedures. Because we work so hard to eliminate wastefulness in our daily life, we prefer giving to organizations who embrace that same philosophy. If a nonprofit shows significant fluff and wastefulness in their operating expenses, that’s a deal breaker. If we’ve given to an organization in the past, and they send dozens of wasteful flyers through traditional snail mail, that’s also a huge red flag.
Over the last five years, we’ve realized that our most rewarding charitable experiences involve organizations that provide a tangible local impact. For example, the local Salvation Army hosts a massive fundraiser each Christmas season to benefit struggling families who cannot afford to purchase gifts for their children. Each child in need is asked to complete a small questionnaire that helps identify their wants and needs. The public then uses this wish list to purchase gifts.
In 2017, we selected more than 20 children to fund. We purposefully chose the children who desired valuable electronics – such as a new tablet, phone, bluetooth speaker, headphones, etc. Because we knew very few people would purchase those items, we prepared in advance. Throughout the year, we purchased dozens of fantastic gifts during massive sales. For example, I bought dozens of Amazon Fire Tablets at less than $25 per tablet. The retail cost was $80 + tax.
While our charitable expenses totaled $3,391 in 2017, the retail value of all gifts given was slightly less than $10,000 according to my calculations. The $3,391 value in the expense table represents the cost to us, not the fair market value of all gifts given.
By applying our personal shopping strategy to charitable giving, we multiply our efforts exponentially. Vanessa and I would love to find additional opportunities to increase the scale of our giving using these methods.
What’s The Point?
If you started at the intro and worked your way through each section, you’ve read more than 10,000 words about our financial and lifestyle decisions over five years of marriage. I’m certain that some of you may be wondering why we wrote this article.
We didn’t write this article to say – Hey everyone, look at us. We spend less money than you. Minimalism and frugality are so awesome. You should downsize your home, sell your spare vehicles and possessions and live exactly like us.
No, the point of this article is to articulate the power of intentionality. I spent almost two months pouring through our financial records, detailing every aspect of our expenses over the last five years, to encourage other individuals and couples to live with purpose. We wrote this article because intentionality is powerful. It can transform your life, your marriage, and your finances.
We began our marriage as typical, 22-year old Millenials, shouldering more than $25,000 of student loan debt while working mediocre jobs. In less than five years, we transformed our entire life by making disciplined, intentional lifestyle decisions over and over again, until it became habitual.
Make no mistake, it took an enormous amount of willpower and determination to consciously evaluate every aspect of our newlywed life. It wasn’t some kind of magical marriage where we always agreed about money – we came from very different families and upbringings. Vanessa’s family rarely spoke about money, therefore Vanessa rarely thought about, spoke about, or worried about money.
Me – well that’s another story. At a very young age, family financial troubles left me believing that money would always be scarce. For nearly twenty years of my life, I endured a constant, nagging fear about spending too much money or running out of money. At the age of six, I would agonize about restaurant menu choices, trying to find the best value per dollar before spending my parent’s hard-earned cash. It took me much longer than anyone else to order, and before ordering I would sheepishly ask my parents if they had enough money to support my menu selection. On multiple occasions, I very clearly remember being mentally anguished about the financial troubles that plagued my family. Those early childhood experiences shaped and molded my character, for better and worse.
We carried these money philosophies into marriage, and I believe they played an important role in shaping our lifestyle. As we graduated college and tried to plan a future, I couldn’t stand being in debt. Owing someone else money made me mentally ill. Although Vanessa wasn’t as money motivated, she also hated being in debt. Additionally, she is the most empathetic and caring person I’ve ever met, and she fully understood my agony through that empathy.
As we began discussing these difficult topics, our relationship blossomed. For the first time in my life, I was able to openly discuss my money worries. For the first time in Vanessa’s life, money became a very real, important and pressing topic. As we worked through our differences, we began to find common ground, which resulted in the unified set of financial and lifestyle goals mentioned in the introduction.
