Reader Case Study: A Doula, A Scientist & Three Kids in Alaska
Kait and her husband Dave live in Alaska with their three young children. Kait works as a Postpartum Doula and Dave as a scientist for the state. They love their outdoorsy lifestyle and have created an incredibly close-knit community with their neighbors and friends. However, their beloved home has some serious structural issues that need to be remediated, but will likely be very expensive. Let’s travel to Alaska to help Kait and Dave determine what to do next.
What’s a Reader Case Study?
Case Studies address financial and life dilemmas that readers of Frugalwoods send in requesting advice. Then, we (that’d be me and YOU, dear reader) read through their situation and provide advice, encouragement, insight and feedback in the comments section.
For an example, check out the last case study. Case Studies are updated by participants (at the end of the post) several months after the Case is featured. Visit this page for links to all updated Case Studies.
The Goal Of Reader Case Studies
Reader Case Studies intend to highlight a diverse range of financial situations, ages, ethnicities, locations, goals, careers, incomes, family compositions and more!
The Case Study series began in 2016 and, to date, there’ve been 80 Case Studies. I’ve featured folks with annual incomes ranging from $17k to $200k+ and net worths ranging from -$300k to $2.9M+.
I’ve featured single, married, partnered, divorced, child-filled and child-free households. I’ve featured gay, straight, queer, bisexual and polyamorous people. I’ve featured women, non-binary folks and men. I’ve featured transgender and cisgender people. I’ve had cat people and dog people. I’ve featured folks from the US, Australia, Canada, England, South Africa, Spain, Finland, Germany and France. I’ve featured people with PhDs and people with high school diplomas. I’ve featured people in their early 20’s and people in their late 60’s. I’ve featured folks who live on farms and folks who live in New York City.
The goal is diversity and only YOU can help me achieve that by emailing me your story! If you haven’t seen your circumstances reflected in a Case Study, I encourage you to apply to be a Case Study participant by emailing your brief story to me at email@example.com.
Reader Case Study Guidelines
I probably don’t need to say the following because you folks 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 condemn.
There’s no room for rudeness here. The goal is to create a supportive environment where we all acknowledge we’re human, we’re flawed, but we choose to be here together, workshopping our money and our lives with positive, proactive suggestions and ideas.
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. I am not a financial advisor and I am not your financial advisor.
With that I’ll let Kait, today’s Case Study subject, take it from here!
Hello! I’m Kait, I’m 37, my husband Dave is 41 and we have three kids (an 8-year-old girl, a 5-year-old boy, and a 1-year-old girl). We live in Alaska where I work as a Postpartum Doula and Dave as a scientist for the state. I also manage some administrative stuff for a builder (8 hours/month) and in the summer I manage AirBnbs (although, because of the pandemic, I only managed one last summer and am not sure if I will continue this summer. It will depend on the owners of the house).
We love Alaska (this is where I grew up) and being outdoors. Favorite activities include: hiking, skiing, camping, gardening, biking, fishing and basically anything outside. I am quite passionate about growing and preserving food. Most summer weekends you will find us out adventuring in one way or another. In the winter, we’ll be skiing, ice skating on the nearby lagoon, sledding and reading books.
Kait’s Frugal Journey
I’ve been on a frugal journey for most of my life. I’ve always hated shopping and the accumulation of stuff. My brain feels cluttered on the inside so it’s important to have my outside world organized so I can function. The knock on effect is that I don’t like to bring things into the home and therefore really deliberate before purchasing anything. I’ve been a saver forever but, until a few years ago, didn’t really have a plan as to what I was doing with my savings. Investing was something that was talked about in my family but my dad invests very differently. He spends a lot of time and energy on it and that style really put me off. It wasn’t until I learned about index funds that I was like, “Whoa! This is my jam. Set it and forget it!” Since then, I’ve socked away every extra penny with a purpose.
My husband’s financial values greatly differ from mine. Whereas I am happy to do without for the long term goal of getting to do what I want when I want, he wants to spend money now on what he wants. He grew up in the UK where there are a lot more financial safety nets like universal heath insurance and where, without really thinking about the future, you can live off your pension when you’re older. We have been married 10 years now and he is leaning more to my way of things. Having a common goal is really helpful even though I don’t think ours line up exactly.
He loves his work and honestly does not think he wants to retire early. I am trying to paint the picture for him that not everything always goes to plan and having options–even if you don’t use them–will only improve the quality of our lives in the long run. I finally got him to read The Simple Path to Wealth (after years of trying) and I think it is really helping with his journey (affiliate link). I also really want our children to be raised in an environment where money isn’t the answer to every question.
I feel like I am pretty dang frugal. We use the library, I make 99.9% of our meals at home from scratch, I bake sourdough bread like its my job, buy in bulk when it will save us over the long term, utilize Buy Nothing for gifting and receiving, and all my friends know we are grateful for hand-me-downs. And when we need outdoor gear, I sell to our local gear resale shop and then get what I need in the next size up. I play the loooonnnggg game waiting for things that we need or want. I’ve only purchased a couple items of clothing for myself in the last few years (including a sweatshirt that was technically a Christmas present that says Kale Yeah! I have no regrets).
We subsistence fish for salmon in the summer and I grow a massive garden and freeze, can, smoke and preserve whatever I am able. During apple and berry season, every night after dinner we go out and harvest. I probably dry 10 gallons of apple chips, freeze 10 gallons of raspberries, make jam, can 4 or 5 flats of apple sauce, etc. Having a root cellar would make utilizing my harvest last so much longer. I basically do not buy anything that is not on sale and we don’t really buy any convenience foods.
Dave jokes that we have a U-PICK farm in our backyard as someone is always stopping by for something. My older kids set up a mini farmers market in our neighborhood. They used this money as their fun fund. The oldest chose to join girl scouts this year and paid for the membership, vest and some activities with her earnings. We do eat meat but not a lot. Most of our protein comes from beans and lentils. I am a die-hard Instant Pot fan!
We live entirely off of Dave’s income and all my earnings go into investments. I definitely want to keep living this way.
What feels pressing right now? What brings you to submit a Case Study?
1. The House:
Our house has some issues, specifically foundation cracks and basement leaking.
