early morning walk during a camping trip in VT

Elisabeth and her husband James live in New Hampshire with their two young sons. James works as an architect and Elisabeth is a private reading tutor for students with dyslexia. The couple live near Elisabeth’s extended family, which is perfect. What’s not quite so perfect is their fixer-upper home. They’ve invested time and money into renovations and, while they can see a route to staying in this home, they’re wondering if they should sell it in favor of something with fewer needs. 

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 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 84 Case Studies. I’ve featured folks with annual incomes ranging from $17k to $200k+ and net worths ranging from -$300k to $2.9M+.

Running around our favorite beach in NH

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 mrs@frugalwoods.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 Elisabeth, today’s Case Study subject, take it from here!

Elisabeth’s Story

Getting our feet wet in the cold NH ocean

Hi, Frugalwoods! I’m Elisabeth, I’m 33 years old, my husband James is 32 and our two little boys are ages 4 and 4 months. We live in New Hampshire and bought a fixer-upper house right before the pandemic hit in January 2020. My main focus right now is raising our boys and acting as keeper of the home, but I also work part-time as a private reading tutor, specifically for students with dyslexia. I am a trained Orton-Gillingham practitioner. James works full-time as an architect at a local firm.

We have been debt-free–minus our mortgage–since we got married in 2016. Our ability to be debt-free is due in part to privilege: my parents helped pay for college and James got a full scholarship and temp job for grad school. We love our community and our access to so many outdoor spaces. In less than an hour we can get to the beach, the lakes region, or up to the mountains!

Elisabeth & James’ Background

Our boys holding hands

I’m originally from NH, but James is from the midwest where we met. I moved out there in my mid-twenties for a job and a family friend introduced us. We lived there together for five years and took full advantage of what city life had to offer, renting an apartment within walking distance to both our jobs. Once our first son was born, we decided to move back to New England to be closer to my huge blended family. Including step-siblings and half-siblings, I have 6 siblings, and 5/6 live within an hour of us as do my parents. We spend a lot of time together, and are thrilled our boys are growing up close to so many cousins.

There has been a lot of change for us in the past four years. Besides growing our family, we moved from the midwest to an apartment in MA, then to live with my parents in NH for 9 months while we navigated the challenging housing market.

Our lives right now are very full and busy! Our oldest boy is always full of energy. He’s curious, observant, and loves to be outside. He is a hilarious story-teller, and a sweet big brother. Our littlest is a big and healthy baby who is super smiley.

Renovations + Parenting

We are always sleep-deprived and still very in the weeds with renovating our home. James is handy and willing to learn and figure things out, but projects take super long when you’re wrangling little kids too. We are always going back and forth about doing it ourselves or hiring out. We live in a 1950s ranch, the previous owners did not take good care of the home, and it was in pretty bad shape when we purchased it.

Some of what we’ve done ourselves so far: removing 1,000 lbs of trash from the yard and clearing space for new plantings and flower beds, painting every inch of the interior (including 3 coats on the ceilings), replacing all electrical outlets, and completely renovating our mudroom. The full bath and deck are still in process of being renovated. We installed new kitchen appliances, blinds, and ceiling fans. We’ve hired out help for refinishing our hardwood floors, some plumbing work, a new electrical panel, roof work, replacing a handful of interior doors, and mold removal in our garage. We both really value a comfortable home that works for our family, which is why we put a lot of time, money, blood, sweat and tears into our house.

As a family, we love to be outside. I am a former children’s librarian and an avid reader. James loves to bake, and frequently tries out King Arthur recipes. 

What feels most pressing right now? What brings you to submit a Case Study?

We built a backyard playscape for our boys

James and I know we need to make our budgeting and financial decisions a priority. But before reaching out to a financial advisor, and spending more money, we thought we’d try here first. We feel we’re stable enough now–after all the changes of the past few years–to really get a handle on our finances and make some big improvements.

We’d like some help with our expenses. You’ll see there’s a $16,008 deficit between our annual take-home pay and our annual spending. We’ve very carefully tracked our spending for the last 8 months or so for this Case Study. Here’s what has happened: We had a hefty amount in savings when we bought our home. We break about even each month and sometimes go a couple hundred over, which we cover with money from our savings. We also dip into our savings for our home improvement projects/maintenance. This is really the root of our angst. We want to improve this!

And more broadly, how can we balance our careers while raising our young boys and managing our extensive home projects? How can we financially do this in an efficient, smart way? We want to be saving more!

What’s the best part of your current lifestyle/routine?

Every day we’re grateful for our access to so many incredible outdoor spaces, and living so close to a lot of our family. We visit the beach year-round. When we lived in MA, James worked in Boston and the commute was awful. With his demanding job, some days he’d be gone from 4AM to 10PM. It was brutal. We broke that pattern after a year, and are happy living in NH now, with James working at a new firm and commuting only 20 minutes. I, in particular, spend a lot of time with my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews.

What’s the worst part of your current lifestyle/routine?

Sourdough loaf baked by James

James’s job is demanding, and his hours can be long and varied. James takes over childcare when I’m tutoring, which has been healthy for all of us: it gives me time to keep up my private practice and not be the primary caregiver for a few hours, the boys get special time with dad, and it forces James to step away from work. That being said, it’s still logistically tough to figure out sometimes.

With house renovations, it’s hard to balance the time to do them when we have such limited family time as is. Also, we tend to “divide and conquer” a lot, which isn’t ideal. I tend to care for the boys while James does projects. The easiest time to “work” together as a family is outside in our yard. 

Where Elisabeth and James Want to be In Ten Years:


  • We’d like to have a comfortable amount of savings for retirement.
  • We’d like to have a good start on savings for our boys so that we can help them with their pursuits after high school; whether that be a traditional four year college, trade school, or community college. What should these numbers look like? We aren’t sure!


  • We want to be able to travel as a family at least once a year for vacation (not counting back to the midwest.)
  • We’d like to still be debt-free (minus mortgage.)
  • Ideally we are in a newer home with less maintenance.


  • I’d like to continue working part-time as a reading tutor until all our kids are in public school. Then, I’d like to significantly increase my hours.
  • James might want to leave architecture…

Elisabeth and James’ Finances


Item Amount Notes
James’ net income $4,517 James’ net salary, minus the following deductions: health, dental, and vision insurance, 401k contributions, and taxes.
Elisabeth’s net income $696 Elisabeth gets paid $80 per hour as a private tutor. Her income fluctuates month to month. This is the average total income over the past 6 months
Monthly subtotal: $5,213
Annual total: $62,556

Mortgage Details

Item Outstanding loan balance Interest Rate Loan Period and Terms Equity Purchase price and year
Mortgage on Home $229,001 3.38% 30-year fixed-rate mortgage $43,499 $272,500 in 2020

Note: Equity amount listed based on purchase price minus outstanding balance. Actual loan was for $236,000. We refinanced once to take advantage of lower interest rates. Current Zestimate lists home at $414,700 and doesn’t take into account all of the improvements we’ve done.  

Debts: $0


Item Amount Notes Interest/type of securities held/Stock ticker Name of bank/brokerage Expense Ratio
Prior Employer 401K (no longer contributing) $51,861 401K from previous employer. Stocks selected using their goalmaker automated system, moderate risk profiles Stocks using their goalmaker automated system, moderate risk. Money distributed through 10-15 funds at any time Empower (previously Prudential) ranges from .5 cents to $8 per $1000 invested
Savings $24,160 This is our emergency fund. We dip into this for home renovation costs frequently. Fifth Third Bank
Checking $4,138 We use this to pay all our bills. Fifth Third Bank
Savings Boy #1 $4,041 We don’t touch this. Fifth Third Bank
Vanguard Investment $3,207 This is our taxable investment account VMRXX Vanguard not sure
HSA from Previous Employer (no longer contributing) $2,188 We use this for big medical expenses, such as Baby #2 being born. We’ll slowly use this up Optum Financial
James’ Current Employer 401k (contributing) $1,823 Contribute 3% of pre tax income per pay period, $200 a month. Enrolled in plan this year despite being with employer for 2 years American fund 2045, 2050, 2055, 2060 Empower 1.02%
Savings Boy #2 $1,000 We don’t touch this. Fifth Third Bank
Total: $92,419


Vehicle make, model, year Valued at Mileage Paid off?
Subaru Impreza 2013 $7,500 106,943 Yes
Ford Edge 2010 $4,300 119,196 Yes
Total: $11,800

Credit Card Strategy

Card Name Rewards Type? Bank/card company
Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card (affiliate link) Cash back Capital One
Fifth Third Bank Cash Rewards Cash back Fifth-Third


