We’re scooting over to upstate New York in this month’s Reader Case Study to help Sue and Dan–a social worker and a professor of social work–get out of debt, save up an emergency fund, find a way to pay for home repairs, and save for their kids’ college expenses.

Case Studies are financial and life dilemmas that a reader of Frugalwoods sends to me requesting that Frugalwoods nation weigh in. Then, Frugalwoods nation (that’s you!), reads through their situation and provides advice, encouragement, insight, and feedback in the comments section. For an example, check out last month’s case study.

I provide updates from our Case Study subjects at the bottom of each Case Study several months after a Case is featured. You all have requested an easier way to track Case Study updates and I have heard your pleas :)! Here’s list of all the Case Studies that currently have an update provided at the end of the post (and a hint that if you’re a past Case Study participant who hasn’t sent me your update yet, send it on over–your fans want to hear from you!):

I probably don’t need to say the following because you all are the kindest, most polite commenters on the internet, but, please note that Frugalwoods is a judgement-free zone where we endeavor to help one another, not to condemn.

And a disclaimer that I am not a trained financial professional and I encourage people not to make serious financial decisions based solely on what one person on the internet advises. I encourage everyone to do their own research to determine the best course of action for their finances.

With that I’ll let Sue, this month’s Case Study subject, take it from here!

Sue’s Story

Hi Frugal Friends!

I’m Sue and I’m 47, my husband Dan is 54 and we have a son who is 13, a daughter who is 11, and a dog who is 3. We live in upstate New York and my husband is a social work professor and I’m a social worker with the state of New York. I love reading Frugalwoods, especially the Reader Case Studies, and feel honored to be chosen as a case study because I am overwhelmed by our finances. I am ready to stop living paycheck-to-paycheck, stop having no savings, and stop having little confidence in my ability to change any of that!

I don’t care about material things, but this changed drastically after having children because I want to give them the world. After our mortgage, we spend most of our money on food and our kids. Even though our incomes have increased over the years, we still spend what we earn (and then some) and have no savings, and our credit card debt has crept back up after having a zero dollar balance and no credit cards just three years ago. Additionally, we have no money for needed home repairs on the older house we bought three years ago. After reading the Frugalwoods’ story, I can say that I do not have the frugal gene per se, and was never taught anything about saving money. I hope that I can learn to implement some of the frugalness you all have and maybe even get joy out of it someday!

The Stress Of Living Paycheck-To-Paycheck

We live paycheck-to-paycheck, which I understand is adding stress to our lives, or at least to my life, although we do live more comfortably than in our early days as a family. My husband and I started racking up debt right when we began our relationship and when we got married in 2003. At the time, I was in grad school for social work and Dan was working towards his PhD in the same field. We both took out the largest amount available in student loans, which was a total of $200,000 between the two of us. We had no savings, but thankfully my husband got his first job as a social work professor in August 2004. Then, our first child was born in October 2004. Somehow it all worked out, but looking back at how much money we spent during this time is cringe-worthy. ‘Ignorance is bliss’ was definitely the philosophy of my financial life.

Needed home repairs that we can’t afford

For the next six years, we moved to three different states following better jobs for my husband. During those six years, we deferred our student loans and tried to live on one income. I stayed home with our two children, aside from working part-time for two years after our first child was born.

In 2010, after living in the south for six years, we decided to move back to my hometown in New York, which is one hour away from New York City. We rented homes for three years in my hometown because it has a good school district and family lives nearby, which was beyond helpful with the children after being away from family for the first six years of their lives.

We were fortunate to be able to purchase our first home three years ago. We have an FHA loan and so only had to put 3% down, which was gifted to us by my mother. Our home is already worth more–at least $30,000 more–since we purchased it in 2015, but there are several repairs that are needed that we haven’t been able to afford.

Sue and Dan’s Hobbies

Some of Sue’s photogrphy

Dan and I like camping and hiking and I also enjoy photography. This is an area that I get frustrated about, however, because when we do want to do something out of the norm–even if it’s just a long weekend camping–it feels like such a crunch to our budget that we can’t do it.

Right now we have a pop-up camper and camp at Assateague State Park every summer right on the ocean and if we could, we would camp and hike as much as possible.

For my hubby, he mainly likes watching sports and the news on TV for his leisure activities, which is the main reason why we still have cable TV. We would probably go to the movies, dinner or a play for date nights once a month if we had extra income. I would like this to be in our budget as we tend to forget to put ourselves in the budget, and we want to have more time together that is not kid-related!

Where We Spend Money

1) Family-related events, holidays, and gifts

We love to spend money on food and gifts for family gatherings such as birthdays and weddings (we’ve had four weddings this year!), along with holidays, and this all tends to add up. Our large families are always generous with gifts for our children and I don’t think I started buying clothes for my kids until my son was 6 years old!  Even if we give a small gift to each extended family member, there are a lot of people, so it adds up! Our kid’s friends’ birthday gifts and my kid’s birthday parties are also an added expense, but something we like to give them and find enjoyment in. Again, everyone is so generous and I feel we need and want to reciprocate when we can. We have discussed cutting back in the gift-giving area and this Christmas, for example, we gave our son his lacrosse gear as his present along with the $200 registration fee for playing lacrosse.

2) Our kids’ sports and activities 

Our kid’s sports activities are another area of significant expense. I don’t see much room to cut back here because these activities are such a source of joy for them with their friends and teammates. Plus, since Dan and I are friends with the parents, it doubles as a hobby for us as a family. Since our son is almost 14, Little League baseball and CYO basketball are coming to an end next year, so we will see some decrease in sports expenses in the future.

3) High-quality food

Healthy food is expensive!

The third spending area I could use help in–besides expenses for our kids and families–is buying high-quality food. I was diagnosed with an auto-immune condition two years ago and have chronic joint pain and fatigue, but the good news is that eating a very strict diet keeps the symptoms at bay. So I am now vegetarian, moving toward vegan, but eating a lot of organic fruits and vegetables is very costly. We have also been gluten free for many years now as my son started us on a gluten-free diet 10 years ago due to digestive issues. So, food costs have always been high for us, but now are even higher. I don’t see how I can decrease spending in this area, but I am willing to learn.

I like the idea of getting a pressure cooker (thank you for that story😊) but I find that working a 40-hour week takes a toll on finding time to cook these meals, and I spend money on salads for lunch or take-out dinners when I’m not organized with food. I also see vegan cooking as a hobby I love, so that is a plus when I have the time and energy to spend on it.

Maintaining Our Health

I go to acupuncture and the chiropractor when I can and feel this is needed. My health- insurance co-pays for these are $20 a visit. I would probably go more if I could. I’d like to go to yoga classes and lift weights, but we recently got rid of our gym memberships because we never went and were trying to cut costs. However, I don’t see myself ever working out at home, so this is a future goal! Maintaining my health is a priority, and I worry about my husband in this area too, so I would like to have money for a gym membership. I’ve learned that Planet Fitness is $10 a month.

Where Sue and Dan Want To Be In Ten Years

  • Sue & Dan’s son playing baseball

    Careers: I’ve worked as a social worker for New York state for six years, which provides decent health benefits at a relatively low cost. I currently have eight years towards my pension as I was a teacher for two years prior to marriage and starting my social work career. If I work for 25 total years, and retire at age 64, I will get 50% of the average of my last three year’s salary. That being said, I’d rather retire at 60 when my husband retires at 67. We both have the ability to get additional work in private practice as psychotherapists and we have that goal for the future when the kids move out of the house. But for the next seven years, before both kids start college, we would like to maintain our current work schedules so we can be with our kids as much as possible, attend their games and shuffle them around, and have some downtime at home before they are out of the house forever! They truly are, and have been, our main focus and we both love being parents and giving them all the time we can.

  • Lifestyle and Retirement: Dan and I would love to travel and camp in beautiful areas of the country, at least for part of the year. When I think of retirement, I’d like to live part-time close to family and travel with a small camper the other half of the year, and maybe even have a tiny house near our kids! I feel we will be ok as far as retirement goes, provided no unexpected life events come up (haha). Dan has a retirement plan with TIACREF but we still want and need to cut back and save for things! My dream is to save for an annual trip to a different country with our kids each year, or at least for them to be able to go on trips with their school, such as to France and Costa Rica, which are two trips that the high school offers.
  • Finances:
    • Pay off our debt
    • Establish a decent saving account for emergencies
    • Create a savings account ($5,000 a year, if possible) for making needed repairs to our older home
    • Save for our two children’s college expenses

Sue and Dan’s Finances

Net Income

Item Amount Notes
Dan $5,080 After taxes, 403b contributions, Medicare, and Social Security
Sue $3,735 After taxes, health insurance, deferred compensation contributions, Medicare, and Social Security
Monthly total: $8,815
Summer class payment (once per year) $2,200 Annually in July for the summer courses Dan teaches
Annual total: $107,980

Monthly Expenses

Item Amount Notes
Mortgage $2,265 30 yr FHA loan at 3.75%, bought home in June 2015
Food/Groceries $1,600 Includes household supplies, such as laundry detergent, shampoo, etc.
Dan’s student loan payment $740 Monthly minimum payment
Gas/oil changes/tires for two cars $500 Gasoline is about $100 per week and the rest is for oil changes, etc. Dan commutes 3 hours a day (1.5 hrs each way) 3 days per week.
Car payment #1 $425 2012 Prius C Car loan with $3,231 remaining at a 7.89% interest rate
Sue’s student loan payment $360 Monthly minimum payment
Car payment #2 (projected) $300* (projected) Our 2006 minivan just died and we are budgeting $300 per month for a car payment on a new-to-us used car
Sports and camps for our two kids $300
Cell phones through Verizon $225 For three cell phones
Misc: usually camp and gifts $205
Eating out/take-out $200
Orthodontist $200 One kid down, one to go!
Utility: natural gas $175 Gas is expensive in the winter to heat the house
Utility: electricity $175 Electricity is expensive in the summer for the air conditioning
Cable/Internet $125 $70 is internet; $55 is cable
Car Insurance $115
Dan’s life insurance $110
Utility: water $100
Tumbling classes for our daughter $100
Vacation fund $100
Birthday and wedding gifts $100
Christmas gifts $100
Our kids’ birthdays $100 This is for both the kids’ friend birthday parties and a large extended family gathering for each of their birthdays
Dog costs: boarding, food, etc $100
Best Buy credit card $80 Minimum monthly payment
Co-pays for doctor visits $60
TJ Maxx credit card $50 Minimum monthly payment
Capital One credit card $50 Minimum monthly payment
EZ Pass $50 For tolls
Clothes $50
Sue’s life insurance $20
Sue’s Long Term Disability insurance $20
Haircuts $20
Netflix $10
X Box $10
Continuing education training/license renewal $10
Total monthly spending: $9,150 *note that this is with the addition of a projected $300 payment on a second car, which we have yet to purchase


Item Amount Notes
Dan’s 403b $100,000 Dan contributes 4% ($245.85) of his salary every month and the University matches it at 8%.
Sue’s Pension Plan See notes I am 8 years into paying into this. At age 67 my pension will be $37,870 annually; at age 62 pension will be $30,911 annually .
Sue’s Deferred Compensation Plan $600 Deferred comp is a pretax investment in Vanguard separate from my pension. I can put up to 10% of my income into it. I just started contributing to this last year and recently increased my contribution to 2%, ($100 a month), which is taken out pretax.


Item Amount Interest Rate
Mortgage $227,183 30 yr FHA loan at 3.75%, bought home in June 2015
Dan’s student loan $114,950  5.5% interest rate
Sue’s student loan $69,952 3.5% interest rate
2012 Prius C Car loan $3,231 7.89% interest rate
Capital One credit card $1,216.75 20.65% interest rate
TJ Maxx credit card $964 28.49% interest rate
Best Buy credit card $700 0% interest, as long as I pay the $80 monthly minimum payment
Car payment for second car TBD Our 2006 minivan just died and we are budgeting $300 per month for a car payment on a new-to-us used car.
Total Debt: $418,196.75
Debt Minus Mortgage: $191,013.75

Sue’s Questions For You:

  1. Please help us figure out a plan to:
    • Pay off our debt
    • Establish a decent saving account for emergencies
    • Create a savings account ($5,000 a year if possible) for making repairs to our older home
    • Save towards college for our kids. We are fortunate that the kids can go to college tuition-free, because Dan is a professor (if the kids are willing to attend the college he works at). However, that doesn’t cover room and board and other expenses that we should probably be saving for (only five years until our oldest goes to college!). If we could save $5,000 a year for our kids ‘college room and board, I would feel much more secure about providing them something should they choose to go away for college and not to Dan’s school.
    • How can we meet these savings and debt repayment goals?
  2. I have a deferred compensation option at work that I can put up to 10% of my salary into pre-tax. I just started contributing to it last year and recently increased my contribution level to $100 per month. This is invested with Vanguard and is available if an emergency arises. How much should I be putting into this savings account?
  3.  We have a 30-year mortgage (at 3.5%) and also pay $10,000 per year in property taxes. In seven years, both of our kids will be out of high school and, since we won’t be reliant upon our excellent school district any longer, Dan and I could move to another town–still within a half hour of family and work–which would significantly lower our mortgage and taxes. Should we plan to do this? Or, should we try to switch to a 15-year mortgage soon for our current home? I don’t know if we should since we have such a low interest rate currently. With FHA loans, we have extra mortgage insurance costs that may be eliminated if we got a different mortgage. We haven’t paid 20% of our home yet and I was told that needs to happen in order to refinance.
  4. Our 2006 minivan just died and we are budgeting $300 per month for a car payment on a new-to-us used car. I’m thinking we need an SUV with the third row for carting kids around as well as winters in New York. We’d like something that’s a few years old at the most (likely a 2015) and around $15,000 if possible. What do you recommend?

Mrs. Frugalwoods’ Recommendations

I want to start off with a big congratulations to Sue for pulling all of this information together and for her willingness to put herself out there and ask for our help. This is not easy to do and she has done it! Sue should feel proud of herself for taking this first step towards creating a better future for her family. Just knowing how much you spend every month, how much you make, what your debts are, and what your savings are is a massive hurdle for many folks. P.S. If you’re not tracking your expenses like Dan and Sue have, I use and recommend the free tracking tool by Personal Capital (affiliate link). Round of applause for Sue! If you’d like to know more about how Personal Capital works, check out my full review.

Savings Accounts Side Note

One of the easiest ways to optimize your money is to keep it in a high-interest savings account. With these accounts, interest works in YOUR favor (as opposed to the interest rates on debt, which work against you). Having money in a no (or low) interest savings account is a waste of resources because your money is sitting there doing nothing. Don’t let your money be lazy! Make it work for you! And now, enjoy some explanatory math:

  • Let’s say you have $5,000 in a savings account that earns 0% interest. In a year’s time, your $5,000 will still be… $5,000.
  • Let’s say you instead put that $5,000 into an American Express Personal Savings account that–as of this writing–earns 1.70% in interest. In one year, your $5,000 will have increased to $5,085.67. That means you earned $85.67 just by having your money in a high-interest account.

And you didn’t have to do anything! I’m a big fan of earning money while doing nothing. I mean, is anybody not a fan of that? Apparently so, because anyone who uses a low (or no) interest savings account is NOT making money while doing nothing. Don’t be that person. Be the person who earns money while sleeping. Rack up the interest and prosper. More about high-interest savings accounts, as well as the ones I recommend, here: The Best High Interest Rate Online Savings Accounts.

Putting Others First

Dan & Sue’s sports-loving kiddos

What really stands out to me in reading through Sue’s description of their lives is that she and Dan are extraordinarily generous, kind, and giving people. They routinely put others before themselves–through their careers as social workers, by giving their kids amazing childhoods, in giving gifts to family members, by throwing great family parties–and I think this is an ingrained aspect of their personalities. Dan and Sue’s altruism and genuine commitment to raising their kids well, and fostering strong family relationships, is enviable and shines through in how happy they are with their family life. In this way, they’ve succeeded in creating a wonderful life.

Unfortunately, the downside is that this approach has come at the complete expense of their financial future and fiscal stability. Since Sue came to me asking for advice, I feel it would be a dereliction of my duty if I didn’t tell it to her straight. And I’m going to do that today.

I love being a cheerleader for people’s dreams and I adore telling people that they are making wise financial choices, but I also feel a real responsibility to offer sincere and realistic advice when it is asked of me. I wouldn’t be doing Sue–or anyone else in a similar financial situation who is reading this–any favors by sugar coating how dire their situation is. With the level of debt they have, their absence of savings, and minimal retirement savings, I’m deeply worried about Dan and Sue and I sincerely hope they can take this advice to heart today, because if they don’t, their future is in serious jeopardy.

Emergency Game Plan

Dan and Sue have spent so much of their lives (and money) focused on other people and now–right now, today–the time has come for them to focus on themselves. I would characterize Dan and Sue’s situation as a financial emergency. It’s a slow-moving emergency, and one that they might not be aware of on a daily basis, but I very much assure you it’s an emergency.

Sue and Dan need a game plan for turning around their financial lives and, frankly, they need to do it quickly. They are firmly in middle age and in no position to retire or even be financially solvent at this point. However, don’t despair! I’m so glad Sue came to me when she did because she and Dan CAN (and, in fact, must) reverse a lot of this damage. I want Sue to feel confident in her ability to make the changes she needs to make because I know she can do it! And more to the point, she has to.

Dan and Sue, here’s your quick game plan, all of which we’ll review in greater detail:

  1. Reduce your monthly spending by a lot and/or increase your incomes
  2. Pay off your high-interest debt (all of the credit cards and the car)
  3. Save up an emergency fund
  4. Aggressively pay off Dan’s student loan while building up retirement savings
  5. Pay off Sue’s student loan

Reduce Expenses ASAP

I think we can all get caught up in the assumption that if something is “good,” then it’s OK to spend money on it. We all buy into this idea that the only “bad” spending is spending on stuff that’s “bad,” such as cigarettes or drugs. But that’s not the case. Any spending that puts you into debt is bad spending. Debt is debt and no creditor gives a fig how you got into debt.

We can all have sacred cows–things we absolutely will not sacrifice–and that’s perfectly fine and normal! Sacred cows often define who we are and articulate the values we hold dear. But not everything in our lives can be a sacred cow. Unless you have limitless resources, you have to prioritize, and, further, you have to make cuts in places where it might hurt. Otherwise, you doom yourself to an endless stream of debt and paycheck-to-paycheck stressors, which Sue articulated she tired of.

What I hear in Sue’s writing are a lot of justifications and defenses of their spending, all of which are legitimate. But it really doesn’t matter how legitimate her defenses are because she and Dan simply cannot afford their lifestyle. They’re spending everything they make, and more, and unfortunately, there’s no way to square her financial goals with constant justifications. She and Dan will have to make some tough choices. And they need to make them soon.

Ideas for Saving

Dan & Sue’s pup

When I review expenses in Case Studies, I usually frame my suggestions as optional. This time, however, I’d be lying if I said I thought these savings were optional. The only other option for Dan and Sue is to dramatically increase their incomes, which I also think is a great idea. I suggest that Dan and Sue take my free, 31-day Uber Frugal Month Challenge, which is designed to help you save as much money as you possibly can–they need it!

W need to stop the bleeding ASAP and so I recommend that Dan and Sue enact the following cuts immediately:

#1: Spend Less On Food

At $1,800 per month (for groceries and take-out combined), food is the first and ripest category for reduction. I see that Sue lumped in household supplies with their food and I recommend she start tracking those expenses separately so that she has a better sense of what they’re spending on food (I do this by running two transactions in the self-check-out lane: one for food and one for everything else).

First and foremost, it’s time for Dan and Sue to prepare all of their meals at home. They simply cannot afford the $200 per month in take-out/restaurant meals. It’s not in their budget at this time. Sue mentioned that it’s tough to cook every night along with working full-time and I completely agree! No one has the energy, fortitude or time to cook every night of the year. No one! Mr. Frugalwoods cooks for us a whopping ONE NIGHT PER WEEK. You read that right: he cooks once a week. He whips up a huge (truly, huge) batch of (usually vegetarian, often vegan) soup, chili, stir fry, etc and then we freeze all of the leftovers. We then defrost previously cooked meals to eat throughout the week for variety. You can have a different meal every single night of the week but only cook once a week. Sue and Dan need to prep their meals ahead of time, freeze the excess, and learn to love the leftover. I have a treasure trove of posts on frugal cooking, but the two I most highly recommend to Sue are as follows:

As far as vegetarian and vegan cooking goes, we find that this is cheaper than eating meat! Mr. FW and I do still eat meat on occasion, but it’s so much cheaper not to. So don’t despair, Sue! In general, you want to start with an inexpensive protein (dried beans are what we usually use) and then layer in veggies and spices. Serve over brown rice with a side salad and voila! As for that side salad? I make it ONCE A WEEK. You read that right: every Monday (or sometimes Tuesday) I chop veggies for a gigantic salad, which we keep in the refrigerator and eat all week long. It stays fresh and delicious and that way, my prep work is efficient and my time well spent. Our salads include plenty of “cheaper” veggies, such as: red onion, roasted sweet potatoes, cucumber, green pepper, and tomatoes along with the more expensive organic salad greens. I make a homemade dressing of spicy mustard, apple cider vinegar, and olive oil.

The point here is that Sue and Dan need to come up with a much stricter food budget and a more articulated meal plan. I strongly encourage her to peruse all of the articles both here and on other sites (such as Budget Bytes) for food budget reduction ideas because they cannot continue spending this much every month just to eat. It is possible to eat frugally and healthfully, but you do need to cook it yourself, plan ahead, and buy bulk, raw ingredients.

#2: Spend Less On The Kids

As a parent, I completely empathize with Sue’s desire to give her kids the world. We all want our children to be happy, healthy, and fulfilled. Most of us would give anything for that. And Dan and Sue have given everything for that. I wish there was another way around the quagmire they find themselves in, but they are going to have to reduce their spending on their children. If they don’t, Dan and Sue stand to be a longterm financial drain on their kids. With the level of debt and absence of savings that Dan and Sue have, they could very easily find themselves needing to depend on their adult children for financial support. What I would ask Sue and Dan to visualize are two scenarios:

  1. Make the decision to reduce spending now–much of which will be in the arena of things for the kids–and put themselves on solid financial footing.
  2. Picture themselves in 20 years needing to approach their son and daughter–who will likely be starting their own families–to ask them for cash to pay rent and buy groceries.

I, personally, would opt for option #1. When your kids are in their 30s, they’re going to be tremendously grateful that you got your finances together when they were teenagers and that you’re not needing to move in with them as they start their independent lives.

Since I’m big on planning, I suggest Dan and Sue brainstorm how they want to explain their financial situation to their children right now and how they want to frame the reductions in their spending. I recommend focusing on values of self-reliance and responsibility. It’s a great teaching moment for Dan and Sue, who I get the sense are natural teachers and excellent parents. Rather than viewing this as a devastating experience for their kids, I encourage them to see it as an opportunity to teach them about financial responsibility since I imagine Dan and Sue don’t want their kids to find themselves in a similarly dire situation when they’re adults.

#3: Eliminate Gifts and Parties

All gift-giving needs to either be ceased or reduced. I hear Sue’s desire to give to others and I love that she’s so generous with her family, but at this point, she and Dan can’t afford it. This is harsh, I fully realize, but gift-giving might be an area that’s easier for Dan and Sue to reduce than the sports and camps for their children. This also includes reducing spending on their children’s birthday gifts and parties. Dan and Sue might even want to propose an option to their kids of: sports or gifts/birthday parties/Christmas. I like their plan of giving their son his lacrosse gear and registration fee for Christmas and they need to expand that thinking to all other areas as well.

Here are a few posts for inspiration on frugal gift giving:

This Is Going To Be Tough

I fully realize that these changes will be tremendously challenging for Dan and Sue. What we’re talking about here is a wholesale lifestyle renovation. But at this point, they cannot afford not to do this, unless they want to become financially dependent on their kids or other relatives. I strongly encourage them to make these changes now so that they can look forward to the retirement they’re dreaming of. Which brings me to my next point…

Dan and Sue’s Dreams Are Awesome

I absolutely love Sue’s articulation of their hoped-for retirement: traveling the country and then staying near family. It’s a simple, but wholly wonderful, idea. And if they can seriously buckle down and save vastly more than they spend, they can make it happen. But right now? I don’t see how they’ll ever stop working unless they radically change what they spend (and likely also increase their income).

In looking at the level of Dan’s 401k, as well as Sue’s pension, they’d have substantially less to live on every year than what they currently spend (which is $109,800 annually). Plus, they have nearly $200,000 in debt. So let’s turn this ship around today and get Dan and Sue on stable footing. I’ve made a spreadsheet for them of just how much they could save every month if they made the drastic, radical cuts I’ve proposed:

Item Current Spend Rate Proposed Amount to Save Proposed New Expense Notes
Groceries $1,600 $1,000 $600 Work to reduce this substantially. I put in a reduction of $1,000, which is aggressive, but doable. It’s cheaper not to eat meat, so embrace that vegetarian/vegan approach fully! Meal plan and prep for the week ahead of time.
Car payment #2 (projected) $300 $100 $200 If they must get a second car, I advise they keep the payments as low as possible.
Sports and camps $300 $300 $0 If Sue and Dan dearly want to continue sports for their kids–which I understand might be a priority–then they will need to make dramatic cuts in other areas and also consider increasing their income.
Cell phones through Verizon (three phones) $225 $165.03 $59.97 I put in what I pay per month for my phone ($19.99) through BOOM mobile x their three phones. I also suggest exploring Ting and Republic Wireless as their rates might be even lower.
Misc., usually camp and gifts $205 $205 $0 Eliminate entirely
Eating out/take out $200 $200 $0 Eliminate entirely
Utility: natural gas $175 $25 $150 See if reductions can be made by turning the heat lower in the wintertime. See this post for more ideas.
Utility: electricity $175 $25 $150 See if reductions can be made by turning the AC on less in the summertime.
Cable/Internet $125 $55 $70 Eliminate cable, which leaves the $70/month for internet. Call around to see if any other company offers a better rate
Water $100 $25 $75 Look for opportunities to use less water.
Tumbling for daughter $100 $100 $0 Eliminate entirely
Vacation $100 $100 $0 Eliminate entirely
Birthday and wedding gifts $100 $100 $0 Eliminate entirely
Christmas $100 $100 $0 Eliminate entirely
Our kids’ birthdays $100 $100 $0 Eliminate entirely
Dog costs: boarding and food $100 $25 $75 Can this be reduced at all? Can the dog go camping with you to avoid boarding costs? If not, could the dog stay with a friend or family member in exchange for you watching their pet when they’re away? More on frugal pet care here.
Clothes $50 $50 $0 Eliminate entirely. Time to embrace a whole-family clothes buying ban! If the kids need new clothes, perhaps those could serve as Christmas or birthday gifts. Also, everything should be coming from the used market!
Haircuts $20 $20 $0 Eliminate entirely. Time to embrace the home haircuts! Here’s more about home haircuts!
Netflix $10 $10 $0 Eliminate entirely
X Box $10 $10 $0 Eliminate entirely
CE training/license renewal $10 $10 $0 Can this be reimbursed through work? If so, eliminate entirely.
Total: $4,105 $2,725.03 $1,379.97

I realize that it’s easier said than done and that me writing out these eliminations doesn’t take into account Dan and Sue’s truest priorities and what they value as a family. And I wish there could be more of a middle ground here, but the issue is that they are a mere eleven years from retirement with no savings, very little retirement savings, and massive debt. I do not want the Dan and Sue of the future to be unable to do the things they want to do in order to enjoy life. What I’m proposing here is a very drastic level of cuts and Dan and Sue will have to find what works best for them. I wouldn’t expect them to eliminate every single one of these items, but I hope they’ll do some exploration into what might be tenable and feasible given their dire financial circumstances.

Sue’s Questions

Now that the elephant of spending is out of the way, I want to take some time to address each of Sue’s questions:

1) a. Pay off debt

This question is largely addressed by the above discussion of reducing their expenses. If Dan and Sue are able to enact all of the savings I outline, they’d be on track to save a monumental $2,725,03 per month. This is a phenomenal amount of money and they could WIPE OUT their high-interest debt in a flash! Here’s how:

Employ The Debt Avalanche!!!

I recommend that Sue and Dan employ what’s termed the “debt avalanche” approach to paying off their debts. According to this methodology, you should pay off your debts in order of interest rate. The reason I HIGHLY recommend this method is that it’s the most mathematically sound and will save you the most money. Based on the debt avalanche approach, Sue and Dan should pay off their debts in this order:

  1. TJ Maxx credit card with $964 at a catastrophic 28.49% interest rate
  2. Capital One credit card with $1,216.75 at a still-catastrophic 20.65% interest rate
  3. Prius car loan at $3,231 with a 7.89% interest rate

These high-interest debts total a meagre $5,411.75. I recognize that this amount doesn’t feel “meagre” to Dan and Sue, but, if they were able to save the $2,725.03 per month that I propose, they’d be able to knock out all of these debts in LESS THAN two months!!!

Sue’s photography

After these debts are knocked out, Dan and Sue should treat themselves to something lovely, but inexpensive. Go out for a cheap dinner, see an inexpensive movie–do something to celebrate getting their lives back! Sue mentions that she wants to be able to prioritize her and Dan more and this would be a great epitomization of that goal. PLEASE do this for yourselves, Dan and Sue! You owe it to yourselves to be happy, to put your relationship first, and to be rid of these debts.

The other common debt repayment program–the debt snowball–advocates for paying debts off according to the size of the debt itself, irrespective of the interest rate. The idea is that you’ll get a psychological boost from paying off smaller debts first and be more motivated to then pay off your larger debts. The problem with this approach is that you could be paying tons in interest every month by not focusing on your highest interest debt. Lucky for Sue and Dan, their debts just so happen to align with both snowball and avalanche methodology since their highest interest debt is also their smallest! Given this, they’ll be able to reap both the psychological and mathematical advantages!