These issues would prevent us from ever renting the house out as they require constant vigilance. I imagine the cost to repair them will be astronomical compared to the value of the house (which is around $400k) and so I feel like it is not worth it to repair. We haven’t gotten estimates on the repair costs yet. Backstory on the house: it was my brother’s and he passed away, so I don’t feel like I can ever sell it.
I realize that making financial decisions based on emotions is not a good idea but, here we are. We love our neighborhood and particularly that we have a large south facing backyard (oh so important in Alaska) and our back-of-the-fence neighbors are like family to us. There’s a gate in the fence and a well-trod path between our houses, which we affectionately refer to as the compound. We eat dinner there on Sundays and sometimes more than once a week. The family is a mum, dad and 2 teenage boys who will both be in college come fall. We don’t have any family nearby, so the emotional, practical and physical support this family provides for us is priceless. The thought of moving even one block away makes me feel horrible.
I also am now the only child and will be responsible for my aging father when the time comes (he is 78). My ideal is to rebuild our house and add an attached apartment for my dad or other visitors to use when needed. I would AirBnb the apartment when it wasn’t in use to help offset the costs of the build. Then, when our kids are grown and out of the house, Dave and I would live in the apartment and rent out the main house. To add a bit of complication to this equation, I am very interested in building a net zero (or close) house, which would add to the overall costs. My dad has offered to pay off whatever we have left on our mortgage if we decide to rebuild.
2. The Job
My husband is at the top of where he can go for his career here in Alaska (he works as a scientist for the state). He doesn’t think he’ll be ready to move on to something else for at least another five years, but when he is, it will likely mean a move or a transition into consulting work.
My vote would be not to move, but there are a lot of factors that will come into play. If and when we move, I wouldn’t want to sell the house, but we couldn’t rent it as is. To be clear, this isn’t something that needs to happen immediately, but it’s on the horizon.
3. The Long-term Goals
Our long-term goals are Coast FIRE or FIRE.
What’s the best part of your current lifestyle/routine?
Where we live specifically and also the wilds that we have within easy reach. The sense of community I have from our neighborhood is the only thing that has kept me sane these last few years. When I was 38 weeks pregnant, I had an entire trailer full of manure delivered to the other side of the compound (back fence family) because it was closer to my garden beds then delivering it to the front side of our house. Just the fact that they agreed to let me dump hundreds of pounds of poop in their yard is something in and of itself.
After it was delivered, I had a little freak out that my VERY pregnant body was not going to be able to put a dent in this pile and it had to be done. I texted a handful of neighbors an SOS and within three hours, the entire pile had been doled out to all my garden beds and the remainder to everyone else’s gardens. The rest of my gardens were harvested and put away for the winter and some of the harvest was taken by another neighbor to make into ferments for me. I delivered exactly one week later. Both my husband and I have a handful of close “I would do anything for you” friends in our neighborhood and I am not sure I could ever replicate this. I guess if I didn’t live right here I wouldn’t even want to live in Alaska!
It’s also so easy to get out into the mountains or go off camping here. I love the access to the outdoors as it is our main source of enjoyment as individuals and as a family.
What’s the worst part of your current lifestyle/routine?
Constant worry about the house and what we should do about it. I’m already exhausted with decision fatigue from having 3 kids, let alone being in a pandemic.
Where Kait Wants to be in Ten Years:
- Solidly Coast FIRE or FIRE.
- Able to leave our house for extended periods of time and travel more.
- Have the option to work as wanted, not because we need it. Maybe live other places for a couple months at a time (winters here are LONG!)
- I’d like to continue working as a Postpartum Doula, but in a capacity that fits with taking lots of time for family things.
- Dave would like to advance in his career by taking on new challenges. What this actually means for him is unknown at this point.
Kait & Dave’s Finances
|Dave’s Income||$5,407||Minus retirement contributions, insurance, and taxes|
|Kait’s Income||Variable||Variable as we live off of Dave’s and all of mine goes into our investments.|
|Outstanding loan balance||Interest Rate||Loan Period and Terms||Equity||Purchase price and year|
|$133,974||2.75%||30-year fixed-rate mortgage||$110,000||House was part of an estate settlement in 2013. Worth $400k.|
|Vehicle make, model, year||Valued at||Mileage||Paid off?|
|Custom Camper 1980||Priceless||180,000||Paid off and I will never get rid of her. My grandparents had her built in the 80’s and gave it to us a couple years ago. She is her own person!|
|Honda Pilot 2016||$14,000||70,000||Yes|
|Subaru Forrester 2012||$8,000||90,000||Yes|
|Item||Amount||Notes||Interest/type of securities held/Stock ticker||Name of bank/brokerage||Expense Ratio|
|Dave’s combined retirement accounts through work||$311,151||Through the state||Target retirement date funds|
|Gold & silver coins||$112,000|
|Joint brokerage account||$71,354||Oomph, this looked a lot better in April||VTSAX||Vanguard||0.01|
|Joint savings account||$36,027||Emergency fund + travel fund and 7k+ business savings for taxes 2k||0.50%||ALLY|
|Joint Checking at Local Credit Union||$8,421||Used for monthly expenses. I keep the balance around $7-8k for easy access.||AKUSA|
|529 Kid #1||$6,753|
|Investment Fund for Kid #1||$5,564||My dad manages this and I let him do his own thing.|
|Dave Individual account at local credit union||$4,300||Just in case-quick access money||AKUSA|
|529 Kid #2||$4,269|
|Brokerage Kid #1||$3,525||Half of their Permanent Fund Dividend goes in here the other half to their 529||VTSAX||Vanguard||0.01|
|Investment Fund Kid #2||$2,848||My dad manages this and I let him do his own thing|
|Brokerage Kid #3||$2,000||Half of their Permanent Fund Dividend goes in here the other half to their 529. She has more because the first time she got a PFD it all went in here.||VTSAX||Vanguard||0.01|
|Kait Individual at Local Credit union||$1,800||Just in case-quick access money||AKUSA|
|Brokerage Kid #2||$1,350||Half of their Permanent Fund Dividend goes in here the other half to their 529||VTSAX||Vanguard||0.01|
|529 Kid #3||This one is under my husband’s name and I cant log in at the moment. We need to call. It’s probably about $1k|
|Groceries||$675||It was $575 but I was finding it harder and harder to stay within budget. Things will get easier once the garden starts producing, but as of now there is still a bit of snow left! Includes all household items such as cleaning supplies, diapers (but we EC so only use one at night).|
|Straight to investments||$425||Automatically sent to investments. At the end of the month I also transfer whatever is left into Investments. Kid #2 is done with preschool now (so we’re not paying for that) and are putting most of that to investments.|
|Petrol||$350||It’s high as the camper is a hungry girl.|
|Car Insurance||$201||Will increase a bit when we put the camper back on for the summer|
|Fun Fund for Dave and Kait||$200||We each get $100 to do as we see fit, for presents, hair cuts, clothes etc. We also get PFDs (usually 1k/year) and do with them as we please. I almost always invest mine.|
|Water, Waste Water and Utility||$115|
|Electric||$110||Obviously higher in the winter and variable but I do my best to keep this low. Go put on a sweater!|
|Misc||$100||For anything this isn’t in a category above.|
|Cell Phone||$90||Recently switched to Cricket|
|Internet||$80||On the lowest monthly. No better options in the land of the midnight sun|
|Accounting||$50||I technically own some of my dad’s company so this is a must|
|Trash||$21||Downgraded the size of our can as we never fill it up|
Credit Card Strategy
|Card Name||Rewards Type?||Bank/card company|
|Alaska Airlines Visa||Travel||Chase Bank|
Kait’s Questions for You:
- Is it even feasible to consider rebuilding our home?
