Defining “Live Within Your Means”

Live within your Means.

I have been thinking a lot lately about this phrase. What does it actually mean? Most of the definitions I get back are simply “spend less than you earn” but I wonder if we have an opportunity to stretch that a bit further and create different levels of mastery around this concept.

Maybe there is a spectrum or maturity model to this concept as well  – from gaining some control when you are struggling, to anticipating needs, eventually leading to freedom to just live. At all phases, the balance between more income and less spending remains and it is important to not let your guard down when you make improvements in one of both areas, becoming complacent and getting back to bad habits that would set you back.

In practice the spectrum is not always this linear and it is helpful to understand the end state soon so that you can adapt along the way. That said, when you are starting out thinking about all these things may seem overwhelming, so to me it often helps to frame my thinking in terms of stages so that I can start addressing things in chunks, continuously improving and adapting.

Level 1: First things first. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, you have some work to do.  You really have to figure out where that money is going, and how much you are spending vs your income. The plan here is simply to get you to break even and out of an overwhelming situation.  Here you may still have some leftover debt, but you have a plan to pay it off slowly, without adding any additional balance.

Level 2: Once that baseline is accomplished and you have some control and stability over your finances, it is important to focus on eliminating risk further. Here the focus should be on paying off your non mortgage debts and starting to work on an emergency fund so that you have some margin of error in case of an emergency.

Level 3: This is when things start to get a little more fun. It allows you to then start thinking about your wider goals and what you want to accomplish and when. Here, one can take a more holistic approach to financial management. For example, how much home can you afford ‘within your means’ is not just about your income levels or debt burden like some mortgage companies want you to believe, but about your entire financial picture. How much do you have left from your income after core expenses (inclusive or mortgage, insurance, taxes, utilities, home repairs, etc), plus savings and investments for what you want to accomplish, plus a rate that allows you an emergency and big ticket item replacement buffer.  Only after knowing all of that you can decide what is the appropriate level of spending for different things on your list, providing a more sophisticated answer to living ‘within your means’ expenses.

Level 4:  You feel like you have your financial management act together and you are able to focus a lot more on ways to maximize your investments, diversify and prepare you for independence! Here you start thinking more about contingency plans, other risks and expenses in your future that you may not have considered like long term care plans, healthcare without working, helping kids with weddings, etc.  This may once again get you to reconsider what within your means allows for, and adapt. You start figuring out in more detail your withdrawal strategy for retirement.

Level 5: Financial independence. You did it! BUT you still have to keep your guard up and keep focusing on flexibility to adapt to the markets and other expenses that may come your unexpectedly.  Job well done!

What do you think, where are you in the spectrum above and / or do you even think there is a spectrum? How do you think about living within your means?


2018 Annual Expense Goal: From $75k to $70k

Recently, I posted our $75k budget a year – which is our 2017 goal and a big deal and accomplishment for us given were we started.  We are on track(ish) to meet that, pending anything major happening between now and end of year. That said, we are already preparing for 2018, where we have a goal of cutting our expenses by a further $5k, to $70k.

Below is what that will look like vs 2017.  The biggest change is going from $12k on travel budget to around $8k.  In truth, this does not hurt too bad since we already prepaid a lot of our big 2018 travel to Asia in 2017, leaving decent room for a few other shorter family vacations in the budget next year. It may hurt for when we need to keep low expenses in 2019 though and have no room to pre-pay anything, but we will cross that bridge later (and rely even more on travel hacking!).

That said,  it is not all sad cuts, you will see a few categories have actually gone slightly up to better reflect my life goals to where we spend our time and money.

On the self-care front, I have added monthly facials and massages for myself and we do have a pet, so it is not like our standard of living is declining! I am also keeping our once a month cleaning service (unless we go down to one income then  most if not all of that will be cut temporarily, womp), which is an amazing luxury.

Category 2017 2018
Mortgage $1,600 $1,400
Utilities/cell phone $400 $440
Groceries $550 $550
Restaurants $250 $225
Personal /entertainment $600 $600
Gas/Car expenses $650 $700
Medical / Life $50 $150
Insurance $200 $0 (above)
Vacation/travel $1,000 $670
Kids $500 $800
Pet $250 $200
Other (replace/ donate) $200 $100
Total Monthly $6,250 $5,835
Yearly $75,000 $70,020

There is something strangely addictive and satisfying about cutting things in such way. But first things first – let’s focus on closing 2017 strong and start to make slow changes to get into the 2018 mode soon!