Additionally, Sue needs to look closely at the terms of her 0% interest rate Best Buy card because I imagine it’s not fixed at 0% and might skyrocket at some point in the future. She should know when this interest rate will pop up and pay it off IN FULL before that time comes.

1) b. Emergency Fund

Sue is spot on that they need an emergency fund and this should be goal #2 right after they wipe out that high-interest debt. Dan and Sue have already experienced the trauma of not having an emergency fund–that’s why they have debt–and so I know this will be a top priority for them. Without an emergency fund to handle the unforeseen–but entirely predictable–“emergencies” of life, such as a car breakdown, a roof repair, or a job loss, you’re at constant risk of sliding even further into debt. An emergency fund serves as your buffer against financial catastrophe and is a mandatory part of everyone’s finances. Yes, everyone!

An emergency fund is typically three to six months’ worth of your expenses held in an easily accessible checking or savings account. At their current rate of spending, that would be $27,450 to $54,900. However, if Sue and Dan are able to decrease their monthly spending by the $2,725.03 that I projected above, they should target an emergency fund in the range of $19,274.91 – $38,549.82. And as they pay down their debts, they’ll have even fewer expenses every month. The less you spend, the less you need to save.

Once they have this emergency fund built up, they’ll need to keep it that way. It’s not to be spent on birthdays or Christmas or dinners out. It’s there in case of a true financial emergency and, if utilized, should be replenished with the next paycheck.

1) c. Savings for home repairs

Some of the repairs Dan & Sue’s home needs

As Sue noted, at this point there is simply no money for home repairs and I would advise that they first pay off their high-interest debt and build up their emergency fund before beginning to save for these repairs. I wouldn’t do anything to the house that’s not strictly necessary from a safety perspective since they just do not have the cash to handle anything extra at this point. If they can, it might be wisest to delay making any repairs until they’re ready to sell so that they’re able to command top dollar in their asking price. I also recommend they DIY as much of the repair work as possible since that’ll save them a ton of money.

1) d. College for kids

I am so thrilled that Dan works for a university and that their kids can get free tuition by attending his school! This is fabulous! With their own student debts still looming large, Dan and Sue don’t have the financial capacity to pay for their kids’ college and so, providing them with free tuition is a fantastic gift. At this point, they can’t afford to save for their kids’ room and board and there’s just not enough runway to save before their kids go to college. But I wouldn’t fret about this–Dan and Sue are giving them the wonderful gift of free college tuition, and for room and board, the kids can either take out loans or explore the possibility of working as resident assistants or in another capacity on campus that’ll help defray those costs (I worked at my campus writing center and Mr. FW worked at the campus art museum–I still think those are the best jobs we ever had!).

The bottom line here is: You can take out loans for college, but you cannot take out loans for retirement. Any money that Dan and Sue are able to save needs to be put towards paying down their debt (including their own student loans), building an emergency fund, and saving for retirement. At this late stage, there just isn’t enough time or money for them to pay for their kids’ college educations.

2) Deferred Compensation Plan

I’m delighted to see that Sue has been saving into her employer’s deferred compensation plan. I don’t think, however, that there’s any room for her to add more to this plan at this stage. There are simply too many other demands on their money for this to be feasible.

It would be ideal for Dan and Sue to have savings and investments other than just their retirement accounts, but at this point–with their current income, debts, and current spending rate–there’s no room in their budget for it. After Dan and Sue are able to pay off their debt and save up an emergency fund and pay for needed repairs to their home, they can explore expanding Sue’s contributions to this plan. Sue should check out which funds she’s invested in at Vanguard, and what the expense ratios are on those funds, as she’ll want to ensure they’re as low cost as possible.

3) Should we refinance our house?

In a word, no. They could consider it once they have enough equity, but they’d have to fully refinance and mortgage interest rates are higher right now, so this is unlikely to make sense.

I was thrilled to read about their idea of moving once their kids are out of high school and I wholeheartedly endorse this idea! This could be a real game-changer for their finances since their current mortgage and property taxes are pretty hefty. I emphatically urge Dan and Sue to downsize to as small a place as possible with as low a monthly payment as they can find. Lowering their cost of living will dramatically aid them in their scramble to pay off their student loan debt (and save for retirement) before they retire. I love that they’ve already been thinking along these lines and I 100% agree that this would be a wise course of action.

Something that also jumped out at me is Dan’s three-hour commute. I wonder if they could move closer to his office in order to reduce the tremendous $500/month gas and car maintenance expense? If so, and depending on where Sue’s office is, I wonder if they could also downsize to just one car after their kids are out of the house? This would be provide them with another dramatic leap in their savings and would make their retirement dreams much more realistic.

4) What used car should we buy?

Ok I’ll ask the obvious question first: is there ANY chance at all that they could scrape by with just one car? I’m going to assume not because of Dan’s monster commute and the kids’ activities, but I gotta throw it out there since they really cannot afford another car.

Sue’s photography

If they absolutely must have a second car (and I own two cars myself, so I totally get it), then we’ve got to figure out a way to get Dan and Sue a new-to-them second car that’s super inexpensive. I’m afraid that their current car budget of $15K, with a $300 monthly payment, is way out of their reach. As we saw in the above expenses spreadsheet, if they were to add a $300 monthly car payment on top of their current monthly expenses, they’d be spending $9,150 per month while only bringing home $8,815. You can’t run a $335 deficit every month.

Unfortunately, this is another example of why it’s dangerous–and expensive–to have debt and no emergency fund. If Sue and Dan had the cash saved up to buy a used car, they wouldn’t have to worry about incurring an interest rate and a monthly payment. But as it is, that’s what they’re going to have to do. Sadly, debt begets more debt and with interest rates piling on, it’s easy to dig your way into a very deep hole of debt. Which is why I want Dan and Sue to really consider making these cuts from their spending! Their debt–and the resulting stress and pain–is reversible! It is not a life sentence. Ok back to the car issue…

I highly recommend they look into getting another small, fuel-efficient, used car similar to their current Prius, perhaps a Honda Fit? I’m here to tell you that my Prius with studded snow tires can handle almost every dirt road in rural Vermont in the depths of winter. It cannot handle every dirt road and not after epic ice storms, but I don’t think Dan and Sue live near any dirt roads. All that to say, AWD is not strictly necessary and, if they feel it is, they’ll need to find a cheaper solution than an SUV. Packing this level of debt on top of their existing debt load would be unwise, so I strongly advise they find the cheapest drivable solution possible. I’m hoping readers will chime in here with makes, models and years that they recommend!

Increase Income!

Sue didn’t ask about this specifically, but she did mention that she and Dan are both qualified to work in private practice as psychotherapists, which is fabulous news!!! Earning more would be a great help to Dan and Sue in all of the above outlined goals and would help them get there faster. Frugality will only take you so far–at a certain point, you can’t reduce your spending any further and the only option is to increase your income.

I know that Sue and Dan are loathe to take time away from their kids, and I deeply respect that, but if there’s the possibility of seeing patients just one day a week, I urge them to explore it. At the very least, they should be up and running with private practice the minute their youngest jets off the college. I also want to make a note here about lifestyle inflation. Sue mentioned that as their incomes increased over the years, their spending increased right along with it. Sue and Dan cannot do that again. If they increase their incomes, they still need to decrease their spending in order to make themselves solvent and able to retire. Their professional backgrounds have put them in this excellent position of being able to take on this additional work and they should leverage it–at the very least to pay off the student loans that qualified them to do so!

Attack Student Loan Debt

After Dan and Sue pay off their high-interest debt, build up their emergency fund, and pay for any pressing home repairs (and I mean seriously pressing), they should turn their attention to the joint goal of:

  1. Paying off their student loan debt
  2. Saving more aggressively for retirement

Dan and Sue are currently paying $1,100 per month in student loan debt, which would gobble up a retirement budget pretty quickly. Since the interest rate is higher on Dan’s debt, I advise they funnel extra money into this debt until it’s gone and then put that money into Sue’s debt. I briefly considered the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) since Sue would likely qualify as a state employee, but I don’t think it would make sense given how close she is to retirement age and how (relatively) small her debt is at this point. Under PSLF, her debt wouldn’t be forgiven for another 10 years (during which time she’d still need to make payments) and I imagine she’ll have the debt paid off by then.

Unless either of their employers offers any sort of student loan forgiveness/repayment scheme, I don’t have any magic to offer on their student loans–they just need to be paid off through the reliable methodology of lowered spending and increased income.

When Can They Retire?

I’ll be honest, it’s looking kind of grim right now. However, it doesn’t need to stay that way!! If Sue and Dan can eliminate their existing debt, remain debt-free (other than their mortgage), avoid going into debt for their kids’ college educations, and downsize from their current home, then I think it’s going to work out! It is wonderful that Dan’s employer offers a 2-to-1 403b match and he should increase his contribution level after the high-interest debt is paid off and the emergency fund built up. I wouldn’t wait to increase his savings until after the student loans are paid off for the two-part reason that they have relatively low interest rates and are fairly substantial sums of money.

Investigate The Pension

One thing that makes me nervous about Sue’s retirement plan is that she is wholly dependent upon her pension. Sadly, we’ve seen too many examples of pension plans not paying out in recent years and I would hate for that to happen to Sue. Unfortunately, state pension systems are becoming infamous for not funding their future payouts.

I don’t know anything about the health or viability of the New York State pension plan and so I urge Sue to do some research into how well-funded her pension system is and how likely it is to pay out what she’s projecting. There are a lot of years and a lot of opportunities for the pension system rules to change before she retires and so I advise she assess the risk and the likelihood of her pension coming to fruition.

I was relieved to see that she is paying into social security since this will provide her with a modicum of support (some pension plans entail not paying into social security, which can put people in dire straits if the pension plan goes under).

Get Rid Of The Credit Cards. Forever.

Here’s some advice I rarely give: Dan and Sue need to cut up their credit cards. Sue noted that they were out of credit card debt just three years ago but that it has crept back up. In light of this, I highly recommend that Dan and Sue go on an all-cash (and debit card) diet. No more credit cards at all. I think the temptation of credit is just too strong and, if Dan and Sue keep swinging in and out of high-interest debt, they’ll never be able to get on top of their money. They need to spend way less than they earn and the easiest way to do that is to withdraw the cash they need and when it’s gone? They can’t buy anything else.


I am confident that Dan and Sue can get this all together because Sue expressed several times how tired she is of this paycheck-to-barely paycheck cycle and how much she wants to change. All you need in order to make a change is: 1) the desire to do so and, 2) a clear action plan of how to get there. Sue has the desire and I hope that today we’ll provide her with the clear action plan. I am rooting for Sue and Dan with all my heart and I genuinely hope they’ll take this advice seriously and start making positive changes in their financial life before it really is too late. Dan and Sue have built a wonderful, loving family and they enjoy their lives–I want them to be able to continue this enjoyment into retirement and to feel confident that they’ll be financially taken care of.

In summary, here’s what I advise Sue and Dan to do:

  1. Reduce spending ASAP by following the above recommendations and taking the Uber Frugal Month Challenge
  2. Explore taking on patients in private practice
  3. Pay off all high-interest debt
  4. Build up an emergency fund
  5. Aggressively pay off Dan’s student loan while building up retirement savings
  6. Pay off Sue’s student loan
  7. Continue saving for retirement
  8. Downsize and move to a cheaper home/apartment as soon as their youngest graduates from high school
  9. Enjoy a well-funded retirement together!

Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice would you give to Sue? She and I will both reply to comments, so please feel free to ask any clarifying questions!

Would you like your own case study to appear here on Frugalwoods? Email me (mrs@frugalwoods.com) your brief story and we’ll talk.

March 12, 2019 Update From Sue:

Hi Frugal Friends! I’m checking in with our update, from our August case study where Mrs. Frugalwoods gave us some tough love and pretty much said we were a sinking ship. This helped me to visualize the Titanic since our debt feels as large as the Titanic and so to turn that ship around was going to be slow no matter how drastic of changes we made. I am pretty impatient in general, so not seeing too many immediate results of what feels like significant and extreme lifestyle changes is the hardest part of this new journey of financial responsible living for me. So from here I will say I am celebrating small victories and remembering where we started in August. The lifestyle change is coming more slowly than I’d like as I’m working those muscles I never knew I had so to speak!  That being said, although we haven’t done ALL the extreme cutting that was suggested, we have made some progress and have goals to continue turning our finances around without being completely depressed and deprived for 2019 and each year to come. If I can I would like to send yearly updates to keep myself on track for our goals.

Some progress…. I am excited that we paid off all of our credit cards. We did have to pay the last large one with our tax refund (and more) which wasn’t the plan (I wanted it paid by January). But I did back slide into spending during Nov and Dec for birthday and holidays and the weddings. On a positive note I spent less than usual. To put it into perspective Christmas/holiday time is usually when I fall into opening store credit cards because of all the discounts they give you when you do this time of year.  So that spending habit is officially OFF my list forever and it did feel great to only use cash this Christmas, even though I did overspend.

Like Mrs. FW explains, since we don’t yet have an emergency fund when our washing machine broke down there was a large expense for February that was originally going to be allotted to the final credit card payment that now had to be put into a washing machine .Again, because of some changes we actually had the cash to purchase the washer without credit-no interest for 6 months type thing that we usually would have done. I’m seeing that even these add one more stress to my life that I just don’t want to think about.

We also paid off our car in January!! And our old Kia mini-van that we put $1,000 into in September (part of our dilemma when we did our case study) is still running just fine!

So NO CAR PAYMENTS!! No Credit card payments!! And our 3 phones are paid off so our payment from Verizon went down from $220 to $140 (was waiting to pay off phones to check out Boom mobile) So those three payments alone =over $600 a month that will go into the Emergency Fund monthly savings.

Not eating out, preparing more larger meals for the week, and trying to be more careful with the food budget has been easier that I thought. We try to stay with about $1200 instead of $1800 = another $600 to put toward emergency fund!

March 2019 (here and now) is where the rubber meets the road as we focus on our next goal of starting our monthly Emergency Fund Savings Plan of $2,000 a month! Here is the breakdown of where we are cutting and saving:

Savings…….from cutting back….

$425.00 No Car payment saving!! Now $00

$400.00 Groceries now $1200

$150.00 Not eating out now $50

$85.00 Verizon phones paid off now $140- still considering Boom mobile for further savings

$100 Sport  down to $200- def still a sacred cow, thinking it’s the time of life thing for my kids…maybe

$205 Misc….just no, can’t do it, whatever that It is

$25 natural gas bill down to $150

$25 Electric bill down to $150 average

$55 cut the cable cord now just internet $70

$100 Vacation- just say no or maybe camp at the end of the summer… we shall see

$100 Bday parties for kids-just say no, small sleepover or something with a few friends instead.

$100 Christmas- just say no- kids will prob get clothes and sports stuff if anything at that time

$50 clothes- sticking to this mostly, kids need some stuff occasionally but got enough at Christmas

$10 Haircuts- my son will not let me cut his hair, he has to the barber, but only goes 1 x every other mo.

$25 dog costs- esp if we don’t go away this year and have to board him

$200 a month added to this is an average of $2000 summer class pay divided by 10 months


$20,550 Emergency Fund Goal by end of 2019!!!!!!!!

Some fears, realities, concerns……

I know I will REALLY will want to spend any savings we have on home improvements. This is an area of justified spending for me that, like spending on my kid’s sports, I will really need to be diligent about since I’ve literally never saved in my entire life. It’s kind of strange to hear me say that out loud. I literally have never saved MY ENTIRE 48 years of life. That’s pretty crazy. I never thought I liked spending money but I guess I do!

This internal stuff, being in touch with how difficult it for me when I don’t spend or say we can’t do that or just think about how much I can spend on a gift instead of thinking what the norm is for a wedding a shower, a birthday gift. Because it doesn’t matter. This is humbling to admit I don’t want to be cheap about stuff. I can justify it and say but they are SOOO generous to me and they did this for us, and I really do feel we’ve been fortunate with the generosity of others, so giving back to those when it’s their child’s shower or wedding seems like a Need not a want. So those are my stumbling points.

I did keep $100 a month budget for gift spending and so far I think that’s a reasonable amount for kids and friends combined. So this will be our new life style and I hope to get better at being frugal as time goes on so we can continue with this savings and complete the next goal of paying off Dan’s student loans.

2020: From there starts the continued $2,000 a month on paying down the student loan on top of the usual $1,100 we pay monthly for both minimum payments. If we continue this level of repayment, by 2025 Dan’s student loan should be paid off!!! Which will be when he is 61 and I am 54. This feels manageable while continuing with spending for the kids on some sports and gifts. From there my daughter will be headed to college(wow!) and we will have the option to sell our home if we choose, at least we know it’s an option to move to a less expensive area, and whatever we get back from selling our home can go into savings.

My son has his eye on some potential summer employment which we are fully supporting, either as a bus boy or at an apple orchard as potential options for either this Spring or definitely summer.  He plans to pay for his clothes and activities and other items (phone) with his own money when he gets his job.

I recently found an opportunity to work 1-2 evenings a week for a second income that I am either going to start or start a new job at my current work, which has mandatory overtime and so more money. Not sure which way I will go as these two just came up this week, but more money will be coming with these changes. I foresee Dan also increasing his income within this 6 year time frame, which will ALL go into student loan debt repayment and retirement savings plans.

Frugalwoods really made me see money is such a different way that I now see I’m creating more options for myself with each dollar I choose not to spend instead of letting circumstances decide where my next paycheck is going. Having that peace of mind is something I’ve never had nor did I think it was attainable for us. I need to read our budget regularly to get inspired to stay on course! It’s NOT easy but worth it!

Thanks so much! I’ll come back with an update next year!


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  1. Thank you Mrs. FW for taking this time to study our finances and the courage to be completely honest. Although it will be a massive change and of course change is hard to implement when your used to doing things differently, but now that we have a plan and see the reality of our future if we don’t make these changes,I feel I have the tools to make this happen now. Firstly I think we should fix our old van as we do need a second car, and this was an option but it was stated by our mechanic that the repairs of over $1000 would not be worth fixing since it has over 150,000 miles on it. I also loved the idea of how to talk to our kids about cutting back in a positive way. We have discussed being an RA to my son, when he goes to college, and he is really eager to start working when he is 14 because we do say NO to many things that he wants to buy right now. The food spending and managing is something I’ve been really thinking about and giving attempts at in the past, so I will try again. I have a freezer we can use as well, so I need to prioritize food prep! Onward! thanks again!

    1. Sue – I second the motion that you can talk to your kids about cutting back in a positive way.

      This will also provide your kids with valuable lessons that they can use for the rest of their lives. Teaching children how to be frugal is a gift that keeps on giving!

        1. I can absolutely affirm Mr. Freak Frugal’s comment. I was the youngest of 6 children. My dad was laid off when I was 8. Mom went back to work but it was a struggle. I was told NO many many many times and there was no long term damage:) In fact, the opposite was true. I learned how to budget, live within my means and understand what is important. 11 and 13 are old enough to be part of the discussion. Good luck!

          1. My parents were extremely frugal and it has done me a world of good as an adult. I have three lovely adult stepdaughters and their parents taught them exactly ZERO about budgeting, saving, being frugal, etc and they are mostly a mess because of it. My parents said no, but they did do a lot of the things that you spend money on. I can tell you that we never went out to eat (NEVER) as children and they were very frugal with our grocery budget which freed up $$ in other areas. Even if you guys can implement HALF the savings MFW suggested, you’ll be doing great. Good luck!

    2. We are all rooting for you, Sue!! If the van winds up not being fixable, I would look as far and wide as possible for a used sedan (I know how hard it is to downsize in vehicle cubic feet, but it will help so much financially in the long run!).

      1. I agree with this. We are lucky enough to only need one car (I will commute by bus when I go back to work in the fall, and my husband bikes/sometimes drive/runs to his job (3.5 km from our house). Now, having a nice car is, well, NICE, but we drive a Pontiac Vibe that is 10 years old, and we have three kids (9, 6 and 3). It is a TIGHT fit. But, the car is paid off and it’s good on gas for long distance trips. And we live on the Canadian prairies, and we make due with regular winter tires (the car is not AWD). In sum, I’d rather drive a small, older car than have car debt–and whenever I get a bit of “car envy” I think about our financial goals and the fact that many of these cars are not paid off, and I definitely don’t have “car payment envy” 😉

          1. Hey Sue, with the 1 minute drive to work, you may want to consider biking or walking. It reduces wear & tear on the car, gets you some exercise, encourages bringing a lunch (cuz it’s harder to go out if you forgot to pack your lunch) and energized you for the day. I walk/bike year round to work (about 1.2 miles each way) in snowy Vermont and it’s great! I actually feel worse on days that I don’t.

    3. Hey Sue, GOOD on you for keeping the van – $1,000 is less than a car payment. And, unless a car costs more to keep on the road than a car payment, it IS worth keeping. A car doesn’t appreciate – it isn’t an asset.

      I have ONE BIG suggestion: the family meeting, buy-in, and wall chart (read “Your Money or Your Life” for the wall chart idea). To make changes of this magnitude, you HAVE to have the family discussion. This might take a couple weeks or months, but there need to be regular family “pow-wows” so that everyone (kids, too!) in the house is on board. Otherwise, the changes won’t stick. It’s like trying to diet when everyone else in the family eats McD’s in front of you for every meal. You can’t do this alone. Even your kids need to understand what’s at stake. This will be a GREAT learning opportunity for them, so they can set up better when they reach adulthood.

      1. Thank you SO much. This did cross my mind. But I fear it might be too much for young kids to understand and don’t want to put my stress on them. I’ll read the book! Thanks again

        1. My kids are 14 and 9, and we have been talking to them about our finances and frugality for years. In an age appropriate way, but we are low and single income, and we keep it real. I personally don’t consider your kids young, especially not too young for learning about money. They are 5 and 7 years from being “adults” and nobody else is going to teach them.

          They might have fun being frugal, too. My 9 year old son loves gardening with me and is always looking for clearances plants when we go out, and is shocked when I don’t buy perennials (they grow back every year, mom! Lol!). He also loves spotting marked down groceries for me or blog sales (usually don’t buy either because they are typically junk, but he’s learning 🙂

          Good luck!

        2. They’re going to feel the stress one way or another. We are human; it pours out and, if we aren’t being open and honest, it pours out indirectly… wait! You’re the therapist – you know!!!! ;D

          I can speak from personal experience on this one and, my family dipped below the poverty line when I was 11 and that lasted for a few years. We were in survival mode. Unfortunately, my parents took out a LOT of unresolved stuff on us, but for whatever reason, the one thing they were honest with us and themselves about was their financial situation. We all understood (at ages 11, 7, and 5) and didn’t ask for extras. I started babysitting at 11 to pay for anything fun for my siblings and me. The lesson paid off: my parents didn’t have to pay for college tuition or life for any of us (2/3 went, and I’m on my 3rd degree). Being honest about the financial situation and goals was one of the few things my parents did well.

          1. It’s true. They can learn now. I am honest to a point, like when they want to move to a house with a pool! But you’re right they do know when we are stressing about bills etc. my daughter tends to not ask for things. My son has to be reminded we don’t have it to spend when he asks for things almost weekly.

        3. They are definitely not too young, especially if you frame it in a way that focusses on being fully capable of getting on the right fiscal track. I grew up poor, and we always knew that money was a struggle, but we also knew that we had ENOUGH and we were darn lucky compared to most of the world. Even with all these cuts, your kids are so lucky and they need to recognize that. I’m sure they will understand–you’d be surprised how smart and supportive kids can be.

      2. Involving the kids in the family financial picture and goals is an excellent approach. I suggest also getting them involved with meal planning, meal prep and cooking. At their ages, they have a lot to contribute to making meal prep fun. The extra help with together time in the kitchen can make a daily chore enjoyable.

      3. Agree. My father always says drive your car until the maintenance is more than a car payment. We had a station wagon for about 15 years with 200,000+ miles that my parents finally let go when I was in college.

    4. This is great, Sue! And I’m inclined to think you should go ahead and have the van fixed–we drive our cars well past 150K miles as it’s often so much cheaper to repair cars than buy new. Good luck and keep us posted :)!!!

    5. We have kept vehicles with relatively little strain until they’ve had 250,000 miles on them. You do need to fix minor issues before they become major ones.

    6. Sue- making the repairs is an AWESOME start! I once read that if the cost of the repair is less than a new monthly payment over the length of time the repair will keep the car going, it’s worth it. $1000 vs. a $300/month car payment is a HUGE savings for you guys!

      Another thing I didn’t notice Mrs. Frugalwoods mention is having your kids get jobs as soon as they are able given however your community is set up (or babysitting/lawnmowing/pet sitting. It’s great that they have the opportunity to do activities, and you obviously can cover all their needs, which is wonderful (many parents can’)! but it would benefit everyone for them to have responsibility for some as many of their “wants” themselves and any extra they make could go towards their XBox, clothes, etc.

      I am now 30, but I had jobs starting at 12 (babysitting) and then from age 16 I ALWAYS had a “real” job (working at a daycare, then later a retail clothing store while also nannying during the summers). My parents couldn’t afford to pay for a lot of extras, so I paid for my own dance lessons, gas for my car (which I inherited from my dad and was probably worth $2000). I did have to forego theater for my after-school jobs, but that was a hard choice I had to make between dance and theater because I had to have a job.

      Basically, a job won’t kill the kids once they’re old enough and will actually benefit them and your bottom line without them having to sacrifice anything (bonus: they get work experience which helps with college & future job resumes, etc.)

      Finally, no need to feel guilty if you can’t pay for their living expenses. My parents had a prepaid tuition plan for me (like your husband basically has with his job) and all the rest was on me. I got scholarships and was responsible for basically all of my college living/book/etc. expenses except for car insurance, health insurance and my cell phone bill. Your kids will totally be fine if they are in the same boat, especially with that free tuition 🙂

      You guys are going to crush this!

      1. Thank you!! This is SO helpful. I really needed a reality check in what is good for my kids (paying for their own stuff and making sacrifices when something is important enough to them. )

    7. Definitely agree with everyone saying to fix the van if possible! “Cheaper than a car payment” is exactly the conclusion I came to recently when my 07 with 180k miles on it needed a new transmission. It ended up being over $2600 (suffice to say, a lot more than the current blue book value of the car) but after some investigating and number crunching and budgeting I decided fixing a paid-off and otherwise reliable car and keeping my financial flexibility was a better investment than taking out a loan on a car that would very rapidly deprecate and leave me underwater.

      Definitely get more information from your mechanic – is the $1000 fix a long term solution? does anything else seem like it’s on the verge of conking out? how many more miles do you think the car has in it? what other major repairs might be expected going forward? etc.

      I do say this with the understanding that I was privileged enough to be able to do my repair without (technically) taking on debt, only having to worry about transportation for myself, having access to another car to use while mine was in the shop for a week, etc. While our specific situations are very different, I think the “cheaper than a car payment” mantra holds up. Once you’ve gotten a taste of freedom from monthly car payments, you’ll think really long and hard about alternatives when you’re facing down the prospect of taking on a new one 🙂

      Best of luck to you!

    8. Definitely fix that van! It’s a risk yes, but the cheapest vehicle you will ever have is the one you already own outright! We’ve repeated this a lot over the past four years every time our excursion breaks down (really about once a year 😉, Still cheaper than a car payment) and we realize the stark reality that any other car that would fit our large family is in the 15,000-30,000 range so even though it has 265,000 and that repair is another 1,500.. it’s still cheaper than payments for the next five to seven years and interest to boot!

    9. Check out Don’t Waste the Crumbs about eating very well on a tight budget. Her grocery boot camp is great! We are a family of five vegetarians who eat almost entirely organic and we do it on less than $1000/month. You have to be willing to cook but I batch cook and It is very manageable. And it need not be fancy! Some nights it is scrambled eggs and fruit for dinner. You can do it! Also, your kids are old enough to make simple meals. Have them help you. Quality time doesn’t need to be spent schlepping them to expensive activities.

      1. Thanks! I am the only veg in the house for now. cooking and freezing both meat and veggie meals is my new goal! Just cooked 2 batches last night.Det great. Tastes pretty good too!

    10. 150K miles is not a game changer. The repair cost is less than a car loan. I have 237K miles on my car. Yes I have had to repair it, things do not last forever. You may buy time repairing your vehicle PLUS necessity makes a poor bargain.

    11. I also have an autoimmune disease and went vegetarian 2 years ago and recently vegan. I eat very healthy and make it a priority, but our family of three only spends about $550 a month on food. Whole foods like fruits,vegetables, lentils, etc do not cost a lot. Expensive collagen supplements, protein powders, processed “health foods” do however! I make sure to buy what is on sale at the store. I buy fruits and vegetables that are in season. If I really want strawberries but they are $4, no way are they going in my cart! We also rarely eat out. It is a treat for us if we do. It just isn’t in our budget. I can think of so many more useful ways to use that money!

  2. Sue, thank you for sharing your finances with us! You guys make a really good salary, and are luckily in a position where you just really need to cut back on spending.
    Granted, its easy for us to all say, “Just quit spending!” But that is such a massive upheaval of your lifestyle! I know most parents want to provide their kids with everything, and you still want to live a comfortable life that you’re used to, but getting a handle on finances requires soooo much change and work. It sucks 🙂 but having a saving accounts, great retirement plans, and no or low debt IS WORTH IT. The sacrifies are 100% worth it, and this coming from someone who loves to eat out, shop, and grab fancy coffee everyday.

    1. I appreciate your understanding! It will be painful(I relate it to exercise though that once I get in the habit and start feeling good when stuff gets paid off I’m hoping it will motivate us to keep it up!)

      1. As for the gifts, you might want to share (some of) the fiscal strain your family is under. And honestly, MANY people LOVE homemade gifts like food (jam, desserts, etc) that are fairly cheap to make. A lot of people these days understand the idea of minimalism or cutting back, etc., and might appreciated consumable gifts.

      2. Of course it might sting in the beginning when you have to give up things you are used to. However, as I started to give things up I noticed that what I got instead was so much enjoyable. I was spending more time with my husband – e.g. we would figure out how to make the left-overs in the fridge into a three-course meal. Take a walk together to his parents instead of taking the car (and winding up discussing interesting things on the way there).