- How much would this derail our Coast FIRE or FIRE plans?
- Would the extra income from renting out the property offset that in the end?
- The area we live in is next to the downtown and the trail system, so it is a very desirable area for AirBnb-ing.
- I am confident we could get $150-$200 a night in the high season and $100+/night in the low season.
- I have recently been considering transitioning to more full-time work.
- I only work evenings and some weekends so that I can be with the baby during the day. All of my income goes into our investments, but this figure is highly variable.
- Is the cost and risk of childcare worth it to work more?
- Or should I consider some type of remote position that I can do while also home with the baby?
- Are we actually on track for Coast FIRE?
Liz Frugalwoods’ Recommendations
I am thrilled to have Kait as a Case Study today because I very much identify with having “One Big Thing” weighing on your mind. In reading through Kait’s story, it feels like the situation with their home is taking up a lot of mental energy for Kait and is something she’ll feel extremely relieved to resolve. I can’t offer a magic bullet solution, but I hope I can help her and Dave think through some concrete (no pun intended… ) next steps to set them on the path to resolution. I’ll touch on the other elements of her financial life–because we can’t ever deal with one financial question in isolation–but our focus today will be on The House.
Kait’s Question #1: Is it even feasible to consider rebuilding our home?
I encourage Kait and Dave to seek out opinions and estimates from experts on what it will cost to fix the foundation issues. You can’t know if it’ll be feasible/wise until you know the price tag. I also encourage them to completely divorce the foundation/basement issues from any potential future building-an-apartment costs. The priority is to fix the existing problems. They need to do that first, then turn their attention to other possible renovations/building-an-apartment.
If it were me, I would:
- Call a BUNCH of different contractors/companies and have them come to the house, assess and diagnose the foundation/basement issues, and provide estimates on the work.
- Build a list of estimates and diagnoses to compare and contrast what different experts are saying.
- Do not hire the first person who comes to offer an estimate! This is one of those things you really want to comparison shop.
It doesn’t sound like this needs to be remediated ASAP, so I encourage Kait and Dave to take their time with gathering estimates and recommendations on how to complete this work. Ask neighbors who they recommend–word of mouth recommendations are GOLD.
After the foundation issues are resolved, Kait and Dave can work on replenishing their savings and then turn their attention to getting bids for building an ADU (accessory dwelling unit)/apartment on their property.
Some things to consider:
- What are the zoning laws for an ADU/apartment? What restrictions/allowances are in place?
- Does Kait’s dad definitely want to live there in his old(er) age?
- If so, what will the financial arrangement be?
- Will he pay them rent?
- Will he pay to build the ADU and then own it?
- How does subdivision of a lot work in their town?
- Can her dad legally own the ADU if it’s on their property?
- How will this impact taxes and insurance?
- What are the laws on how to tie an ADU into the water/sewer systems and power lines?
I strongly encourage Kait, Dave and Kait’s dad to iron out all of the legal and financial implications before deciding to build an ADU. This is NOT something you want to leave to chance. Hire a lawyer to make everything official–it’ll be so much easier in the long run.
If they do decide to build some sort of ADU/apartment and rent it out on AirBnB, here are a few more things to consider:
- Is the primary goal to make a home for Kait’s dad or to create a revenue-generating rental?
- What will it be like to have AirBnB renters right there in their yard/house? Will this impinge on their gardening/family time and space?
- Will they share the revenue from the AirBnB with Kait’s dad?
- Is moving for Dave’s job in circa 5 years a real possibility? If so, how would that impact these plans?
If the goal is to create a revenue-generating rental, Kait and Dave should build a business plan and explore getting a construction loan. This is essentially a separate proposition from creating a home for an aging relative and needs to be analyzed from a business perspective. We can’t know if an AirBnB rental will offset the cost of building without knowing the following:
- The cost of construction
- Projected rental rates by season
- Anticipated vacancies (as in, which days/weeks is it likely to not be rented)
- Maintenance and repairs
- Property taxes, insurance, AirBnB fees
- Management of the unit (cleaning, furnishing, key exchanges, etc)
- City and state restrictions, regulations and fees for running an AirBnB
Additionally, the idea of building net zero idea is highly commendable, but not something Kait and Dave can afford at their current salaries. If this is their #1 goal, they’d need to curtail all other spending/investing/saving, get higher paying jobs and let go of the FIRE/Coast FIRE goals.
Kait and Dave are at an exciting juncture: the research juncture! Now’s the time to gather as much data as they can.
Kait’s Question #2: I have recently been considering transitioning to more full-time work. Is the cost and risk of childcare worth it to work more?
If I’m reading this correctly, I sense that Kait is asking this question from both an emotional and a financial perspective.
From the financial perspective, she can–and should–gather the data needed to make an accurate calculation:
How much does she earn per hour?
- How much does childcare cost per hour?
- Would her and Dave’s income outpace the cost of childcare?