And yes I see that we are 20 bucks over overall, keep in mind however that our mortgage payment is around $1,365 so we are paying extra to principal to pay in 7 years and right now that counts as expense vs savings as we are hoping to rent in retirement and more or less assume we would spend that much so we are trying to train ourselves for that level.

Note that I changed the way we track insurance to make it a little more accurate.

What are your expense plans for 2018? Remaining the same? Cutting? Adding? (wha?) Tell me what hurts? Is your budget aligned with your life priorities?

Tell me more!

Kid Travel: Alternatives to Disney (6-8 year olds)

You know how it goes, you become a parent and all of a sudden people start asking you when you will take your kids to Disney…

Don’t get me wrong, we have taken our kids to Disney (thrice!), Disney water parks, and even a three day Disney Cruise.  Though normally this is not our kind of vacation, few things in life beat seeing your kids as happy (plus admit it, definitely grows on you, even as a grinchy adult you can’t help but have a great time riding those rides and some amazing Epcot food!).

That said, we are “been there done that, time for something new” when it comes to Disney and believe there are many other magical places and unique experiences outside Disney that can be just as incredible for your family at this age and expand your child’s imagination in ways you don’t even anticipate.

Below is a list of some alternatives we have explored (either already done or contemplating doing soon), with two kids under 8, that have been great, hopefully they inspire you to think creatively too!

Other parks

Outside of Disney, there is also Legoland, which we enjoyed with the sweet spot (at least for my boys) for kids 6-8, but not much older. We also visited Sea World, and were surprised to find that our favorite experience there was something called Pets Ahoy. Check out the description here.

I actually got teary at the Kennedy Space Center. Don’t miss it! (though to be fair, 8 year old was way more into it than 6 year old, so you know your kids best or wait a few years).

Water parks are always a hit, my kids could live at the Great Wolf Lodge and we recently discovered a close-ish amusement park, Carowinds,  that also has a water park within it, check around your area see if there are a few good options!

All about the water

I don’t know about you but my 6 year old is the happiest ever just hanging out at the pool. Any pool. Since this discovery we have looked for neighborhood pools that you can take kids for the weekends, or rent Airbnb places or hotels with the pool as a highlight. This is also why all inclusive resorts are such a hit – we are partial to Hyatt Ziva properties (Hyatt Zilara are the adult version fyi for when you can’t take it anymore ;)). We recently visited one in Puerto Vallarta. This was such a highlight (Cabo is on my list, too)!

A day at the lazy river pool at the Ritz in Orlando, which connects to the Marriott next door – is a great option for your Marriott points! Check out if there are properties near you that have cool pools and just make it a nice long weekend of relaxation. Bonus points if they have a kid center and a spa!

We have also rented a cabin at a nearby lake and went kayaking. So peaceful and fun, finishing the day with a firepit and memories to share, inclusive of the obligatory tantrum (that does not stay away from vacation sadly, but at least you have a nicer view ;)).

And of course, a beach day, anywhere. Always a great time! When does building castles and burying people get old? That’s right, never.

If money is not a problem, check this Beaches Resort out in Turks and Caicos….

Kids museums

Do not underestimate the fun that can be had in Children Museums and Aquariums in many major cities. Charlotte has the Discovery Place, Atlanta and Charleston have aquarium and Children’s Museums (here, here, here and here) that are great for half a day or more and your kids won’t want to leave. I am not sure I would take my kids to the kid museums after age 8 or so, but the aquariums are good for more years to come.

Don’t be intimidated by alternative places for your kids to learn like the incredible Patriot’s Point in Charleston.  My kids were fascinated and started asking a ton of interesting questions after that visit – plus, did you know you can camp at Patriot’s Point with a group of kids?!  Looks cool.

Oh and I know you want them off those computers and video games but…what if you can level the playing field and take them on YOUR court and beat them? Check out this living Pinball Museum in Asheville!

Unique experiences

We are very big on giving our kids as many experiences as we can. We have done a lot of fund things like indoor skydiving, archery, camping, sleeping on a yatch, etc. I have started a travel and experience bucket list for the same which you can see here for some ideas that I hope will inspire you.