        So, I found out that it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money to enjoy something deeply. Having to use your imagination, creativity and effort might just increase the enjoyment since own effort was put into it!

        1. THIS is the point. Exactly. Frugality is about tapping into all that joy out there that doesn’t cost anything, that we usually gloss over and miss when we go over the purchase-everything-route. Savings and peace of mind that come with it, are added bonuses.

  3. Sue, your comment that you really want to retire early (when your husband retires) seems unwise. The difference between retiring at 62 vs 67 is several thousand dollars per year. Over 20+ possible years of retirement, that really adds up, and that additional pension income could really add to your quality of life in your later retirement. You simply do not have the retirement savings or financial cushion to retire early. By continuing to work you keep income coming in, can save more, AND increase your pension. I recommend you both plan to work as long as you are able; a part time retirement job after you have maxed your pension might be an option. Good luck!

      1. I know I’m late to the party here, but here goes. What worries me when I hear talk about having to work until 67 or so is the unpredictability of life. I’m considerably older than you (67) but I too was diagnosed with an auto immune issue at about 40that morphed into a strange “chronic cancer” event. I was forced to take an early retirement. Luckily for myself and my husband this was not an issue as we have always been frugal. But the change in lifestyle and all the retirement dreams had to morph into plan b. Just something to be aware of.

        1. Thanks and I agree. I fully understand my risk of cancer is increased by the auto immune and also seeing my history of people dying unexpectedly or becoming disabled in their 50’s. My mom is 80 and still works full time. She loves her job. It’s her main thing. I don’t think that’s me though!

  4. Best wishes to you in this endeavor!

    Sprouting at home has a huge health benefit and it’s quite affordable. 😁 It can be time consuming if one is not well organized, but why not consider having a responsible child take over the task? It’s very satisfying to see them grow! In the winter I’m prone to have a sprout salad; sprouts I mix with organic olive oil and cut up veggies and olives.

    1. Thanks! You just brought back great memories of my dad growing sprouts and eating sprout sandwiches and telling kids they were worms in 1st grade!

  5. Sue,

    I totally see where you are coming from with the gifts/birthdays, it seems unavoidable. One thing my family does at Christmas is we all draw names and only have to buy a gift for one person. Maybe suggest this, others might feel the pressures of gifting and agree. Also, my wife and I decided a while ago to just give cash to our 7 nieces and nephews on their birthday. Depending on their age, it can be a lot less than buying a gift. If you’re worried that’s not enough, my grandfather would put a $20 on the inside of a glass jar and then fill it with candy. I still have fond memories of that, even though in total, he didn’t spend much money.

    And I heard on the FIRE drill podcast that disc golf is a frugal hobby. It seems like your kids are set on the sports they have now, but maybe bring it up if they are looking for something different in the future. Good luck

    1. Yes – we cut out the gifts for everyone by drawing names from a hat. It was a mild disaster to make sure everyone got their gift and we never did it again. We also did not go back to giving gifts so it seems like a win win! We spend time together instead and give a small gift to my aunt. My parents go overboard on Christmas but my husband and I stick to a budget of a thoughtful and more frugal gift for each person in our immediate family. Everyone has a different financial situation and it doesn’t need “tit for tat”.

      1. My mother-in-law likes to buy a lot of gifts too. My sister-in-law’s husband always asks for donations to a specific charity from her but she can’t help but get him a gift card or something… I would love to just not do gifts lol.

    2. Thanks! We don’t buy Christmas gifts for adults our families both agreed to that but we al have kids who have kids and that is mainly where we give. And to our own kids! But I think clothes and sports gear will be the main gifts for them from here on out! And this is a crazy wedding year so I think after this year we may get a break in that gift giving area.

      1. I love giving gifts, too, but if I’m reading your budget correctly you’re talking about spending $300 per *month* on gifts and parties. If it helps, I always give the same wedding gift ($50 gift card to a fancy grocery store and a reusable shopping bag), and people seem to appreciate it. I also set a flat per-person budget for annual gifts, buy things inexpensively throughout the year, and store them in a bin until it’s birthday or holiday time. (I have an extremely classy beaten-up composition notebook in which I record what I bought, and for how much.) I don’t think cutting out gifts/parties entirely is a sustainable plan–at least, it wouldn’t be for me–but if you can begin to think of it as a challenge to have the most fun and find the best stuff* on an extremely firm budget, it can actually be very satisfying, and I definitely think you can whittle this category down by a LOT.

        *For his next birthday, my 19yo will be receiving two ‘Twilight Zone Live!’ tickets, three pairs of Yellow Submarine-themed socks, and a fancy water bottle. For Christmas, he’s getting an incredibly lurid jacket, a bunch of weird ramen, and some books. It’s not, like, a pony, but it’s all useful and/or consumable stuff he will genuinely like, and I’ve stuck to my $200 budget.

      2. Our family has a bonanza of gift opening at Christmas, but nothing is expensive or fancy, used/repurposed is okay and we have loads of fun with gag gifts. My MIL loved the Mr. Clean dish gloves we had at our house. My husband found a box from a super high-end store and wrapped a pair up very nicely in that. Got a huge laugh. We saved an old iPhone box and put something random in it for the grandparents, but watching the teenagers be completely beside themselves at the thought of the olden goldies getting an iPhone and not them was a hoot. We also send an email out asking what everyone wants ahead of time. Most requests are fairly practical. We also buy Costco sizes of gourmet salts/oils/spices and repackage them in smaller containers with decoration. Another commenter suggested cash. A little goes a long way with kids. Sometimes for babies I buy just a token gift and give the parents cash or a check to save for them, they are usually overrun with stuff anyway.

        1. I hear you on gift giving. Our family really has stopped with the gift giving – as we are grown, and no one needs or wants anything. For my young nieces, my sister is a great bargain shopper and has stored up items at garage sales etc- and she advised me that if I wanted to give a gift to her kids (they need nothing). I could simply ask her and pay her for the gift. Also, I found that people value experiences. As an example for my birthday, I spent the day hiking with my partner (we packed a lunch. I don’t really remember what people give me, but I do remember the time I spent with them. Also, when an item needs replacing, I found a way to sell my old items and put it towards the cost of a new one. I exchange a modest gift with one friends – with other friends, we plan low cost alternatives – a coffee date, camping, picnic, potluck, etc – and every one seems to love it. This alone has saved me heaps. Hope this helps. Also, re – gifting! Or I bake and give cookies etc.

    3. I agree–when I gave my nephew’s birthday gifts, it was a dollar bill for each year of age. (Later went up to two dollar bill for each year. My cute young nephew had never seen those before & asked if it was ‘real’ money!). Also, and this was major–it saved me tons on mailing costs as I’d previously often spent more to mail a gift than gift cost!)

  6. Thanks for sharing your story, Sue! It’s not easy to share the details of our finances since it can invite judgement. But I’m glad you decided to take the first step to tackle your family’s finances on Mrs. Frugalwoods’s blog.

    I’d suggest the following:
    – Cut expenses in gift, cell phone, groceries, sports, haircut
    – Get a used car instead of a brand new one to avoid car payment
    – Use the money saved each month to pay off the student loans asap

    Based on your description, I see there are areas you know overspending is happening but seem to have good reasons for those. But in order to pursue our goals, we all have to prioritize and focus on the ones that are the most important. All the explanations and reasons are great, but some have to be much better than the others.

    You can sit down with your kids and possibly your extended family to explain your plan and all the incoming changes to them. Even if they don’t understand, this is your life you are living. We can’t please everyone in our lives.

  7. Sue – I’m very impressed by your commitment to stepping up and making the changes necessary! I’m with Mrs FW when she says “cut up the credit cards.” It can be a slippery slope, and no potential credit card rewards are worth jeopardizing a solid retirement. Once you pay off all the credit cards, I’m sure it will be a huge relief! Best of luck. Can’t wait to hear an update 🙂

  8. Woah, WOAH. How much do you guys pay for cell phone?! Honestly the vast majority of Americans overpaid!! The first thing and easiest thing is to switch to another carrier that is on the Verizon net work. They piggy back off the towers so you get the same coverage for a fraction of the cost.

    I’ve tried RedPocket and I love it. I paid $10 last month but that’s lean for 500 messages, 500 mb and 500 minutes talk and chat. For $15 it’s 1GB internet, 1000 messages and 1000 talk.

    The switch was pretty easy and it cut my phone bill in less than half. I was paying $33 dollars before myself!! And I did that for YEARS. I’m usually so frugal until I came out of the woods and realized I’ve been a sucker to AT&T and Verizon for too long. And I put it off and not switched when it would have taken 10 mins of research. I lost about -400 every year!

    There’s also Mint, FreedomPop, and Ting like the frugalwoods recommended.

    1. Oh P.S. Sue, you and your husband have a very similar take home income to our household so I hope this is relatable. Our budget of expenses is pretty much the total in the chart Mrs.FW gave. I know it looks on the lower side from over $2000 a month hacked back to $1000 but it’s definitely possible. We spend about $1000 to $1400 a month and to us, I think we live a mighty fine life.

    2. I am definitely doing this. We have about $400 left to pay with Verizon on all 3 phones which is why I haven’t done it yet. Thanks for the suggestions!

    3. I didn’t even know there were alternatives to Verizon (VIABLE alternatives, that is) until Frugalwoods. We were paying $225/month for TWO smartphones….so I completely understand how Sue and family wound up paying so much. But post-Frugalwoods, I switched to a flip phone (I was addicted to my iPhone and was ready to see it go bye-bye) and kept Verizon just for my phone. Hubby switched to AT&T prepaid. We now pay $70/month for our two phones (hubby pays only $42/month for unlimited talk/text and 6GB of data). I know this is still way more than some frugal folk pay, but it was the best, cheapest system we could come up with that would keep us in service…so we are thrilled!

      1. We switched to Cricket prepaid. They have a great deal on unlimited talk/text/data if you sign up for multiple lines. Normally something like $50 for one phone, but it is $90 for 3 and $100 for 4. I know there are less expensive options out there if you restrict your data use, etc, but I am loving not having to worry about usage at all for a very reasonable price

        1. Thanks! I will check out all of our options with cell phones. There is a Boom mobile close to us. Half of our bill is going toward paying off the phone though.

          1. For next time (I’m sure your younger child will be wanting a phone before too long), check out phones on amazon. You can get an unlocked refurnished phone, 1 model out of date, for about 1/3 the price of an unlocked new model. Check reviews of the sellers carefully because there are doubtlessly some dodgy ones out there, but I got mine a year ago and it is working perfectly. Way better deal in the Long run to pay $200-300 upfront than to be tied in to an expensive plan with a new phone that will be outdated in 6-12 months anyway

  9. What a great post from both Sue’s efforts to bring it all together (a huge first step) and Mrs FW for the thoughtful reply.

    Sue — I also recommend the Frugal Month Challenge. While I have not done that one specifically, we have done a “1 month challenge” that met our needs (we had a child graduating from college which eliminated many costs and we wanted to find out our high water mark for savings). It’s eye opening.

    I’ve also done months where we cooked every meal at home. What I did in advance was to write down everything I know how to cook + a few recipes I’d wanted to try. Once I had that list, I planned each week using that as a source and in comparison to our schedule. Make sure to include some get-out-of-jail/cooking-free items. For us it was frozen pizza. Buy “good ones” when they are on sale and they are your fall back when you are running late or too tired to cook. Even “breakfast for dinner” is different, easy, and cheap.

    Good luck!

  10. I thought that with PSLF, the payments you already have made count toward it as long as you work for a non-profit and you were on either the income based repayment plan or the ten year plan? I am in social work too (also in Upstate NY) and that was my impression. I could very much be wrong though, haha.

    1. Thanks! I just starting learning about this and need more info. You need to be working in social service and paying your loan for 10 years and I only have for 6. I still need to double check with if I need to be paying more into it than my minimum payment though. Thanks!

      1. If you’ve been on an income-based repayment plan or the standard 10 year plan, those both qualify. If you’re on a standard plan, you should see if switching to an income-based plan will save you money monthly, and if so you can switch and then PSLF will forgive the remaining balance once you hit 10 years. If you’ve been paying on a standard 10 year plan and your income is too high for the income-based plan to save you anything, just stick it out for the next four years and you’ll be done anyway!

          1. Actually, if you’ve been on a standard repayment plan, those payments can count, but you MUST switch to an income-based plan before applying for loan forgiveness. So it is in your best interest to switch now if you haven’t. Also, forgiveness under PSLF is NOT taxable. Good luck!

      2. I think minimum payments are fine. You need to pay the minimum in full and on time the entire 10 years. Depending on what college your husband works at, is it possible that he would qualify as well?

        Also, the forgiveness may count as a taxable event, so make sure you have the emergency fund built up before you apply!

  11. 2 thoughts on the student loan situation-PSLF might be an option for Dan as a university professor. Also, if they are LCSWs the National Health Service Corps is an option-2 years of service for 60k forgiveness I think. (Strategizing and applying for it seem like a part time job, but could be worth it.) Also, NYS has a loan forgiveness fund for social workers. It’s underfunded and probably not something I’d count on, but look into it.

    1. Thanks so much! I mentioned this to Dan and I’m not sure if he qualifies. I am an LCSW so I’ll check out the other program for PT work

  12. Sue, if the van isn’t rusted out, it could be worth fixing. We just put $1K into our 2001 Volvo. Maybe get a 2nd opinion from a different mechanic.
    Second, I would work very hard to earn extra income. Up until very recently, I was an adjunct at the local community college. This bolstered our income & gave us a nice cushion.
    3rd: Could Dan work closer to home? A 3-hour commute every day is going to wear out the Prius pretty fast! No wonder you’re all too tired to cook at the end of the day! If you guys are not already doing so, start carrying lunches & snacks to work & make your own coffee/tea when you get to the office. Easy way to save money and calories!
    4th. This may not work for everyone. I started keeping track of every cent we spend, including those coffee runs. One month I realized that we had spent over $300 on eating out! That ended real quick.
    Sue, I agree with Mrs. FW that you are fine people & wonderful parents. We are all in your corner & our thoughts & prayers are with you.

    1. Thanks for all these ideas. I will start writing down everything I spend (Dan tends to be the frugal one of the two of us. I think my daughter would be next. My son likes high end stuff and I just spend here and there on what seem like smaller things but need to stop!)

      1. At this time Dan can’t work closer to home but he is able to work from home half the time and hopes that will increase but not at this point

  13. Sue, you can totally do the $600ish a month on groceries, I promise! We eat fairly paleo and have a fancy streak, so I get wanting to spend good money on food. We try and limit most of our meals to whole foods, and have a good variety of healthy snacks around for ourselves (3 of us and 1 on the way). I used to be vegetarian, border line vegan, and big batch cooking is a great idea. I’m not sure of your restrictions with your auto immune disease, but try and find some recipes you like and double or triple it. We usually make a double batch of our dinners for our lunches, and we prefer to keep it at simple ingredients or let the slow cooker do the work.
    Cable – my husband likes to watch sports too, but he’s been using his phone a lot (should have seen him this weekend with the crossfit games). We did agree during football season to use youtubetv which is around 30 a month so he can watch the games.
    Working out at home – there are so many programs online, and if you look hard enough you can find them for free (Kayla itness, spartan has lots of free workouts, crossfit). If you find one with little to no equipment, and is fun, it’s easier. We had been doing crossfit, which gets pricey, but canceled during my pregnancy to save money and I was just too tired to go. I plan on using the free spartan workouts to get back into shape and hopefully change my career path post baby. Planet fitness is good, but try and find a plan online to really get the most out of that membership.

      1. If you have a roku or Apple TV you can stream content played on your phone to the Tv. Might help with sport and other things like political debates that are only on cable or online

  14. Mechanics…They scare you…But they are not paying a car payment bill of $5000 a year. A car could definitely last longer than 150k miles if fully repaired and tuned up. That repair bill will be less than a new car. I had the same instance – repair bill of $1600 for a car that has 125k miles. I was thinking of getting a new-used Van myself – but hey – it was already paid off and a new/used car would be considerably more than $1600. So I chose to repair it.

    1. Thanks for this. I called him today to see what else needed fixing (breaks for example) so I think we are going to repair it!

      1. great – ask them for a discount as well – worst they could say is no. 10% or you go somewhere else for another quote…Hard to let a customer go if I own the mechanic shop – thats $ that walks out the door

  15. Wow! Sue, your story is one that is so familiar to me. Earlier in our lives my husband and I had into a very similar pattern of spending and living paycheck to paycheck. And we were/are not alone. I’m an elementary school teacher in rural NC and my husband teaches at a local community college. We have two children who are now 20 and 23. We have many, many teacher friends and colleagues who are also living paycheck to paycheck. Some have dealt with sudden, unexpected job loss for one spouse. Others have been devastated by unexpected medical bills for a family member. Another had to stop working because of injuries in an accident. In our case, our youngest child began experiencing a mental health crisis in her middle school years. At age 15 she came out to us as being transgender. She was born male and after 1 year of anguish and family struggle, we decided to help her begin hormone therapy. During her transition she has continued to experience depression and anxiety. In the past 4-5 years we have seen her through multiple therapies, struggled with her drug use to self-medicate, helped her barely finish high school (after having been a student in the top 10 of her class), witnessed failure to keep jobs or stay in school at a local community college, tried in-patient and out-patient rehab and support groups. I have used almost all of my sick leave to stay with her through periods of suicidal ideation and extreme despair. At the same time, our oldest child was going to college and although he had some scholarships we entered into student loans with him. So now we are saddled with student loan debt (and so is our son) and mounting medical debt from our daughter. We are 2-5 years away from retirement. We have some things in the positive (lots of equity in our modest home, our state teacher’s retirement and additional 401K plans which we started way too late). We have never lived extravagantly and are very familiar with a frugal lifestyle. When our kids were babies we somehow lived on one teacher’s income and had no credit card debt!! Somehow, when I went back to work our spending changed and before we knew it we were accruing more debt than we ever had. We could have managed this easily if we had curtailed our frivolous spending. But then the “emergencies” took over our life. We are getting back on track now, but so much damage was done before the crisis with our daughter began that we may not be able to retire for many years to come. I wish I had found Mrs. FW’s blog sooner and commend you for reaching out to her for advice. If I could go back in time to where you are now, I would whole heartedly make every change that Mrs. FW has suggested. Start that emergency fund!!! And believe me, your children will survive without some of the things that feel like necessities now. Thank you for sharing your story, Sue! You are not alone, and you are wise to make those changes now before the hole gets deeper. Mrs. FW has been a true blessing to me as we find ways to climb out of the hole while carrying the sorrow of our daughter’s mental illness and uncertain future and help our son as he begins graduate school. Life truly is what happens while you’re making other plans. Best of luck to you and thank you to the FW family for being an inspiration to many more people than you realize! God bless you and your families!

    1. Thank you for sharing part of your story. I have seen this also happen to family and friends. You just never know what’s around the next corner but with life being so busy day to day we literally have to schedule a time to focus on our financial stuff.

  16. Hi Sue! Everyone’s financial journey is different, so I would like to tell you a tiny bit of my story to hopefully inspire you.
    When I got divorced, my 3 kids were little. I was an engineer, so I had a good salary, but I was exhausted.
    Reading the book “your money or your life” was life-changing for me. It helped me see my spending habits clearly, so when I came home with a box of gourmet gluten free cupcakes that cost 1.5 hours of my life, I did it from a place of joy, and helped me enjoy my kids’ delight that much more.
    My family of 5 eats gluten free for $900/month. We spend $200/mo on restaurants, because a single trip to chick fil a costs us $30. You CAN get that grocery bill down… Crock pots, stir-fry, beans and rice with root veggies. Experiment, but my trick was to only plan 1-2 meals/week that require a lot of prep.
    Gift giving is a big deal for me. It is my weakness, as I also have a huge, very generous family. I can not stop myself from this bad spending habit, so I do it differently. I focus on acts of kindness and on little gifts of meaning. A $60 blouse isn’t a good gift, even if you got it 50% off…. But a new travel mug to celebrate that awesome new job, can be way more meaningful. Channel your creativity and make nice cards or homemade crafts. Even a sweet note written in calligraphy pen on a blank notecard can be a nicer touch. This stuff is especially true for teacher gifts… My son makes homemade fudge with a thank you note and we forego the ‘recommended’ $20 class gift.
    The other thing I notice is that your kids are getting older, and it’s time for them to start their own hustles. I have a baseline that I’ll buy for them, anything else is their dime. I do pay for household chores that are outside their normal responsibility (leaf blowing, pressure washing, etc). My eldest is 16 and contributed 25% + ALL her spending $ of the cost of the school’s Europe trip. She’ll do it again for the foreign exchange program. My middle is 13, and still gives us a lot of grief, bc HER friends don’t have to buy their own …
    For your debt, I am a strong advocate for the debt snowball, because that’s what helped my hubby when he left his marriage with his half of their $60k credit card debt. Being able to pay off a card and it be GONE, really helped his morale. You do you on this issue, but you’ve got to get that paid off. Compounding interest can be your best friend or your worst enemy… You just have to get it on your side.
    I have many more thoughts, but kudos to you for recognizing the problem and working to solve it. You guys will get there, we did, and we are so much happier with no debt and $ in the 401k.
    Enjoy the journey!!

    1. Thanks you for sharing your experience! It really helps knowing other people do this! No more excuses from me! And I am getting that book!

      1. Sue, I second what Erin said about big batches and beans! We are vegetarians and gluten-free because of our oldest son, and we like to eat all or nearly all organic. Being gluten-free can be so expensive! And even post-Frugalwoods, I still shop at Whole Foods…because no one can touch their produce. It is, far and away, the very best and the freshest. We eat a lot of refried beans and hummus, so I started making those myself using dried beans; first I did them in the crock pot, then I started making them in the Instant Pot. I make huge batches and freeze extras, and it is SO easy! And it tastes so much better than the stuff in tubs and cans!

        I will also say we made another change thanks to FW: we buy ONLY what we will eat in a week. I had no idea how much food I was stockpiling and also just how much food we WASTED every week. If I run out of something mid-week, I don’t make another trip unless it’s some sort of true emergency. I just make do. I cut our weekly Whole Foods bills down from $350-400/week to $200/week just doing these few small things. We don’t throw food out any more, and the fridge stays cleaner too. 🙂

      2. Argh, forgot one thing: buying your GF grains (Bob’s Red MILL GF oats, 1-to-1 flour) on Amazon in bulk 25-pound bags will save you a TON of money! I never buy our GF grains at any store any more.

      3. I agree with Erin, “Your Money Or Your Life” is amazing! Your local library is sure to have a copy–it’s a classic

      4. You mentioned a pressure cooker- they’re nice to have, but just know that you can cook batches of dried beans in a crockpot and then freeze them in 2 cup (or so) portions for later use. (If you have trouble remembering to take things out of the freezer, schedule it in your phone with an alarm reminder set before you go to bed!) I used this method for years before we got our Instant Pot and it worked really well for us. 🙂

        I’m vegetarian, I cook vegan a lot, and we spend about $60-70 per week on food for two adults, one sixteen year old, and one four year old. Once you’re in the mindset of “This is the way it has to be done and there’s no alternative,” you learn to figure out a way to enjoy the process. (I had to go vegetarian and watch my dairy intake for health reasons, and so because cooking was an absolutely necessity- I LOATHED it before- I had to figure out ways to enjoy the process. Now I love it!) Frugality is like a game. Sometimes it’s a hunt- can I find *this* thing I’m looking for used, or for lower than this price? It’s fun to see exactly how low you can go with your expenses. Change your mindset and you’ll change your life. If you haven’t read The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Daczyzyn, I highly recommend it, along with Meet The Frugalwoods. Both excellent books!

        I’m glad to see you here! 🙂 (I have a deep love for LCSWs; I saw a wonderful LCSW for years and she helped me so, so much; I think of her often!)

  17. Hello from a fellow upstate NYer! I wanted to recommend https://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2012/03/19/top-10-cars-for-smart-people/ for used cars if you find that you do need to purchase a second one–maybe you can purchase something temporarily that you can sell for a comparable amount a few years later when downsizing and have a low net loss? (Also Mr. MM inspired! http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2016/01/28/the-man-who-gets-his-cars-for-free/)

    Your photography is beautiful, maybe that could be a way to still give token gifts for family once you have made some progress on urgent goals? Walgreens and Shutterstock have some really nice inexpensive options.

    Thanks for sharing your situation so we readers can also absorb Mrs. Frugalwoods’ sage recommendations, and best of luck! 🙂

    1. Thank you! I have read his stuff too. I’m fascinated with living more simply and frugally but until now felt it was out of reach

      1. I know I’m really late to this, but I’d like to piggyback on A’s suggestion of photography as gifts. Genius! Your family members probably have a lot of events they’d love to have commemorated in photography, if you also enjoy doing portraits. Maybe you could gift senior photos or 1-year-old birthday photos (costs you nothing, since they would be the ones buying prints), or even take them out for an excursion that’s also a photography “class.”

        You could be really creative with this…if your nephew loves Victorian architecture, take him on a drive to see some gorgeous old houses, show him how to photograph them beautifully, and send him a couple of edited files that he took. If your great-niece is super into cars, find a local auto show (they’re everywhere) and spend an afternoon eating food truck fries and taking pictures of chrome fenders with her. I’m super into experiences as gifts–people remember them so much more, and they’re often so much cheaper. Your relatives will look back fondly on that day you took them out to share your passion, teach them something, bond with them, and leave them with photo momentos of it all.

  18. Sue: Kudos for getting your arms around the money issue! My husband and I were in a similar financial place to you and Dan not too long ago, and we have kids at home ages 12 and 10. We made the joint decision to escape the paycheck to paycheck life, and even though there were some painful moments along the way(cutting out swim team for both kids – ugh!) but we made it through. We’re not 100% where we want to be but we have made so much progress and we have breathing room! So, keep all options for cuts on the table and talk your kids through why you’re doing this so they can avoid debt mistakes in the future. And, enjoy the breathing room when it comes!

    1. Thanks! It’s good to know others were in this position and made changes to improve their situation. I will sit down with my kids. (At least he older one!) I know the sports spending will decrease for him with school sports taking over too.

  19. Hi Sue, I think you would enjoy the recipes from minimalist baker and budget bytes (sort by vegetarian). These are the two places I go for recipes. Good luck, you can do this!!!

    Great feedback from the frugalwoods. We all need some tough love from time to time (:

  20. Just reading this budget gave me anxiety – but good for you for being willing to see the situation and make a change! You’re the perfect example how unsustainable a “middle class” lifestyle really is – even with good incomes.

    I wonder if you consider whether owning a home is the right decision for your family long term? Building equity is great, and it sounds like you’re in a good market to sell, but the fact that your 3% down payment was a gift and not something you saved for is a sign to me that you probably weren’t in a financial position to own a home in the first place. If you move closer to Dan’s work, what’s the rental market like? Could you put the money you make from selling your current home into retirement vehicles instead?

    I know you’ve got to live your lives as well, and it’s hard to make cuts especially when it affects your kids, but the main thing is that you are sacrificing your future security for present comfort. Even if you make the drastic cuts recommended, your kids will survive and may surprise you at their resilience and problem solving ability. But it will be a lot harder for you and your husband to bounce back when you’re older and not earning the same amount.

    One exercise that may be helpful for you and your husband is to really picture your future selves (grey hair, wrinkles, everything!) and visualize the two paths before you. Be realistic and as detailed as possible – starting with the current picture: not being able to pay rent or a mortgage, asking your kids for help, being in medical debt, etc. (The feeling of insecurity you have living pay check to paycheck will only get worse if it’s pension check to pension check.) Then picture the positive future you could have if you make the changes you need to – maybe it will be more modest than you described in your post, but again, think about how it would feel to have the life you want, without being financially insecure.

    Then when you’re in a position to make a hard choice – eating a take out salad or your apple and PB at your desk, giving your kids an easy answer or a hard one – think about your future self, your grey hair, and what you want to give to them. Having empathy for your future self (it’s almost like parenting yourself – a mix of tough yet unconditional love) can help with those small shifts that make a difference.

    1. I like this idea of parenting myself! As far as owning our home and potentially moving: we are committed to this school district for 7 more years at which point we can move closer to Dan’s work and either lower rental or mortgage payment. We bought our current home because rent was $2000 a month minimum in our town for a 3 bedroom and it seemed like we were throwing money away

  21. With 4 kids and ongoing medical expenses (I have an auto-immune disease as well), we can’t afford to put them in the activities they would like to do. One thing we have found to be extremely valuable yet inexpensive is 4-H. We participate in Shooting Sports Archery and enter projects into the fair. My daughter is also planning on doing the fashion show next year. My son has won Grand Champion and now Reserve Grand Champion for Archery. They are also both in middle school right now and I am encouraging to get involved in activities through school that are (relatively low-cost) when compared to paying for outside activities. Could you transition over to some of these lower cost types of activities? Best wishes!

  22. Hey from Italy!
    Just a shoutout to Sue & Dan for being willing to change and to Mrs FW for her interesting (as always) and thoughtful reply. Know that you ladies are inspiring us over here as well!

  23. Utilities: Definitely look to see if your Electric could be improved on. Get a kilowatt meter from your library to measure how much electricity you are using on your appliances/electronics, switch to LED light bulbs, put power strips on ALL electronics – as they are power suckers. Try to turn off that TV/Entertainment – as that is a source of drain on electricity, time. Turn off the heat/ac when you’re not home. Its heating and cooling when no body is home. Sure it might be a little cold or hot when you get home from work – but its only temporary. We keep our summer temps >79 degrees, take a shower every time we come home to cool off a bit. In the winter we keep it at 65. I have an 30 yr old freezer that is sucking up $15 a month of electricity -I’m now looking to get a newer one that will be more efficient spending only $4/month – even changes like this pay off in the long run.