Additional things to consider:
- Assuming she works for herself as a Postpartum Doula, does she have the client base to expand her hours?
- Is there a network of Doulas she can tap into to expand her hours?
- Will those hours align with the hours offered by the childcare options?
- If not, will her hours complement Dave’s work hours such that he can watch the kids?
Financially, I think it’s probably a pretty straightforward decision. One caveat is that childcare costs might outpace her initial earnings as she ramps her business up to full-time. I consider that a perfectly fine and reasonable cost-of-doing-business and wouldn’t let that dissuade her initially.
From the emotional perspective:
Only Kait can answer this question. Sending kids to childcare is fine; not sending kids to childcare is also fine. Every parent and every family has to make this decision for themselves. And guess what? That decision is likely to change over time!!!! My husband and I decided this past school year to send Littlewoods to all-day preschool, which cost in the neighborhood of $200-$400/month (depending on how many school days there were in each month). I don’t regret that expense for a single second. In fact, we’ll be sending her to all-day preschool again this coming school year while Kidwoods goes to first grade. During the pandemic, we worked from home with the kids at home and, uh, I did NOT love that arrangement. It works for some families; it doesn’t for others.
- If you WANT to work more, if you desire the fulfillment and pleasure of working, if you crave that experience in your life, do it!
- Conversely, you feel you SHOULD work more in order to earn more money, but don’t want to? Don’t do it!
- You and Dave are not in a financially precarious position. You’ve made wise choices over the years, which means you have the most important financial gift of all: OPTIONS.
Kait’s Question #3: Are we actually on track for Coast FIRE?
I’m going to answer this question by going through all of Kait and Dave’s assets.
Between their individual IRAs and Dave’s work retirement account, they have a combined total of $336,891 in retirement investments. Since they’re circa 40 years old, they should currently have 3x their income in retirement investments. We don’t know Kait’s income, so we’ll base this solely on Dave’s:
$64,884 x 3 = $194,652
Based on this metric, they’re in great shape! Additionally, this doesn’t account for Social Security, which presumably they’ll receive.
Attaining “Coast FIRE” means that Kait and Dave would continue working until a traditional retirement age, but stop contributing to their retirement investments and instead let them “coast.” One way to think about this is that, if you no longer need to earn enough to contribute to your retirement accounts every month, you need less income and thus, can presumably work less–assuming you keep your expenses low enough to be covered by your income. Depending on the age at which they’d like to enact Coast FIRE, they’ll need to do the calculations with that age and the amount in their retirement accounts at that time. Right now, they appear to be on track, but again, they’ll have to re-assess with the specific Coast FIRE age in mind.
2) Cash: $50,548
Between their four different checking/savings accounts, they have $50,548 in cash. I’m not sure I understand the need for four different accounts and, if it were me, I would consolidate to one, high-yield account. But, if there’s a solid reason for having four accounts, go for it! It’s not “wrong” to have different accounts, it’s just not the most efficient and it doesn’t take advantage of interest rates since three of their accounts earn 0% in interest. Here’s the math on that:
If they moved this $50,548 into American Express’ High Yield Savings account, which earns 1% interest as of this writing, in one year their $50,548 would grow to $51,053 (affiliate link). They’d earn $505 per year just by having their money in this high interest account. By the way, the interest rates on savings accounts are like the ONE good thing about the Feds raising interest rates.
In terms of their emergency fund–which is easily accessible cash held in a checking or savings account–Kait and Dave are in great shape. You want to have between three and six months’ worth of your expenses in your emergency fund. They spend $4,534 per month, which means their emergency fund should be in the range of $13,602 ($4,534 x 3) to $27,204 ($4,534 x 6). In light of that, they’re actually overbalanced on cash, but I understand their impulse for keeping extra cash on hand. If they do plan to remediate the basement/foundation issues in the near future, they’ll need this cash to pay for the fix.
3) Investments: $71,354
I commend Kait and Dave for having a taxable investment account (that means non-retirement funds invested in the broader stock market). And I doubly commend them for selecting a low-fee brokerage with a total market index fund. Perfect job. If you’d like to learn more about investing, I highly recommend the book that Kait mentioned, The Simple Path to Wealth (affiliate link).
4) Kids: $26,309
Between their 529s and investment accounts, Kait and Dave’s kids have $26,309 invested on their behalf. Nicely done! The only caveat here is for Kait and Dave to always be certain they are “putting their own oxygen masks on first” with regard to investing for their children. I too have 529s for my kids and there’s nothing wrong with saving and investing for your kids’ futures, you just need to be certain it’s not coming at the detriment of your own future (i.e. your retirement). That’s not the case with Kait and Dave, but it’s a caveat I always like to mention since kids can take out loans for college, but you can’t take out loans for your retirement!
5) Gold & Silver Coins: $112,000
This is a really large percentage of their net worth. If it were me, I would carefully consider this decision from a risk perspective. Is this held in a bank? (please don’t answer this online!). If not, this represents an enormous risk of loss via theft, natural disaster, etc. When you have a physical asset–like gold coins or a house–there’s a massive security risk that just doesn’t exist with, say, an index fund.
I also question the longterm viability of having such an outsized percentage of their net worth in coins. To each their own, but I encourage Kait and Dave to consider the return they’re seeing on this investment, the inherent risks, and what this money could earn in the market (if invested for the long term).
- Solicit bids from contractors for fixing the basement/foundation issues. Separate this cost from the cost of building an apartment/ADU. Focus energy first on remediating the existing problem.
- You can’t know if this is worth it until you get bids for the work. Get as many bids as you can and comparison shop.
- Once the foundation is fixed (and fully paid for), start to consider the apartment/ADU question with Kait’s dad in the conversation. See above for all considerations and possible questions to broach with him.
- If Kait wants to work full-time, she should determine how much she’d earn from full-time work and how much childcare would cost. She should also consider the emotional side of this question and make the decision that feels right to her. There is no right or wrong answer here and, due to their years of frugality, she doesn’t HAVE to work more if she doesn’t want to.
- It appears that Kait and Dave are on track for Coast FIRE, but that number could be greatly impacted by how much they decide/need to spend on remediating the house, Kait’s career, future earnings and at what age they’d like to reach Coast FIRE. They can keep an eye on these calculations themselves over the years.