As your kids get a little older, sit with them and write your own bucket list together. First my kids did not know what to say and one suggested Disney (of course). Then after we took them to a few experiences, they have started to proactively ask for new things.

My 8 year old recently came home with a brochure for classes on hand-gliding for kids a few hours away from our city. The other one wants us to buy an RV and travel all over the country based on our experience staying here (yay, I would love that!) while we homeschool them (never mind, I have no patience lol).

I was a proud mom to see their transformation on how they are starting to ask for experiences vs things more and more, and look at possibilities!

Staycation: Time with you

I left the best for last. Sometimes, especially if you are working parents, we forget how little time we are actually spend with our kids and how at the end of the day, what they value most is our time with them, being present.

We recently started adding staycations, in which we take a random day off during their school break, take them to the library to pick some books or rent movies, make some popcorn or s’mores and just watch movies together or put a tent inside the house or the backyard, or build a fort and just talk, read books and plan our next adventure….


I found a lot of cool things on Airbnb – like a tree house we are staying at soon and a yacht to rent while in Charleston. Poke around in there and see if you find anything exciting!

On my resources page I also recommended this list of family travel blogs that may inspire you.

Pinterest of course, there is no shortage of ideas, the problem is staying focused with so many great things in there.

Ask for recommendations from your friends (facebook has that feature now) and colleagues. I have gotten the best ideas from people at work that I had barely talked to before.

Groupon app – I recently discovered some unexpectedly cool things in here so check it for your local city (whenever you are traveling too) and see what you get. Who knows, you may find yourself in a scavenger hunt to learn about a city’s history or doing some crazy climbing experience that you did not know you could do!

What’s next

The August 21st eclipse! Make sure you have the appropriate eye wear that is certified and be ready for once in a lifetime experience!

As my kids get older, we will start adding to our list of unique things to do for kids that age. I would love to hear any suggestions that you may have along the way!

Hope this has inspired you and your family to dare to dream together and build your list, turn it into a plan and go make some great memories!

No day but today!

What fun things have you done with kids in this age range or have on your bucket list?


Our 2017 Monthly Budget – $75k Per Year

Let’s talk budgets

I am completely at awe of bloggers spending under $30-40k a year (with kids!) and still looking like they are living it up! For us, getting down from $100kish to that $75kish a year in expenses has been relatively easy (first year we hit that was last year), but I am not sure we can want to go any lower right now without crossing the ‘this is not that fun anymore’ territory.

Yes I know I sound like a whiny-pants, but I am going to go ahead and own that because this is how I want to live my life as long as I can afford it. There.

For those of you on a similar journey, I am sharing the average monthly budget we follow (some months is more or less on each bucket, but generally it ends like this on average), in case it is helpful to you.  Note that after following the below for a few more years, mainly to help us establish new spending habits from what we were used to, we will move to a budget that simply focuses on savings (first bucket), core fixed expenses (second bucket) and other (third bucket) to simplify things.  Maybe that works better for you already – whatever works, just make sure you are checking that you are staying on track!

So with that, here goes…

Category Amount Notes
Mortgage $1,600 Includes $250 extra for principal to pay off in 7 years
Utilities/cell phone $400 Includes pest control and cell phones
Groceries $550 Food outside restaurants
Restaurants $250 Self explanatory
Extra $600 Includes 1x month house cleaning, massage and netflix
Car expenses $650 Car payment (4 years to go), registration and maintenance
Medical expenses $50 Co-pays, my insurance is paid through employer pre tax
Insurance $200 Life (x2) and car insurance
Vacation/travel $1,000 The Travel Travel part of our life!
Kids $500 School lunches, extra curricular classes, summer camps
Dog $250 Vet, food and overnight stays when we vacation
Replacement fund $150 Household things (attic fan, heater, etc)
Charity $50 Excludes donations and time volunteering
Total Monthly $6,250
Yearly $75,000


Yes, this is a cushy budget but I am finding this to be OUR number to maintain our perfect family balance between early retirement saving and fully living  and enjoying the experiences we want today.

While last year we hit this budget for the first time (came a little under), this year we have already over spent a little, mainly because we added fancy stuff like massages and home cleaning 1x month (hey, don’t hate!), but also because of unfortunate things like our computer dying and need to cut some dangerous trees, and a few other random issues, boo!