    The good news is that you could knock out debt fairly quickly with your income level. Its going to be hard to save for retirement with all these current day expenses. Consider contributing less to retirement plans (but obviously still get the match for the 403b). Your current tax bracket burden is not too rough – so I think attacking the high consumer debt is a priority. You could get rid of the Capital one and TJ Maxx debt within two months. The best return is avoiding the high interest debt – I’d love to make 28.49% return on my investments in my 401k – it won’t happen – so I’d pay it down.
    Did you get a tax refund last year? Perhaps you’re withholding too much in taxes per paycheck. Compare your total tax bill last year to what your pay stubs are showing already withheld. If you exceed that figure already – then change your w4 to exempt. If you’re fairly close but still under $1k do this as well. Then use this money to start paying down the debt NOW instead of waiting to get the windfall refund in 2019 1Q. I know NY State taxes are high – but if you have a refund from them as well – consider adjusting that withholding as well. I say better to pay the tax man in April than pay him early in August because you could use that $ today to pay down debt. When the high interest debt for the credit cards go away – then consider putting the savings back into the retirement accounts or build up more equity into the home – since you’ll be able to peel away those pesky built in escrows and insurance fees.

    I think the good thing is that these monthly expenses are not really the monthly Cash Flow. I assume that you have a bit more monthly left over. Is your property tax tied to your mortgage? See if you could separate it out from your mortgage and not pay the escrow for taxes – you’ll need to monitor your cash flow to ensure you’ll have enough during two times a year – but at least you could use the savings to pay down your debt in between (Escrow is basically giving a free loan since the taxes are not due yet, but you don’t have the luxury of that – you need that money now).

    Insurance: Consider rechecking your insurance rates as well. Get rid of the things that are not really necessary in the policy documents (rental car coverage, windshield repair) – they toss a ton of useless stuff into the policies. I didn’t notice any home insurance either – so assuming since you do not have enough equity yet- that you’re paying this through your mortgage – again this is hidden in the mortgage numbers and you’re actually not paying down that much of it. Comparatively – I have about $200k balance in my mortgage – I have payment of about $1000/month @ 4.125% (30 year). By the way – no point in switching to a 15 year. You’re already lower rate than a 15 year loan – congrats! If you wanted to pay it down faster down the line (don’t! – its a cheap cheap rate) – then you could just pay more per month toward principle instead of refinancing – you’ll save interest this way as well. But watch out for your mortgage lender – you better call them to ensure they apply the payment properly. Definitely keep life insurance for both of you – but consider the amounts that you’ll need – I say just have enough of the proceeds to cover the ~$400k in debt that y’all have. Any more is excessive life insurance coverage. This will reduce your rates – because its just a what if. I have coverage through employer paid – but see if your employer has such a plan – might be cheaper?

    The food costs are quite high – my family of 4 annual budget is less than your 1 month, we buy lots of veggies and fruits. I think you’ll get the same health benefits from conventional crops as organic – so consider doing conventional. We only buy what is in season (tastes better, and lower cost) and we are creative in the kitchen. We only buy the loss-leaders at the grocery stores and we shop around. If eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese (things that we love) are expensive we don’t buy it.

    Cell phones – if you don’t want to do away with netflix – consider the tmobile family plan 4 lines for $160 a month + netflix is included! Since you’re on verizon you might not need to switch phones. If you do need to switch phones – consider Tmobile’s MVNO – MetroPCS for $125/month unlimited 4 lines w/o netflix, but with 4 free phones.

    1. Wow! Thank you for all these excellent ideas! Yes our taxes are rolled into our mortgage. I can look into changing that. Also will look at the other things you recommended.

      1. Be careful with pulling out your escrow, if you’re prone to not save that money in an account for yourself you have a high possibility of losing your home over it in the long term. Yes the government can take your home leaving you homeless if you don’t oh your property taxes! Just be careful! Robbing peter to pay Paul only makes sense if you have the discipline to pay Peter when the time comes!

      2. Please don’t pull apart your escrow payment. First of all with an fha loan they may require the escrow, secondly, I’m worried that you don’t have a demonstrated ability to save the amount monthly. I see this as a huge added stressor when it’s time to pay the tax man, all for the goal of saving a small amount of interest. Focus on setting up new habits around spending rather than gaming the system in this way. I equate this with recommending credit card points hacking to someone deeply in debt. Good for other people, not for these folks.

          1. Or, you could set up your own ‘escrow’ account with an online bank and pay into it monthly when you make your mortgage payment and then when the taxes are due, pull out what you owe for property taxes and leave the extra you have in interest in the account.

  24. Sue,
    I saw your comment up above and it sounds like you are up for the challenge. It’s really brave of you to put yourself out there. I wanted to give you this set of numbers for a little perspective if you have trouble getting anyone on board or for when you feel yourself losing momentum: your proposed monthly budget before Mrs. FW slashed it is within a few hundred dollars of ours. But our household income is 10x yours. And frankly, we need to be more frugal. Which is why I read this site. Good luck!

  25. My parents will end up depending on my brother and I for support. They do now. I send my mom money every month. When I first graduated college at 22, she expected me to send her money because she needed it.

    So, if you can do anything, please secure your financial future. It’s going to be hard to be in our 30s, wanting to start our family, and having to support our parents.

    I’m preparing for it right now, so it doesn’t hit us as hard in a few years. But it’s reality.

    So, please focus on your financial self first.

    Also, you talk about maybe your kids wanting to go to a different college. If it were me, I would take the free tuition any day of the month. Maybe try and talk to your kids about the benefit this will bring to them? No student loans upon graduation, less stress after graduation, etc.

    1. College – yeah, my kids are young -not even kindergarten. I set the expectation now that they are going to go to community college then transfer in to a 4 year institution after 2 years at comm. College is a business. They will take virtually any and all transfers because their initial test scores will not be published by any listing. My daughter understands that I would rather give her the difference in the $ for college than give the college the money. She’ll get a nice college bonus from mom and dad when she finishes school because she followed through on that plan.

      Definitely talk to your kids about money. They will adjust their habits and ultimately you’ll set them up well for their own financial lives.

    2. Sorry to hear you have that burden. I really didn’t think we were that bad off for retirement until this case study. Such an eye opener and reality check. But yes my kids will go to Dans college or affiliate schools unless they have scholarships to another college. Thanks!

    3. It’s something a very wise financial advisor once said to my mom when she, as a widowed single parent, trying to keep everything afloat, was wondering how to pay for my education (nothing free where we are, like, zero), that student loans, though obviously a burden, can be repaid quite quickly with determination. No one will give you a loan for your retirement. Your child will not thank you for being a decades-long burden, they will resent you in many cases (not always, but often). The best gift you can give your child is to not burden them at a time when they themselves will be trying to build their financial futures. His point was that it was perfectly fine for her to make sacrifices with money she actually had, but NEVER to ”borrow against” or in some way jeopardise her own future.

      He was absolutely correct and we will apply this to our own kids; give them all we can, opportunities, privileges and so on, as far as we can actually afford to pay cash for, but never to mortgage our own later years against that kind of thing.

      1. Late reply, but I want to echo these responses. My husband and I will have to support my parents in their retirement–have already provided quite a bit of support for them over the years. I love them dearly and want to ensure their basic needs are taken care of; after all, they took care of my basic needs when I was a child. I do not, however, want my own three children living under the stress of having to support both their own families and their parents. Especially when our children were very young, I worried daily about how we would care for multiple generations–monetarily and emotionally. We chose to live on one income–and a teacher’s income at that–which means frugal birthdays and holidays, the cheapest sports and activity options around, giving our kids responsibility for earning money for some of their wants (they’re 11, 8, and 4), etc. Our kids understand exactly why they can’t have everything they want–we talk about trade-offs all the time, and I feel they have a much better understanding of finances than I did as a child. We sock away as much as we can for our retirement, knowing that our kids may well have to foot their entire college bill and have missed out on some experiences they might have otherwise had. But they will be free to focus on raising their own families, knowing that their parents are in a secure place. I know it will be challenging to so dramatically change gears for your entire family, but this is also a wonderful gift for your children, in more ways than one. Congratulations on this first step and good luck on the rest of the journey!

  26. Hi Sue, kudos to you on sharing your financial struggles, that is always the first step! I have been/currently am in the same situation with having generous family members and the guilt of trying to reciprocate even though financially I’m really not able to. I just recently started my journey to getting my financial life together and cutting out the family gifts was the very first thing I did! I am the youngest of 4 children and not married, while my 3 older siblings are all in very successful careers with spouses. For years, I have been getting group texts on what gifts we need to get each other, children (my niece & nephews) and parents and how much we all need to chip in. This was for birthdays, anniversaries, first communions, graduations, etc. Each and every time the amount was given, I would cringe because I honestly could not afford it, which made me embarrassed because I want to be like them and be comfortable giving any amount. Instead of openly communicating with everyone in my family and telling them I didn’t have enough money for the gifts, I would just delay paying a bill so that I would have enough to give to them. My excuse for this was that they all give me gifts and do A LOT for me when we are all together, so of course I had to spend money on them no matter what the cost was. Boy, was that way of thinking wrong! A couple of months ago I finally came to terms with my debt and spending habits and I came to terms that I can’t do this anymore. I spoke to my financial trainer about how to get my financial life on track and while speaking with her, I realized, I need to tell my siblings that I can’t do this anymore because it’s costing me a lot of money I could be saving or paying off debt. Needless to say, it was extremely hard for me to talk to them and explain the truth, which was – I don’t have the money!!! I was still embarrassed to even have that conversation and apologized profusely, but I was firm in my decision of not doing gifts going forward. To my surprise, they were completely understanding and applauded me on trying to change my financial ways! It was totally not a big deal to them and we moved on to a different topic almost immediately!

    Overall, is that a hard decision to make? Absolutely. But I will tell you, people are much more understanding than you would think and some friends/family members are probably going through some of the struggles that you are and you just don’t know it. There are lots of other ways to give “presents” to those that help/have helped you. One of my go to’s is a hand written note, for whatever occasion. My mother instilled in me at a young age that you can always look back at the cards you receive and read all of the nice messages that were written to you. Also, DIY is real and you can always do fun inexpensive gifts that you make yourself. I for one do not like to cook or bake, but that is always an option as well. You can send some home made cookies or make something for a party that you are going to. There are lots of ways for you to show someone you care, where you don’t have to spend a lot of money and it really is the thought that counts! It took me 34 years to come to that conclusion haha, but better late than never! I hope that helps and best of luck to you and your husband on your financial journey!

    1. Good for you for doing this. I really find gifts annoying. We only give to the little kids and I gave money this year. Maybe have to decease the amount for the future. Most of the gifts are for our own kids.

      1. Sue,
        What about wedding gifts and birthday gifts for your kids’ friends? It sounded (above) like quite a bit of money goes to those types every month. (If I read it correctly, you guys are spending ~$300/month combined on all gifts, right?) One thing I wondered is if you feel like each gift should be either a specific amount (if you’re giving cash or a gift card) or about that same amount spent on an item. I know that many years ago, we tried to “keep up” with friends of ours who are incredibly generous. We started feeling like the amount we were spending on each gift wasn’t enough and we wondered if we were being cheap. But the truth is that we couldn’t afford to give the way our friends did. Once we accepted that, we were able to dial it back.

        On the flip side of that, if your kids receive monetary gifts, it’s such a valuable lesson to teach them that each gift, no matter how large or small, is equally important. For some people, giving $5 is a stretch, and for others they can give $100 no problem. I think having that conversation with your kids teaches them empathy as well as curbing an expectation that all gifts need to be high dollar or expensive.

        I also wanted to suggest that if you need to give a lot of wedding gifts, you might see if you can go in on gifts with other friends or family. We’ve always found that allows us to give a bigger-ticket item while spending less per family/person.

  27. Sue,
    I too am impressed with your desire to improve your future by fixing your present. I’m also completely floored, because as I read your story, I saw my family in the same situation! So, I’ll be championing your efforts, and tagging along, more than vicariously. We must turn this barge around, and drastic changes are in order! I’m hoping that once we know every fact down to the last penny and have a plan like yours, the effort will become a campaign and not drudgery. Abstinence is freedom, freedom from debt and fear!!! God Bless!!

    1. I’m so glad to have someone doing this with me! You can check in with me when I check in at a later when I do an update of this case study. Good luck to you too!

  28. Thanks for one of the best RCSs you’ve ever done! I’d love to see more studies with folks in their late 40s/early 50s and/or with pensions in the mix. Good luck to Sue and her family–they seem motivated and I have faith they’ll do what needs to be done.

    1. Please encourage folks to submit Case Studies who are in that age range! I can only feature people who contact me, so if you know someone who would be a good candidate, please send them my way :)!!

      1. That would be great!! I would especially like to see a case study where there are teenagers in the family.

        1. Please encourage anyone you know who’d be a good Case Study to email me! I’m reliant on people reaching out to me for Case Studies and I can only feature what I receive :).

      2. What is sorely lacking in today’s society is financial planning based on the wife being a) the bread winner and b) younger than her spouse. Our financial advisor called social security with the question “will a spouse be able to claim 1/2 his spouse’s SS when she retires even though he has been collecting for a number of years”. Response: that would never happen, sigh…. I am seven years younger than my spouse and plan to work until I am 70. Yes, that does not fit into the “RE” of FIRE but a) I love my job, b) longevity runs in my family, and c) I do not want to be a burden (financial or otherwise) to my kids.

        My spouse and I don’t quite see eye-to-eye on my working until I am 70. I have no issue if he wants to travel without me – he and the kids have already taken trips together. It is not like I will have no vacation time but my profession is much more conducive to working until I am 70 than my spouse’s is/was.

        1. I think, never mind any financial considerations, that being happy and enjoying one’s career is an absolute gift, and if that means you are very pleased to work till late 60’s -70, then do it! Retirement for someone who likes to work, who loves their career and finds meaning in their labour is not actually fun. Sure, extra vacation is nice, but that wears thin. Maybe, when the time gets nearer and it’s even remotely feasible, consider reducing your hours / days per week. I know someone who loves his job, but at 68, is getting on… so he spoke to his company and they were very happy for him to start later / leave earlier and thus avoid awful traffic and also cut his hours down. He is as happy as can be and is excellent at his job, AND is ensuring he need not touch his pension quite yet, which is no small thing.

          1. Thanks Caroline – I do work from home (which is a blessing). The less hours per week is a good idea.

  29. Sue, you are courageous and strong to take it on. Congrats. I have a suggestion for gifts. You mentioned your hobby of photography. Would that lower your gift giving outlay if you used the hobby as gifts (either offer photo sessions for children) or high school seniors- great for extra income too!) . Another idea about family get togethers- make them pot luck, that way the whole expense is not on your budget.

    1. I thought of that too. Could your photography be a sideline business to bring in extra money? Or gifting photo sessions to relatives? Both? I knew someone who used his photograph hobby as “coupons” in gifts, and adults and kids alike loved getting them and enjoyed having their own photo sessions.

  30. You can do this Sue! I echo everything stated above with the added comment on sports activities. If your kids are that passionate about sports, they will find ways to get money for it. Maybe they’ll realize they don’t care for it as much when they have to pay their own fees. I paid for the vast majority of my uniforms and sports fees once I hit high school and could start baby sitting/life guarding/mowing lawns/pet sitting. There’s tons of ways out there to make money as a kid! Good luck!

  31. Sue, I thought of a couple more things. Is there a lower-priced supermarket near you? In Eastern Mass., we are blessed with Market Basket which is the cheapest supermarket around! Switching supermarkets could save quite a bit of money. Also, it sounds like your kids are old enough to take on certain responsibilities like putting dinner in the Crock-Pot once or twice a week. A couple of cans of beans and some seasonings makes decent chili and is a no-brainer dinner. In addition, it sounds like they are also old enough to earn a little money so they can help pay for their sports/camps/classes. For example, could they mow lawns, shovel snow, deliver the newspaper, walk dogs?? Perhaps they could give lessons in their respective sports to younger kids, for a small fee. Brainstorm ideas with them, you will probably be surprised at how willing they are to help!

    Finally, I recommend the book. “The Tightwad Gazette” by Amy Daczycn (pronounced “decision”). Amy is a real frugal black-belt, so some of her ideas may not work for you, but she will inspire you on your journey. You might also want to read “Your Playbook for Tough Times” by Donna Freedman. I also follow Donna’s blog, “Surviving & Thriving,” and she’s a pistol, you will like her no-nonsense approach!

    Sorry for twaddling on for so long!!

    1. Thanks again! I will take all suggestions! My son get paid to mow our lawn and some other chores but usually the money goes to things related to video games or fancy sneakers we won’t buy!

      1. Are you paying him (moving $ from one pocket to another) or does he work for a neighbor (outside $ coming in)?

        1. to show him the value of how hard you work to earn $ and then have to turnaround and pay bills – you should also give him a monthly bill for his activities, ultilities and rent. Then he’ll get what you’re trying to accomplish with paying him for chores.

      2. You could consider having a rule that a certain percentage of all monies he receives (work, birthdays, etc) goes into a savings account for school or life after school. We do 50% (because our kids are young and it’s an easy number to understand). When I was growing up, 80% of anything I made (including the times I was paid a bit for the farm work I did–full time in summer, part time during school, babysitting, outside employment, tutoring, etc) went into a savings account (and we were not allowed to access it), 10% went to my mother for housekeeping, and 10% I was allowed to keep. I found those percentages as a youngster to be restrictive, so went with a more palatable version for my children (and no $ for housekeeping, but they have to do chores and do not get paid for them). I completely understood how to save and its value which boded well for me as my friends racked up credit card debt post university and I paid off my substantial student loans in under 5 years. Trust me, your children will get it. There’s even a Dave Ramsey type thing for kids, too, isn’t there? GOOD LUCK, you can totally do this, and we are all cheering for you and your family. Also, keep us updated here when you can, especially if you need some moral support and encouragement!!

    2. I strongly second that: read “The Tightwad Gazette.” A small amount of the info is outdated (the book is a compilation of newsletters published in the 1990s) but an amazingly large percentage of the book is timeless. Plus, I think frugal black belt is good and what is needed. I was raised by a frugal mother who shopped thrift stores and cooked/baked from scratch, etc. but even I learned a lot from Amy Daczycn. Amy speaks a lot to raising kids on frugality.

  32. The income coming in is pretty good so I agree with everyone else about finding ways to cut the spending. Talk to your kids about your financial situation and try to come to an understanding without sacrificing your happiness. It’s takes some work and time to develop a solid financial plan but it is definitely worth it!

  33. I am so excited to see a case study feature a gluten free family! Eating gluten free + food allergies makes it outrageously expensive, and for many of us with Celiac, its not an optional lifestyle. I’m pretty frugal, and don’t even eat many GF products like breads, crackers, and baked goods because they are so expensive, but I haven’t been able to cut down my food costs because of this. The price of vegetables has skyrocketed in my area (greater Boston) and unfortunately vegetables don’t keep you full like a 99 cent loaf of gluten bread or some cheap canned soups. A low-carb, GF diet is pricey!!! And I’m a small woman, so I can keep my calories pretty low, I can’t imagine trying to feed growing children/teenage boys with this diet.

    1. It is crazy expensive! I must confess I haven’t given meal planning and prepping much of an effort though so I’m hoping it will help!

      1. I’m a celiac living in NYC and my household budget for groceries is $300/month (2 adults) so it can be done! Check out budgetbytes.com; discount/bulk rates at Trader Joe’s, Amazon; get familiar with your local supermarkets’ average sale prices, etc. Legumes, fresh greens, seasonal veggies, plant-based protein and reserving meat entrees for special occasions are your friend! I’m also a fan of Google’s “Keep” app for sharing a running grocery list with your spouse so you each know what to keep an eye out for at different price points even if you’re not out shopping together.

  34. First of all I love how detailed Mrs. FW is in answering all of these. Second of all- we are very similiar to you all Sue! We are a bit younger ( 35 and 37) but have three kids and are trying to navigate college savings, retirement, my student loans, travel etc. A few notes on food prep- dried beans are great options. I’m off during the summer ( I’m a professor like your husband) but on Sunday I made a batch of Hurst’s Bean Soup in my Instapot. You can make it of course on the stove top as well. It’s basically a bag of 15 dried beans or something. Omit the seasoning packet for it to be vegetarian and gluten free. Anyways- it’s $2.49 for about 7 lunches for my husband!! I normally do this one time a month so he doesn’t get sick of it, but it’s so cheap. Another note on lunches- even those “expensive” Amy’s and Udi’s type of frozen vegetarian frozen lunches are much cheaper than eating out. Keep a couple of those in your freezer for when you don’t have time or the desire to meal prep. Same with a frozen pizza- Mrs. FW recommended a long time ago to keep a frozen pizza- or whatever- in your freezer all the time for evenings you come in and just do not feel like cooking. Super simple but it has helped keep my family on track as far as not eating out.

    Will your children get a tuition discount at the college your husband works at? My kids do at my college and it’s a great ( 50%) benefit. Maybe that will help with some college expenses. The birthdays and gifts really won’t be missed that much. We started doing $100 per child per birthday and it is still a lovely party. I make a cake or the cupcakes, we have one gift they have been asking for and a few people over. Actually, my oldest daughter forgoes a party and prefers to spend her birthday on a special date with her daddy- so my husband dresses up and they go eat at Olive Garden ( her favorite) and then walk around the art museum. We have cake when she gets home with just us and she loves it. Ask them if there is an experience like that they would prefer that is MUCH less than the $600 you are budgeting now for their birthday.

  35. Here are my thoughts:
    On the van – my car buying philosophy is to buy the lease amount of vehicle as will meet your practical needs, and buy it in the best condition as you can easily afford. With 2 kids, it doesn’t seem like you would need a minivan. A sedan should work for you. Look for a Toyota Camry, and you should be able to find an older, higher mileage one still in very good shape. My husband traded in his Camry a few months ago at 206k miles, and it was still running fine.

    On the food – I am also very busy, and cooking a meal every night just isn’t going to happen. So I cook a “real” dinner on Saturday, and another one on Sunday. I purposely cook lots of extras so we can have leftovers from both of those throughout the week. When the leftovers are gone, I do something very easy. Grilled cheese, sandwiches, etc. Going out only happens on rare occasions, when we plan for it.
    And groceries, well, vegetarian/vegan can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. If you only buy organic produce, then only buy what is on sale. Do the rest of the family need organic, or just you due to your health issues? If they can eat standard produce, then keep your more expensive stuff separate from theirs. Make your staple foods the cheaper ones. I’m not vegan, so I don’t know exactly what you eat, but if you eat beans then that should be a staple food. Buy bags of dried beans and cook them yourself. If I don’t need a whole bag, then I cook up the whole bag and put any I don’t need in pint size mason jars and freeze them till the next recipe that calls for them.

  36. Hello Sue & Dan! Mrs. FrugalWoods has given it to you straight. The bad news is that you are indeed in a state of financial emergency. But the good news is that your household income is nearly double the U.S. average, which means if you make some tough decisions now you’ll be able to right this ship rather quickly. The other encouraging aspect is that there are plenty of areas ripe for savings nearly across the board, from groceries to gift-giving, utilities, and debt repayment. The plan Mrs. FW has laid out is a good one, which I agree with.

    My family of three eats like kings on a grocery budget of $320/month, and that includes organic, non-GMO, dairy-free, and gluten-free options with plenty of fresh fruit and veggies. We’ve found the key to saving when grocery shopping is getting super intentional. Plan weekly meals in advance. Don’t shop when hungry or tired, when willpower is at its lowest. Use a cash envelope system to avoid overspending. Try to shop at Aldi if possible. Consider buying foods in bulk to take advantage of bulk pricing.

    Your debt situation is pretty dire, but by now you already know that. So let’s focus instead on the bright side – its hidden wealth potential. Think of each of your loans as a gold mine. The required monthly payment for each loan represents the potential monthly income you can re-claim by working that particular mine until the loan is paid off. The remaining interest you’ll pay over the life of each loan represents the vast store of potential wealth in each mine which you can claim for your own. Extra payments constitute the pick-axe and shovel which you need to extract these riches.

    Paying off your loans has the effect of increasing your discretionary income, even if you don’t earn a single penny more. In your case, you can effectively give yourself a raise of $916.15/week, $3,970/month, or $47,640/year by eliminating all of your debt. I’d go into more detail on how, but this comment is already getting overly long. You can find additional info on this thought process at the link below:


    Right now you’re losing a combined $1,465.22/month to loan interest, broken down as follows:

    – Mortgage – $669.27/month
    – Dan’s Student Loans – $526.85/month
    – Sue’s Student Loans – $204.03/month
    – TJ Maxx Credit Card – $22.89/month
    – Prius Payment – $21.24/month
    – Capital One Credit Card – $20.94/month

    Stop the bleeding by using the Debt Avalanche to pay off these debts as soon as possible in order of highest interest rate to lowest. Not only will you begin saving money on avoided loan interest and opportunity cost immediately, but your cash flow situation will improve quickly as well. You only need to come up with $6,111.75 to pay off your three credit card balances and the Prius in full. By doing so, you’ll effectively give yourself a raise of $605/month due to the absence of minimum payments. You can then combine this $605/month with savings from expense reductions to begin tackling Dan’s student loans.

    You may also want to consider repurposing your $100/month defined contribution plan contribution to debt repayment until Dan’s student loans are repaid. Using it for extra payments will obtain a guaranteed 5.5% “rate of return”, which is close to expected market returns. I wouldn’t recommend repurposing Dan’s retirement contributions due to the employer match.

    As I was crunching some numbers on your debt situation, I ran into a question on your mortgage. You’ve stated you have a 30-year FHA loan at 3.75% interest and a current balance of $227,183. But you also listed a monthly mortgage payment of $2,265/month. Do I have this right? I ask only because I show a mortgage with those terms should have a fixed payment of $1,052.12/month.

    Are you making extra mortgage payments in the amount of $1,212.88/month, or does that amount represent a combination of PMI and home insurance / property taxes held in escrow? If the answer is escrow, you may want to crunch the numbers on what it would take to use extra payments to hit 20% equity and eliminate that PMI penalty after targeting your credit card and auto loan debt.

    Making significant lifestyle changes like these can be really challenging. The key is to visualize your ideal future lifestyle, then reverse-engineer a plan you need to get you there. Even though you’re feeling the pinch of living paycheck to paycheck now, the hidden wealth potential of your debt mother lode offers you the opportunity for a rich and rewarding lifestyle if you put in the sweat equity to make those extra payments and hit pay dirt. Best of luck!

    1. Wow. Thank you. I’m overwhelmed by all the advise and knowedge and encouragement everyone has expressed. And yes the rest of our payment is escrow for taxes and mortgage insurance home owners insurance. I will think about taking my extra $100 and putting it into the student loan repayment. Thanks again!

    2. This is an absolutely brilliant way of thinking about debt that I am adoptng immediately. Thank you SO MUCH!!

  37. Hi Sue. My husband is a big sports fan and we love to watch Jeopardy, so we have the most basic tv package available. We pay $76 per month for internet and tv (all the big network stations plus ESPN and a few randoms) through Spectrum/Time Warner Cable. It wouldn’t be a huge savings but $50 a month could definitely add up. Best of luck to you as you try to slash some expenses!

    1. That’s interesting because we have Spectrum and I had to haggle with them to get it to this amount. It used to be $175 for the basic package with internet. Just kept going up. So I was going to cancel and they changed it to $125

      1. Okay so I actually called them today to set up an account for our new house, and they pulled the old “that was a deal with Time Warner and we don’t honor it”. Seems totally bogus because we still pay $76 a month at our apartment, so why couldn’t they do the same deal at our new house. It’s really frustrating that they keep raising the prices. They say the same service is now $130 per month. Lame.

  38. A tiny tip in the grand scheme of things, but I recently started a new job with a new commute and discovered I could save nearly 50% on my EZPass costs using one of their commuter plans (the way I drive, their “Thruway Annual Permit Plan” is perfect and NONE of my co-workers knew about it. We’re talking about people with 20+ years of commuting expenses!) . Does one work with your husband’s route? Every little bit counts! Best of luck to you and your family <3

  39. Thanks for sharing your story Sue! I eat a gluten free diet as well, and have found that the biggest savings is meal planing and DIY meal prep, just as Mrs. FW suggested. I purchased a bread maker with a gluten free cycle option and now make my own bread. I also found that by eliminating GF products, like cookies or crackers, that replace their traditional counterparts really helps keep the grocery bill down (and my waistline has thanked me too). Instead, I treat myself to a cup of fresh fruit for dessert, or I eat an apple instead of crackers with cheese. I joined a CSA, which supplies me with local veggies 9 months out of the year. It’s a fixed cost and I take as much as I need for my family for the week. If you are looking to cut grocery costs, I would HIGHLY recommend it. Lastly, we eliminated Netflix a few months ago, and we don’t even miss it. Youtube is a great source for documentaries and educational programs. I should mention that we also don’t have cable. We get Sling TV every 2 years to watch the Olympics, and promptly cancel our subscription after the closing ceremony. I listen to TuneIn radio on my computer for the news. Start with small reductions if it all feels daunting, and after a while the extra cash you have will give you a greater sense of accomplishment than whatever it was you gave up. Best of luck!!!

  40. I think Mrs. Frugalwoods’s suggestions are good- but the extreme of them might make it hard to commit to. For example, I probably wouldn’t eliminate your daughter’s tumbling.

    That said- I think the idea of getting rid of ANY eating out is essential, especially why the credit card debt remains. That TJ Maxx card should NOT be at a minimum payment. ANY extra spending (grab a coffee while out, just a little candy bar at Target, little amazon purchase to make you smile, etc) should STOP until such a catastrophic interest rate has been dispensed with. That should be a low hanging fruit to get rid of that one.

    I have never done well with crock pot meals, but we batch cook and eat the same thing throughout the week. Take out/Eating out doesn’t exist for us.

    Another change we really liked was to go to prepaid cell phones. We have a Verizon plan, the phones were $60 each from Walmart, and our combined plan is $75 per month for 2 lines.