- Consider consolidating the four checking/savings accounts into one high-yield account.
- Consider the risks/benefits/longterm growth potential of holding so much of their net worth in gold and silver coins.
- Feel confident in the knowledge that they’ve made excellent financial choices over the years, which means they will probably continue to do so!
Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice do you have for Kait? We’ll both reply to comments, so please feel free to ask questions!
Would you like your own case study to appear here on Frugalwoods? Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) your brief story and we’ll talk.
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I would also find out how much it would cost to build anew. Live in the old house until the new house (with extra Grampa/AIRBNB flat). Reno and kids in’t a great plan until the kids are old enough to pay and be useful during a reno. (My college age kid was paid to reno his own bathroom first year of covid. This summer he is creating a stone patio) Also, if building anew – thinks like root cellars and again place features can be added as part of the design.
I noticed Kait works doing administrative work for a builder. Is there some way her employer can do some of house repairs in exchange for her work?
It doesn’t hurt to ask – what a great idea!
I recently had my foundation and crawl space repaired. Even after negotiating a cash discount, it still cost nearly 25k in my very low cost of living area. But, the peace of mind that I now have with my home, it was worth it. We want to do more “fun” updates and will have to wait and rebuild our savings, but knowing that the foundation is level and secure is such a good feeling. It may not make sense financially, especially in this hot real estate market, but emotionally, it was a great choice for me!
I agree with Elaine. You are likely to Jack the house up so will need to be out of the house I would first get an assessment and bids (there are some cases where you need to tear down but I would be very wary about that – speak to foundation experts, not builders). Regardless of the additional cost of repairing cracked drywall, etc., it is vastly cheaper than tearing down and starting new My guess is this can be a problem in Alaska so there are companies who specialize in this. Then consider whether you can schedule the work for the summer and live in the camper or whether you should build the ADU first I’m building an ADU for my mom and she will contribute to it but it remains in my name so there isn’t any issue when I sell my house – also any estate issues. Dont forget to work out about the extra utilities once it’s being used btw, I’m impressed that you can hike for 8 miles with such young kids – you can do anything 🙂
A foundation specialist will fix the problem: repair the foundation. These companies willdefinitely find the problems specific to the house, and it will be expensive. My advice: hire a reputable architect to assess the problem. You might be surprised at what will be found; for example, it might be suggested that you have a drainage/ soil problem and in order to prevent damage reoccurrence, you must have regrading, etc. The architectural consultant may have contractors they work with regularly that could be considered next. The architect could also give advice regarding rebuilding. Hope this helps.
If you’re doing massive basement ripping work, maybe you can sneak the root cellar of your dreams into the scope. 🙂
I agree about looking into repairs and talking to several people. When we were dealing with a similar issue with water, several landscapers told us we needed a $20,000 retaining wall. That’s it. The fifth person we talked to said, “No. This is an issue with your gutters and drainage. Come out here when it’s raining hard and take a look.” Turns out, he was right. We were able to fix the problem for $11,000, which sounds like a lot but is worth it for my mental heath and for the health of our home.
A friend was able to repair her foundation crack for around $5,000. So maybe this won’t be too bad for you all? FYI- We live in MD, where everything is way more expensive than it needs to be.
And hey, I know we are told not to be emotional about our homes, I think it’s ok when it’s a place you love and it has special meaning. My in-laws were so crestfallen about leaving the home they’ve been in for 40 years, they built and in-law suite. And my neighbor has been in his house since 1964 and gets misty-eyed when he talks about the place.
Hi Kait! I agree with Liz on simplifying some of your accounts and ear marking some of the extra savings for the house repairs, which I would advocate for. No judgement at all, but I will stand on this side for your advocacy to stay home/continue as you are doing while your kids are small. The way that you are currently raising them in AK is a precious gift that is priceless, imo. I would keep it simple here, too, if you want to try to increase your income: sell your bread and garden goods–you really have a talent that I can see (I wonder if when you add the ADU you could add a great ktichen and get it certified as a commercial kitchen?). Renew your involvement in the property management. Expand your doula work; could you add being a death doula into your repertoire? What a lovely spectrum. Find out how you can incorporate all of these–can you sell your bread and beautiful baskets to the property owner as welcome gifts to the guests, or, would the property owner let you leave a business card for the same? Same with the doula work–bring a basket of your goods for purchase. Research what you grow and see what is good for mama’s milk production, perineal poultices etc. Learn how to knit cute baby hats during the winter when you are not gardening, to sell. Make a blog for the doula work. Most of all, stop stressing–you are doing great, you’ve got this! Stay attentive to the opportunities and the decisions will unfold themselves. Hugs.
Hey, fellow Alaskan! I’m down here on the Kenai Peninsula. 🙂
Would your home owner’s insurance pay for repair of part of the foundation issues? When I lived in Anchorage, I found a big water leak in two separate place in my house and the insurance paid for part of the repairs.
Separate idea…Wondering if the foundation and basement issues began from the 2018 earthquake?…..but maybe a little late for a claim and that’s if you had earthquake insurance (I don’t, but had no damage in 2018).
Is your husband a Tier 1, 2, or 3 with the State and if he is, does he have his 10 years in for the health insurance when retired? Definitely would want to nail that down before he leaves the state job. I don’t know if Tier 4 gets the state-paid insurance at retirement.
Another Alaskan here, from the Interior. From their ages, he would not be Tier 1. It closed in 2006 for new entrants.
Hire a structural engineer to look at the foundation before you talk to foundation repair/basement waterproofing contractors. Contractors will differ dramatically both in costs and in how they even diagnose or suggest fixing the problem and it is hard to know who to trust. A site visit and report from a structural engineer will be a few hundred dollars and could save you many times that by ensuring you repair it correctly and only do what is truly necessary. Some foundation cracks may just require monitoring while others may require rebuilding the wall- a structural engineer can tell you exactly what you are dealing with. Look for someone with a PE credential. You may be able to find someone through the American Society of Civil Engineers local chapter.
I agree with this! architect and /or structural engineer! Sometimes they work for the same firm.
So I have a rental house that had a basement water problem that was so bad when we bought the house that there were tree roots growing on the basement floor.