If we continue at current spend levels we will end at around $78k – so let’s hope plan so that we can reign it in and finish strong and avoid admitting public defeat!

What about savings?

With this level of spending, assuming we are both employed at current salary levels, we get to max our 401ks and HSA, and still put away around $6k (give or take) per month for our post tax brokerage account. Keep in mind we already front-loaded our 529s for as much as we wanted to add as of last year, so that has allowed us to put more money into our brokerage account and even add a little to our replacement fund.

Speaking of replacement funds – in 2018 we need to really trim things down on lux categories a little more or earn more money so that we can add a replacement vehicle fund (goal under $12k Leaf or something comparable in about 2-4 years to replace our older car).

What’s next?

First, we need to keep that spending down as I stated. Now, if we do go down to one income in a few months, we will temporarily trim the extra mortgage, the cleaning fee and, GASP a little bit on travel (down to $8k vs $12k per year). This would also mean instead of saving so aggressively, we would only be able to put away about $1,500 to brokerage per month or less, until we are able to replace that second income, though I could still max my pre-tax accounts. Still, not bad!

We are going to be monitoring kids expenses as they get older and may be interested in more classes or experiences, which may push budget higher. As for the opportunity areas, we should pay off our car in 4 years ($450 per month- 0% interest), and be in a better position to save more once the house is paid off (currently about $100k left in mortgage – with extra principal pay off is 7 years).

And no, we are not getting rid of our lovely rescue dog. She enhances our life so much and pushes us to be even more active. Once she passes though, we shall not get a new pet so this is it!

Tell me your dirty little secrets – what does your budget look like? Where do you splurge and what is hardest to cut?

A Year Later ….

This blog was born about a year ago and man, have things changed since! I have been thinking about how much harder it was to get to the first $100- $200k compared to how much faster things seem to be moving after we crossed the $300-400k line. Granted, our journey is a little strange as we kept taking random time off work and spending a lot of what we saved but, the end result in terms of asset accumulation is still is pretty interesting.

Obviously our strong focus on FIRE for about 1.5 years now, much larger dual incomes after a period of unemployment and work breaks have helped as much as the incredible market ride as of late which has propelled this forward. It does make it super fun to see that even small gains amount to a lot more $ these days compared to even last year. I have to remember to breath when it does the same when market decides to explore negative territory :).

Let’s revisit what I wrote a year ago, when the FIRE dream was just starting:

As of August 2016, our investable assets stand at $335k. I guesstimate that about $200k of this came from our savings from 2001 until 2009. We did not save anything from then until about 2012 really, the rest was saved from late 2013 to today. Our 529s ended 2015 with about $5k. Today (August 2016) we have a combined $26k balance for both kids, much of which was added this year as we started a super funding strategy.

A Year Later…

Assets: Liquid assets stand $525.2k. It is strange to see the market still going up and I keep reminding myself to stay the course when/if the correction comes. Our home has about $135k in equity assuming about 10% expense costs between real estate fees and random taxes, so total net worth is about: $660,000. Woot!

It is crazy to look back and see that exactly a year ago – August 2016, our assets stood at $335k – that is $190k dollars difference in one year! Check out this progression, feels almost surreal (liquid assets only, excludes 529s – those we count separate as money we won’t have available):

  • 2001 – 2009: $200k (8 years!)
  • 2009 – 2016: $335k (7 years to add an extra $100k+)
  • 2016 – 2017: $525K (1 year, $190 added! yikes!)

Debt: $125.1k, still on track to end at $118k without issues.

529 combined: $54.7k combined. A year ago our combined balance here was $26k! Huge accomplishment especially given how much we also saved for our retirement.

Expenses YTD: $42.9k. It is going to be a nail-biter ending within the $75k or under goal as we have a few unaccounted for car related expenses and a few other things to consider. I remain cautiously optimistic.

Lastly, I poked around the Social Security Website to figure out what my expected benefit would be if I worked for 8 – 10 more years, assuming the thing can still pay 100% of benefits. I figured it would be something like $1,800 per month or slightly more, which is not bad, especially considering that I am assuming best case scenario we get 60% of that or really (and what I actually base my FIRE plan on), nothing at all. Still fun to poke around with the numbers. 🙂

Hope your year is going well but most importantly that you are out there LIVING!

How are things going with you? At what point in your savings did you start feeling like things were really snowballing? How long did it take you to make each $100k?