    I think the idea of “good” spending still being bad when it causes debt is a good thing. One thing I heard a long time ago is “you can have a lot of nice things, but you can’t have all of them.”

  41. Thank you for your honesty and willingness to share you situation. You are not alone in this struggle and I was so happy to read the recommendations given. I know from personal experience that sometimes things seem insurmountable without guidance from someone outside of the situation.

  42. Sue, my husband and I were in a similar situation just nine years ago, with total debt of almost $500k (including $90k credit cards, $66k student loans we took on for our kids, and $11k in car loans). Our net worth was a measly $294.94! Fortunately, I discovered the Frugalwoods blog soon after its inception and took Liz’s teachings to heart. Today we are completely debt free (with a paid-in-full house) and our net worth is about $1million. I’m 66 and plan to continue working until 70, and my husband is “retired” but works full-time as an artist. He doesn’t make a lot yet, but we save over 50% of our income through frugal living. It CAN be done!!! All the best to you and your family!

    1. Tancy, your story is amazing! Thank you for sharing!! My favorite Reader Case Studies are the “real” ones, from people like us…people in debt, with sloppy finances, etc. I learn the most from them, because I see myself in these stories!

      1. Thanks, and thanks for your guidance! And BTW–I loved your book and also bought it for both of our adult children, who are (mostly) debt free and flourishing!

    2. Wow! What an amazing accomplishment! Knowing real people actually do this helps so much. It’s overwhelming right now but I’m already overwhelmed so it’s just out there now ready to chip away at. Thanks again

  43. I would wholeheartedly recommend that you discuss the family finances with your children. I have a 14 and 12 year old, and we definitely talk about the family ‘money pot’, what choices we all have to make, as the pot is not bottomless, and other larger topics such as credit cards – how they work, positives and negatives etc. If you involve them with all of these aspects of finance, they will be much better equipped to enter the real world. Rather than view it as a negative and a burden, think of it as a real learning experience. Actually seeing what a 29% interest rate can do to the total debt, is much more powerful than just telling kids that credit cards are bad, and celebrate the wins with them too.

    1. I like that idea! The money pot. My husband was just speaking to my son in those terms. He thinks he needs a $300 bat now for example.

        1. I disagree – that $300 could be put towards a more long term investment. We reinforced the “how many hours do you have to work (and include taxes!) to buy . When my daughters were in college, we made it clear that IF they had money for a spring break trip, they had money to put towards their education. We do our kids a disservice when we do not allow them to learn to deal with disappointment and/or delayed gratification. We also did NOT pay for any overseas college studies – both kids earned and save their money. Both kids graduated college debt free (and yes, we started saving when the kids were young. Neither kids worked during the school year when they were in high school – concentrate on grades and life experience). Both graduated with money in the bank. We charged nominal rent when they lived at home after college but both kids had their own cars and paid their own cell phone bill, insurance etc., and special grocery items. Your kids will survive, your kids will thrive.

          1. This! This is excellent parenting. May seem harsh, but really what a gift for kids to grow up with a sense of responsibility and not that gawdawful sense of entitlement!

          2. YES! This is practically a carbon copy of how we taught our girls about money. They graduated debt free with paid-for cars, study abroad experiences, and money in the bank. Thank you, Longtime Frugal. I no longer feel so weird now that I know there is another parent who held the line.

      1. One of my sayings “who is the parent and who is the child?” A parent should *not* be his/her child’s best friend. Just because the child, yes, the child, has $300 should he be be allowed or think he can spend the money on a baseball bat. Come the day he supports himself (and is not living in your house, rent-free or at reduced rent), he can spend all he wants on a baseball bat. The bat is not an investment. The $300 bat is *not* going to make him better baseball player. With regards to this bat, your son has fallen victim to advertising IMHO.

        We encouraged our kids to *not* watch Saturday morning cartoons (either outside when it was good weather or playing/doing indoor activities during the winter). You’ll see the benefits of this when your parents/in-laws comment that your kids have hardly anything on their Xmas list!
        With regards to this bat, your son has fallen victim to advertising IMHO.

  44. Sue, thanks for being brave and sharing your story. My husband and I are another couple that were in a very similar place at similar ages. It’s been about 6 years, but by implementing some of the suggestions above, we have been able to turn our ship around. We took measures that seemed drastic to many in our circle (my husband also worked at a college): we sold our home and downsized into a duplex, we went down to one car, and focused on truly living on a detailed budget. I’m happy to say that even through the weddings of two daughters, a job loss, and other random “life happens” moments, we’re in a good place now, poised to finish off the last of our non-mortgage debt by the end of the year. One benefit of going through this process while your children are teens: they see how hard it is to dig out of debt and it can act as a deterrent for them. Our 4 children, all adults now, are proud of us for making the hard choices to get ourselves straightened out. One warning: if your children do take out loans for school, make them put the loans in their name – don’t opt for the lower-interest “parent plus” loan. Even if your child does make the actual payments, it still puts you at risk, as you are ultimately responsible to pay those loans back. You and your husband can do this!

  45. every year 83% of IRS tax returns result in refunds. $125 Billion overpaying the govt. If we are more on top of how much we are paying the Federal govt – then alot of people could actually address their own debt problems. 83 % of Americans giving the govt an interest free loan when we have so much debt to pay down personally.

    Maybe the best plan is to just write a check each quarter instead of withholding per pay check. That’s a better use of cash flow to get rid of your own debt. But just be careful – you need to be on top of it otherwise – tax man will come a calling.

    1. Right now we get $4000 from the Feds and pay the state $2000. Should o make Payments to the state so I don’t have that large payment?

      1. $4000 is good chunk of money – and that was from 2017 taxes which did not allow the child tax credit for higher income bracket that you MAY fall under. Under the new 2018 tax rules – you may actually get an additional $4000 (2k for each child) because the threshold for child tax credit is now higher (inn 2017 the threshold was income of 130k – if you made more than this – (and based on your withholding and state income tax in NY – yes – you did exceed this gross income). For 2018 the limit is $400k! Yeah so lots of people are going to be getting a refund. (But unfortunately – you can’t deduct your state income tax and property tax exceeding 10k). But because you have kids – you are probably going to be in the same tax liability for Federal anyway. Again – without closely examining your taxes in 2017 – can’t really determine that.

        As long as you do not incur a penalty for underpayment to the state – just keep your withholding to the state as it is. Yes $2k bill is rough – but again- you won’t have to pay them anymore until April 2019 (8 months away!) Why pay them when the bill is not “due?” Without knowing that much more about your tax situation – and just assuming that you did NOT qualify for the Child Tax credit in 2017 – I suggest that you stop your Federal tax withholding immediately (Mark exempt) – and then start applying the larger tax savings that you get each paycheck to knock out your TJ MAXX/Capital One immediately. If you have any spare cash lying around – pay it down now. In fact – i would skip a payment on the student loan @ 5.5% just to pay off the TJ MAXX now (assuming of course that there’s no repercussions from being late a month in payment – I don’t know).

        But all in all -when it comes to taxes -figure out what your tax liability will be.
        Income – deductions = taxable income.
        Look up the 2018 tax bracket for married filing jointly
        this is the tax that you need to pay.
        Then take out the $4k that the govt gives you for just having 2 kids around.
        This will result in your tax bill by the end of the year. If you already paid that – congrats – stop paying the govt – pay the debts.

      2. I should note…your tax is your tax. You’ll pay them eventually – you either pay them early or you pay them when its due April 2019. I’d rather pay the other more pressing matters now – namely wiping out the consumer debt and the car. Then destroy the student loans and build that emergency fund.

    2. And with a “present” of a penalty for underpaying. I hear you on the refund but these days, I opt to get a refund (not huge by any means) instead of making estimates. I did that for years (and got pretty good at doing the math I must say). My goal is to not owe but I don’t want a 5 figure refund either.

      1. As someone already commented above in r.e. mortgage escrow, reducing withholding and paying estimated taxes means reliably putting aside enough to pay them on schedule. The penalty for miscalculating estimated taxes or being unable to make payments on time is significant, so that would be a really risky strategy for folks like Sue and Dan (or me!) who are beginners at frugality/saving.

  46. Hello Sue, Dan & Family,

    Thank you for sharing! I’d like to jump in from the perspective of having grown up in a very low-income household where my parents found cost-effective ways for me to participate in lots of extracurricular activities. Here are a few ideas you may be able to adapt to your kids’ interests, based on five main strategies: 1) Prioritize; 2) Requiring “buy in” on my part; 3) Strategic use of birthday/Christmas gifts; 4) Focus on community service; and 5) Scholarships. I’ll briefly explain each of these.

    1) Prioritize: my parents worked with me to decide which two activities, at any given time, I truly wanted to be involved with. If I wanted to explore a new activity, I had to decide which current activity I would give up. This ensured that I was truly committed to, for example, violin lessons prior to investing family time and resources.

    2) Requiring “buy in” on my part: my parents and I discussed the cost of activities, and decided upon a percentage that I would contribute. This percentage increased as I grew older and/or had more expensive hobbies. Particularly in my younger years, my parents helped me brainstorm earning opportunities. For example, I ran a neighborhood service in which I set out trash cans/recycling bins and took them in the next morning after trash pickup – a service several of our neighbors paid for rather than have their trash bins blowing around the street all day while they were at work. I also made greeting cards for sale. Both these services offset the cost of my violin lessons.

    3) Strategic use of birthday/Christmas gifts: you’ve already begun to explore this option! If a hobby needed new equipment, this typically became my birthday or Christmas gift. See below for my note on birthday parties.

    4) Focus on community service: as I grew older (beginning around age 10), my parents encouraged me to explore opportunities for community service. Ideally, your children will be able to find a free, long term service opportunity in their community which utilizes their talents and provides opportunities for them to learn new skills. I was fortunate that the living history museum where my dad worked had a “youth volunteer” program, and I spent my weekends volunteering there from age 10-18. It was free, beyond the cost of transit (negligible since my dad was going into work there anyway); it was so much fun; it allowed me to learn new skills (public speaking, blacksmithing, gardening, weaving…); and it looked great on college and scholarship applications. Look into nearby cultural institutions, parks, sports centers, etc. to see if a volunteer program is already in place, or work with your children to develop their “pitch” with which to approach the community service coordinator and outline the type of community service they would like to provide.

    5) Scholarships: this last approach is the most self-explanatory. Explore whether your children are eligible for any activity scholarships in your community, or whether the cost of their activities could be waived or reduced if they helped out, for example, teaching classes for younger age groups.

    I believe that this approach has the added benefit of teaching your children valuable life skills beyond what they would otherwise derive from the activities.

    Additionally, a word about birthday parties: my mom budgeted about $40 for 50 guests for my birthday parties each year. She started making soups and stews about two weeks in advance, and we made pumpkin bread “birthday cake” a few days before the event. If guests asked what they could bring, they were asked to provide (non-alcoholic) drinks (apple cider, hot cocoa packets) and/or cups, plates, and utensils. I had a fall birthday, which is particularly suited to a menu of soups and quick breads, but by planning in advance to make large batches of delicious, cost-effective food, crowd-sourcing expensive items like beverages and utensils, and looking at seasonal low-cost seasonal activities (pumpkin carving, water fights, snow forts, baking cookies, hikes, scavenger hunts) it is possible to create an event that is truly memorable and inexpensive.

    All of these strategies can build better family ties and help your children learn useful skills. I wish you the best!

    1. Thank you so much! I see how I need to include my kids so they learn some of these skills and to be conscious of spending money. My family all chips in for food but I like this idea of large soups and stews. Thanks again

    2. I like that idea for birthday parties! Instead of additional gifts which inevitably lead to clutter – having a giant potluck of friends is pretty neat. Its meant to honor the birthday kid – so everyone could come together for that to happen! Love potlucks 🙂

  47. I too was not raised by frugal people and did not have the frugal gene. But when we were at the very bottom with debt and living paycheck to paycheck, I decided enough was enough. I was not going to live this way. I was not going to have my options limited by my financial indiscretions. I immersed myself in every bit of financial advice and frugal living philosophy I could get my hands on, took what worked for me and discarded the rest. I changed my mindset and behaviors. It can be done but it takes discipline and determination. Now 20 years later I’m on the cusp of my early, semi-retirement. You’ve taken the first step – don’t stop now!

    1. Thanks! Great to hear a success story! My parents weren’t crazy spenders but somehow finances were. It discussed and mostly we didn’t learn about the value of a dollar. I don’t want to repeat this with my kids.

  48. What a wonderful, giving couple you are! Even the van is a sign of that: Four people don’t need a van, unless they are driving all the other kids around as well.
    Now, find out how much people love you for your enthusiasm and care and for who you are, not for the gifts you bring and the money you spend. Use your own social work training on yourself. Train yourself to listen to the messages you are hearing about the importance of spending, and ask yourself if they are true. Look carefully at the people you spend (see, there’s that word “spend” again!) a lot of time with, and focus on the ones that prioritize time and attention over things that have financial costs.
    Ask your children which activities are most important to them and include the children in the finances conversation. Being a child today is exhausting in activities and overwhelming in “stuff” and electronics.. Teach them to shop and cook and make salads – necessary work they can feel proud of. because it contributes to the family. Starting school is a good time to make changes. Make a chart or giant thermometer and count your savings for a goal in a way that you can all see, so they also learn financial management.
    Is there any kind of public transportation your husband can use for his commute? He could work on the train if available. If his teaching days are consecutive, (they’re probably MWF, so not), can he stay over in the college town one night a week?
    I suspect social workers have a high burn-out rate. Take care of yourselves, and best of luck! You have the desire and can change this, while you work together to strengthen your family. You might find your extended family is open to doing holidays and events in ways that cost less as well.

    1. And I always forget a few things–
      For the future: The college tuition waiver from your husband’s college might include other schools in a consortium of connected institutions. Look into that early, so you don’t miss any deadlines.
      I suspect you could have a great yard sale of stuff from your house? Old toys and such? The kids might take the lead on that.
      Sell books, dvds, etc., on DeCluttr; they take a huge variety of books, including some older ones. Find recipes on “The Prudent Homemaker”- that might be another helpful blog for you, with very inexpensive recipes with little or no meat.

    2. Thank you! You’re right we find a lot of joy in our kids and their friends, either when they are at our house or they are going to their house it’s nice to have the car to add a couple extra kids! But yes it’s not about the expensive parties and I do see us taking this luxury when we just shouldn’t be at this point. They really like just being with their friends and mostly they entertain each other. I have to remember that!

  49. Hi Sue! Thank you so much for sharing your story with us! I just want to mention again about involving the kids with your financial strategies and plans. Children (no matter what age) are a lot more understanding of their parent’s struggles than parents tend to think they are. The more you share your struggles with them, the more they will be willing to try and help, the more understanding they will be, and the better lessons you will teach them in the future about how to overcome challenges. I know for me, my parents couldn’t afford to send me on school trips in high school either, but I never once resented them for it, nor was I terribly disappointed. Instead, we made memories other ways- we hosted foreign exchange students to learn about other cultures (still one of the most beneficial experiences throughout high school), they worked as foster parents which taught us empathy, we took family camping vacations to national parks to see the natural wonders and beauty in our own country. There are many, many options for still giving your children worldly cultural experiences without sending them on an overpriced trip or expensive sports camps. And I also respected my parents much more for that. And we still had awesome cheap birthday parties- they just consisted of a few pizzas and sodas in the basement with friends and family, or maybe at the closest neighborhood park. And the neighborhood kids would always want to come to our parties because they were so fun (having a foreign exchange student living with us also bumped up our coolness factor which made our parties cooler).
    And lastly, all the sacrifices of my parents early in our childhood paid off- they are debt free, entirely. They own their own home, cars, rental property, and are in the position to basically retire whenever they want to. Also, they were able to help my brothers and I go to Europe for a summer after college, for each of us (we all paid a majority of the trip, but they gifted us plane tickets). And that experience was much more valuable than a trip in 8th grade would ever be.
    Good luck with your future goals, stay courageous, and don’t share the burden of this alone. You will be surprised at how innovative your children can be at getting what they want/ need without any financial help from you.

  50. I am glad this case study got published — so many other FW case studies are from people who are in enviable financial positions, even if they are facing dilemmas. Those of us who have made more money “mistakes” can get discouraged by these case studies so it’s nice to see one from a family that has more to catch up on.

    Some ideas for saving.money:
    – Aldi for groceries — they have good natural food options
    – republic wireless for cellphones — we have been pleased with them
    – sell household items and kids sports equipment, plus anything else of value, on Facebook marketplace and eBay then put all earnings directly towards highest priority debt
    – out of the box idea: since yout husband works on a college campus, ask him to start looking for textbooks to sell. They can be surprisingly valuable and are super easy to sell on Amazon. Used or new. Also, since you both have advanced degrees, you might have a bunch of valuable reference and scholarly books that you no longer really need. One of your kids could run this side hustle if of interest to them, and use the earnings for sports or activities you otherwise can’t afford
    – both you and your husband can start consulting businesses on the side related to areas of expertise. You live in an affluent area and parents will pay for services that help with their kids’ mental health and college readiness.
    Good luck and keep us posted on your progress!!! You’ve got this.

  51. Contrary to one suggestion, I would not give up the organic produce; because of your immune issues, you don’t need to be burdened by GMOs & fertilizer & pesticide residues. Look for the produce in season & the cheaper stuff. Maybe there’s a CSA in your area, or a co-op you could give a couple of hours to in exchange for membership. Also. check out Azure Standard for wholesale prices on natural foods.

    We are vegan (over 30 years), GF, and organic and really liked the book The Plant Paradox– it helped us change our eating habits and the author claims that diet has helped with autoimmune issues. You can get it at the library– it’s very popular.

    If there’s an ethnic grocery store near you, cassava flour, which is GF can be found there & you can use it to substitute for a lot of flour. Many GF foods are fun of crappy starches and not really so good for you. There is a goof GF, vegan blog, Noeggsand ham.

    I suggest you get a pressure cooker second hand, if you can, on CraigsList, or the thrift store. No need for a fancy electric one, the stove-top version works fine.

    We found Amy Dacyczyn’s books life-changing, especially in terms of mind-set adjustment.

    Get rid of TV. It will improve your lives. We use Ting for phones, and my bill is usually about $8 because I don’t want to use the phone.

    Good luck!

    You can get amazing gifts at yard sales & thrift stores, for very little, if you must exchange with family. Just keep an eye out year-round.

      1. I agree with the above- you can prioritize certain things in the diet- i.e. Organic produce; however you must be as frugal as possible about it. For instance, I never by fresh organic berries unless in season on sale in the summer, 80% of the time I by organic frozen berries in bulk at Costco or grocery outlet story at a good price. I save money and then few times I can afford the fresh berries they are a terrific treat. I also try to keep low cost items at the base of my produce diet- for instance organic carrots, sweet potatoes, onions. Frozen organic spinach is much cheaper than fresh and can be used in both cooked meals, soups, and fruit/veg smoothies!
        I am also gluten free and there is a certain cracker I like and it is one of the few non-whole food items I purchase regularly. Unfortunately these cost $5.50/box- expensive! I found that I can order a case of them online lowering the cost to $3.75/box, a savings that will add up. I do this with almost everything, especially big ticket food/vitamin/supplement items. I noticed your protein and collage. powders- these should be purchased online at cheapest possible price. Since you don’t cook a ton you need to seek out recipes that are simple, inexpensive, and can freeze or keep in fridge easily. Soups generally and blended soups in particular will be perfect for you. If you have a simple hand blender they are incredibly easy to make and so easy to add toppings like herbs, nuts, seeds, etc.
        good for you for seeking out the advice and bejng rave enough to make a change- you CAN do it!!!

    1. I agree totally in Amy Dacyczyn’s “The Tightwad Gazette.” It transformed me in the 1990s, before I had my two kids who I then raised on pre-owned everything, pretty much. I saved money and paid extra principle on our home mortgage. We had our home paid off in 16 years.

  52. Sue, you might be experiencing something our family went through which was everyone was in the habit of giving very generous gifts. Of course this was a lot of fun but when we were working on our finances, we realized this had to go. I gently spread the word that we were trying to get our finances in order and would be cutting back on Christmas gifts first and foremost. I asked how people felt about that. 100% of my family was on board! I think nobody wanted to be the Grinch and be the one to cut back but everyone agreed that all the kids had plenty of stuff and we all could use a break on our budgets. I know not all families stories are as successful as this one but I think you would be amazed at how many members of your family might be jumping the gun to get on board with you and fast!
    Some families transition to only giving gifts to children in the beginning. We did that initially but the snowball started and everybody backed off from gift-giving across the board. We switched to giving experiential gifts, like going to an event or show that we all wanted to go to. Then we had a big dinner at somebody’s house before and it made it jolly and fun and easy.

    1. Sue, you may have family that insist on giving gifts even after you ask them to cut back or stop. Maybe those gifts can be channeled into the children’s sports and activities. Ask them to buy equipment or pay fees?

      1. Thanks! They mostly get gift cards and money now which I didn’t insist they buy their own clothes or contribute to sports with before but now my daughter just paid for her school clothes with birthday money! Very excited about this. She’s got a frugal gene in her too,I’m so happy to see!

  53. Sue, I hear you talking about being nervous to tell your kids about the state of your finances and wanted to chime in as someone whose parents were fairly open. As early as 10 or so I knew money was tight. My parents never made me feel afraid that there wouldn’t be food on the table or a roof over my head (and your kids don’t need to worry about that either), but I knew funds were limited for other activities. Almost all clothes came from thrift stores. My brother’s preschool was subsidized by my mom and I cleaning the classroom on weekends. She always sought out reduced fees or scholarships for any activities I wanted to do, and by the time I was going in to high school I knew that most prices were up for negotiation (one summer I wanted to enroll in a $750 theater camp. I didn’t even ask my parents for the money – I talked to the director who let me take the teen camp for free as long as I assistant taught the kids camps the rest of the summer. A resume builder and money saver!) I knew exactly how much money was available for college by the time I was 15, and was able to use that to make smart plans.

    I was totally financially independent from them by 22 and now at 27 have over $60k saved for retirement. This is an awesome opportunity to help your kids learn to manage money and know the difference between wants and needs. They need you to make them feel safe and secure, they need to know that you can provide for those basic needs. Everything else, they’re the perfect age to start learning about. I’m so grateful to my parents for teaching me about money from an early age and I bet they will be too.

  54. Sue, thank you for sharing your relatable story. I am also not naturally frugal, so it’s been a learning curve for me. We’ve spent several years on the credit card treadmill (no debt, debt, no debt) and I’d really like to get off of it. We recently went to cash/debit card only spending and that’s helped our finances a ton. I would highly recommend that you do the same. Call and try to negotiate the interest rates for your cards to help you pay them down faster or see if a 0% transfer is possible (but only if you get rid of the cards – delete them from all your apps and cut up the physical cards). A few books that have helped me change my views on money and credit card spending: Happy Money, Dollars and Sense, Your Money or Your Life, Frugalwoods book, A Year of Less

    We have always had really high food spending and that’s something that we’re trying to get control of. I try to prep food and snacks that we like so that we eat less convenience food and it’s dropped our takeout costs significantly. Your kiddos are old enough that they might be willing to help you chop some veggies and prepare a few things. Theme nights help make things fun and easier to plan (taco Tuesday, veggie bowl night, salad night, smorgasbord night… which is really leftovers with a salad!).

    We also enjoy camping. We’ve found that it makes a cheap vacation for us as our only added costs are typically gas and occasional campsite fees. Have you considered dry camping/boondocking? There might be public lands near you where you can camp for free. Typically these are in national forests. Beautiful views and more private. That might be a good way to still get in a quick trip or vacation at minimal cost.

    One other tip: we got rid of cable last year and haven’t looked back. If your hubby needs the news and sports, consider getting an antenna which picks up local channels. It might be enough. If not, Sling is $20 a month.

    Good luck! We’re all rooting for ya!

  55. Couldn’t help but notice that the photo submitted that was used to illustrate high-quality foods was of a protein powder and a collagen supplement. I know how easy it is to believe that you need those things to be healthy, especially on a vegetarian/vegan diet, but the most drastic way to cut your grocery spending will be to cut all that out and only buy whole foods – no supplements, no derivatives. If you catch yourself thinking, “We need more X in our diet”, find a whole food source of that X instead of letting marketers tell you a short cut. It’s hard to break habits but you sound strong and motivated – best of luck to you!

    1. You’re right! I do take these as supplements for protein and joint pain but not every day. Certainly not a need at this point I see now!

  56. Hi Sue, I work in a similar field. For the work lunches, maybe buy some organic leaves and have pumpkin seeds, hemp hearts, sunflower seeds and other stuff you like that is anti-inflammatory at work? These could double as snacks, you could bring your leaves and dress up as appropriate, even have a jar of dressing at work that you made? I grab a handful of salad in a ziplock and have it for lunch (turn ziplock inside out, put your hand in the ziplock, then in the salad, then turn right side out not to soil your fingers). I have crackers, honey, nuts and tea bags in my sightline as I write this to reduce my work time buy outs. A cooler could be used if you have to travel to clients at all. Just some thoughts, best wishes!

  57. My husband also likes football and we realized a rooftop antenna would allow him to watch weekend games. There is a website you can go to and check what service would be like at your house. We had one professionally installed, which was several hundred dollars, but cutting cable saved us $100/month so it was a short payback. At least call the cable company and tell them you ant afford to keep your cable (which is true) and most times they’ll drop your rates.

  58. Hi Sue and Dan! I was happy to see Mrs. Frugalwoods mention Public Service Loan forgiveness as a possibility for Sue’s loans. I just wanted to add that Dan probably also qualifies for PSLF — most college professors do because they work for either nonprofits or state public institutions. (My hubs is a college professor, and PSLF has been a game changer for us.) 10 years of income-based minimum payments, and the loans go away!

    You both should also look into the Temporary Expanded PSLF program—this program is a little tougher to navigate, but it allows qualifying folks who have been making regular minimum payments to retroactively apply those past payments toward their loan forgiveness. If you’ve been making qualified payments for ten years already, your loans could be forgiven with this plan.

    The eligibility for PSLF is much broader than most people think. If you are reading this and you are a full-time state or nonprofit employee of any kind — even if your job title doesn’t seem “public service-y” — check out the government website because you probably qualify:


    1. Thank you for sharing this, Megan! Sounds like a great program for Sue and Dan to investigate!

  59. Random cooking idea–could you get the kids in on helping cook? My husband’s family stages Iron Chef competitions between the kids. The rules are that you have to use ingredients that are already in the house, and the parents are the judges. It’s possibly the most brilliant parenting scam I’ve ever come across–after years of doing, the kids are actually wonderful chefs, and help out routinely with cooking in the house. The parents set the number of courses, etc. If your kids were into it, you could end up with absolutely delicious meals made for you, use ingredients in the pantry you hadn’t thought about for a long time, and could make it a regular thing!

      1. And wouldn’t this make you the cool parents among your children’s friends if you invite a few of them over to participate! Some of them might already know some basic or advanced cooking skills.

        1. My son once went to a bar mitzvah party where the main activity was an Iron Chef-type challenge. The kids LOVED it! Inexpensive, tons of fun, and kept them occupied for hours.

  60. Thanks for sharing Sue! You’ve already received a lot of great advice. I only have two things to add as I have a 14 year old and 11 year old.

    First, we meal plan each week. My boys help with the meal planning process. Each one is required to fix a meal (or for the more complex help me) one night a week. They are also responsible for at least one meal during the weekend. Since implementing this a few years ago there are no longer arguments about what is being served for dinner. It’s also been a great way to see them come into their own style of cooking.

    The other items is regarding gifts. We have set limits with the extended family. Only kids receive birthday and Christmas presents, no more than $25 each. From time to time the adults will exchange, but that is no longer the norm. For our family, birthdays are about experiences. Christmas is something to wear, something to read, something you want and something you need. The wear is typically an outfit for school. The read is a book or magazine subscription. The want is something that is no more than $25 (it can be a gift card to combine with other presents received). The need can range anywhere from socks to batteries to trombone oil.

    There are a lot of positive changes you can make that will help reduce your stress! Best of luck to you.

    1. Love the idea of having the kids each take responsibility for one meal per week! This is how Mr. Frugalwoods grew up and it’s why he is such a great cook today–it all started when he was about 12.

  61. Oh boy! What a challenge. I gave Sam & Keith (Australia) two posts on things that worked for me. So I don’t repeat myself check them out if interested.

    I ran across a nifty idea recently: Make a string of paper chains and assign each chain a dollar amount of debt ($100 or $500, etc.) to be eliminated. String them up around family area or someplace where they will be seen on a daily basis. Once a month have a sit down with the kids and show them the savings you were able to put on the debt with their cooperation. Let them cut off the requisite number of chains. This apparently serves as a subtle reminder of why you are doing what you are doing, and their part in it.

  62. Fixing the van for $1000 is totally the right choice – most vehicles last way over 200,000 miles…I drive a 1999 Cadillac and sure it needs occasional repairs, but it’s still going strong. You need to start paying the smallest debt off right away, then start on the next smallest. You can knock those smaller credit card debts off in a few months. You will never get the debt done paying the minimums, you have to double up on the smallest debt and get rid of it. Cut the cable, get cheaper cell phones with WIFI only – you don’t need data on your phone. Get a crock pot and use it to get the meals ready so you don’t stress out and pick up something to go. The kids should be doing sports at school – most middle schools have teams and the costs are minimal. Sit the kids down and tell them what is going on and you can’t keep going the way you are. Send a message to your whole family saying you are drowning and need to get this under control. You will no longer be giving everyone gifts for every birthday, and you don’t expect them to give them to you either. Family get togethers are the gift of the person – invite some to your camp outs as a way of showing love. Dog expenses seem rather high at $100 per month? Did someone mention the kids attending the college where Dan works to get a free or discount education? One of the best perks of being a professor! I am recommending Financial Peace by Dave Ramsey – it is a common sense way to get out of debt that has worked for millions – you can get the book at your library and see if it is for you before spending any money on taking the course. I was a 2 home,new car, student debt person myself about 20 years ago and got out of debt completely in 2007. it’s a great feeling! I hope you both will take the steps and be determined to get out of debt and enjoy a life of financial freedom.