Item Amount Notes
Mortgage Payment $1,662 Payment includes property tax and home insurance in escrow. P&I is 1043.35, Property taxes is $560, Home insurance $58 from State Farm
Home Projects/Maintenance $1,054 Ah, the joys of owning a 1950s fixer-upper! *Read our story above for full description of recent projects
Groceries $867 Only food. Personal items like toothpaste, toilet paper, etc. are in separate category
Childcare $670 Part-time preschool for our 4-year-old
Fuel Oil $247 Oil is so high right now. December 2021 we paid $464 to fill our tank. May 2022: $854
Gifts $210 We have a huge blended family, who is also very generous to us! This includes everything (even shipping costs) for: Christmas, mother’s day, birthdays, graduations and weddings. We do not buy each other anniversary gifts. Our boys also only get 1 gift from Santa, under $50. A few years ago, Elisabeth convinced both sides of the family to do a 1 gift swap during the holidays at $50 for adults, $25 for kids. Each family member randomly gets assigned one other family member each year. 
Car gas $208 For both cars
Baby $185 Note that diapers/wipes are in a separate category. Recent items here include a highchair and crib mattress (new) and a portable play dome and beach sun tent (used)
Personal Care $174 This includes items like lotion, toothpaste, shampoo, and deodorant, but also household cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and soap. I list it all together as I buy it from the same supplier. See below
Clothing and Shoes $166 This is for the whole family. We try to buy used a lot. Biggest investment is quality winter gear as we’re outside so much. Elisabeth also spent a significant amount recently on nursing bras and postpartum clothes to comfortably breastfeed in. 
Home Goods $154 Recent purchases include LLbean rugs for our mudroom, new bedding for our oldest, beach towels, and an umbrella for our deck. 
Eating out $132 This has gone up a lot recently with having an infant! Solely convenience. When we get together with extended family, we sometimes order out. 
Water $98 Paid 4 time a year, average per month shown. Having kids and doing bath time uses a lot of water
Internet $95 Comcast. Internet only, no cable TV or other bundles
Medical $95 This includes co-pays and $500 for a doula during the birth of our youngest. This does not include the cost of our son’s birth at the hospital. We used our HSA savings account to pay the $4,500 bill. 
Electric $85 Averages out to $85 a month over the course of a year
Vitamins $46 Buying from a local B Corp for our vitamins matters to us. Megafood is great quality and offers free shipping.
Charitable Giving $45 Elisabeth donates to Planned Parenthood of New England regularly. Other donations include to Everytown for Gun Safety, and the local chapter of the Dyslexia center where Elisabeth was trained and certified.  
Diapers/Wipes $37 Only our youngest is in diapers now. We buy Target Up&Up diapers, and prefer Seventh Generation wipes .
Elisabeth’s cell phone bill $36 Note that James does have a cell phone, but he is still on his parent’s family plan. They very generously pay his bill each month, and refuse payment from him.
Ford Insurance $34 State Farm
Car Maintenance $32 For both cars
Haircuts $31 James and our 4-year-old go often. Elisabeth goes once a year. 
E-Z Pass $30 This is for both cars. There are a lot of tolls around here! Sometimes we can use alternative routes, but the most efficient routes for us to work and visiting family involve going through at least 1 toll.
Subaru Insurance $29 State Farm
Lawn Maintenance $29 This includes mulch once a year for our flower beds, that we do ourselves, plus leaf clean-up every fall. We did the leaf clean-up ourselves when we first moved. We have a lot of mature tress, and it took us probably 10 hours total. Worth it to us to pay a local landscaper to come one day every November. 
Car registrations $28 For both cars
Activities $25 This has been really low during the past 2 years especially (Covid) we spend most of our time at free, outdoor spaces. For gifts, we usually ask for park passes. This number includes the cost of Pee-Wee soccer for our oldest.
City trash bags $20 Our city requires residents to use special bags. This is a common practice around here. You pay for what you use. Current prices are $3.91 for a 30 gallon bag. 
Personal Articles Insurance $9 State Farm. Insures Elisabeth’s wedding ring
Professional Development $8 James gets reimbursed for his licensing PD, so this is not listed here. Elisabeth does not get reimbursed, but her PD cost is much lower. 
Electronics/Subscriptions $5 Right now this is for our AppleTV subscription. We love Ted Lasso!
Grove Co. yearly subscription (personal care, *see above) $2 $20 a year
Monthly subtotal: $6,547
Annual total: $78,564

Elisabeth’s Questions for You: 

  1. Visiting Amsterdam during our honeymoon

    How can we make the most of our money, and where should we put our savings first? 401K? Investments?

  2. How can we be smarter investors with our Vanguard account?
  3. Should we continue down our path of home renovations?
    • The next big ones would be finishing our basement. Especially with a growing family, this would be a game-changer. Worth doing?
    • Or should we wait until the market is better and move to a newer home with less maintenance?
    • Boiler replacement and a new roof are both on the horizon for the next 10-12 years.
  4. Do I need to amp up my tutoring practice?
    • This would mean paying for more childcare (over the next 5 years or so until the boys are in public school.) I do not have much consistent help from family members or James at this time.

Liz Frugalwoods’ Recommendations

The big kid

I’m delighted to have Elisabeth and James as our Case Study today because they’re at an important juncture in their financial journey. As Elisabeth noted, they’ve experienced a lot of change in the past six years–marriage, a cross-country move, the birth of two children, purchasing a house, COVID–and now’s the time to re-assess and stabilize. Those two concepts will be our guiding principles today: re-assessment and stabilization. Elisabeth and James have been flying through these seismic alterations to their lives and now’s the time to settle and analyze. Thank you Elisabeth and James for trusting us to help you out today!

Elisabeth’s Question #1: How can we make the most of our money, and where should we put our savings first? 401K? Investments?

This is a great place for us to start because Elisabeth and James really need a holistic analysis of their finances, top to bottom. I congratulate them for carefully tracking their spending because it’s only with data that we can make good decisions! If you’re not tracking your spending every month, I use and recommend the free expense tracker from Personal Capital (affiliate link).

Spending vs. Income

As Elisabeth noted, the major red flag is that they’re spending more than they make by ~$16k per year. While they’ve been able to float this by dipping into their savings account, that’s not a viable longterm strategy. Eventually, the savings account will run dry and they’ll be faced with putting their expenses on a credit card and racking up debt. Let’s make sure they don’t get to that point. It’s always easier to make changes to your spending when things aren’t on fire.

As I love to say, there are two sides to this equation:

  1. Income
  2. Expenses

You can increase income, decrease expenses, or do both. At the end of the day, that’s pretty much it.


The baby

On the income side, Elisabeth could ramp up her hours; however, they’d then incur additional childcare costs. If Elisabeth wants to work more, they should investigate childcare options and price it out. It’s important for Elisabeth to consider her personal fulfillment/preference here: if she would rather work more, she absolutely should! If she would rather not work more, then she shouldn’t! Elisabeth and James have options and I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that many people work for reasons other than money.

I think it’s imperative for parents to consider the fulfillment/ preference angle and not just the dollar amount comparison of income vs. childcare costs. I personally am a MUCH better parent and happier person when I’m able to work and pay for childcare. COVID taught me that in excess!


Whether Elisabeth decides to work more or not, the family will still need to decrease their spending. At the bare minimum, they need to break even every month and eliminate their current ~$16k deficit.

The obvious area for savings is home renovations. Financially, Elisabeth and James need to stop paying for elective/cosmetic renovations and only do mandatory/safety-consideration repairs. Before doing anything else to the house that’s not strictly necessary from a safety standpoint, they need to do the below:

  1. Get their spending in alignment with their income
  2. Re-stock their emergency fund
  3. Catch-up on retirement

Thankfully, doing these three things will likely mean they’ll be ready to re-start renovations when their boys are older and not as likely to chew on dry wall. One of the main reasons my husband and I waited six years to start renovations on our home are our kids. It’s not too bad to do renovations with a 4 and 6-year-old underfoot–they’re great about not touching tools or exposed walls and it’s been way less stressful than I imagined. I cannot imagine living in a construction zone with a baby/tiny toddler.

To that end, I encourage Elisabeth and James to consider putting the renovations on hold until:

  1. They have enough money saved up to cash-flow them
  2. The kiddos are old enough to not eat nails

Eliminating their $1,054 monthly ($12,648 annually) renovation line item would bring that $16,008 annual deficit down to a much more manageable $3,360 annual deficit.