We cleaned out the gutters, and resloped 1 of the gutters that was above the bad area. Then we moved the location of 2 downspouts and routed them underground to drain about 10 feet away from the house. Next was regrading the slope away from the house. I did it by hand with a shovel! Backbreaking work, but I didn’t have to rent big machinery. I did this along the entire side of the house by myself. Then we added downspout extensions to all of the downspouts. Problem was solved!!
Total cost of these fixes was probably around $200 for gutter materials and downspout extensions. And a whole lot of physical labor.
Most concrete basements have cracks, the mere fact of their existence does not necessarily mean expensive foundation repairs are needed.
My advice is to take a very good look at your gutters, add gutter extensions, make sure the yard isn’t sloping toward the house, and see if the basement water problem goes away like ours did. You would be surprised how often this solves a basement water problem, just rerouting the water properly away from the house. My next solution for my rental property was to do diy French drains if my other easier solutions did not work.
This is far better than paying $30k for foundation work that may not need to be done. A foundation repair company will try to convince you that you need their services. Hire a structural engineer first if still needed after doing the things I mentioned, they will tell you what really needs to be fixed because they won’t profit from the repairs.
I love Alaska too, for all the reasons you list, especially in the summer, winters are getting too cold for me. I think I may be familiar with your area, and when considering the repairs that need to be made to a foundation it would be wise to consult an engineer who knows the area and soils-they vary a lot.
I can relate to the stress of foundation problems! I worried about ours for over 5 years and it was a big source of stress. We reached out to numerous foundation repair companies for estimates which ranged from $35,000-$95,000 to repair the issues. All contractors recommended similar remediations and we ended up with 16 pipe piles beneath our home. The contractor we selected partnered with a soils engineer which I feel was really important, as our issues were caused by soil and drainage. I felt really confident in their plans. We had the work done 2 years ago and it’s been great. I have one last piece of advice: I wish I had known to budget a little more for repairs *after* the foundation was fixed. When they lifted the sinking parts of our house, it caused a water pipe to break beneath one of our bathrooms and small damage to other walls in our home (I.e., drywall that needed repair). We had to repair the water pipe and re-tile bathroom floor. It was about another $5,000 to fix after effects. In total, we spent $45,000. It was quite an investment and one that we can’t even “see” (like a kitchen remodel), however, I am glad we did it. We felt like we couldn’t sell our home (eventually) without making these repairs. And, since soil/foundation problems happen where we live, if we did decide to move instead of fixing, we were concerned we might be stepping into an even bigger, more expensive problem. I hope this helps. As you can see above, it makes a huge difference to shop around! PS – we love the outdoors and your Alaskan life looks amazing 🙂
One more point, echoing feedback from above: the final project team we selected for the repairs included a structural engineer in addition to the soils engineer. I believe we had to pay $250-300 upfront for the visit and assessment by the structural and soils engineers. It was well worth the initial investment. I hope that’s helpful.
I remember when I had my mobile home levelled, and wanted to show off *just how level* it was now – I would fry an egg and insist people come look at how the egg stayed right in the middle of the pan instead of slumping off to the side 🙂
I agree with Mrs. Frugalwoods advice. We can’t really advise you without a rough sense of how much the foundation repairs cost. I had two additional thoughts:
1. I dont see any mention of life insurance. If you dont have any, please look into getting it for both of you (ideally not from Dave’s employer) given that you have 3 young kids. Term life is best. 2)I would understand your social security payout. Is Dave paying into SS? Not all state jobs do. How many credits does Kait have? This might help inform Kait working more or their coast fire dates
I’m curious about the budget – there aren’t any expenses for the kids listed. (Dentist, doctor, clothes, presents, the odd field trip, etc.) Am I missing something?
They have $100 miscellaneous. We’ve been fortunate to have good dental insurance and healthy children so we have spent very little on dental and medical for them (after deliveries and NICU if applicable). Hand me down clothes I believe she mentioned.
This was a fascinating case study! Thank you Liz for featuring it and to Kait for sharing her family’s story. Kait, I am also very impressed by your ability to source much of your summer food from your garden and I know from doing this myself the massive amount of time required to harvest, preserve, and/or bake your own food. I am thinking that a lot of this labor is done during the “9-5” timeline. So if you do work full-time, you may also sacrifice some of this work that you love (and that contributes to your frugality). Just a thought to add to the emotional/financial considerations of shifting work hours!
Just wondering if the foundation issues are anything to do with melting permafrost? If they are, perhaps your neighbors will also have similar issues and/or suggestions on fixes. Also, checking the gutters and consulting a structural engineer (if fixing gutters/drainage doesn’t work!) sound like excellent suggestions! Good luck with it all!
I know Kait is amazingly frugal (bravo!), but it seems worth double-checking that no categories are missing from the Expenses list. No travel, no repairs for the old house, no doctor copays/prescriptions, no random expensive thing that happened in the last year? If not, that’s fantastic, just seems worth being sure!
Also, I spent a summer in Alaska years ago and it was magical and hands down the most beautiful nature I’ve ever seen. Must be amazing to live there!
Foundation cracks greater than 1/10 of an inch or gradually widening, especial with water leaking can be serious and even affect the structural integrity of the house. Getting experts to look at the problem should be your number one priority.
Wow you do an amazing job of managing your finances. You have a gap between income and outgoings so therefore you could start to ease up and coast to FI now or in 5 years or so when your husband wants to look at something else.
Re Daves role, can he talk to his manager about wanting stretch projects so he can get the growth he is looking for at work?
Re Kait looking at full time work, to me Kait you are doing a full time job at home. All that gardening and food production takes an enormous amount of time. Will you still be able to do this, be in the community like you are and do all your family activities and work full time? I think a lot of people underestimate how much unpaid work they do and the value this brings to the household and community. If you want to work more outside the home another option is to increase your hours and Dave decreases his so you can meet more in the middle. All options are worth exploring! All the best
$1900 for the mortgage payment seems high for what I think is a $240K loan at 2.75% interest? But maybe that includes insurance/ taxes in escrow.
Just want to say, if you enjoy your life and can afford it, keep living it and don’t move! And I love reading all this advice about the foundation issues. Knowing what it will cost will allow you to move forward. As a homeowner I’m constantly surprised at how expensive some things are and how cheap other things are.