  63. I haven’t read all the comments but, I do have some suggestions to cut food spending. As someone who is both a nutritionist and has a family littered with medical food restrictions this something I strive to cut down. Start by what they suggest by prepping everything in advance and soak all your produce in salt water it dramatically reduces pesticides on them and allows the benefit of not having to buy pure organic produce. Also avoid processed food and trendy meal supplements, they are generally unnecessary. If you do feel you need a protein powder I suggest something like powder peanut butter. However if you do go vegan up your mushroom consumption or considered taking a vegan supplement with iron and B12. Also in terms of gluten free baking, I find that rice flour from the Asian market with additional eggs tends to always work as a flour replacement (just not with anything that needs yeast). Don’t forget to compare prices, sometimes something sold at a healthier store can be found cheaper at a regular grocery store or even Amazon. Good luck!

    1. Fay,
      That salt-water soak is very interesting. Do you happen to have a link to any studies that show it reduces pesticides more than just washing with a produce wash? I’m so curious to see just how much the pesticide residues are lowered, especially compared, to organic.
      Thank you.

      1. If you google: “wash veg with salt water to remove pesticides” you can find a number links on this subject.

  64. Sue – looking at your whole debt situation (I’ve been there) – BIGGEST suggestion (which I haven’t seen up til now):


    If I were to guess, probably your savings account is paying, at the most, 1 or 2% interest – while I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of interest is on the credit cards you guys have. Paying down even a portion of your debt with savings – it’s a great first step and should propel things forward.

    And you guys gotta eat EVERYTHING at home – besides which, it’ll help your health (you can make up your mind as to what you put in your meals), AND your wallets.

  65. Hi Sue, first of all, like many of us have stated: congratulations to you for looking your problems in the eyes! That is really very brave.

    Have you considered selling things that you no langer need and put the money towards paying off the credit card bills? My boyfriend once manager to sell stuff for a total of almost 900$ and was able to pay for a surprise bill.

    Good luck to you!

  66. Sue, it’s never too late! Good for you for taking this fabulous step forward.
    I’d like to recommend that you be honest with your kids about the whole situation (in a positive “we’re a team we’ll achieve this together” kind of way.) My parents hid the financial truth and always told us that everything was great. They taught us to use credit cards freely and live well beyond our means. Fast forward 30 years and I’m finally able to be a grown up about my own finances. My brother and I have spent years relearning how to use money and we’ve both done a lot of self education about the money matters we should have known when we were much younger.
    My parents still aren’t honest about theirs. My husband and I are planning for retirement and it will likely be impacted by my parents financial needs.

  67. I fed the two of us and many dinner guests for $1766 last year. Buying dried beans and grains in bulk, not wasting anything, no junk food, emptying the fridge before going to the store again. Also I would recommend Robin Robertson’s 1000 Vegan Recipes. Easy cooking, many are very frugal. I haven’t tried to ones that call for expensive ingredients.

  68. I wanted to comment on gifts. We just buy for kids in our family. I used to spend $25 for each but that adds up with many nieces and nephews. Plus, a lot of the time I would see the item in the next garage sale…sometimes unused. Now I challenge myself to spend $5-7 on each gift. I do get some things at thrift stores (new) but the way I make it work best is keeping a gift closet and a list who I buy for in my planner. A couple of examples: on vacation this summer we were at a Bass Pro Shop. My 6 year old nephew loves to go fishing with his dad. I found a little net that has a bobber attached so it will float for 2.50. I got a package of little fake bait worms to tuck in the net for 2.00 and will put in a package of gummy worms to complete the gift. Total: 5.50. Also on vacation, we went to a larger art store my daughter wanted to visit. In the very back they had a clearance section and I got button maker kits, stuffed animal kits, and paper pads with boxes of oil pastels for my crafty nieces. No gift cost more than $6. All these are hidden away in my gift closet and registered to my list in my planner so I don’t forget. My nieces and nephews seem just as excited with these gifts and I am saving a lot and staying within my gifts budget. It’s almost like a fun game for me now!

  69. I will admit that I am somewhat torn as I type this message. I agree with Mrs. FW that your financial situation is beyond worrying and that you really need to take control of both your debt and saving, however you also need to develop a budget that will truly work for your family for the long-term.

    As a mom of three active kids I totally get the desire to have your kids in healthy and constructive activities. I tend to agree with the poster somewhat upthread that living with extreme cuts might be easier and more do-able if each child was allowed to keep one valued activity (tumbling, little league, music lessons, whatever). I am not suggesting that the $300 bat happens, but I do think keeping little league in your son’s life might be a good thing.

    There is a LOT of room to reduce your monthly costs by many of the suggestions offered by Mrs. FW and others. Your food/eating out/clothing budget alone can be slashed with surprisingly little effort on your behalf and will yield some pretty substantial financial gains. You will be able to make inroads in your debt pretty quickly and move on to tackle your bigger liabilities (loans, mortgage) very soon. Keeping a valued activity in your family life may go a long way in making other changes feel less sacrificial. I would, however, talk to the kids about money and let them choose one activity (rather than, say, three). You will also need to share that some of the ancillary costs (high end equipment, pizza outings, whatever) might be areas that they will either a) miss out on, or b) need to earn money to pay for.

  70. Hi Sue,
    Camping is by far the most frugal vacation you can take. We joined a group called Harvest Hosts that allows members to camp on wineries and farms. You usually just stay one night but we have stayed two nights and then moved to another HH property. The membership is $40 a year and you are expected to buy something at the wineries or farms. We prefer staying on these properties so much more than campgrounds. It’s also very educational for kids!
    As far as food goes being organized is key. I would go to the grocery store and just walk around aimlessly without a plan, buy some random things and then run out of meals by Thursday and then just do takeout. I worked hard at solving this problem by thinking about what the actual pitfalls were. I now carry supermarket ideas in a little book in which I wrote the ingredients needed for lots and lots of our favorite meals. Not the recipe…just the ingredients. It’s organized into sections like chicken/crockpots/veggies. This has helped so much! I also organized my kitchen a great deal. I bought clear organizers for my lazy Susan and then used my labeler to write: spices/oils/ tea/ baking so I can actually see what I have. I hung up a shelf near it where I keep a pretty notepad where I write items I am out of. I went to town with the labeler on the cabinets where I keep my food too! All of this has helped us eat healthier and stop wasting food.
    I also keep a “money journal” or calendar and every month I add up and assess our finances. I write down all of the small positive things that happen in our finances that month and I make notes about big expenses that are coming to make sure we are planning for them. This soothes me because I can look back and see that we are on the right track and working hard towards our goals.
    Good luck! Would love to hear about your progress

  71. I’m not sure if this has already been mentioned or not (I apologize if it has!)….ask the grandparents and other relatives to contribute to sports fees, equipment, etc. for birthdays/Christmas for the kids. Or they could contribute to a college savings account. Or even give the kids clothes for holidays (boring, I know) or gift cards to the kids’ favorite clothing retailer.

  72. I would urge them to look into the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). All payments made while working for a government agency or non-profit since Oct 1, 2007 will count, so if they’ve both been full time since then, then they can both have those loans forgiven. (Granted, they might have private loans which wouldn’t qualify…)

    The vast majority of universities are non-profits, and Dan’s is now since it offers a 403(b) (which is the non-profit version of a 401(k)). Sue would qualify since she works for the government. It looks like they started making payments when they moved back to NY in 2010, so they could have near 8 years of payment history. (This is a big reason why everyone should look into income-based repayment plans even when they have very low incomes because sometimes the calculated monthly payment can be 0. If you’re on an income-based repayment plan, then it counts toward the 10 year window, where a deferment doesn’t!)

    Since it looks like they’ve both worked for the same employer for the last 8ish years, it should be easy to get them to certify the employment history, and then any month that they’ve had on-time payments will count toward the 120 needed for forgiveness. I could see them paying roughly $26,000 to wipe out perhaps $185,000 of debt.

    1. This is really positive news! I will definitely call and see what we will have to increase our payment to in order to be part of this program. We started paying back loans 6 years ago.

  73. Hi Sue,

    I am really impressed with your openness and honesty on your finances… it can be hard enough to just be honest with oneself, much less with thousands of strangers! I have a few thoughts for you:

    1. The first thing that jumped out to me was college savings. Others, including Mrs FW, pointed out that you need to build up your own finances first. I agree. When you have sorted out your own financial picture (and if your children needed to take out loans and/or didn’t go to your husband’s college), you could always choose at that time to help them repay their loans. But only from a position of financial strength.

    2. I looked into Boom, Republic Wireless, etc and didn’t find many positive stories for their coverage in my area. But I found that my wife and I were still able to drop our joint cell phone bills from $240/month to $90/month just by reviewing available plans on ATT’s website and switching to better/cheaper plans as they were offered. Sure, we share 3GB/month now instead of each having unlimited data, but we almost never exceed even this limit. It is possible to get cheaper plans/phones, wifi only, etc, but we have found that the limitations don’t justify the savings for us personally.

    3. I still happily drive a truck with almost 300k miles on it. I may be a bit extreme on this, but I love my truck and am hoping for at least 100k more. I estimate that gas, insurance, registration, and maintenance on my truck comes to about $50/month on average. My wife has a four year old hybrid (it’s a great car), but once all other expenses are factored in we pay almost $800/month on it! Before anyone reacts to this, I’m not just talking about the payment. But the higher registration fee, higher insurance, etc are somewhat hidden costs that significantly add to the “all-in” price of a vehicle. I know people who think a car is worn out at 100k miles, and I don’t really understand. Why would anyone replace a car so frequently and as soon as it is paid off? I am glad to see that you looked into getting your van fixed. $1000 is a lot of money to come up with when you don’t have an emergency fund, but look at it another way. At $300/month budgeted toward a new car, if you repair the van instead the repairs have paid for themselves in just over 3 months. And that ignores the higher expenses associated with a newer car. Any amount of functional time after that is pure savings/reduction in expenses. At some point the cost of repairs will make getting a replacement vehicle necessary, but it doesn’t seem like you’re at that point yet.

    Keep up the great work and analyzing your financial situation, “trying on” different suggestions, and making the hard but necessary decisions. It can seem overwhelming at first, but in a short time the feeling of relief you will have in finding a savings account that is growing each month and debt payments that are shrinking is more than worth it!


    1. Thanks! I just called my mechanic and with the additional repairs of front end and breaks we are at $1500. But we decided to go ahead and fix the van with $ we had from Dans summer class that was going to be allotted to the 3 fall weddings. I’ll cross that bridge next month 😬

      1. Sue,
        Can I ask why you’d need to allocate $1500 to weddings? Do you need to travel to them/get hotel rooms? Do you feel like you need to buy new or special clothing? I’m not trying to be argumentative, it just seems like an awful lot of money and the only mention of weddings in your details was for gifts.

        1. Hi. Yes we have to travel and get hotel rooms for one for 2 days but I am looking into changing plans so if only I go I can stay in someone room! No new clothes!

    2. Might be old school thinking – 100K miles on a car from the 50s, 60s, and even the 70s was an anomaly. I just passed my folks mileage wise but their car (bought new) is 52 years old this fall. I am getting a lot of pressure to buy a new/new-to-me vehicle. I love my car and really don’t want to give it up. I understand why my spouse wants a different vehicle – his knees are older/creekier than mine. Even though I plan on paying cash for any future vehicle, it is difficult to part with a chunk of money.

  74. I just wanted to say good luck. This will be a huge change but a needed one. My mother in law felt that her children needed to have what their peers did with regard to clothes, eating at restaurants, toys, etc. She sent them to private school using her own mother’s money. What happened was that after her mother died, there was no inheritance (other than a mortgage she could barely afford) and my husband had to give her money for awhile. It was stressful for my husband, forcing him to take out huge loans for a career he now hates. And it definitely affected our relationship for awhile. I think it frankly also set an inflated lifestyle expectation for him. It may be hard, but cutting back on spending will be so beneficial for your children down the road.

    1. Thanks so much for your story. Before kids I wouldn’t have understood this but they make you do crazy things!

  75. I use Quicken to keep track of all of our expenses and to make balancing my checkbook a snap (an old Quicken version that I haven’t updated). I have “reserve” categories set up: grocery reserve, clothing reserve, emergency fund reserve, etc. Each month I put money into each reserve per our budget. If there is any leftover money in these “reserve”categories at the end of the month I move the money into other reserves that need to be funded better . We live (95%) within our budget. Our only debts are two mortgages–our primary home and a small one for our adult disabled son.

    I think of my reserves as “little acorns” from the old saying “From little acorns mighty oak trees grow.” In time, the money in these reserves has added up– slowly but surely.

    Our new home we built 2 1/2 years ago has appreciated a lot. If there is ever enough equity in it to buy a smaller home free and clear we might sell.

  76. Wow… There are so many comments already! I probably won’t be saying anything new, but I just want to say that truly empathize and I really appreciate you sharing your story. As someone who is also in debt and who reads a lot of personal finance blogs by people who are totally together financially, I struggle at times to relate to folks who have big retirement funds, tons of savings, and no debt. While I don’t want ANY of us to be dealing with credit cards or student loans or house repairs, there is some comfort in knowing we are not alone. So thank you.

    We started our debt repayment journey about 1.5 years ago. I am here to say that it CAN be done… You can make some serious progress in a short amount of time but it takes a lot of tracking, some degree of sacrifice, and determination. To date, we have paid off >$25K in debt in the last year; we no longer have a car loan and are credit cards are gone. Based on my own experience, I recommend getting those credit cards and the car loan out of the way first. It won’t take you long to do so, but the mental and emotional boost you’ll get from ditching those expenses will be enormous, trust me.

    I also do think you can likely save on groceries, though I have to laugh at my own advice here because this is a real Achilles heel for me. Like you, we try to purchase plenty of healthy food, and it’s pricey. We’ve started couponing more (we download the coupons to our grocery store’s mobile app, and we also get coupons through Swagbucks), and that does help. At present we spend about $800 a month on food for a family of three, including a pre-teen who eats everything in sight. I know that’s still a high number for many in the personal finance community, but this is what we can do right now. Just do what you can. Start by setting a goal of reducing your grocery bill by $100 a month. Once you’ve done that, see if you can reduce by another $100. Make your goals manageable. Don’t try to do everything at once.

    As for the student loans, I am right there with you, sister. It’s a tough situation. You will hear people talk about paying off the loans before saving, and at first I was on board with that. But especially when you’ve got kids, medical expenses, etc., savings will help you sleep better at night. So I’d say start by putting $1K into an emergency fund. Once you do that, give yourself a big pat on the back and set another goal – maybe $5K into the EF. Then really dig in on the student loans (again, AFTER you’ve obliterated the credit cards… That way you can put the money you were using for CCs towards your student loans).

    I could go on and on, but I guess I’ll stop here and just say that I would love to chat with you because we seem to be in kind of the same boat. I really wish you well. You CAN do this.

    1. Thanks! It’s nice to k ow you’re tackling debt too! I am feeling more and more confident that I can do this with each post. When I first read Mrs FWs advice I was overwhelmed. But I see I can make strides in cutting costs that aren’t impossible so thanks again!

  77. Suggestion for gifts : how about making use of your flair for photography? A really special picture, of something significant to the couple, framed for a wedding. For a child’s birthday, a one-on-one portrait photography session – make them feel really special!
    Re house repairs : be warned – those not attended to, get worse & are more expensive to fix in the long run.

  78. This tip falls into a slightly different category. Come up with a phrase or motto something positive like “we saving, we have big dreams” and use it as your weapon against all temptations and as the answer to any questions you kids have. Just consistently say those exact same words over and over to build up the courage to change. The 1st time you tell your kids “no” might be heartbreaking, but the second time you say “no remember we’re saving, we have big dreams” I promise you will have just an ounce more courage and it will hurt a little less. Over time you CAN DO IT!

    Routines will set you free the more you come up with various systems that fit your life and align with your goals, the mental energy required to get to those goals will go down and you will make them a reality.

    1. I really like the phrase/motto idea. With my kids, I use the phrase “That is not a good use of my money”. I give them an allowance and they have an earning opportunity with dog walking a relative’s dogs. So if they really want something, they need to decide if it’s a good use of their money. An idea would be to budget a certain amount toward their sports/activities and let them pay any additional cost.

  79. What about renting the camper as an airbnb if your neighborhood allows that? Or when you are on vacation renting your house for additional income. I am so impressed with how much you have broken down your spending. It has inspired me to look more closely at my long term goals. Thank you for sharing and good luck turning things around!

  80. Sue good on you for taking on some big lifestyle changes! I starting cooking dinner for my family at around age 11 (almost every weekday) and I would make my dad an extra portion to pack in his lunch. This gave me this skills to cook healthy meals for myself in college which saved lots of money. Food for thought 🙂

    1. Wow. That’s incredible! I’m seeing that we need to get our kids doing this stuff with us for THEIR and our benefit. Thanks

  81. Is it an option for either of you to switch to working four days a week? I know ten hours makes for a looong work day, but this could cut your commuting time and costs considerably.

  82. Well done Sue for putting yourselves out there and taking this step forward! I wanted to touch on a point Mrs Frugalwoods made about the impact on your kids in the future. I am your kids! My parents could only just retire because of inheritance – we were literally waiting to see when this grandparent would die and hoping it would be before a job loss or other financial catastrophe. My sibling and I still worry about whether our parents can actually manage the money to see themselves through end of life, much less have a nice retirement. We both feel strongly that we wish they had made other choices that would have lessened the risk of them relying on us, and honestly I dread them asking for help because frankly I don’t wish to give it (though I don’t want them on the street either) – I want stability for myself and my own family. I think I’m familiar with the area of the country you live in, and frankly there is a lot of keeping up with the Joneses and high prices on things that just cost less elsewhere. 11 and 13 are tricky ages but they are old enough to understand that they have to make choices and work towards their lifestyle (I didn’t join clubs or play sports – I worked). I wonder if they’d be up for an adventure of livong in a cheaper area, still near family but with lower overheads enabling you to maybe keep them in activities? Or for you to ask family to gift activity costs instead of stuff? Get into gardening and grow some of your own food? Overall point is you need to open up with your children and wider family about this otherwise it’s just deferring the inevitable, and your children will want you to be enjoying your retirement not living hand to mouth.

  83. The advice of cutting up the credit cards is very good advice. Years ago, a family member told me to view credit cards this way: if you don’t have the money in the back, you don’t use the credit card (and this was years before debit cards, which are directly tied to your money in the bank). I then went on to get in minor credit card debt myself that I methodically paid down to 0 balance over a year or two and then vowed, never again. I remember the advice and never have.

  84. I admit my initial reaction to some of sue and dan’s situation was judgmental and it’s a testament to the supportive environment that Mrs Frugalwoods has created here that I was able to quickly move from that position! Also kudos to mrs F for not chickening out of the tough advice and delivering it in a sympathetic way.
    Sue, you’re really taking these points on board in a positive way too.
    When I think of it though, I have some of the same issues and that probably fed into my initial reaction. I too have too many sacred cows. And chronic illness that can cost up to £750 a month in treatment fees. It’s so hard to make changes when all of the ‘little’ pleasures feel like necessities.
    On one particular point, I know from reading similar case studies that there can be a lot of little scholarships available. ‘Scholarship’ doesn’t have to mean a full free ride. You have time to help your children to not only look for ways to make money now, but also begin to look at scholarships that will help with college. There may well be small ones with specific criteria that your children have time to practice meeting.

    1. Yes on scholarships for kids’ activities. I had a “working scholarship” in high school so I could continue to take dance. I hung posters around town to advertise for performances, worked an information booth at local events, etc. It wasn’t a needs based scholarship either, since my parents could well afford it, they just refused to pay for it. Also, have you considered renting out a room to a college student for extra income? Find one who is in education or social work and a senior or grad student doing their student teaching or internships as they have to pass background checks first. Could potentially net you many hundreds of extra dollars each month and provide a positive role model for your kids. Declutter a spare room, sell the extra stuff, and make money off that nice house of yours, turn it into an asset. Regarding gifts, just within the past year or so I made the difficult decision to cut waaaay back on my gift giving budget, as I’m in my late 40’s and need to focus my money on retirement and my financial health. Surprise! My friends and family like me the same regardless of the cost of the gifts I give them. Sometimes a heartfelt card with a loving note is enough for birthdays for extended family. I set a budget for $25 max per child for birthday and Christmas gifts. My husband and I make a little more than you and your husband do each year, and we are just now getting traction after eliminating crazy student loan debt last year from advanced degrees. I’m an LCSW too, go social workers! You two can do this!

      1. Thank you!! I mostly buy for the kids and only at Christmas. The friends bday gifts add up but I think as they get older it’s slowing down some.

  85. I want to comment on the cost of eating a healthy vegan diet. I too struggled with the perceived high cost and time consuming aspect of a whole food plant based diet until I discovered Dr. McDougall. If you haven’t been to his website to see his suggestions, I highly recommend it. It was a life changer for me… healthwise and financially.

  86. I find the hardest side of frugality is family/social. I like the idea of a stock phrase, and you just have to use it: It’s not in our budget now.

    1. I cannot love this enough!
      To our great surprise, we actually found that once we started saying this to friends, so many of them were relieved as they had secretly been struggling same as us. Really helped to cut our entertainment costs.

  87. Hi, I am not sure if this has been mentioned yet, but you might want to look into putting in a garden next summer. It can be done cheaply by just laying cardboard on the grass to kill it, and then digging in fertilizer and planting seeds. You could have organic fresh salads, summer squash, green beans, and peas the entire summer for a few dollars and a little labor. The other thing is start utilizing warehouse stores and buying in bulk. Many of the warehouse stores and stores like Trader Joes offer organic options in bulk which will save you a chunk off of your monthly grocery bill without sacrificing quality. It does take a bit more work at home to store and use bulk items, but I have found that it really makes a difference in the grocery bill. Then whatever you save on groceries, you can start using to debt avalanche! Making little changes over the long run can really add up to savings in your budget, and having an emergency fund, plus some extra wiggle room each month is a load of stress off of one’s shoulders.

  88. Hi Sue: I’ve been enthralled reading other people’s advice, and think you have some great footing to take action. Wanted to reaffirm a couple things people said — After paying off the credit cards and car… get an assessment on your house to see if you’ve reaching the 20% (since you said the value has gone up by $30K) and maybe that can kick the PMI (save $150/month). Then, after figuring out whether you can indeed qualify for forgiveness on your student loans (I had a rude awakening when I was banking on it for 6 years, paying the minimum, and then found out I didn’t qualify. ugh!) you should consider refinancing! I used SOFI, and it reduced my interest rate substantially and I gave myself a 5 year time horizon. Now I only have a year left of 90K in student loans. Painful but super important to get a handle on. Good luck!

  89. Here are my thoughts:
    – Groceries. I’ll join the chorus and say bulk cooking meals is the way to go. It’s boring as hell, but I take a box of salad greens, mix other things into it, and that’s my lunch every day, then do something similar for dinners, and breakfast is always raisin bran with some fruit added. We “treat ourselves” to some frozen meals on Fridays, but only eat out when we’re traveling or for a special occasion.
    – Three hours a day in a car is no way to live, and the attendant expense adds insult to injury. There’s got to be a better way. My wife & I spend about $150/mo in car expenses. I’d be moving closer to the university.
    – Cell phones are def. overpriced. We use two Tracfones and pay about $20/mo. It’s amazing how much you can spend on B.S. data usage.
    – I’d look at the utility costs. Our costs might get that high (*might*) during the most expensive months, but our averages are much lower, in the $60-70 range for electric and gas each. We have a 150 year-old 2,000 square foot house for comparison.
    – Congrats on keeping clothing costs so low! $50/mo is actually a pretty amazing amount with two kids.

    As to the New York State pension plan, I am a member, and can attest that we receive regular updates bragging that the plan is “fully funded.” It’s amazing, considering how little employees paid into it years ago, but I think it’s true, and should stay fully funded as long as New York City is not annexed by New Jersey!

    As a final note, I know this is a point of contention, but as a resident of Albany I must state that “upstate” does not start one hour north of New York City! 🙂 (My personal “upstate” borderline starts at the CT northern border and continues to the southern tier border with PA)

    1. Lol! Thanks. I don’t consider us upstate either but it’s easier than saying Not NYC! And thank you for all the info. It is a keeping up with the jones place and maybe my kids are feeling that pressure because they seem to want to do everything!

  90. Try the Budget Bytes website! The recipes are great and the site has saved us lots of money. Some easier ways to start paring down the grocery bill might include: 1) always start meal planning by making a list of the perishable items in your fridge and make sure to find ways to use them. 2) plan to not throw out any food (only buy what you know you will use and consider leftover ingredients first) – this helps the planet and your budget. 3) Buy the store brand and consider buying non-organic produce. These are a few things our family did when we wanted to spend less on groceries and found that these interventions were very manageable. Hope this helps, all the best! 🙂

  91. Hi Sue and Dan, I was March 2018’s case study and while I have no new advice for you (we are still a work in progress!) I just wanted to let you know that after reading all the suggestions on our case study, and grumping around for a week or so about how nobody understood that EVERYTHING in our budget was important and it was impossible to make the cuts suggested. We decided to make the impossible possible and implemented the suggestions made to us, and we are now debt free and happier than ever. It really does work!

    After using the suggestions made to come up with a budget we could reluctantly live with, three things really worked for us:
    -We set up direct debits from our pays to go straight onto our debts so we didn’t see the money even hit our accounts, which forced us to live off what was left over
    -We immediately cut up the credit cards as soon as we decided to implement these strategies. It felt like free-falling through space with no astronaut suit, having no “safety net” of the credit card to fall back on but it really was a false safety net that was making life worse.
    -As soon as we were debt free we cancelled all access to credit cards and overdrafts and any lines of credit so we can never never use them again. We also made a pact that we will never get any type of credit or loan again, except if we decide to buy a house, we simply can’t trust ourselves with credit.

    Good luck, you can definitely do it!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Sam! You left out the best part: YOU ARE NOW DEBT-FREE :)!!!! Congrats, again.

  92. Wow! Many people have written in many good ideas for anyone, not just Sue and her family. I admire you for opening up your story!
    You are at a sort of cross-roads. Your children no longer need your attention or the activities you provided the way they did when they were little. Shifting to what they do need now is a hard part of parenting! What do you want them to be like in ten years? If Dan sees a lot of 18-year-old college students, have him identify the best of them, and figure out how they got to be that way.
    Anything that is now “routine” needs to be reconsidered. For instance, the summer school class teaching is a negative. Even if partly done from home, the time of teaching and commuting is not worth it, when you have repairs to make, children to enjoy, a marriage to hold together, and potential income from working in private practice, with only that tiny adjunct-like salary, (unless there are reasons related to his job as a whole to consider). It might be a lump sum that looks good, yet it is really used up in advance in a lot of little costs.
    Commuting and eating away from home on work days can’t be good for Dan’s health. Make sure he has a comfortable car seat and desk chairs – those are not a luxury. Ask your chiropractor/I love mine, and he always has advice to give. Invite the children to join you and Dan in physical fitness activities at home for the good of all of you. Maybe even have them plan them.
    Guessing you have all the tax breaks from working from home, higher ed related work expenses, etc.
    Are the schools in the university town so much worse than the “good” ones where you chose to live? Do an imagination, cost-comparison discussion of where you live now with that place, listing every positive and negative. This might shed light into how you and your husband think about your work, home, and family, and your future place to live in a dozen years when the kids are through college. If you moved there, they could attend college from home if they wished to, though residence hall living is also potentially a part of college.
    Sue, you didn’t comment on your own work. Is it full time? From home? Do you juggle hours around your husband’s hours and your children’s school? Use any form of child care? Have time to “adult”? Your health is important – mental, spiritual, social, physical, professional, and the like!

    1. Thanks. The summer class is online and ends when the kids stop school in June so it is worth it for us. I work 40 hrs a week. 5 minutes from home and am done at 3:30 so I can be home for the kids. We don’t think it’s good for the kids to move at this stage of their lives. They are very happy and settled in here and are doing well so far as the teenage times are here. We can move in 7 years and most likely will. I wish Dan didn’t have to commute so far but he does work from home part time. Thanks!

      1. Sue: It looks like Dan has the best kind of summer class.
        I was looking at the many, many comments here, and saw what time it was when you were answering people this morning. Perhaps you were too excited to sleep?
        You have a very tight work and home schedule, and I greatly admire people who can accomplish what you do!

      2. Hi Sue—one other quick thought! Since your husband is already saving lots of time and money by teaching his summer course online instead of commuting, would it be possible for him to move some (or all!) of his regular teaching load online? Maybe office hours could be done via Skype? Might be worth a conversation with his department chair.

        You are a total champion for taking this on. Imagine all the people who have posted comments in one room giving you a huge standing ovation!

  93. Gosh… Your financial situation triggers my fight or flight response, Sue! One thing I read in Consumer reports today is that over 50% if retirees retire before they plan to. (They planned to retire at 67, but retire at 62 because of layoffs or a health problem, etc, etc, and it puts them in a bad place financially because they planned to catch up during those years. Don’t be one of these people!)

    A couple of thoughts beyond that….
    1) Could you turn your pop up into income, or something to barter? Like… Someone gives your kid a ride to x every week, and borrows your pop up for a week over the summer? And instead of getting take out during that time, you and the other child could cook?

    2) Communicate to your children sooner than later that your contribution to their education will be there possibility of their going to the college their dad works at tuition free. That’s a sizable contribution, but it’s also probably all you can afford, and the sooner they know that the better.

    1. 3) Also, that’s a heck of a commute your husband’s making. If he could find someone (or two or three) to ride share with for gas money that could cut down on expenses, or on the number of cars your family needs.