Here are some ideas for eliminating a $3,360 annual deficit:

Item Amount Notes Proposed New Amount Liz’s Notes
Mortgage Payment $1,662 Payment includes property tax and home insurance in escrow. P&I is 1043.35, Property taxes is $560, Home insurance $58 from State Farm $1,662 Fixed cost
Home Projects/Maintenance $1,054 Ah, the joys of owning a 1950s fixer-upper! *Read our story above for full description of recent projects $0 See notes above
Groceries $867 Only food. Personal items like toothpaste, toilet paper, etc. are in separate category $867 Any opportunties to reduce this?
Childcare $670 $670 Fixed cost
Fuel Oil $247 Oil is so high right now. December 2021 we paid $464 to fill our tank. May 2022: $854 $247 Have they done an energy audit of the home? Are there any low-cost opportunities to increase their energy efficiency?
Gifts $210 We have a huge blended family, who is also very generous to us! This includes everything (even shipping costs); Christmas, mother’s day, birthdays, graduations, weddings. James and Elisabeth do not buy each other anniversay gifts. Our boys also only get 1 gift from Santa, under $50. A few years ago, Elisabeth convinced both sides of the family to do a 1 gift swap during the holidays, $50 for adults, $25 for kids. Each family member randomly gets assigned one other family member each year. $100 I understand the need to be generous with family members, but this totals $2,520 per year. I encourage them to look for opportunities to reduce this.
Car gas $208 this is for both cars $208 Fixed cost
Baby $185 Note that diapers/wipes are in a separate category. Recent items here include a highchair and crib mattress (new) and a portable play dome and beach sun tent (used) $0 Can they expect for this amount to go down? I encourage them to look for free hand-me-downs, yard sale items, at thrift stores, etc. There’s a lot of free/cheap baby stuff out there!
Personal Care $174 This includes items like lotion, toothpaste, shampoo, and deodorant, but also household cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and soap. I list it all together as I buy it from the same supplier. See below $174 Have they done a price comparison exercise on this category? I wonder if generic Walmart brands (or similar) would be cheaper?
Clothing and Shoes $166 This is for the whole family. We try to buy used a lot. Biggest investment is quality winter gear as we’re outside so much. Elisabeth also spent a significant amount recently on nursing bras and postpartum clothes to comfortably breastfeed in. $0 Can they expect for this amount to go down? I encourage them to look for free hand-me-downs, yard sale items, at thrift stores, etc. There’s a lot of free/cheap stuff out there!
Home Goods $154 Recent purchases include LLbean rugs for our mudroom, new bedding for our oldest, beach towels, and an umbrella for our deck. $0 Another area that could be reduced. Again, shopping second-hand would help
Eating out $132 This has gone up a lot recently with having an infant! Solely convenience. When we get together with extended family, we sometimes order out. $0 Time to enact an eating-out ban, at least until the expenses are under control.
Water $98 Paid 4 time a year, average per month shown. Having kids and doing bath time uses a lot of water $98 Fixed cost
Internet $95 Comcast. Internet only, no cable TV or other bundles $95 Fixed cost
Medical $95 This includes co-pays, and $500 for a doula during the birth of our youngest.This does not include the cost of our son’s birth at the hospital. We used our HSA savings account to pay the $4,500 bill. $0 Assuming this will go down?
Electric $85 Averages out to $85 a month over the course of a year $0 Fixed cost
Vitamins $46 Buying from a local B Corp for our vitamins matters to us. Megafood is great quality and offers free shipping. $46 Is this a mandatory expense?
Charitable Giving $45 Elisabeth donates to Planned Parenthood of New England regularly. Other donations include to Everytown for Gun Safety, and the local chapter of the Dyslexia center where Elisabeth was trained and certified. $45 Fixed cost
Diapers/Wipes $37 Only our youngest is in diapers now. We buy Target Up&Up diapers, and prefer Seventh Generation wipes $37 Fixed cost
Elisabeth phone bill $36 Note that James does have a cell phone, but he is still on his parent’s family plan. They very generously pay his bill each month, and refuse payment from him. $15 Time for an MVNO! Mint has plans starting at $15/month (affiliate link).
Ford Insurance $34 State Farm $34 Have they comparison shopped insurance lately? A good idea to do every now and then just to see what’s out there
Car Maintenance $32 this is for both cars $32 Fixed cost
Haircuts $31 James and our 4 year old go often. Elisabeth goes once a year. $0 Do they want to do home haircuts? Or reduce spending in another category?
E-Z Pass $30 This is for both cars. There are a lot of tolls around here! Sometimes we can use alternative routes, but the most efficient routes for us to work and visiting family involve going through at least 1 toll. $30 Fixed cost
Subaru Insurance $29 State Farm $29 Have they comparison shopped insurance lately? A good idea to do every now and then just to see what’s out there
Lawn Maintenance $29 This includes mulch once a year for our flower beds, that we do ourselves, plus leaf clean-up every fall. We did the leaf clean-up ourselves when we first moved. We have a lot of mature tress, and it took us probably 10 hours total. Worth it to us to pay a local landscaper to come one day every November. $29 Again, do they want to insource this or reduce more in another category?
Car registrations $28 this is for both cars $28 Fixed cost
Activities $25 This has been really low during the past 2 years especially (Covid) we spend most of our time at free, outdoor spaces. For gifts, we usually ask for park passes. This number includes the cost of Pee-Wee soccer for our oldest. $25 Fixed cost
City trash bags $20 Our city requires residents to use special bags. This is a common practice around here. You pay for what you use. Current prices are $3.91 for a 30 gallon bag. $20 Fixed cost
Personal Articles Insurance $9 State Farm. Insures Elisabeth’s wedding ring $9 This is a small amount, but is it worth it?
Professional Development $8 James gets reimbursed for his licensing PD, so this is not listed here. Elisabeth does not get reimbursed, but her PD cost is much lower. $8 Fixed cost
Electronics/Subscriptions $5 Right now this is for our AppleTV subscription. We loveTed Lasso! $5 This is an obvious one to lose, but it’s so low it’s not going to make that much of a difference if they want to keep it.
Grove Co. yearly subscription (personal care, *see above) $2 $20 a year $2 Again, my question is if they’ve comparison shopped these items?
Monthly subtotal: $6,547 Proposed new monthly subtotal: $4,515
Annual total: $78,564 Proposed new annual total: $54,180

The goal of this spreadsheet is to highlight Elisabeth and James’ discretionary expenses–which are the things that can be reduced–versus their fixed costs, which can’t be easily changed. Having an awareness of what’s discretionary and what’s fixed is the easiest way to identify where you can save more money. It’s one of the first exercises we do as part of my free Uber Frugal Month Challenge. If you’re curious about how this might look in your own budget, sign-up for the UFM!

Elisabeth & James’ wedding

The categories Elisabeth and James choose to reduce/eliminate will be a very personal decision. It’s my job to identify where savings can happen. It’s their job to decide where to make the savings happen.

Assuming they reduced their spending per the above, their new annual numbers would be:

Income: $62,556

– Expenses: $54,180

= $8,376

What should they do with this extra money?

Funnel it into priorities 1, 2 and 3:

  1. Building up (and maintaining) a robust emergency fund
  2. Catching up on retirement
  3. Saving up for the boiler and roof replacement

Emergency Fund

Visiting the neighborhood bunnies after a bike ride

Between their savings and checking accounts, Elisabeth and James have $28,298 in cash. Since an emergency fund is three to six months worth of your spending, they should target having $13,545 to $27,090. That’s working from the above proposed reduced monthly spending of $4,515.

At their current spending level of $6,547 per month, they’d need an emergency fund of $19,641 to $39,282. But assuming they do reduce their spending, their current cash reserves make for a perfect emergency fund. The key will be for them to stabilize their spending and not dip into their dwindling emergency fund every month to cover regular expenses.

I also recommend they look into putting their cash in a high-yield savings account, such as the American Express Personal Savings account, which–as of this writing–earns 1.75% in interest (affiliate link). This means that in one year, their $28,298 would earn $495 in interest!


Elisabeth and James’ retirement investments total $53,684, which puts them behind. At ages 33 and 32, according to Fidelity’s retirement roadmap, you should:

Aim to save at least 1x your salary by 30, 3x by 40, 6x by 50, 8x by 60, and 10x by 67.

Evening walk with extended family in late winter

As they near their mid-30s, they should have 2x their annual salary in retirement investments, which would be $125,112 ($62,556 x 2). Given this disparity, I encourage them to beef up their retirement contributions. Since James’ employer offers a 401k, that’s the easiest place for them to start. James can contribute a maximum of $20,500 into his 401k annually. While they likely won’t be able to meet that amount, anything additional they can throw in will be extremely valuable.

Looking to the future, if they’re able to get James maxing out his 401k, Elisabeth can explore self-employed retirement accounts, such as Solo 401ks, IRAs and Roth IRAs. These all have different tax advantages and implications, many of which I addressed in this previous Case Study. Wherever they choose to park this money, the key is that they start putting more money towards their retirement ASAP.