But as we all know, goal setting is only the beginning. The hard part is following through, day in and out, even when it hurts. And it did hurt at first. In our first year, we had many fights about the money-related topics detailed in this article. Sometimes I was overly concerned about small recurring expenses, resorting to my childhood money fears. Sometimes Vanessa would spend money without thinking about it, which really bothered and upset me while we were still in debt. But we stuck with each other, worked through our differences, and both sacrificed repeatedly to realize our goals.
Over time, all of the hard work paid off. In our first year of marriage, we paid off all our debt (more than $25,000), purchased a mobile home with cash, and built a nice pool of savings on a combined income of approximately $47,000.
As we reduced our expenses, we also simplified our life. Somewhere along the way, our lifestyle decisions became less about financial progress and more about freedom. I can still very clearly remember the day we repaid our last dollar of student loan debt. It was such an exciting milestone that we had worked hard to accomplish, and it meant so much because it provided our first taste of financial freedom.
If you are wondering what financial freedom means, you can find a detailed discussion in this recent article that I wrote. The concept is simple. Money can indirectly be used to purchase lifestyle freedom. If you can save enough money, you will no longer need a regular paycheck and you can spend your time doing whatever you want. It’s not about what you choose to do, it’s about having the freedom to choose.
In every year since 2013, we have saved more than 80 percent of our combined income in an effort to achieve financial freedom. In fact, our investment income exceeded our expenses in 2017, which means we have officially arrived.
Financial freedom has widespread lifestyle implications. For one, there is a very clear tradeoff between time, money and consumption. Unless you are born into wealth or receive a large windfall, you probably trade your time for money. But that begs the question – how do you spend your money?
According to years of economic research, people choose to spend their money on the goods and services discussed in this article. The American culture is overwhelmingly focused on consumerism as a source of happiness. Every advertisement is meant to persuade us into buying more clothing, newer cars, and a bigger house. There is constant pressure to work, consume, waste, and repeat. The worst part is, it’s impossible to find freedom in this never-ending cycle of consumption.
Through personal and professional experience, we know dozens of people who have spent the better part of their life chasing societal status. I’ve witnessed these people sacrifice freedom, family, health, and relationships just to climb the corporate ladder, to make more money, to purchase more stuff, to fill a gigantic home and garage.
Don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing inherently wrong with owning material possessions. We own a variety of “things” that we enjoy using on a daily basis. The difference between our worldview and that of many Americans is the perspective gained through five years of minimalist living.
After dozens of open discussions with friends, family members, students, and strangers, we honestly believe that most people are unhappy living in a continual cycle of consumerism. With each passing year, there are more people who realize that the American Dream can easily become the American Nightmare.
Our life experience continues to be entirely counter-cultural. As we embraced the simplicity of minimalism, we realized that material possessions are not a primary source of happiness. We realized that a simple, well-organized lifestyle provides more free time, fewer arguments, and less overall stress. It’s almost paradoxical – as we reduced our expenses and simplified our life, we stopped coveting material possessions and finally understood how to be content.
That’s not to say that our path is the only way forward. You might disagree with our spending preferences or worldview, and that is just fine. Maybe you prefer owning a bigger home, extra vehicles, or the latest material possessions. I’m fine with that – as long as you are being intentional and honest about your lifestyle decisions.
As I said previously, the point of this article is to encourage other people to live intentionally and to highlight the important relationship between money and freedom.
If you embrace the principles, processes, and recommendations in this article, you will begin saving more money. You can use that money to eliminate your debt, change careers, or stop working altogether. You don’t have to trade your time for money, and then trade your money for material possessions. You can instead use your money to purchase freedom.
I’m so thankful and proud that in our first year of marriage, Vanessa and I realized that we don’t have to abide by the status quo. Living on less than $1,000/month was challenging at times, and there were situations that required extreme discipline, but Vanessa and I can both confidently say that we wouldn’t change a single thing from our first year of marriage. Through the experiment in minimalist living, we emerged far wealthier and wiser.
What about you? Have you been intentional when making financial and lifestyle decisions? Have you thought about the freedom money can afford? We’d love to hear your story in the comment section below.