  94. Thanks for sharing your financial situation Sue, it takes courage to bring it up since it’s taboo in our society but more and more should do it so they can get assistance if they are in a financial dilemma.
    I would first cut down on much spending as you can. I know Mrs. Frugalwoods gave a detailed breakdown of what should be cut down on spending but heed her advice and hopefully you will take action on most of them. For wireless provider, I’m with Ting Mobile and I pay around $65 for three people. This includes 1000 texts, 1 GB of data and 500 minutes combined. You should look at them as an option to cut down on your phone bill. For cable, I cut it out completely a while back and don’t miss it one bit. If you are looking to cut the cord, you should consider online streaming options for your husband’s entertainment. I know YouTube TV is a pretty good option. I believe it’s around $40 a month and it has most of the sports and news channels
    You should also look into going to the library more for means of entertainment. Besides books, you can borrow movies, and receive free passes on local museums. Plus it’s free to use.
    Also, pay off the student loans and credit card as fast as possible. I’ve been in that situation before and from experience it will be a grind to pay them off but once you do, it will feel so great not to owe money.
    All the best to you and family Sue!

  95. Congratulations Sam. You have done a wonderful job with an awful lot of debt. You deserve all the hoozas we all can give you. I suggested in my earlier post that Sue review your month. A lot of the same things in common. Your example will be of great help to them in getting started. It’s a tough road, but they can do it also.

  96. Sue, BRAVE BRAVE BRAVE, you are brave to lay it all bare and that is the first step to leading your family toward a better future. One step, one choice, one action at a time. Keep checking in with your goals, regularly, habitually, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but every day you will get closer to being solvent.

    I will say this about raising kids in a HCOL /consumer-centric culture: First, I always emphasized to my daughter that she was a unique individual, didn’t need to keep up with anyone else’s possesions. By the time she was in middle school (around 13 yo) if she had a passion for an activity that cost money, she would have to step up and put her own hard work into it, by either getting some scholarship (for dance) or a part time job to pay for something (like the prom and hs trips) Now in college, she paid for her own dorm room decor and realized how much everything adds up! She says to me now , “it made me realize the value of my time vs. what I really want to pursue and own.

    This isn’t going to be all rainbows and sunshine, or very easy, but you’ve got a little bit of time left to right this ship! You can do it, good luck!

  97. There are lots of good advice here for you. As far as food goes lots of times our pantries are full too and people go shopping every single week even though the pantry is stocked with things. Try shopping in your pantry for 3 days before you hit the shops for food if you regularly shop on a Monday, eat from your pantry and wait 3 days until you shop and you’ll save money. The funny thing about credit cards is we usually all have them in case of emergencies like car repairs or something of that nature that we consider an emergency. I can guarantee you what’s on the credit cards are not car repairs. Also instead of going out to dinner with friends have a theme night and get everyone to bring something to dinner. Mexican one night, Italian, American etc. Get a nice tablecloth and a vase of flowers or pick branches from the garden. These nights are fun and casual and usually you can chat more because in a restaurant it’s quite noisy where as at home it’s not. You can sit around the dining table or the couch for a casual dinner. Don’t stop meeting up with friends just think of a new way to afford to be social. A big bowl of pasta and sauce and a bread stick is cheap or big bowl of minestrone soup. A slow cooker is really cheap and you can put all your ingredients in it before work and when you come home dinner is cooked and ready to go. Make a double batch for leftovers for lunch the next day. As far as presents go making a home made cake with flour, egg and sugar for your friend’s birthday as a gift will be received well even over a gift because they know you have personally baked it. I do this for my best friends because I can’t afford to buy gifts and they and I love it. Once you get things in order you will have such a sense of satisfaction and peace about your finances being in control. ps slow cookers are cheap however you can pick up a cheaper one at a garage sale or your local buy swap sell fb page. Lots of people have these things in the back of their cupboard so you don’t have to buy new. Not sure if you have a cheap supermarket near you over the Trader Jo type of supermarket like Aldi…those cheaper supermarkets still sell quality items for less and can save you a lot of money. Look through your house and declutter any old items, clothes, old games books, decor that you no longer use want or need and even 5 items at $20 that is $100 that you could put towards your credit cards all the while decluttering your house. Try and not use the words “we can’t afford it to your friends” if they want you to go to dinner. Say we are really focusing on our future retirement needs and are spending our money elsewhere. We would love for you to come around for afternoon tea and coffee. Make a cake which will cost less than $4 and enjoy afternoon tea at home.

    1. Totally agree on the second hand slow cooker idea! I have an instant pot, and I use it a couple of times a week, but the truth is most of what I cook in it (beans, lentils, soups) could be made in a slow cooker just as well. And I see them at the thrift store for $5 all the time.

  98. Dan’s evening TV time is a great target for repurposing for earning more money — research what it takes to set up and run that private practice you two want for later, operate a side business to sell your photography, sell estate-sale gear on Ebay, edit colleagues’ research papers, whatever suits the household rhythms and brings in net profit. Every dollar of net profit can be plowed directly into student debt. Might you then be able to pare out the cable portion? Every $50/mo eliminated now is $15,000 less nest-egg for retirement (using the 4% rule-of-thumb).

    Though that time might first be dedicated to planning, and to hacking those high-interest debts down johnny-quick. Just getting that first one (TJ Maxx) gone will start a virtuous cycle, and you’ll be off to the races!

  99. Read Prudence debt free blog. Similar scenario with 3 teens at start of their debt journey. As they near the end it is very interesting to see how much their attitude to money has changed.

  100. Sue, count me in as one who thinks you should keep the minivan. We have a 2005 Honda Odyssey with almost 300K miles on it. Old vans are great for new drivers too (and your kids will be there soon!). Who cares if an old minivan gets a scratch or two?!?! My son named the Odyssey the “man van” when he was learning to drive. My daughter’s current name for the van is “Linda.” 🙂

  101. Hi Sue! Congratulations for laying it all out and looking to make some serious lifestyle changes. I’m kind of freaked out about your financial situation, but you also have a huge advantage — combined you guys make a great income, and you have good family support. Just a few comments to add to others’.

    I think that in terms of “mindset work” the most important thing you can do here is to think hard about why you think a certain kind of middle-class lifestyle is so important to you. Is it really, really, really important for you to live in a house with just your nuclear family? Or is it just important to you not to “feel poor”? Is it really, really, really important that your kids do baseball or tumbling, or could they just as well do something that is actively income-earning (junior camp counselor? babysitter? lawn-mowing?)? I want to stress that those are real questions. For example, some people do have really good reasons not to want to live with anyone else! But I think it’s very important in your financial situation to challenge whatever unhelpful ways of thinking may have arisen.

    I raise the house thing in particular because you’re paying a huge amount every month to live in a freestanding house with just your husband and kids. I see above that rent is high in your city. But I would really recommend that you do whatever you can do to claw back $1000 a month. And I’m serious: WHATEVER you can do. Roommate, even if it means the kids share? Sell the house and move into a mobile home? Find an apartment in a nearby school district that is cheaper? (That last would allow you to stay close to family, while also saving money.) Sell the house and move in with your family in the area — does anyone have space they’d rent to you, maybe older family members that don’t have kids of their own in the house anymore and have more space than they need?

    I suspect that your kids will be more flexible than you think, especially if you ease into the conversations with an explanation that you make plenty of money and there is no immediate danger. With that pressure removed, I think it’s really good for most kids to be active contributors to the family finances, not drains on them. It makes them feel proud and responsible. Their jobs (babysitting, grocery store cashier, waiter/waitress as they get a bit older, whatever) should contribute to the family. That might mean partly paying for activities they want to do that cost money, and it might partly mean saving to pay for part of college (the part that the free tuition won’t cover, and they absolutely need to do the free tuition!)

    1. Hi! I don’t love my House but it was exciting to finally be in a position to buy a house we knew we could settle down at least while the kids were in school close to family and also bought at a good time. There’s. It much cheaper in my school district and no I can’t live with my family members! Maybe mom for a short period but she has 2 others living with her currently! I hope we will make something on it and hope to find something cheaper in 7 years. My kids will be working, yes! Thanks

  102. Thanks for sharing your story Sue and Dan. You have received lots of good advice from everyone, so only have a few things to add from my own experience. Earlier this year, due to serious ill- health and having to move house etc, I had depleted all my savings and had more bills to pay than money in my account. I had a fully paid off credit card, but knew that my income in the coming months wasn’t sufficient to pay if off I put any of those expenses on there. So I knuckled down and set about cutting expenses to pay those bills and then saving towards a $1000 emergency fund. The bills were paid and the $1000 was saved within a couple of months with drastic cost cutting. I basically stopped shopping for everything except necessities and got used to doing car free days. The $1000 came in little bits of savings here and there. I checked and double checked bills to see if I was over charged or if I could change to a different provider. I stuck to a very lean budget and even began doing a monthly cash flow spreadsheet as my income came from several sources at different times of the month. 7 months on, my savings have grown to $10k and I have got used to living this way. So the key message from me is it can be done. And every dollar you save by spending consciously will help you get there. Good luck!

  103. My daughter and I had a talk and I read some of the areas we needed to stop spending and she was excited about prepping meals and said she was fine with stopping extravagant bday parties. And I threw in sports and clothes will be Birthday and Christmas gifts! Thank you all so much!

  104. Hi Sue!
    Thanks so much for sharing with all of us! We’re often confused with what to do being late starters with education (my husband became an academic over 40 and I am studying to be a teacher) and pensions/retirement savings, mortgage, wanting to give our children lessons, birthdays, holidays, healthy food, etc. We got started thinking differently when a friend told me her a way of looking at things (accountant). She told her kids interest earns interest both ways from zero, into the positive and the negative. She puts all birthday money from relatives, etc. into a savings account and then monthly lets them know how much free money their money is earning. She also explained that if they borrowed money on a credit card in their lives, the interest would eat the money they owed and grow larger at a much faster rate and would eat tons of potential future money they could have had if they didn’t have credit card debt. If the kids wanted to buy something she would ask them if they wanted to wait for a big sale and keep the interest going longer and get it cheaper, second hand… They really got it and were under 10. We taught our daughter the same ideas and she’s hooked! Our son is 5 and doesn’t get it, haha.
    Also, she got me thinking that right now that while we have a mortgage, at 3.69 percent (Australia) over 25 years, every dollar we spend now is worth about 2 in the future, since we’ll pay off double if we pay the full term. If we could pay the mortgage down we’d pay less interest and could put more into retirement savings. If we were paying down debt on a high interest credit card, ever dollar spent would be worth many, many times this. So when I think about having a $30 take away dinner I think about if I want to pay $60-80 dollars for the meal. I usually say no. This is a huge change for us. Hope this is useful! Thanks Sue and Mrs. Frugalwoods!

  105. Hi Sue,

    There’s already been so much great advice here that I don’t have much to add to it, but I just wanted to weigh in with my perspective as the child of parents who are not so great with money. My parents’ financial situation during my childhood sounds very similar to your current state. Pretty good income, but high spending (although they did use the Dave Ramsey method to get out of debt at one point, which was great). If they are anything like me, your kids might already be feeling the stress of your paycheck to paycheck lifestyle, even if you’re trying to hide it. I remember feeling confused and stressed as a child because I knew my dad made quite a bit of money but yet I could tell my parents were always financially strained. Once, they bought me an expensive gift and I cried and asked them to take it back because I didn’t think we could afford it (I was young; elementary school aged). I think it’s something that has influenced my current frugality, because I hated feeling that lack of control and always wished for them to be more responsible. Changing your lifestyle, paying off debt, and saving for retirement would set a great example for your children, and although it might mean some sacrifices to them, I think it would likely lead to a more peaceful existence for them in the long run. As other commenters have mentioned, I think it’s a great idea to get your kids on board with the process and make it a family effort. Just my two cents…best of luck!

    1. I am the same way. I still hate gifts that my mother buys because I know she can’t afford them, but no matter how many times I ask she keeps buying them. Kids always know what is going on.

  106. Hi Sue!
    I currently work about 60 hours a week at two jobs and am a single parent with a commute. Eating out has been my worst habit, and it has played havoc with my future goals of retirement.
    I started preparing my vegetarian breakfasts, lunches and dinners in advance and freezing them. I make a batch of muffins, homemade pumpkin bread or breakfast sandwiches for the freezer. I do a week or two at a time. I like pb and j sandwiches and soup for lunches. I make up a loaf’s worth of sandwiches or a batch of soup and freeze in indiividual portions. I make a dinner entree and extra to freeze in the portion size we eat. I usually buy a $5 pack of fresh baby spinach each week and wash it and use it for salads daily, I make homemade granola and keep cold cereal on hand bought on sale; usually a Cheerios type of cereal. It is easy to supplement these meals with more veggies, fruit, homemade iced tea ect. It has cut my food bill down by 70% each month.

  107. I wish you all the best Sue!! About 18 months ago I was in a similar position living month to month and then I stumbled across Mrs Fruglewoods blog… it was life changing!! I suggest you go right back to the start of her blog and spend your evenings reading every post (bonus you can cancel Netflix and cable as you’ll be so engrossed reading that you won’t be bothered watching TV!!!!!). I found their journey SO inspiring and after sharing it with my husband (he’s very competitive so of course he wanted to be the best frugal guy in the world which worked out great!!) we both set out on a new way of living our lives. We now have a whole bunch of savings which we had NEVER had before. We have kids too and my son is also a huge “consumer” and yes it’s tough saying no…. but it’s more about the philosophy of needing less to be happy than the money side of things… when we framed it that way our kids were very receptive and we’ve been able to travel around Australia (where we live) for the first time which we never would have been able to consider before…. I think you’ll be surprised how receptive kids can be especially when you explain the philosophy and the bigger picture. In our house it’s almost like a competition as to who can get by spending the least, it’s kinda fun!! And we reward our selves with travel experiences rather than “stuff”. As Mrs Frugalwoods says, the first part is challenging but when you are on frugal autopilot you’ll never have to worry about money again!! All the best and keep us updated!!

  108. Your attitude is great, Sue! Check out local farms with CSAs- you might find that some smaller places use organic methods but aren’t certified organic because of the cost, so you can get the same quality for cheaper.

    When you talk to your kids, don’t forget to emphasize that you are not going to lose the house or go hungry, because kids catastrophize. But you can tell them that cutting back is going to happen sooner or later, and this way you can make the choices instead of having them made for you when something bad happens.

    Good luck!

  109. Hi Sue, you have plenty of great suggestions here but I’ll throw a few more in the hat. I’ve found vegetable gardening to a great way to save on groceries, get some exercise and relieve stress. Even just a few zucchini plants, some tomatoes or a patch of green beans can produce quite a bit of produce. Also we are a big fan of experience gifts… concert, sports, movie or local community theatre tickets or eating out at a favorite restaurant. It reduces spending in the entertainment and dining out categories or if you’ve eliminated those altogether, it really feels like a luxurious gift. I keep this quote posted in my kitchen “That man is richest whose pleasures are cheapest” Henry David Thoreau
    Blessings to you and your family. I admire you for facing this challenge head on.

  110. Sue – I read through your story and all I could think was that you’re so brave! It’s easy to share when you feel like you’ve got it all together. It’s much harder to do what you just did, which is share something hard, less than perfect. We all have these stories, but most are not willing to share.

    I don’t have any additional words of advice. I feel like everything has been said already. I just wanted to let you know that I’m virtually applauding you and cheering you on!

  111. Hi Sue,

    I don’t have too much to add to the already great advice you’ve received. I just want to say that your kids will be fine with cutting sports and birthday gifts. My mom didn’t make a lot of money when growing up, but I never felt like I went without anything. I had a pretty good idea of our financial situation, and if there was something that I really, really wanted, I found a way to at least pay for half of it. I got my first job when I turned 15. This definitely helped me as I got older since I am pretty frugal person now. I will say that at times I was anxious about money, and I still can be. I would be careful with your wording and continue to reassure your family that you guys are doing just fine and will continue to be fine. Because you will be.

    Also, I might hold off with doing private practice a few nights a week right. I’m also a social worker, and you don’t want to risk burning out with extra work. It’s not like doing someone else’s yard work or babysitting. I’d give it a few months with all the new lifestyle changes first. When you are ready, NASW offers liability insurance that’s pretty affordable.

    1. Thanks! I already spoke to my kids and they seem really ok with it. My daughter has already done an inventory of our food and planned our meals for the coming week!

      1. Sue, that is fantastic! Your daughter sounds amazing (no surprise given who her parents are 🙂 ). What a great learning experience this will be for your kiddos!

  112. Sue, Mrs. FW’s advice and the comments here are all excellent; the only thing I will add is that there is no greater gift to give your children than your own financial independence. My family lived well below our means when I was growing up, and as soon as I was old enough to get a job I paid for most of my own things that weren’t room and board. I didn’t have the fancy shoes and expensive clothing many of my classmates had; what sports I participated in depended on time and how expensive they were (I wanted to play hockey but that was quickly nixed).

    My parents retired at 55, and my dad was ready to throw in the towel any time after 50 – when state cuts to the pension loomed and state employees were vilified in our state, my dad had the freedom to say, looks like it’s time to go.

    I think my frugal upbringing is what led me to latch on to the things written about my Frugalwoods, Mr. Money Mustache and Budgets are Sexy, which helped me further appreciate the lessons my dad taught me and take them to another level.

    But the other benefit of my parents being frugal is that now they are financially solid, ready to help me if I need it (but thanks to their and my blogger friends’ lessons, I never need it) and are very generous. It’s a major comfort to know they are never likely to need my help financially, and that should I ever need it, it’s there. That’s so much more important than any extra gizmos they could have given me as a child/teen.

    Now I have a rich full life, a career in which I get a lot of respect from the community, a strong work ethic in my work and side hustles/outside projects, and I am always meeting new people. The friends I used to envy, whose parents used to pay for everything, now are adult children and can hardly take care of themselves. I wouldn’t trade my situation for theirs any day. I’m now super grateful for my parents’s frugality and the lessons on self-reliance it taught me.

    1. This is amazing! My son just bought his own school sneakers. ( granted they were more than I wanted him to spend) I feel like he really heard me say it like it is, which was. We are in debt and we need to cut back. So simple!

  113. Perhaps I’m missing something but I don’t see car insurance or tags mentioned in your post. Probably another place you can look to cut costs. I seem to recall frugalwoods has a post on this topic as well. Perhaps you can go very strict on certain categories (especially food, gifts, clothes) and keep the kids in sports or have them focus on 1 sport at a time if they are playing multiple. I feel it isn’t too realistic based on your comment that you are going to totally have the kids quit sports. I’m a believer in the importance of sports in a child’s development while also being reasonable. Also, do you track your expenses each month to the penny just like you did above for the case study? If not keep up the tracking. The act of simply watching every penny each month helps to make better choices. Best of luck to you and your family. Keep us updated!

    1. Thank you! I agree and see the high school sports taking over after this year. We told the kids they could do 2 sports (at least one has fundraising involved so I will be doing that!) and any gear will be a bday or xmas gift. It’s progress!

  114. I SO respect that Sue is not only willing to share her situation and ask for help, but I see that she is receptive to this advice and its dramatic ramifications. Kudos! That willingness shows me that she has what it takes to carve out a positive future for herself and her husband, and to set an example for her kids.

    I haven’t read all these wonderful comments yet, so perhaps it has already been suggested, but I wonder how close you are to the public library. My husband and I like to peruse the films and pick out a few gems for the week. It’s almost never what we “feel like” watching, but knowing we’re saving little by little feels good. Maybe letting your kids pick a few would increase their buy-in. (It’s also fun to put the new releases on hold once they make it to the library because they will invariably take weeks or even months to receive–and when I get the email that I can pick them up, it’s a fun surprise!)

    I *did*read some suggestions about sharing your goals and reasoning with your kids, and enlisting them to help with things like meal prep. I wholly endorse this. I wish I’d had more responsibility as a kid in meal prep, and although my family bought everything used, I don’t really remember a “talk” as to why they did so; it would have been helpful for me to understand *why* and frugality’s benefits. (Without this, I internalized the idea that we were different and somehow less-than my peers’ families, who bought all new things). Whether you address it directly or not, your kids will pick up on changes and it is in your power to contextualize how they encode that message.

    My final suggestion is to share with your closest friends what’s going on, and try to make friends who have the same mindset as you or at least respect it. Explain what you’re doing and why in a nonjudgmental (of their lifestyles) way. Ask them to support you so they can understand why you might want to meet up for a picnic lunch date, a walk around the farmer’s market, etc. instead of going out for lunch or SkyZone or whatever you used to do before.

    Wishing you the best and sending respect and gumption your way!

    1. Thank you! I also wish I cooked with my mom and they talked about money more with me. I’m glad my daughter is interested in cooking and planning meals together. I’ll get the boys onboard too! My husband is good for the marinara sauce and meatballs!

  115. Hi Sue! I just wanted to add my voice to all those encouraging you. You’re going to do great and I’m already looking forward to your case studies’ update and all the good news it will surely bring. I believe in you! Mrs. Frugalwood’s gives wonderful advice, doesn’t she? I was the case study a few months back and am already reaping benefits from changes I made with her (and everyone’s!) encouragement.

    1. Mrs FW is my hero! And all the encouragement is blowing my mind! Glad to hear your working on it. Having my family onboard is really helping my motivation too!

  116. I grew up on a pretty tight budget on the mission field, and I LOVE how it has stuck with me as an adult. Could you treat it as a bit of a game with your children- a challenge to see how the most money can be saved? Thrift store shopping and clipping coupons can be a lot of fun! Also, would your children be able to pick up any jobs like cutting grass or babysitting and save money for their own expenses? It can be incredibly empowering for children to find out they have the ability to can save for the things they want most.

    1. Thanks. I discussed the idea of getting a job cutting grass and baby’s sitting to them. I just asked our little league about umpire training too since he’s old enough for that.

  117. Hi Sue, thanks for sharing your story! Just wanted to chime in about meal planning/prepping. I have been able to drastically reduce my food budget since I’ve gotten serious about meal planning. But it takes a lot of energy and time and even when you get good at it, it can still be tiring. And you may find yourself saying no to things because you’ve got to stay home to make your kale and sausage stew. But whenever I start second guessing my decision to spend a Saturday evening chopping veggies for a vat of stew, I try to remember that having debt saps even more energy than making stew!

  118. Hi Sue,

    So many great tips have already been offered but I thought I’d share my two cents that hasn’t been mentioned and that you might find helpful.

    I agree with everyone above who mentioned discussing money and budgeting with your children is extremely important. For a structured way in how to go about this I suggest an Australian book that is about to be released called ‘The Barefoot Investor for Families: The only kids’ money guide you’ll ever need’ by Scott Paper. It’s a money managing guide for families and designed to teach children from 2-18 about money.

    The reason I suggest his book because I am a big fan of his original book designed for managing money as a couple. I believe his principles are similar to Dave Ramsay and he subscribes to frugal and concious spending principles.

    Good luck with your journey!

  119. Hi Sue! Thank you for sharing. Your kids seem to be at a great age to learn so much from your situation so I would recommend including them… maybe even let them read this post. You may be surprised at how willing they are to help you both reach your financial goals. They are also at an age where they can certainly help with weekly food prepping, maybe Sundays for a few hours during a time slot that works.

    My parents never discussed finances with us but we all knew how much they struggled when we were children. As an adult, I’m not sure I agree with them leaving us in the dark so much as it could have been a great learning opportunity for us all and possibly kept us from making huge (repeat) financial mistakes as adults.

  120. Sue,
    I’m always impressed that people are brave enough to be case studies. Our situation isn’t as tough as yours, but we’re near retirement age with one kid in high school, one in college, and not enough savings. One thing we have been able to drastically save on is groceries. Each one of us in our household has health-related food restrictions (including anaphylactic allergies) so we are mainly gluten-free. One of my kids is vegetarian, and we eat pretty strictly organic, not just fruits and veggies. We used to easily spend $800-$1200/month on groceries and a few non-food items. Now it’s $450-$550, and I’m working to get it down to $400. I’d say, hands down, the one thing that made the difference is keeping a Price Book. (This is an idea I learned about in the ’90s reading The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczn. As other people have said, some of it is dated, but her approach was a game-changer for a lot of us and is still worth reading. It’s probably at your local library–maybe even in ebook form now–or at your husband’s university library. If none of those, I’d still recommend looking for a cheap, used copy.) The point of the price book is to write down the regular (and sale) prices of most things you regularly buy and the prices at different stores you can/do shop. This way you can see which store regularly has the best price on, say, GF pasta and how often the sales come up

    Along with making a price book (which you can easily do on your phone), be open to shopping at more than one store AND to changing stores. I used to shop at Whole Foods for almost everything until I found Sprouts. Then a Natural Grocers opened near me and I added it to the mix. I used to get caught up thinking that the produce was better at Whole Foods. One day I realized it was just that the entire shopping experience was nice there; I liked the way the store was laid out, the music was decent, etc. Now I’m careful not to pay extra for “the experience.” I shop where I get the best value for my money. Also, since I shop at a few stores, I don’t try to do it all one day. When I do shop, I ALWAYS batch my errands which saves on time and gas. If I need to go to Trader Joe’s, I plan it for a day when I can also do something else in that part of town. OK, I’m sure you get the idea.

    I’d also suggest that you take a look at whether you’re spending more on groceries because you’re paying for convenience. Are you buying pre-cut fruit or veggies? Buying from the deli? I think a key thing to saving money on food is to buy INGREDIENTS and keep your fridge/freezer/pantry stocked with foods to cook with, not prepared meals. Even if you don’t meal plan–some people are awesome at it, I’m a little more “what needs to be used up today or tomorrow?” planner–having the ingredients on hand will still save you money because you can always throw something together.

    If you need some more food-saving inspiration besides all of Mrs. FW’s great posts, check out these blogs: The Frugal Girl, The Non-Consumer Advocate, and The Prudent Homemaker. Good luck! Can’t wait to read your update!

    1. Wow! A price book sounds really organized but I like it. I hate shopping at all and I think this is part of my problem. I need to be organized with a list and bang it out!

  121. When times were financially difficult we told our 12 and 16 year old that they could only play one sport a year.Theychoose baseball and took a job umpiring to pay the fee

    1. Ooh I like that! I’ll ask my little league about ump training. They had it last spring for 13 and over but we couldn’t make it. Thanks!

  122. Here is a gift idea that I am always happy to receive- one or two plates of cake/cookies/sweet or savory pie of any sort. Your kids can help you make it. If people are not happy to receive that, then give up on pleasing them. You can also make a nice card and write something sweet in it. Also, be happy with accepting modest gifts and tell people to only give small modest gifts to you and explain that you are saving for your debts/retirement etc. You could also always offer a sleepover weekend for close family and friends and give a special birthday cake dinner with a sleepover or tent in the garden for kids. That would be fun. Tell people that is all you’d expect back from them too. It also saves endless wasteful consumption of materials/plastic too, so it’s a very eco and frugal gifting experience. Maybe sing them a song and give them 10 hugs too, for their birthday? Do a dance and play an instrument? Cost is free and no eco waste! Include a one hour nature walk with the gift? Include a gift facial by you or a foot massage? No wasted materials and no money cost. Have fun! Maybe tell your close friends and family that you are trying to pay down debt and save for retirement- they might be struggling financially too. If they reject you then they are FAKE friends.

    1. We like to bake so thanks for that idea! We can definitely cut back on spending on the parties and have sleepovers or camp. Thanks!

      1. I would keep Netflix, as at $10 a month it is good value for money, for home fun, and good for sleepovers for kids to enjoy. But, I would fully cancel paid movies/entertainment out of your home and any meals paid for out of home. I’d also encourage family and friends to drop into your home and drop their kids off at your home, to save on car fuel usage, instead of you picking kids up. Offer people a free hot drink and make your home the local cafe. Hot drinks are cheap to make, and then you see people and chat so much. Just avoid feeding everyone!
        Try to focus on super fun birthday sleepovers at your home, with home baking, Netflix, and old fashioned fun, and also offer this as a babysitting birthday gift for the kids of friends and family you know- a babysitting gift for parents, for a weekend is a huge gift, but does not cost you much to give, just a bit of simple food.

  123. We we’re in a similar situation about ten years ago and we started listening to the Dave Ramsey podcasts and reading his book. We took Financial Peace university as well. It helped tremendously. We are now on the other side with healthy retirement accounts and cash savings and we have honed our budgeting skills. I highly recommend Dave Ramsey for learning new behaviors and paying off debt. Best I’d lick to both of you!

    1. Thank you! It’s so helpful to hear people that have actually made these changes after being our situation. It felt impossible until this case study

  124. My husband and I have been on track with frugality and saving the past few years and it has really made a wonderful difference – even though we got a late start (in our 70’s).

    I heartily agree with all your suggestions.

    Re: College for your children – your kids will be much better off in life if they are not “handed” a college education! You already are providing them a wonderful contribution of free tuition at your school. Motivate them to do their best during high school years so they can pursue scholarships, grants, etc., and plan to work. Even if a person needs to take off a year to earn money to continue schooling, that is not a detriment to them – rather, an opportunity for them to avoid DEBT and to learn important lessons about the management of their finances. By being transparent with them about your financial situation now and the changes you are making to change course, you are setting an example for them. View this as an opportunity for a very teachable moment to lay a foundation in their lives for more responsible (and, I might say, happier/successful) lives.

  125. Sue’s case study demonstrated how many people are in her shoes. Despite great educational credentials and income it is possible to be barely getting by. My family didn’t teach us much money management but our parents were clear when we did not have much you pare back everything.
    It was not until years later when I found the tightwad gazette that I ramped up savings. It was a challenge to pare back. Among the areas not previously mentioned here I made sure not to waste any food, used a drying rack for most of our clothes ( at the time every dryer load cost .75 cents) bought clothes at thrift stores, resolved shoes, and put on killer birthday parties are under $20. Once it became a challenge it was about joy not deprivation. Money unspent went into college savings, retirement savings and made our future dreams possible. Go Sue, you can do this. And keep us all posted.