The reason for this urgency is that your retirement accounts are invested in the stock market and investments need time to grow. Ideally, many decades. The earlier you start investing, the more money you will have in the long run, thanks to the magical unicorn of compounding interest. It’s imperative that Elisabeth and James don’t put this off any longer since they’re already behind.

A Note on Fees

Elisabeth and James should investigate the other fund options James has for his employer-sponsored 401k because the expense ratio on that account is criminally high at 1.02%!!!!

Walking the boardwalk on NH’s seacoast

Ask HR for all of the investment options and look for something with lower fees! If nothing better is available, make sure to–at the very least–roll the old 401k into something with lower fees.

For reference, the following three brokerages offer DIY low-fee investment options:

  • Fidelity’s Total Market Index Fund (FSKAX) has an expense ratio of 0.015%
  • Charles Schwab’s Total Market Index Fund (SWTSX) has an expense ratio of 0.03%
  • Vanguard’s Total Market Index Fund (VTSAX) has an expense ratio of 0.04%

Wondering how to find a fund’s expense ratio? Check out the tutorial in this Case Study.

Create A Savings Account for Upcoming Capital Expenditures

Elisabeth mentioned that both their boiler and roof will need to be replaced in the next 10-12 years. In light of that, I encourage them to create a savings account for these two capital expenditures now. It is a lot easier to plan ahead for major expenses than to have them sneak up on you. When your boiler dies, you can’t exactly wait to replace it until you have the money–you’ll have to go into debt unless you’ve saved for it. By holding off on elective home projects and reducing their spending, Elisabeth and James should have no trouble saving up to cash flow both the boiler and the roof, when their times come.

Elisabeth’s Question #2: How can we be smarter investors with our Vanguard account?

plate designed and painted by Elisabeth

At this point, Elisabeth and James aren’t ready for a taxable investment account. They need to first focus on:

  1. Reducing their spending
  2. Stabilizing their emergency fund
  3. Catching up on retirement contributions
  4. Saving up for future boiler and roof replacement costs

A taxable investment account is a great step to take after all of the above are done. A taxable investment account isn’t something you want to pull money in and out of–it’s meant to be left alone to grow over the long-term. That means you should only put money into this account that you do not need.

The reason I suggest they focus on maxing out James’ 401k–as opposed to putting more into their taxable investment account–is due to the tax advantages. Contributions to a 401k are made pre-tax, which means you don’t pay taxes on the money you contribute. You do pay taxes when you take this money out in your retirement.

Elisabeth’s Question #3: Should we wait until the market is better and move to a newer home with less maintenance?

This is a great question, but it’s not one we can answer right now because we don’t know what the housing market will do. If James and Elisabeth are interested in exploring this option, then it’s a good idea to keep an eye on area real estate to see if they’d be able to trade up for a lower-maintenance home in the future. It may very well be that they want to cut their losses with the fixer-upper and perhaps make some compromises (on size, location, outdoor space, etc) in order to get into a newer, less needy house.


  1. Rock climbing while on a local hike

    Look for ways to reduce spending immediately.

  2. Plan to hold off on all elective renovations until you’ve saved up enough to cash-flow them and the kids are old enough that it’s easier to work around them.
  3. Begin catching up on retirement contributions ASAP.
  4. Investigate lower fee options for James’ current and former 401ks.
  5. Stabilize your emergency fund and stop spending it down to cover monthly expenses.
  6. Consider if Elisabeth wants to work for the fulfillment/preference angle or the financial angle or both. Run the numbers on daycare vs. income.
  7. Create a savings account for the future boiler and roof replacements.
  8. Congratulate yourselves for taking the time to do this difficult work! The financial choices you make now will set you both up for a lifetime of financial success and security. Hooray!

Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice do you have for Elisabeth? 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 (mrs@frugalwoods.com) your brief story and we’ll talk.

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  1. Kudos on a great financial journey thus far!

    My first instinct is to see that James may consider leaving architecture, works variable hours, and is making about $4k take home monthly. Is he open to pursuing more higher paying jobs? The market is still fairly good right now, not a bad idea to consider beefing up your resume/LinkedIn and being open to possibilities. In this day and age I imagine he could find a remote-only position at or above his starting salary with lots of room to grow.

  2. Renovations + Parenting!
    Absolutely love this. My brother in law told me before our twin girls were born: “Do all your projects NOW before they arrive!” “You will be so busy and when they are toddlers they will want to ‘help’ with painting , moving etc…”

    Best advice I was given!

  3. One thing I rarely see in these case studies is a sinking fund or savings goal for a new car. Both of their cars are over 100K miles so they seem like a sooner expense than a boiler or roof. I’d recommend adding that as a small sinking fund once they hit the other goals.

    I would also carefully advise against a new house unless the cost benefit weighs out. New houses can still need a lot of maintenance and have issues pop up. Usually an older home is cheaper especially if you got your mortgage before rates increased. Once you do some of the safety issues, you can be assured that they are resolved vs another home with unknowns.

    1. Agreed. Having had 2 fords that lost their transmissions at 60,000 and 100,000. I’d be very concerned about their Edge, If they could swing it this might be a great time to sell the Edge and get a replacement (as Frugalwoods have done)

    1. I’m in the uk so your energy costs may not be as critical as ours. We are looking at an 82% increase in October nationally. Will there be some surge in the $85pcm?

  4. I feel for you in the weeds! We bought a fixer upper when our daughter was 2.5. She’s seven and we still don’t have baseboard in half the rooms!

    You mentioned you often are debating whether to DIY something or hire it out. One thing we sometimes did was hire a teenager to play with our daughter while we were home doing work. Her cost was much less than a contractor. Not sure if your kids would go for it.

    1. Yes, to this! We either hired a teenaged babysitter or we “invited” the grandparents to take the kids to a park or to hang out with them at our home while we did some key renovations while the kids were little. Otherwise, do as Mrs. Frugalwoods suggested and just put it off! It’s not worth the hassle and it’s SO much easier when you can at least throw a “mini-movie-marathon” and park them in front of something while you work, if not just tell them to go play while you work. Once they are older, they are less interested in “helping” and then once they are even older, they are actually helpful when they help!

    2. In addition to the using teenagers I would suggest, trading child care with the close by relatives. When the relatives are minding the kiddos, Elizabeth could be doing billable hours and James could be working on the house. Depending on the 4 year old and the project being done, perhaps only the baby would need to be minded. Several of my children at 4 were either helpful/not really in the way when doing outside projects.

      1. What about Elisabeth doing some of the renovations if she can get cost-effective childcare? It would free up family time and help her develop her skills and make a financial saving versus outsourcing.

    3. Hang in there Kate! Thanks for the encouragement. Love your thinking, and definitely will consider this when our youngest is a bit older.

  5. This is a question about your comment on retirement savings. I see the income vs retirement benchmark you use a lot.. How do you calculate being “behind” on retirement if your income changes drastically? For me, I went from my retirement being close to 1x annual (2 years ago) but my salary has more than doubled. Am I now behind because of that change? And how aggressive should I try to catch up?

    1. Thanks for asking this Rachel, I’ve wondered about this too! Should we be taking an average to approximate how well this benchmark applies with a salary change?

      1. I personally think using your spending is a better guide for your retirement saving, since you can’t necessarily control your income but you can control your spending. I’ve read that having 25x your annual spending is a good benchmark for retirement. If that money is invested in the stock market, it will continue to “work” for you even if you stop working. Mr. 1500 Days is a good example of this. His net worth has grown even more since he left his full-time job. Again, just my opinion.

    2. If you still live on the amount you used to earn, and save the rest-I think you’re good on retirement. Lifestyle creep is real, so by living like you still make your old salary will get you closer to retired!!

    3. This is a really good question- it seems like it would make more sense to determine how much to save based on what you spend, not what you earn! If your spending doesn’t go up, surely your savings don’t need to either.

    4. This is one area where I strongly disagree with Frugalwoods and Fidelity. How much you should have saved for retirement has nothing to do with your income and everything to do with your expenses. You should plan on having at least 25X your expenses saved by the time you retire regardless of what your income is.

      1. Aaron is spot on. I doubled my income in the last year and Fidelity says I need like $5 million to retire. Give me a break! All investment planning firms make the assumption that you need 80% of your pre-retirement income to survive in retirement, which is ridiculous as it doesn’t factor in your expenses. As a former licensed investment professional, these companies make money based on “assets under management” so it’s in their best interest to inflate how much money you need in order to retire….

        1. As a retiree, I completely agree with the notion that what really matters is your expenses and whether you can live on your “income”(social security, pensions, RMD from investments) without dipping into savings/investments.