One additional thing Kait might need to weigh when it comes to “more full-time work” is how much she’s actually already working — just at home. Gardening, harvesting, baking sourdough bread, freezing, subsistence fishing, canning … all of that takes a TON of hard work, time, and effort. It sounds like it majorly contributes to the household’s finances and quality of life by keeping really yummy, healthy food on the table while keeping the grocery budget relatively low. Currently, all of that is stuff that Kait loves to do and she has the time to do it ….and she can flex her time to deal with the seasonal variations. But squeezing it all in on weekends and after you’ve already put in a full shift is another thing. It might cut down on the amount you can bring to the table, really affect the enjoyment you get from the work, and also limit the amount of time you all can recreate (instead of work in the garden).
Thanks for this post! I stay home with our young kids and for the most part I love it. And I contribute a lot financially by doing just what you described: cooking from scratch, gardening, not needing daycare, only owning one vehicle, homeschooling rather than paying for private school, etc. Just because I don’t “bring home a paycheck” doesn’t mean I’m not financially contributing to our family goals. Yes, technically, if I worked full time our income would be greater even after childcare. But I would be exhausted and wouldn’t enjoy being with my kids when I got home. Nevermind trying to keep up with the cooking and gardening that I enjoy. (This is me looking at my personality and the field I’m trained in). Doing those things are a major contribution to both my and my family’s overall health. When my youngest is older and I’m getting better sleep then I’d like to look into “making money” again. But right now staying home is best for all of us and fulfilling for me. (Not that I wouldn’t hire out the laundry if I could 😉 )
I think you are doing great! I wouldn’t put off talking to experts about the foundation for too long so it doesn’t create a bigger issue. One recommendation is to offer a side hustle of providing meals or some of your delicious looking breads and fruits to people visiting. I recently went in a trip where I purchased some homemade casseroles so a few nights a week we weren’t eating out and I could just reheat. It was lovely.
Are the foundation cracks problematic structurally or is the problem really just that you’re getting water into the house? We had a lot of water problems in our lower level (which has about half our living space), and we finally got sick of them a couple years ago. We called a bunch of companies, and most of them recommended a system which basically involved cutting up the concrete around the walls with problems and running drain tile under there before pouring new concrete. The company we went with also put something on the interior concrete walls to help drain water from them. It ended up being ~$7k which was right in the middle of the quotes we got (for a middling COL area in 2019). We also did some regrading ourselves outside (mostly just digging down to below the sill board where we were having problems and then sloping the grade away from the house there) and my husband added a French drain. We still need to do a lot more work outside (the sump pump runs far more often than I’d like), but we haven’t had water problems since then (fingers crossed). So I would definitely recommend the structural engineer and see if he says you need to fix the cracks structurally or if it’s just a problem for water. If it’s only a water problem, you may be able to get away with spending a lot less than you think, and a lot of the companies we talked to gave a dry basement guarantee!
We also saved money by doing all the tear down and rebuild work ourselves inside. I drew the line at cutting up concrete, but I can remove drywall and tile with the best of them and since we have panelling in those rooms, I didn’t even have to worry about mudding drywall!
One thing I would look at is are you making your foundation issues worse? Adequate sized gutters and downspouts are one thing but do you have vegetation around your foundation? We have rocks, nary a plant hence no need to “water” around the foundation. And watering vegetation around the foundation can also result in watering your windows (as in using a sprinkler or not being precise with the hose).
I did not see if you had city water/sewer but the cost of a new septic and well (new construction) might make a huge dent in your foundation fixing budget. What is the cost of a foundation for a new house?
And if you can’t see yourself selling the house but not fixing it, where does that leave you? With a house that could be condemned and/or an insurance risk (read: financial liability). Emotion is playing into this. Get quotes/bids and do your research. Better a foundation than a crawlspace.
Your children will be fine if they go to daycare. They may form lifelong friends. Just beware once they get so old, they’ll want to stay home by themselves.
Thanks everyone for your comments! This weeks todo list is getting estimates on what really needs to be done with the foundation. Unfortunately, lots of houses in the neighborhood have water problems as this used to be marsh land and the water table is very high here. Construction practices in the 60s also consisted of just chucking trash in around the foundation then covering it up later so this has had a destabilizing effect. Our house also sits at a low point and is built into a hill of sorts (you can walk in the front door and also out the basement door). We had a French drain and a wet well put in in 2012 and it turns on multiple times a day pumps water rain or no rain, snow or no snow. It has helped, but certainly didn’t do as much as I would have liked 25k to have done.
Unless I gave up a large part of my gardens there isn’t space to put an ADU. The only way we really could do it is if it was attached and if it was attached the only way to make it accessible for an aging parent is to remodel part of the house that faces the street. If you look at our house from the street it’s a ranch style front that takes up the whole lot width wise. Thankfully though, Alaska has changed some codes recently that makes it quite easy to have an ADU.
Dave is at the top of where he is able to be while staying in Alaska so movement for him career wise is a move to somewhere else which he isn’t ready to do.
The $100 misc is a sinking fund so kids stuff comes out of there. I really don’t buy anything for them except some winter gear which has to be good with how much they are outside and how cold it is. Usually this is a spring purchase when winter gear is on sale and then gets to be handed down to the other 2 kids.
Medical- we have been lucky not to have any real problems but this is why I keep a bit of a beefy emergency fund so I know we have the money should we need it.
Liz very accurately honed in on me wanting to work more being an emotional thing. I’ve been side hustling and full time parenting for 8 years now and am kind of over it. I’m sure having a baby in a pandemic did not help the situation but I feel like a shell of myself. I just want to be able to focus on kids or other things not both at the same time. Maybe what I really want is childcare for my youngest and not to increase my working outside of the home hours. I think I’ll take this under serious consideration. For my mental health maybe diverting some fund from investments to childcare until the littlest is in school would be a worthwhile trade. (Side note-Liz, how is preschool only $400 a month?!?? $800 for 4 days 9-1 is common here!)
I am also trying to see if a friend with similar aged little wants to do some childcare swapping so I get some time to peruse my own things.
We do have a travel fund but alas have not used it in 2+ years so stopped contributing to it. Will start again as a hawaii trip has been booked for January. Ticked we’re paid for from a cancelled trip from 2020.