      1. Sue, it’s been a real inspiration to read your story and the comments, which I think will help me a lot too.

        I second the drying rack and/or outdoor clothesline. I have a dryer, but the only things that go in there are sheets and, occasionally, towels. Everything else dries on the rack. Not using the dryer saves energy and utility costs, AND clothes last a lot longer. Colors don’t fade and elastic/spandex doesn’t wear out nearly as fast. If you find rack/line dried towels are too rough, you can throw them in the dryer for just a few minutes after line drying to soften them up.

  126. The most valuable life lesson I had on money growing up was watching my parents divide my father’s paycheque into envelopes to pay the bills for the month and visibly see just how little money was left at the end – after there had been this big stack of bills when they had started. Including your children in the family finances can be a very good thing – it helps them realize that there isn’t a bottomless pit of cash for them to spend on wants or even needs.
    One alternative to a CSA that I’ve been trying this year is the “imperfect produce” movement – that sells fruits and vegetables that are historically deemed not appropriate for consumer sale due to shape or size or blemish. In my city we now have delivery both of local, organic, multi-sized boxes of fruits/vegetables that would have been disposed of in landfill, sent for fertilizer or fed to livestock. I’ve yet to receive any that is of unacceptable quality [but if you do, they will replace it] – and only a couple have been super funky shaped!. Price point is great and keeping me out of the grocery store – saves me money on impulse buys.
    I additionally have been wheat-free for >20 years – in my mind – it all comes down to planning, cooking/baking at home and avoiding commercial versions of equivalent products. You buy a store bought WF/GF cupcake, cookie or cracker you’ve spent enough to buy the ingredients for an entire batch at home. Use the internet, find a recipe you like – and if you don’t – adapt your eating style to go without. I’m not willing to spend 6-8 dollars for a loaf of bread. So, I don’t eat many sandwiches. I’m okay with that, I don’t think it tastes that great anyway.

    1. You can use “Monopoly” money to demonstrate the paycheck. As you found, it has a stronger impact to see the actual bills, rather than just a list of amounts.
      It has been very exciting to read all the comments on this case study, over only three days! (I have to hit “refresh” when I return to the page, as all the comments don’t seem to load automatically). Great to see Sue and her kids have already prepared for some changes! They seem to be a family who wishes to work together.

    2. Yes. We like to. She from scratch. My kids mostly like the sandwiches. I can’t keep up with trying to bake the amount of gf bread products they eat! It’s a large expense.

  127. Hi Sue. I want to wish you well and say that I believe you and your family can and will succeed. I also want to add just a few things that I don’t think have been mentioned yet:

    1. I have found tracking my net worth to be a great motivator. I keep a simple spreadsheet and update it monthly. It will really help you to see your progress. http://www.budgetsaresexy.com/net-worth

    2. Consider joining a Buy Nothing Group in your area. It may help you to procure items that you need for free, help you to declutter, and help you build relationships within your community. https://buynothingproject.org

    3. Restaurant.com may prove to be a handy tool for the occasional night out for you and your husband.

  128. Hi Sue, congrats on the progress already! Say, are you able to bike to and from work? Might save some gas cost and work a little exercise into your day.
    I know you are not in favor of this, but in your shoes I would look to sell the house and rent in the same school district. I know it’s $2k, but that includes all maintenance and potentially fewer headaches and bills. And it’s a good time to sell a home now. I just wanted to support that idea, but I know it’s very hard to consider. Regardless, good luck to you and your family!

  129. Apologies if this had already been mentioned and I missed it.
    My suggestion is to have a massive clean out of your home and sell everything possible.
    A huge garage sale, consignment shops, eBay, etc.
    The kids could choose a treat of doing something special with a portion of the funds.
    The family pulls together is a great lesson.
    In my work with teens, those I see who are doing the best are those who feel important in the work of the family.
    Bless you for being such generous parents. The kids can be givers as well.

  130. Hi Sue! I’m a public librarian from CNY and I work closely with social workers. I know firsthand what a difference you make in the lives of your clients. Thank you for all the ways you serve your community! I’m writing because I want to make sure you have the information you need and deserve about loan forgiveness programs.
    First, here is a link to information about loan forgiveness programs specific to New York State: https://www.hesc.ny.gov/repay-your-loans/repayment-options-assistance/loan-forgiveness-cancellation-and-discharge.html
    You may want to consider the Licensed Social Worker loan forgiveness program: https://studentloanhero.com/student-loan-repayment-assistance-programs/new-york-state-licensed-social-worker-student-loan-forgiveness-program/
    The rest of the website, http://www.studentloanhero.com, offers tips on various other methods of loan forgiveness. The big one is Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF): https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/public-service
    If you or your husband have Federal Direct Loans and work full-time for s qualifying employer such as New York State, you can have the balance of your loans wiped out after 120 on time, income-based payments. I think PLSF could really help you. Why spend money paying back loans when they can be forgiven? Here’s one more website with tips for doing PSLF: https://www.studentloanplanner.com/public-service-loan-forgiveness/
    Again, thanks for all you do!

  131. Liz, that was spot on tough love, thank you for that! Since that isn’t your usual mode of operation, it demonstrates your concern is warrented and your approach justified. Sue, what a smart move to reach out for help and be so honest! There are aspects of your story that I relate to: wanting to give your kids everything is the main one. My husband and I had always planned to pay for both our kids bachelors degrees, but just when they were both in college, the 2008 stock market crash happened and we lost a third of our retirement. I wanted to keep paying for the kids school but a wise person said to me what Liz said to you. A better gift you can give your kids is parents that they won’t have to take care of… So my kids took out student loans. They got their education and before they did anything extravagant, they both paid off their loans 100%! They had such a sense of pride doing that. I realized, letting them pay their own way made them better people and made them appreciate their education. Both (son and daughter like you have) are frugal and responsible. Neither has ever bought a new car nor bought a used car on credit. They are 31 and 29 and although both own homes, their only debts are their mortgages and they have been socking away in their retirement accounts since their first jobs. Your kids will make you proud too. Like Liz said, tell them what’s going on and let them learn by your side. I wish you all the best! Raini

  132. Thank you so much for sharing your case study Sue! I love this blog (great job Liz!), but it is sometimes hard for folks like me (who weren’t born with a frugal muscle in their body) to translate the lifestyle of the already financially independent into the reality of my hectic, full time working mom reality (like when does all this meal planning, prep and freezing happening?!) You seem very open and committed to making a change and the people who have commented already have so many good suggestions. I sincerely wish you and your family a smooth transition into a more frugal life. From my own experience, be aware that it may not be a straight line to financial reform. You have a lot of suggestions to try, things to look into and changes to make and I would encourage you to pace yourself so you don’t get burnt out. It is not necessarily how drastic the change, but your ability to maintain that change over along period of time that will help you succeed. I have also found that my family were initially very receptive and keen, but quickly grew tired of hearing that things were not in the current budget…or we are saving for x so can’t buy y right now. The pressure to spend has grown again over time. Old habits die hard I guess…especially for kids who have only known a life of abundance. I think we can all shape our own path and you clearly know where you want to be and now you know how to get there. You are in a wonderful position to have a wonderful life and I look forward to hearing about your successes as you move through this journey! Mrs. Frugalwoods…any chance you have plans to add a forum? All the best!!

    1. Thank you! It is a lot to take in sinkidt starting somewhere (like my daughter bought her school clothes with birthday money yesterday and I now have a giant cat of FE beans and rice in my fridge-btw can I freeze that Liz?!) these were not hard at all and I already feel better and then completely panicked wanting to do it all now! So thanks for the advise

      1. Hi Sue: that’s great! You can probably freeze the rice-n-beans (I’ve actually never tried it), but it will likely be fine if a bit mushy after thawing. Good luck :)!!!!

  133. Thank you so much for sharing your story! I see Dave Ramsey has been mentioned a couple of times. I love his book the Total money makeover. The 0 dollar based budget was SUCH an eye opener to me: making a budget before the month begins, giving every dollar (or Euro in my case) a name felt so liberating!
    When we started realising we were in trouble, we were 175000 Euro’s in debt with a combined income of 40000. We had a baby on the way and we also did not have a healthy place to live. We also did not own anything so yeah we needed help haha. The Total money make over gave us the courage to start making changes. Now, three years later, we are down to 150000 Euro’s in debt and a combined income of just about 65000. We also live in a safe and healthy house now. The numbers still feel realy dounting to me but we are getting there. With the right priorities clearly shown by our 0dollar based budget, it will be clear what our next step will have to be.
    Looking at your finances… I would consider moving to a house with a smaller payment. This is ofcourse a huge thing… and I have no expertise whatsoever on the housing market in the US and I am also not a financial expert, so I am sorry if this is offending in any way. But a minimum payment of more than $2200 seems big to me so maybe this could give you some wiggle room.

    I wish you all the best!!! I am sure you will be doing GREAT!

  134. Our cable bill was very high; we cancelled it and purchased YouTube TV for $35/month on which we can watch most channels including live sports. This has saved a lot of money each month.

  135. I just want to send a note of encouragement on transitioning to a simpler lifestyle including going vegan. I had read Mrs. Frugalwoods posts on what frugal people eat and didn’t think we could do it because a lot of diabetics in our family on low carb high protein meat based diets. But later after watching the film Forks Over Knives, we went cold turkey vegan in a day. It was so easy and after going vegan for only a few weeks our health improved dramatically including my daughter’s asthma which used to cost over $500/ month went away completely. My mother’s diabetes totally reversed in 3 months. Dr. John McDougall’s work teaches how to reverse auto immune disorders with plant based diet. So I just want to thank Mrs. Frugalwoods for sparking interest in this way of eating. The savings aren’t just with the food itself but also with healthcare costs. All the best to you Sue and Dan as you embark upon this new adventure filled with financial peace and joy!

    1. That’s amazing! I’m so happy for your family! I’m the only veg in the family but they will be eating healthier too if we eat at home only.

  136. Hi Sue-your future is certainly looking brighter now that you’ve come clean and faced the financial elephant in the room so to speak! You’ve got the numbers, and Mrs. FW great advice to get you started. Get going with those loan forgiveness programs, shop organic at Aldi or online, put yourselves on a weekly cash budget(once the money is gone its gone) while aggressively paying down the cc’s/auto loans. Fix your van(maybe ask for a cash discount or find another mechanic to do the repairs for less), and try to start saving for a replacement. I like driving our cars forever and paying cash for them. I’d encourage family time and simplifying being your focus for frugality-be it cooking more at home, less activities making you drive around, etc. I’d let the kids decide on an activity to do with the family, and let them create meals as well. Also, let them still pursue sports but try to be creative about how to keep doing them(maybe one can coach a little league, walk dogs, babysit, or work at the tumbling place helping with little kids/sell old equipment to pay for their expenses). Seriously if I had a bunch of little boys I’d love a 13 yo to come play with them and teach them baseball. I started babysitting at 12 for neighbors and by the time I was 28 I was still babysitting on the side!! Once kids work for money they’ll really start valueing all you’ve done for them, and will probably choose to go to your husbands university on their own. Try to hint to the extended family that big gifts aren’t happening anymore-and pick up the phone more, invite them over just to hang out. They’ll notice you making an effort to show your love for them instead of just buying them stuff. Anyway, I recommend that you have an efund as soon as you can, then savings for repairs to your home and cars. That will bring you peace of mind!! And I can not wait until we hear an update of how well you are doing!! Good luck:)

    1. Btw-we’re not doing any extra activities in September so the kids have a nice transition going back to school and not overextending themselves. I think it’s a nice break for our family…honestly I think all these kids want/need is more time with us.

      1. Kids need downtime. Heck, adults (parents or otherwise) need downtime. Brain and body need a break.

        1. Agreed. My kids go to a demanding, ultra-competitive private school and they also both do sports/dance/other activities. I make sure there are chunks of the year where they do NOTHING. It is important or kids will start having behavioral problems! (Parents need this too).

  137. I agree with everything Mrs. Frugalwoods said 100%! It’s all the same advice I would have given. Cut up the credit cards and never use them again. Eliminate gift-giving. Stop eating out/cook more at home. (I also recommend they consider starting a garden, it is a much cheaper way to generate organic produce).

    I was a resident assistant (RA) in college and I got free room and board for 3 years this way. I also had a full-tuition academic scholarship so I went to undergraduate college for free (though I went into debt for grad school—now paid off). I worked at least 25 hours a week for my entire college and grad-school career and still graduated Summa Cum Laude (at elite institutions, too!), so it is totally doable! The kids need to be prepared for this now, they should really be getting summer jobs/side jobs during the school year and contributing to the costs of their sports. Also, NO PRIVATE LESSONS. You clearly can’t afford them, so stick to sports that are offered for low cost (or free!) via the kids’ schools, since it looks like you live in a good school district which should offer them.

    I also agree that income needs to be increased in addition to all the steep cutting of expenditures. Your kids are old enough now that you should be able to do this. In addition to the kids getting jobs when they are legally able to do so (even mowing lawns or babysitting), they need to understand that you have financial needs to plan for (retirement and college costs) that will directly affect them throughout their lives. Seeing psychotherapy clients even 2 days per month (perhaps you and your husband could split the appointments so you each took 2 full days per month, or 4 days per month for the household) to bring in that extra income. Given the debt loads this close to retirement and little/no retirement savings, this is a MUST.

    Last but not least—if your house has gone up in value, have you considered selling it, using the profits to pay down more debt, and downsizing (like to a condo in the same school district) NOW? Might be cramped with the kids, but well worth considering.

  138. Give your kids a small ($5 to $10) amount and have them come up with bday presents for their friends or kids in the family. My kids totally got into this. Favorite gifts were boxes of junky cereal (easy to wrap and ALWAYS a hit, who doesn’t love Cap’n Crunch?), microwave popcorn, dollar store toys for little kids, stuffed animals from thrift store (wash!!!!), strange T shirts from thrift store (for teens), etc.

    Our family used to spend like yours when my hubby made big bucks in IT management, but he ditched the career to pursue his passion (ventriloquism!) when the kids were teenagers. It was a family choice and challenging, but totally worth it. Our family got closer as a result. All 3 girls are now college grads who know how to live frugally. Which especially helps our oldest who is a stuntwoman in LA and lives on very little so she can pursue her passion.

    You can DO this!

    1. Thank you! This is really awesome! My husband is pretty content in his job, me, not so much. I hope to get that fulfillment with private practice at some point so maybe I won’t want to retire then!

  139. Someone else mentioned this, but I don’t think it was addressed. Is Dan taking the train an option? It would save a ton of money and add valuable productivity time to his day.

  140. Hi Sue! First, I want to echo everyone and say congrats for taking this step to share your situation and open yourself up to advice.

    Second, I want to say that you’ve been getting SO much great advice by the awesome Frugalwoods community, but don’t let yourself get too overwhelmed. Make an excel sheet, word doc, etc list of these recommendations, and go through them with your husband and kids where appropriate. I have never submitted a case study before but I can only imagine how overwhelming it gets to try to soak in all of this advice!

    Third, I want to say that I wish my parents were like you – interested in learning how to be frugal and asking for help. They are in exactly the same situation as you, only their kids are older. I’m 26 and I’m worried about my parents ability to retire and care for themselves financially as they age. I know they don’t mean to stress me out, as I’m sure no parent wants to, but it really does make me fearful that I will be financially responsible for them, and I just don’t have the money for that. (They didn’t talk about money to me so I’ve got some financial problems of my own – thanks Mrs. Frugalwoods for all of your help getting me in the right direction!!) You need to know that your kids will worry about this someday – use this as a motivator to make changes now! I’ve been reading your replies and comments and know you’re excited and engaged and ready to go, and I just wanted to throw this in as an additional incentive. Best of luck to you, I know you can do it!!

  141. I have never seen this many comments before! I think there may be a lot more people in your situation than you may think. There are a lot of ideas for homemade gifts and that is what we do. Drawing names is also a good idea. We pull names at thanksgiving. The kids get more than one gift though. Also giving gifts of time is great. My daughter’s 2 grown step sisters give gifts of time. An afternoon of skating around Greenlake together, going to the beach, that type of thing. These are just as valuable to my tween as an item.
    Food is a big item and I get it if you have an auto immune illness. One of the women i work with spends over a grand a month for her and her daughter on super, high quality food and supplements. Grass fed meat, protein powders, organic veggies and fruit. If you are staying away from inflammation producing food, it’s expensive. Roasted veggies is a good, filling meal. Sweet potatoes, cruciferous veggies, parsnips, carrots, etc. You can make huge batches weekly and pick which foods keep inflammation down. I make 2 enormous pans full at a time and eat all week on them. Add some nitrate free organic bacon as an accent and it stretches the meat. I personally feel deprived without meat, but we never eat giant portions, just good quality and we are satisfied.

  142. Also, beans are tough for people with inflammatory illnesses. I suggest cutting out sugar in your diet if you haven’t already. I thought I was reacting to all sorts of foods, then I stopped adding sugar thruout my day and I react very little now to anything else. All bloat is gone when I stopped eating sugar. I still eat a couple servings of fruit daily, but no candy, juice, sugar in my tea, etc.

  143. Sue, thank you so much for sharing your story. I wanted to comment on something I didn’t see much of in the responses.

    Try to find free exercise activities in your area. I go to free yoga classes at the Lululemon and Athleta stores in town, there is free yoga-in-the-park in the summer, my library has evening exercise classes, and there are always local hiking or running groups to connect with. I totally understand the barrier to working out at home (toddler, dog, and two cats make yoga at home all but impossible!) but there are lots of free options if you look!

    Also, I saw a few folks mentioned getting an antenna for tv. We bought one on Amazon and hung it up on 3-M hooks on the living room wall. Plus we get streaming NHL game center and MLB TV subscriptions (MLB cost is reduced if you just get the playoffs and not the whole season). It gives us plenty of sports except for Monday Night Football. If I really want to watch my team play on a Monday, I could go to a bar but after cutting cable, I find it’s just not that important. I’ll see them next Sunday on broadcast. 😉

    Good luck with everything. This is a great adventure and I hope you find that your family enjoys coming together for a common goal! We certainly did in my house.

  144. Sue – Thank you so much for sharing your case study. I’ve been thinking about your case study ever since it came out. As a parent of 2 high schoolers I understand competing priorities under the pressure of a count down clock to HS graduation. This may or may not apply to your situation but I think it’s worth sharing. I was gobsmacked several years ago when I decided to track our expenditures related to youth sports. Initially I did not pinpoint that it was a financial black hole but I had a nagging feeling it might be a larger line item than I thought. For one year I jotted down every single expenditure related to sports. I did not alter my spending, I just wrote it down with a date, amount and note. Similar to Vicki Robin’s “no shame, no blame” approach in Your Money or Your Life. Imagine my horror when I sat down to tally the result. Every registration fee, roll of tape, uniform, new set of shoes/equipment/gear, miles on the car to/from practices, games and tournaments. (If your husband drives the Prius 3 days/wk to from work and you work 5 mins from home I imagine a chunk of your gas budget goes to shuttling to/from sporting practices, clinics, games and tournaments.) Every clinic that was not mandatory but was attended by the other kids on the team. I included meals that we ended up eating on the run but otherwise would have eaten at home had we not been shuttling to/from activities. I calculated mileage and assigned a cost of $0.50/mile. Finally, I calculated the lost opportunity cost spent waiting for practices to finish, or while arriving early for a game and sitting through games and then driving home. Our whole family derived a great deal of enjoyment from these activities. In the beginning. But slowly it drained our energy and our finances. We had afternoons and weekends split up while shuttling one child to one location and taking another to a different practice at a different place. The final tally for our $1500 team fee for 7 months of team togetherness, practices, games, etc? Close to $8,500. Did we stick with it? Yes. But now we had the knowledge of the “true cost” of participation. We made it one more season. That season resulted in a USA Hockey National Championship win with all of the state, regional and national tournament travel, fees, meals, practices and accommodations. The win was a huge accomplishment for our child and the team but at what cost. I had continued tracking sport related expenses. Guess how much that National Championship win ended up costing? $18,000. Over time we had a series of discussions as a couple and with our kids. Our player “retired” from travel sports and signed on at the high school. Not everything is covered at the high school level. We still pay for team apparel, equipment bags, pre-season and in-season clinics that the team signs up for, meals out and for our player when the team plays away. The cost is significantly less but it is also not $0. Caveat emptor. Based on our experience I wonder how many other families are burning through thousands of dollars in the name of youth sports. We found a way out. I hope you all will take an honest look as well. It may not be the drain that it was for us. But my guess is that it might be more than you think. We are all cheering for you. Every journey starts with the first step.

    1. Hi! Thanks for this. I think it’s so true with the sports spending. It’s been a slow acceptance of how expensive basic sport are since we first started them 8 years ago. I feel sad that kids can’t do them and we are stressed trying to keep them in sports. But yes I am looking forward to that decreasing after this year!

    2. Hockey Mom– Very interesting! Thank you for posting the details!
      Note that a child in sports also becomes the parents’ hobby, vacation time, etc., and that affects all the children in the family.

      As appropriate and available, consider other children’s options: 4-H, scouting, church or city choirs or bands, community theatre, volunteer groups, summer programs of various types, and so on.

      And with the switch to high school, encourage students to look for activities and clubs there. Bluntly, arts, speech, and journalism, (theatre, band, choir, orchestra, debate, speech team, school paper, year book, etc.), have all taken huge hits in participation with the increase in sports activities and the time they require over the last few decades, (in my opinion, since Title IX required equal opportunities for girls, and since the professionalizing of little kids sports on up).

      Growing numbers of high schools seem to have volunteer activities and clubs, perhaps combined with honor societies. Academic options, like science olympiad and math competitions, are also options, as well as career-directed groups, (what used to be called FFA, FHA, Business, Health, and more). Without sports time requirements of in-season and off-season, it might even be possible to follow several interests.

  145. Wow it’s so great to see all these wonderful supportive comments and ideas. Really awesome to take your future financial plan and current lifestyle expenses to Mrs. F and receive her priceless pearls of wisdom which I hope inspire you to implement the things that will help you start on the path to a really super awesome satisfying and frugal future.
    There is so much joy to be had by doing this yourself and realizing once you chip away at some of the debt it’s a fun game that reaps financial rewards and freedom.
    Best of luck!! You got this!!

  146. Way to go Sue for putting your questions and budget out to the world. The comments and feedback in this forum are so amazing. Please know that you aren’t alone when it comes to managing budgets and gifts and trying to make dinner after working! The tips here are def. motivating me to make some changes as well.

    Not sure if this has been mentioned, but could family gifts for the kids be cash to go toward their sports? I totally get reducing clothing, xbox and toy purchases, but it would be a shame for them to give up their sports. My mother in law doesn’t give toys to her grandkids, but instead pays for swimming, ski or music lessons for the year. Helps the parents and the kids get to pick their favourite thing and not have to worry. Another thought – your kids are getting older – could they do odd jobs for their grandparents/family for a bit of extra cash? I often have my tall strapping nephews come over for a couple of hours to move stuff and then I gift them some cash.

    1. Thanks! Yes they do wirk for my mother and I’m definetly looking into more job ideas for the boy since he’s almost 14! Thanks for the idea to pay for sports as a Christmas or bday gift! Def will mention it!

  147. wow so many replies, so much support for this couple! Sue you touched a chord with all respondents; we all struggle to keep finances orderly. But once begun, and seeing the results, you will feel so successful! I encourage you to “go cash” at first, after making your budget, put your weekly amounts for food, gas, & other weeklys into small jars, when they are empty, so is your fund for that week. period. it worked for me for 60 years now and paid off in the end for sure. good luck, lots of support out there. ann lee s

  148. Hi Sue,
    Some things that have worked well for our family that might work for yours too:
    As I discovered after freezing a bunch of meals while pregnant with my first child, I loathe most freezer meals. But, over the years I’ve discovered that I don’t mind frozen ingredients so I do that instead. I will pre-make and freeze sauces (pasta sauces w/lots of veggies, pesto (basil, kale, parsley), veggie broth (so easy to start on a weekend morning – just collect and freeze veggies from your other meal prep), cooked meat, cooked rice, cooked beans, homemade pizza dough etc. I pull things to defrost that morning in the fridge and meals are easy to assemble in the evenings with little time and a few fresh additions.
    – We opened 529 plans for our kids and let relatives know that that was an option for birthday and holiday giving. Some relatives aren’t interested, but others have chosen to split their gifts so our boys might receive one wanted item from grandparents and a 529 contribution. It has been a great conversation with the kids about the cost of college. It sounds like you have tuition covered, but I believe a 529 can also help cover things like books.
    – I have a shopping list on my computer for different stores based on what I buy there (aka what they have the best prices on). So for instance when I am planning a trip to Costco I print out that list, compare it to my meal plan/ household budget, circle the items I am buying/write in anything not on the list and off I go. It really helps me avoid the ‘deals’ with a pre-printed list.

    1. This sounds doable and amazingly organized! Being organized is something I really work on but is not my natural self so thank you for these ideas!

      1. I’m not naturally organized either (you should see the state of my car!). So if I can do it, anyone can. 🙂

  149. Wow, there are so many great comments and advice attached to this post. I am late to the party, but my one thing to add is that once you decide on your plans forward, to set a date with your husband (and/or whole family) once a month to track progress and see what you need to focus on in the upcoming month. My husband and I do this on the last day of the month after the kids go to bed. We update our spreadsheet and discuss if there are any “once a year” bills coming up, and if we need to change anything in our spending/saving. Just having a set time to talk about things keeps us on track. With work and kids… we’d never get to it otherwise.

  150. Hi, I am late to the party, and have not read through all the many comments, but thought I would chime in anyway – it is likely that my suggestions have already been made. First off, congratulations for deciding to get your finances in order. I am a single mom by choice- had my two kids on my own so only ever one income. My take home is very similar to Dan’s, my mortgage payment is similar to yours ($200 higher) and I live in the very expensive Boston suburbs. I am 58 and my oldest just started college yesterday, my youngest is 15. On take home pay very similar to Dan’s I was able to save $50K in a 529 for the oldest and am on track to have the same for the 15-year-old. I have no debt other than mortgage. One of the biggest issues I see is the exorbitant $225 a month for Verizon cell phones! I have a $40/month plan with Verizon (prepaid, unlimited text and calls, 3GB data). My kids have always been on Ting for a total of $30-40 a month, so that was three phones for $70-80. I JUST switched my oldest to my prepaid plan (because the location of his college has no reception with Ting). Adding him was and additional $30 for again, unlimited texts and phone and 3GB Data. The youngest is still on Ting. I would suggest investigating the Verizon prepaid plans.

    I live in a climate similar to yours and have gas heat and central air. My HIGHEST monthly bills are $175 for each. My totals are $1000-1300 a year for each utility, depending on how hot or cold the winter and summers are. If $175 is your average for each, seems like you have space to change you habits and save significant money there?

    Next, the take out/eat out of $200 a month or $2400 a year is easy pickings! Just don’t do it! We only eat out a few times a year and no one seems to miss it. I think you might also lower your standards a bit on “healthy food” and find places like Aldi’s to shop. I spend 4around $400 a month and feed two teen boys. Mostly homemade food, very little prepared meals. A combination of Aldi’s, Costco, Farmers Markets and local chain grocery store.

    $100 a month for chirstmas over and above all the other gifts also seems very highly excessive. I am sure others have commented on this.

    As far as Netflix goes – perhaps you can combine efforts with another family, I think Netflix allows 5 users or something like that. I share Netflix and Hulu with my sister, so we cut our spending there in half.

    I want to wish you luck! I think you just have to realize that you simply don’t have the money to support the lifestyle you have become used to and that you just have to change your ways. You can’t always get/have what you want! Your income is really very high! Hopefully with some adjustment, Mrs. Furgalwoods advice and some self-realization you will get on track!

    Good luck!

    1. To clarify; we own al lof our cell phones and never purcance from the provider! (buy second hand phones from Swappa) so are not stuck with any plan. I have had Verizon for 20 years (and stick with it becasue of their good coverage which I need for work travel), butdefinately stopped with the typical contract plans years ago. I like the freedom to switch anytime, like I just did with my son’s Ting-Verizon plan.

    2. You are so right! I realize our frivolous spending must sound ridiculous to many here and you’re right it’s just discipline and changing bad habits so the positive feedback and advise has been incredible! Thanks for yours! Knowing people do this all the time is so so helpful!

  151. Just wanted to thank everyone again for the time and thoughts here on behalf of looking out for my and my family’s future. It turkey feels like the most I unconditionally loving thing I’ve received from so many strangers ever! It’s been a week and wanted to update on some small changes we made:
    1. Talked to kids and hubby. Gave it to them straight and explained how we were making significant changes because we have too much debt and so we don’t have to live with them when they are thirty (teenagers eyes widened)
    2. Cancelled cable +$55
    3. Made FW beans and rice and another curry and ate all week with salad (for lunch AND dinner) didn’t eat any take out (besides one iced tea that i realized after I bought it that I wasn’t doing that anymore…progress)
    4. Decided to forgo $300 hotel
    Room for family to go to wedding and will bunk with mom and sister for $100.
    5. Fixed car. No car Payment now! Fingers crossed it last another 10 years
    6. Turned off AC this week (temps went below 80 which is tolerable for me) discovered how nice it feels and the rain, birds and crickets sound wonderful
    7. Kids bought sneakers and some school clothes with their own money from bdays or working for my mom
    8. Intervening for a promotion soon although will be a commute but will be a good step to continue to increase my income and pension. Considering this vs second job with outpatient clinic
    9. Saw cute but very small house for much less than it current house in current school district . Will explore this idea further. Hubby likes our current house! I feel stressed by it because I want to make repairs or plant flowers or buy a weed wacker and we can’t do anything.
    10. Hung clothes out to dry instead of clothes dryer. Need a drying rack and clothes line! Like the smell of clean clothes as they dry in my house. Husband looks concerned but excited to see me working at this.
    11. Planning a garage sale for next weekend!
    12. Feeling lucky to have the option of paying stuff off with lifestyle changes mostly on our current salaries. Changes that won’t feel like a huge sacrifices once we change these spending habits. Starting to feel in control and strong!
    Thank you so so much Frugal Friends at Frugalwoods for being in our corner!!