    1. It is recommended that women take prenatal vitamins as long as they’re breastfeeding. Although those alone wouldn’t be $50 per month.

  6. My conclusion is to recommend ceasing renovations and relocating to home not far away from your New Hampshire family in a more rural location. This move could eliminate the city water bill. Ideally, the new home would be within walking distance of outdoor activities such as walking trails. A larger yard would offer more space for child play and gardens. Perhaps with house hunting, Elisabeth and James would want to check out properties that abut conservation land. There would be the benefit of open space in your backyard without the responsibility of maintaining the land and paying taxes. I applaud highly Elisabeth’s occupation. My husband is dyslexic along with two of his brothers. My oldest son was diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age. He could not read proficiently until 9th grade thanks to intensive tutoring with the Orton-Gillingham method. Today my son is a practicing pharmacist. From your presentation, it seems like James should do some job searching for a more satisfying position in terms of hours, compensation, and benefits.

    1. But wouldn’t going rural have its own costs for maintaining a well and septic field? City water bills generally include the costs for public sewer access.

      1. If the water bill was the only factor I would agree w/ Mary – not worth moving on the basis of water bill alone. However, other costs may reduce:

        * NH Real Estate taxes are based on municipality and vary SUBSTANTIALLY from town-to-town. Example, both Hinsdale and Keene’s mill rate is over $30 but in neighboring Chesterfield it drops to $19.
        * Insurance Costs — Since vehicle insurance is based on garaged zip code it can decrease when moving to a smaller town.
        * Miscellaneous Activity, Dining Out & Childcare Costs — All may be less in a lower COL area

        On the downsides of going more rural:
        * Yardcare -Even if insourcing a larger yard could mean more costs
        * Elisabeth’s Income — Guessing in a lower COL area the average pay for tutors would also decrease

    2. Pawpaw, thank you for your kind words about my profession. I’m thrilled to hear your successful story using Orton-Gillingham. My Dad and 2 of my sisters have dyslexia, and all have their Masters! I truly love the challenge of this work, and how rewarding it is. All the best to you and your family.

  7. The advice do not do anything big after a minor life event is a good one. Pause the renovation for at least a year. Make a solid plan with a timeframe, take the time to research second hand material, approach trade school to see if they would be interested in helping rebuild or renovate, plug into that big family of yours. A weekend of family yard work is fun and cheap. Exchange labor. The only thing I would invest into right now is a good wood stove.

  8. I just have to chime in on this case study because I’m also an architect- and I know so many who have left the profession- it’s hugely unpredictable work hours, not terribly financially rewarding, and honestly, the work culture in the Northeast for architects is just horribly exploitive. That said, there *are* better firms and worse firms, and it’s a great time to jump ship in NE- everyone is looking. Obviously he needs to decide for himself if he even still wants to do architecture, but if he likes the actual work, and just hates the work culture, he should explore other firms with a better life-work balance. There *are* some out there- in NH/ VT/ ME- I know because friends have found some of the good ones, and it’s worth finding one of them. I hated my job for many years, but when I found a firm (not in the NE) that had a wonderful life/work balance, I loved architecture again, and now I’ve negotiated fully remote/ fully flex work with that firm, in order to return to the Northeast, where I love the lifestyle and seasons. Two architect friends also recently left the architecture side of things and are now working with developers- again with a much better life-work balance firmwide, plus seriously more income- one almost doubled her income! There ARE other options for him, especially if his firm is one of the really exploitive ones. Maybe as you do this search, you don’t limit it by his commute, but really try to find the perfect firm, still in reasonable proximity to your family, and if it’s too far to commute, that will be the Universe telling you to let this fixer-upper go and move closer to the new firm. Other than that, I’ll just echo (over and over) that leaving renovations until the kids are older is the only way to retain your sanity, plus it will help your bottom line and allow you to get caught up on retirement, so at least do that!

  9. I’m deep in the weeds on house renovations, especially from hurricane damage I’m still recovering from. It’s so expensive! But I would caution against a grass is greener because all houses require maintenance and often upgrades. The costs associated with buying and selling are significant, and interest rates are much higher now. It sounds like overall you like your house and you’ve done great work already. I would suggest making a list of all projects you see needing to be done and prioritize them. For instance, no need to finish the basement now – maybe youll want to tackle that when your kids are teens and they can help for a space for them. Some things are preferences and some things feel more urgent, so lay that out and plan and budget for the next ten years. Best of luck!

  10. Their home value has gone up, which in theory is great to sell… but where do you move? Would those home values not be inflated as well? I always hate cutting spending as the first option, but the current spend is 25% more than take home income. Love the budget cuts offered by Liz and completely agree with getting that part under control. The renovations were a big part of that figure and I empathize with them wanting to have a nice home/environment, especially for the little ones. Can you tap into the home equity (cash out refi) to assist with the projects you want? The finished projects would make it more livable and bring more value to the home and you could refi again in a few years after the renovations have been made and you have increased your house’s value even more. That way you won’t tap into savings, won’t hurt current and future savings, and won’t affect monthly cash flow. Note: you have to be disciplined if you do this and only earmark the cash out $ for house projects. Last thing, as Liz pointed out – 2 sides to the equation – how can you increase your income? Help offset the expenses and also increase savings when you focus on that.

  11. Make sure you check out your Craigslist, Facebook marketplace, buy nothing group, parent swap group, or whatever other local groups you have where you can exchange things with neighbors. We have saved so much time and money. We still have a home goods line but it’s all very specific decor, like glass pumpkins and Christmas gnomes 😍😍😍

  12. I have a friend whose daughter actually did swallow a nail. It all worked out in the end, but it was a scary situation. Lots of good info in this case study. I’d love a little more discussion about how/how much to save for college.

  13. I assume kids need tutoring after school and in the evening… Could they explore getting some local kids to baby sit when Elisabeth is tutoring? That would allow her to take on some more hours without drastically increasing child care costs.
    It seems like a lot of the big work on their house has been done. I would have a hard time giving up a 3.5 percent mortgage. And as others have said new houses will need big stuff (water heater, boiler or furnace) and cosmetic stuff. Sometimes new houses are very shoddy and need tons of work, but maybe James has relationships with good builders.
    Finally, yes, start saving for a car!

    1. The tutoring hours and available babysitters is a good suggestion. Another option is to tap into the homeschool market. The mom may be willing to watch your two littles while you tutor an older child for a reduced rate.

  14. 100% agree Mrs. FW on this: cutting renovation alone gets Elisabeth about 75% there. However, if there is interest in flipping, given that the market hasn’t quit cooled off yet, it might be worth staying the course.

    Mrs. FW noted that grocery expenses could be cut. ~$900 a month is just about the average for a family of 4. Its also an expense that could be cut in half. A loaf of bread is $0.89 at Aldi and about $4.00 (name brand) at most grocery chain. It won’t be easy, but Elizabeth can cut her grocery bill to $400 or $500 a month by shopping at only discount stores and only buying sales, generic, and bulk. That’s about what my family of 4 spends with 2 middle school kids.

    $500 saved a month in groceries (and invested) for 5 years straight would be worth $40K. Nothing to sneeze at! I’d wait until Doritos are on sale before buying them again and going with generic kettle chips in the meantime : )

    1. The USDA thrifty meal plan (aka lowest cost, even below the “low cost” plan) for a family of 4 is about $900 right now – food has gone up a lot! I shop at Aldi and we eat mostly vegetarian to save money and I still have to track food to make sure we can stay around $750/month.

      1. Food certainly has gone up. Some weeks I shop at multiple stores to control costs, and some months bulk purchases at Costco or a stock up on certain sales (for example sales on cereal or pork sausage) might increase the budget. Its a battle you have to fight every week for sure and not one you can win 100% of the time – no argument there.

        With that said, most broad government statistics are more observational than instructive. Its tough to cut costs on anything right now, including food, but the USDA metric is not a hard boundary you can’t aspire to and actually be able to beat with some good old fashioned frugality!

        Sounds like you are finding some good savings opportunities. I’d be curious to know how other families are faring on this front. While I believe lifestyle will be the main driver, there could be some geographic factors that influence food cost for some families as well, especially access to places with great saving opportunities like Aldi or Costco.

        1. One thing that really helps keep my grocery budget low is shopping at our town’s resale bakery. They sell just expired or about to expire bread, bagels, wraps, muffins, cakes, etc. We’re talking Pepperidge Farm bread for fifty cents ($4.99 at Kroger or Walmart). I go there every few months and fill my freezer. Major money-saver for my carb-loving family! I’ll have to post a picture of my next haul and have everyone guess the grand total!