Doing more airbnb would be doable but seriously cuts into adventure time as I have to be available should something go sideways. As summer is so short it’s hard to justify. The owners I am working with now are super flexible and understanding as they are hard core adventurers as well so don’t mind if I block dates here and there to make sure we can leave on weekends.
I am also working on making a lot of the resources I have available to my postpartum clients into a etsy printable side hustle so we shall see.
I think I’ve addressed most of the comments. Thank you everyone for your time and consideration.
Also, started UFM with a bang…hot water heater is on the fritz. But that is the point isn’t it? We have money to take care of it. It’s just inconvenient not scary.
I am here to support paying for child care and NOT working more, if you can afford it – which it seems like you should be able to do. Parenting is hard in the best of times, and the last two years have definitely not been the best of times. Do what you need to do to feel well!
Should also add that I was 8 month pregnant on that 8 mile hike. You are right, I can’t do anything. Thanks for the pep talk!!! X
Love this case study! I have an interesting thought for you to consider around your housing construction costs vs FIRE. Under normal circumstances I usually would value financial independence over investing money in a specific home BUT in your situation it sounds like your home contributes significantly to your happiness and I want to pose the question if you are already living the life you love do you need to retire early? Of course it is good to have flexibility, retirement funds, travel money etc but many people who retire early are looking to escape the job/life they have whereas you both like both of these things! My husband and I have prioritized moving for our careers and high salaries for a while which has had many benefits but we are looking to transition to settling somewhere where we can be a part of the community and enjoy nature. Your lifestyle sounds like a dream! So even if it feels odd to invest so much money into a house when you are usually frugal it could also be seen as an investment into continuing the life you love which is really the point of all of this!
I agree, this might be a case where Fire isn’t needed. Live your best life, fix your house or build new, watch your kids, go to jobs you like. Also 2nd idea can you sell your Sour Dough bread for increased earing potential?
To comment on the possibility of anyone keeping gold and silver coins at home… Please considder getting a bank safety deposit box as they are insured. I have friends who had lost their first home over 25+ years ago to faulty wiring on a hottub they were unaware of when they purchased the home. My friends were also repeat fire victims in the 2017 Tubbs Fire in California. When they returned to the property to access the damage, the large industrial quality safes they had were intact but all contents were distroyed. Pictures and documents were ash and the gold and silver coins were melted. They were told by the fire marshall that the inferno that consumed their home was estimated to be over 4,000+ degrees!
I don’t see life insurance mentioned for a young family?
The house is a great source of comfort in great neighbors, lovely space and tied to beloved family member but also a burden and challenge due to needed repairs/hard decisions. I lost my only older sibling to cancer 2 years ago (age 48). There are so many complicated emotions that come in waves attached to memories and stuff. Kait is attached to the house in a very different way from Dave and the children and grandpa who might potentially live there in future. You need to live there because it makes you happy not from a sense of obligation or preserving memories. Wresting with the feelings of fixing it or letting it go and moving on are much more than a financial decision. Take time and be kind to yourself as you decide the path for your future.
Wow, this case study makes me want to visit Alaska! What gorgeous scenery.
Here are my thoughts – hope they’re helpful:
1. Does your husband get a pension as a state employee? If not, your retirement portfolio may be a bit heavily weighted in stocks. I think it’s maybe 5-7% in bonds right now. Personally I’d feel more comfortable with at least 10% and maybe closer to 20%. All depends on what your risk tolerance is (i.e., how have you felt during the latest market dip?).
2. Are either of your IRAs or your husband’s state retirement account in a Roth? This might be a great time to contribute to Roths because your income is lower than it would be if/when you go back to full-time work. I think both you and your husband should open Roth IRAs (if you don’t have them already) and fund them every year, even if it means drawing back on your pre-tax or brokerage account contributions. You’ll want some tax-diversified money down the line.
3. I know the feeling of being frugal (although your monthly budget is WAY more frugal than mine!) and being faced with a very large expense. You speak so fondly of your house and neighborhood, though – just bite the bullet and get the necessary repairs done. If it were me, I would cash out of the gold/silver coins and use the proceeds to fund the repairs. If there’s anything left, put it into the Roth IRAs and/or the brokerage account.
4. Are you paying extra on your mortgage? If it were me I would not, because the rate is so low. If you still want to do that, perhaps taking a year or two off of doing it would get you even closer to paying for repairs/renovations in full.
5. I saw your latest comment re: losing yourself to children and the pandemic and thought ah, yes, of course! I am right there with you. I think it would be a worthy investment of your money to pay for some part-time childcare. You guys are doing insanely well with your investments, AND you spend so little money that it is simply not financially necessary for you to go back to work right now. Childcare – even just a babysitter – is one of the worthiest uses of your money!! Speaking of, I need to get our family more childcare, too 😊
I don’t have anything to add except that it’s great to see another Kait 🙂 My life is very different from yours (except for the sourdough baking) but I wish you the best!
Definitely echoing some of the other commenters that you want to get lots of quotes from different foundation companies (as many as you can, no matter how long it takes) but ALSO from a structural or drainage engineer and/or architect. If there are serious issues that will repeat themselves, you don’t want to fix and then have the same problems happen again because they fixed the surface, not the cause. 🙂
I’m sure in a lower-population area like Alaska it will be more difficult to get many quotes, but do try to get every single one you can. We live in a medium-sized city and all the quotes we’ve received from different professionals for a myriad of reasons have varied by a really surprising margin. I found myself just not believing it, but it really does depend on the company and their schedule (especially nowadays, construction costs are prohibitively expensive so contractors are jacking their prices up to compensate PLUS hiring issues means their schedules are super tight, so they up the price to compensate). Good luck!
A great case study, Frugalwoods! Thanks a lot to Kait and Dave for sharing their stories. Those pictures look gorgeous. I hope your house issue will be solved in a satisfactory way. In terms of lifestyle, there are several items that Kait mentioned and I can relate to: frugality, not shopping much, and focus on the long-term goals. I wish you the best!
Great post, Kait and Dave are on a great path at such a young age. I would probably look into fixing the foundation of the house if they plan on staying there for years to come, that way if they ever wanted to pass the home on to one of their children it will be in good shape. Also, I agree with Mrs Frugalwoods about the coins. I like yield and the ability to generate a return and I’m not sure the coins provide it.