          1. That’s a great savings on bread products Allison! I’ve been buying bread at the Dollar Store for $1.25 a loaf but you’ve got me beat.

    2. Mr. FI, thanks for your insights on grocery spending. It’s tough! We actually have an Aldi down the street from us which I’ve been walking to with the boys sometimes. I should take advantage of this more and switch some of our brands to generic ones.

      1. He makes a very good point. We spend about $400-450 for a family of six. We don’t buy organic but I try to lean towards real foods. It takes time. But shopping sales, using multiple stores, and cooking more might be easier to do with little kids (definitely use grocery pickup if the store offers it) than figuring out how to find good childcare so you can work more. When your kids are old enough for school then it would probably make more sense to just work more than to try to reduce the grocery budget as much. I really like Tiffany Crumbs’ grocery budget boot camp. It helps you think through how you can meal plan and shop to save money.

  15. Definitely hold off on the renovations till the kids are older! If the house is safe & reasonably comfy, you can pause the work, IMHO. We’ve been in our home for 37 years & we STILL have things we want to do!
    Check with your mortgagor to see if you have enough equity to ditch private mortgage insurance. This could save you a couple of hundred dollars a month.
    Start that sinking fund for a new car!! We have 2 elderly rides — a 2000 Volvo that may need a new transmission, and a 2005 Ford that is… well, it’s 17 years old! You might want to open an account at an online bank & have the money automatically transferred every month. That’s what we’ve done & it’s pretty painless.
    I bid you peace!

  16. Home-I would also recommend putting the brakes on home repairs. We put off finishing our basement until the youngest was almost 4. They want to be where you are most of the time anyway at those ages. I wouldn’t recommend moving yet either. Interest rates are high and homes are still very overpriced. Check out minimalist blogs they are so encouraging about family living in less than ideal or smaller spaces. They also have great ideas for living with what you have without needing to buy all the things.
    Grocery budget-join us at the Frugalwoods FB page. We spend $600 a month on groceries for a family of 5, that includes hygiene items/paper goods/dog food. There are always deals at the grocery store and ways to live on less, buying loss leaders, clearance, etc. plan on having a veggie garden next year, it can truly make a dent in your grocery spending!
    Work-maybe your hubby can look for another higher paying job. I find raises to be small compared to the earning power of switching jobs with a higher salary. Also, I’d try to find more reading tutor clients and strive to tutor one hour each week day, or do tutoring for a 4-5 hour stretch on a Saturday morning, that should almost double your tutoring income!
    Retirement-Move that old 401k to a rollover IRA. Seriously, I had an old 401k get hit with fees that cut its worth by half by the time I rolled it over! Don’t let that happen! Elisabeth should open an individual Roth IRA and make regular deposits, maybe start with $100 a month.
    I’d cancel subscriptions and vitamins for now, unless you have a medical deficiency like low iron. Add things back as you find you miss them.
    Good luck!

  17. Way to work on financial security! I couldn’t have thought about this when I had a four-month-old.

    I checked out Grove Co. and think you could cut this subscription cost. Their products are mid-range in price, and I think you could get similar quality for half the cost.
    -DIY cleaners such as vinegar (with some essential oils to reduce vinegar smell) or bleach diluted in reusable spray bottles
    -checking soap sales at a co-op (both hard and refillable). Many co-ops will allow you to show without a membership, or, if you have a membership, you get money back each year depending on profits. Some regular grocery stores are also starting to have soap, shampoo, lotions, and other body care products in bulk so you can fill up reusable containers. Dr. Bronner’s is a dilutable liquid soap that works for hands, body, hair, and dishes- as I am sure you know 🙂

  18. I just want to chime in here to say that there is a ton of good advice from Mrs. FW and from the commenters and ALSO: it’s okay if you aren’t able to immediately follow all this advice right now. You have a toddler and a baby, you are thick in the deep jungle of parenting, and you might not have a lot of bandwidth right now. Reducing your expenses, putting house projects on hold, etc. can “stop the bleeding” so to speak, and you can give yourselves 6 – 12 months to figure out a more long term plan. As the baby and toddler get older, hopefully you’ll have a little more bandwidth to figure out your next steps. Increasing income is likely an important step if you want to stay in this home, but it’s something you can take some time to plan out if you reduce spending for now.

    It sounds like you’ve done a lot of work to the house, so hopefully it is livable for now. I know that feeling of wanting it to be just right, but if you plan to stay there awhile, you can take your time with that. You can also explore zero/low-cost ways of improving pieces of the home over time, like painting rooms/cabinets or repurposing decor.

    In terms of whether to move, that really depends on your local market. But there are some factors to consider: you’ll lose a big chunk of the price of your home to realtor fees when you sell, and you’ll also have to shell out for closing costs when you buy. So shifting homes alone is going to cost you thousands of dollars. Anytime you’re in a new home – even a low maintenance one – you’re probably going to want to furnish it and put your own little touches on it, so moving might not net you a home that you’re totally happy with AND doing those things costs money, albeit maybe not as much as major renovations. Finally, the housing market is totally bonkers and while that’s nice if you’re selling, it’s not great if you’re buying, so you kind of lose that advantage. Rent prices are skyrocketing and are expected to keep going up. And finally, you likely won’t get a mortgage with a rate that low again because the rates have all gone up. So for those reasons, I would only move if the house needs major safety-related renovations, because you’re likely going to lose money on the move. It sounds like you’ve done all the unsexy safety-related renovations already, so I would personally stay and plan/save for the more cosmetic renovations you hope to do down the road.

    1. Amanda, thanks so much for your thoughtfulness and insights. I love your phrase, “thick in the deep jungle of parenting” 🙂 Yes, we are pretty overwhelmed right now, but also encouraged and ready to make some changes.

  19. I relate to this case study on so many levels! I’m 32 and my husband is 34, with a similar family size (3 kids age 7, 4, 1). We bought a 1930s home in 2015 and for the first few years we were spending more than we made. We also both come from families of architects and interior designers, so caring deeply about our home seems to run in our blood. I’ve gradually learned that a lot of my home “needs” were really home “wants.” There have been times I thought I could no longer abide the original scratched tub and yellow tile, but a few months of waiting (and maybe a better paint color or shower curtain) was enough to help me realize it wasn’t so bad. Or getting used to filling gaps in the splintering hardwood floors with putty rather than spending 10k to replace. I feel like we could dump endless money into this house, but it’s actually been quite freeing to let go of needing it to be perfect.

    Also, as someone with similarly-aged kids; we saved a lot of money by creating a joy school/ co-op play group rather than playing for preschool. This is what I did as a child and I don’t feel like I was disadvantaged by not attending a traditional preschool, and my first greater thrived in that environment. I switched off with five other moms in the neighborhood so that I only had to plan “preschool” for one week out of every six. This would be a great way to eliminate $630/ month!

    1. Bailey, what a creative solution! I love the idea of a co-op/ child-care swap. Most of my nieces and nephews are already in public school, or still babies, but we’re slowly meeting more neighborhood families as COVID restrictions ease, and numbers decline in our area. I would like to look into this idea further. I often struggle with solving budget needs and wants, so thank you for sharing this. When it comes to our home, it’s particularly challenging as I spend sooo much of my time in it! (cleaning, managing, organizing, etc.) All the best to you and your family.

  20. I don’t have much by way of advice but just wanted to say that I can sooo relate… our boys are 4 and 2, and we moved into our circa 1800 farmhouse when I was pregnant with our first. It was well maintained but still had / has a fair amount of updates we want to tackle which is just SO challenging with little ones! We can afford to hire out in theory but my husband takes tremendous joy and pride in DIY and we are aiming for early retirement so always calculate how much more we would have to work if we spent money on a contractor. But that means our to-do list stays long. So I feel for you! I have had a few solo day trips to my parents’ or sister’s 2 ish hours away taking the boys so that my husband can get stuff done without littles underfoot. Good luck!

  21. I’m actually currently in a very similar position as they are, but we’re doing some things I think they could really benefit from:

    We use YNAB (You Need a Budget) to track our expenditures and plan for the future. This makes a huge difference in knowing what we are currently able to put toward retirement and home projects. (We don’t have a fixer-upper, but we have a new house with no landscaping and an unfinished basement, so we’re doing a ton this way.) It costs $100/year, but it’s saved us that amount many times over. It has you only budget money you have instead of money you are projected to have, which is a game-changer.

    When you get your diapers from Target, watch for the deals where they give a gift card (often $20) for a $100 diapers/wipes purchase; stock up and then save that gift card for the next time they have the deal. It’s basically like getting $100 worth of already cheap diapers for $80.

    Finally, I’d like to echo what she said about you working. I’ve gone on and off with part-time work while mostly being a stay-at-home mom. It really boils down to what’s going to keep you sane. Of course you love your kids and spending time with them, but it can make a big difference if you have the chance to “adult” too.

    Good luck with everything!

    1. One more thing: I really recommend reading the Simple Path to Wealth. It’s a great resource for learning about investing.

      1. Nikki, thanks so much for this advice. I’ll definitely look into YNAB. We’ve been using Personal Capital. I’ve heard of that book before, but have never got around to reading it; I’ll request it right now from our library. Best of luck with your renovations!

  22. How are they supposed to get electric to $0?
    Their income is not huge and they could definitely cut expenses. Honestly, I know food is expensive but I would try to reduce that category too.

    1. I think the $0 for electric was a typo in that column, the notes say “fixed expense” so I don’t think Liz was assuming that number would change. And given the scale of $$, $85 versus $0 doesn’t change the conclusions or advice.

  23. 1. I wonder if this family has considered bartering for some home repairs/upkeep? I have a man taking care of my lawn/snow removal in exchange for his daughter’s weekly piano lessons.
    2. Within your extended family and friends, are there some handy people who could all get together for a day to put on a new roof? Here, we purchase all needed materials, and set a date for everyone to help. You’d be surprised how many people will donate their time and skills if you feed them and make sure they have plenty of water/soft drinks. You could even make this a cookout, if you like. And make the day lighthearted and friendly. It pays to make friends with the people in your area. My roof cost me the price of the shingles, plus about $200 in food and beverages, and it was completed in a day. Othe people have had a “house painting party,” and the entire exterior of the home was painted by the end of the day (main color, trim and accents). Again, food and drink were provided by the home owner, and the entire house was pressure washed days before painting. You might meet people who work in plumbing or electricity who could help with those projects. It never hurts to ask.
    3. We heat with wood here. We have 120 acres of woods, so the requirement is the time and chainsaws involved. We bought a woodsplitter, which was an excellent investment in saving time. We have a backup LP gas furnace (required by law in our area). We haven’t had a heating bill in 22 years!
    4. Make sure to sell your maternity clothing and breastfeeding tops at a consignment store. It sounds like you may have purchased very nice items, which would sell quickly once you no longer need them. Consignment is usually 50/50, but they display your items AND have a large clientele.
    5. Shop the thrift stores and rummage sales for clothing, particularly for the children. Winter boots and coats can easily be found at rummage sales. Be sure to check outlet stores for clothing for all.
    My neighbors are always well-dressed, and she is proud to say she can’t see “wasting good money” on new clothes when there are so many lovely things (gently used) available for pennies on the dollar. Of course, she spends a lot of time going to rummage sales.
    5. I purchased my home on a 10 year mortgage, which saved me a ton of money in interest. Generally, with a 30 year mortgage, you will be paying at least twice the purchase price of your home.
    6. Our money was mainly invested in Roth IRA. These are post-tax investments, which means you pay no tax on it when you cash it out. This isn’t for everyone, I realize, but worked well for us.
    Best wishes to you and your family!

  24. Depending on the age of kids you tutor, a teen who needs your tutoring might be able to trade babysitting for their tutoring. Obviously you’d have to get more babysitting time than time spent tutoring them, but the teen got one tutoring session a week and babysat three times a week it could be worth it?

  25. Convenience is king sometimes – but as a potential way to cut back on some of the eating out costs, consider QUICK QUICK QUICK options to keep on hand at home if you’re not already. Frozen pizza, frozen ravioli + jar of sauce, ramen noodles, even 90 second rice or pasta pouches + some frozen broccoli & a fried egg if you tend to shy away from the other mentioned items. In my experience, I can make a pizza faster than I could get one if I had to order AND then pick it up, or pay extra for delivery. Not to mention, if I cook it at home, I can usually get one or two tasks done while the pizza cooks.

  26. Thank you so much for sharing your story! I felt I could relate a lot as we bought our home when my daughter was a baby (now 6) and we had money in savings but not a lot of income. We just now last year depleted our savings on our fixxer upper. We had a separate emergency fund of essentials only 20K that we did not touch. I had a mini panic attack thinking do we have enough income to do the remaining projects? ?? Thankfully our income has increased over the last 5 years and we’ve been able to put more aside and I think we’ll be alright. I also considered with the value increase of our home to buy something else. But it’s going to take a lot to top what we have. I did look and ran numbers and at this point I’m not interested. But it took actually doing that to shift my perspective and feel content.

    Contentment and learning frugality will really go far for you in these early stages of parenting and learning life. I’ve found so many ways to save money and have found so much encouragement with zero waste, minimalism blogs and YouTube as well as frugal. I love budget bytes blog for cheaper recipes. I revamped everything. But it’s a balance to never have anything nice you get a little grabby. So I learned what I value and matters to me and I found a lot of it went by the wayside. I also love Castile soap in foam pumpers so friendly for kids and keeping water off while hand washing. I use sals suds for dishes and cleaning. Rags for everything I hide the paper towel in bathroom for guests and really nasty messes. I get free hand me downs from friends for my daughter I would definitely seek out free cycle or buy nothing you will get so much including shoes sometimes I pay $5. The local library in a neighbor town brings my family so much joy and entertainment. Also local hiking trails. We are content and enjoying life. God bless you guys in your journey!!

    1. Laura, I enjoyed reading your story- yes, very similar! I admire you for assessing your spending and thoughtfully considering what you value most. This takes considerable time and effort, and I hope to delve into this over the next few years. As a family, we’ve made progress in living more minimally. We eliminated paper towels completely a few months ago. Baby steps! We also adore our local library and all it has to offer. All the best to you and your family!

  27. I really enjoyed this case study, I’m impressed with the strong financial foundation Elisabeth and James have built for themselves and their young family. As a fellow Architect, I empathize with how much you may want to get your house fully renovated and up to your aesthetic standards. It looks from the pictures that you have already accomplished a lot and have a lovely home. I’d encourage you to pause your renovations so you can tweak your spending and focus on retirements savings as Liz suggests. Mainly, I’d just encourage you to just enjoy this season of your life with young children. It goes by so quickly.

  28. It is easy to let spending get out of control and with a toddler I imagine it is easy to lose track. (and recent inflation doesn’t help much either) When I read about their monthly living beyond their means I was worried. It is important to think about the difference between needs and wants before taking from the emergency fund… which is for emergencies. Renovations are only necessary if they could cause harm to their health or safety or the structure of the home if not carried out. What will they do when the fund runs out and they have a real emergency?

    1. Christopher, thanks for your comments, and yes! James and I do need to prioritize and make time to assess what our true needs and wants are. We did have some considerable health/safety repairs in our home involving water damage in our mudroom and mold in our garage and main bath, which have now all been resolved.

  29. With kids that young, they are in “the thick of it”. I say take a break with house renos, just do the major things that NEED to get done. When the kids are 5 and older, those house are going to be so much easier to get done- kids will require less hands-on care. Plus, kids like to color on walls, puke on carpets, etc… And in a few years, his income will probably ramp up, and there will be more room in the budget for “nice to have” renovations. ALL houses need maintenance. New houses need landscaping, finishing, etc, etc….. I’d say stay there and learn to live with less than perfect for a few years.

    1. As the numbers made clear you’re spot on. It’s hard for us not to, but we need to learn to live with what is not essential. : ( at first, : ) in the long run

  30. In regards to haircuts, I have quite a few hair schools in my area and they offer reduced costs for cuts by students. Check this out, you may save a bit!

  31. Nice work on taking these necessary steps, you guys! My husband and I also own a 1950s ranch and have done a lot of renovations to it, mostly because it’s our shared hobby, with tiny kids around. My only advice that Liz didn’t mention (I’d follow everything she said!) is that I’m surprised, a little, at the $ given for James’s job. For a relatively HCOL area and his wage average as an architect, is there a chance he needs to start job hunting? This is a great time to be leveraging your experience into a higher wage, or at the very least considering it and keeping your options open (or maybe ask for a raise!?).

  32. Great case study! Happy to see NH here.

    I was struck by the fact that Elisabeth has so much family around her but doesn’t have much childcare help. Do you have any relatives who could step in to watch the kids (maybe once the baby’s older) so you can work more? Or time to do whatever you want?

    1. Hi Kate! I figured someone would bring this up… it’s tricky for us at the moment: Since we’ve moved here I’ve had to really work on my expectations and how to communicate with my family in regards to this. It’s a work in progress for sure. When we do ask for help, it’s usually for home projects. My parents are not in a position to offer regular childcare for us right now. They have a lot of other grandbabies too! My sisters and I are very close, but we can’t really help each other out too much with swapping care, as we all still have a least one little who is exclusively breastfeeding. My family is very loving and here for emotional support. I sometimes get envious of many of my friends who have regular (free!) childcare from their parents so they can work, but that is not where we are right now, and that’s okay.
      Anyone else in a similar position, or who is struggling with this?

      1. With you and your sisters and swapping care — maybe could it work out for the joy school/pre-school coop that someone suggested above? If your sisters also have toddler or pre-school aged kiddos could you plan some type of 1-2X per week “Cousins Pre-School” and you and your sisters rotate turns planning the activities? That way nursing moms could still be on site, and you all could rotate leading activities so that you don’t have to plan the activities every time OR pay for children to attend care/school elsewhere? If you are wiling to play hostess to this mini-school could you plan to offer tutoring from your home on those same days and your sisters still be there to continue watching your kids?

        (Thinking it could be something like “Cousins School” meets in the mornings, you all enjoy lunch, then the afternoon is just a play date for the cousins and while they play you could be offering after-school tutoring?).

      2. Same struggle here! We have two sets of retired grandparents living near us and very little regular childcare. You have a healthier attitude about it than I do 🙂 I wonder if you could consider a) asking to schedule regular but infrequent babysitting from your parents, e.g., 1-2x a month, and b) getting your littlest using bottles so that you can pump and leave him with your sisters periodically. What I’ve found is that even though we only have sporadic family-provided childcare, as long as we plan our activities for those ~3 hours, my husband and I are insanely productive (although we aren’t DIYing major renovations!). I hope that is moderately helpful!

  33. I think you could significantly reduce your heating costs by installing a heat pump system to replace the oil furnace/boiler you’re using now!! With the new tax incentives and rebates (offered through each state) in the recently passed federal legislation, it is likely that your family may qualify to have the entire cost covered. I’ve been reading about heat pumps for years and the newer equipment works in cold weather areas making it a viable home heating option for most of the US. It seems hard to believe, but a heat pump is actually MORE than 100% efficient.
    We had an oil furnace in our home when we first bought it but the fluctuations in the prices made costs so unpredictable that we swapped it for a gas furnace in 2008 as oil prices neared $5/gallon! I thing the advice to scale back renovations to free up money for retirement savings is probably a good idea, but if you qualify for the rebate (plus federal tax credit) I think replacing your existing heat source will cost very little (maybe even $0) and will cut your annual fuel costs significantly.

      1. We enjoy ours (minisplit) in southern NH. It cools in summer and provides heat in spring and fall. Need the furnace in winter though.

    1. We would love to do that and had some quotes put together and ran the numbers when we first started down our projects. At the time, if we wanted to do the whole house, we were looking at ~20k. Now we could have always done just part but didn’t at the time. Their weren’t great rebates at the time and our state didn’t have much to help either. Hopefully the new legislation would change that. The heat pumps work great and then we can keep the oil boiler and a backup. It’s on the long term plan…would love to

      1. Hey James, I’m assuming you have radiant heat, so no ductwork? We have a boiler and radiators in our 1932 house. In order to add central A/C to our house we had a “high velocity” system installed (the main manufacturers are Spacepak and Unico), and that could work with a heat pump to provide heat in the winter, but we’ve stayed with our hot water heat because it’s such a nice way to heat the house. We did upgrade our old, inefficient boiler to a new modulating/condensing boiler that’s something like 96% efficient, and it paid for itself in just a few years given the monthly savings. But here in Ohio we have natural gas through our utility company. Those prices are going way up too, unfortunately.

    2. We also use heat pumps for our old farmhouse in VT and they work great! Our energy bills went down by about 40% and we have had them for 5 years and already recouped the investment.

  34. OK adding my 2 Cents here. Living on a limited income in retirement. Lost all my vision for 6 weeks before I retired. Some of it has returned or I wouldn’t be tappling this out on my phone.. No internet except for what I access on my phone.nNo cable or streaming just over the air TV baby! I live in a much smaller home built In The 1950s. My home was a tract home where factory workers lived before the factory left town. My neighborhood is lower middle class and sometimes better but more likely worse. It is a higher income town however the downtown area where I live is not. I rent my home from my best friend who has given me a steal.of a deal on rent. She has had mental issues so.ive been doing property management. We have kiddos in the neighborhood who help with raking. I chose my house because I figured home maintenance costs would eat .me up otherwise. Btw.satisfaction rates of homeowners has plummeted due to cost of repairs. Find yourself a handyman. There’s one guy who was a facility maintenance guy who retired early due to health issues
    He loves working on homes just to get out and have something to do. I rake and do my own lawn mowing. I use a push reel mower and sharpen the blades with a file. I have a postage stamp sized yard. Despite that I bagged 80 bags of leaves. Thank goodness one of my handymen friends got my leaf blower going. Use everything you have laying around your house. For example my refrigerators freezer has gone out. Since I don’t freeze .much I am getting ready to purchase a counter top freezer for $125. One of my friends is funding that as a birthday present and I continue using the refrigerator.for now. Use 50/50 vinegar and water to clean the wood floors. Need to use a microfiber mop head that you can wash in the washer. So I’m replenishing my emergency fund and once a year doing a planned for major repair. In the meantime the handyman is doing a patch job on the garage roof and next winter we’ll just before winter we replace the roof my old beater garage. No electric doors. I still throw the door up myself. I am arthritic guys and still do this. When you don’t have means you have to get smart. I fell and broke my leg in a running accident in my 50s and have a steel rod in my right leg. I walk my small dog 3 miles every day. My neighbors all grow veggies and I shop at aldis also. Am I happy? You betcha!! I am getting ready to travel to Florida for 5 days to celebrate my stepmothers 90th birthday with my family. I paid for cheap airfare and a place to stay in 1 month car rental the next month a d finally uber/lyft for 3 rides when I don’t have a car the third month. I am doing air bnb for $30 a night.. Be grateful for the little things sacrifice and enjoy the moments like a family members celebration of a long life! Every penny saved goes towards being able to love and live. 69 years young here!



    1. Becky, thanks for sharing; your outlook on life is fantastic! I admire your grit and independence. You sound like a true New Englander to me! Definitely something to be said for making-do and getting creative. Enjoy your time in Florida! All the best to you.

  35. As your kids get older and in school (or maybe sooner if you are interested), I would look into contract jobs with the school system near you. I live in the southern US, so it could be different from where you are, but around here we contract out PT, speech therapy, and other special service providers because there aren’t classroom teachers who are qualified to offer these services to our students, but they are entitled to them through public school. I don’t think you get the benefits that make a job in the school system desirable, but I know the pay is considerably higher per hour. The other benefit is being on the same schedule as your kids and not needing to hire childcare during school breaks.

    1. Excellent advice Stephanie, thank you! I was actually just contacted by a local school district for a PT contract position, but I just can’t pull it off right now logistically with childcare for my littlest. I’m hoping to keep up with my contacts, and pursue this down the road… Both my Dad and step-mom are retired teachers, and being on the same schedule added so much to our quality of life as a family.

      1. I’d also consider offering virtual sessions if that’s feasible for any of your services – I’m a neuropsychologist and make many referrals for kids with LDs for reading specialists. I’ve worked in both NYC and Boston and the hourly rates for skilled learning specialists in major HCOL cities are higher than $80 (in some cases, much higher!). I don’t know if there are interstate credentialing considerations but if this is at all possible it could drastically up your hourly take-home.

  36. Hi, I appreciated this case study as it reflects much of our last few years. I thought I’d share some of what we’ve done incase it gives ideas. We live in New Zealand so financial markets are different. We consider the renovating cost part of the purchase of our house so have extended our mortgage to do so. Could you have your house revalued and take a bigger mortgage? The renovations which have been most worthwhile to us are those that were necessary (redoing our foundations), changed how we live in the house (better connection to outside, moving our living areas to the sunny warm side of the house, having a fireplace), or generated income. We have a big house so have set it up with two separate flat inside to bring in income (both house prices and rents are high here). Our long-term plan is to build on our section and then either sell or rent our current house – it sounds like you have a large section, is this something you could do and your husband would love?

    On reducing expenses my main thought was why you are spending so much on childcare for your oldest. Could you arrange playdates with family members instead? My more minor thought was whether anything can be gained by dropping your standards – for example, do you really need to collect up the leaves? Could you buzz cut your son’s hair. Do you really need vitamins.

    My other thought is that this is the highest expense/lowest income point of your life (I’m assuming you aren’t planning more children), personally I’d be less worried about significant investments and certainly wouldn’t worry about saving for your kids future education.

    Good luck. These years are not easy!

  37. “The reason I suggest they focus on maxing out James’ 401k–as opposed to putting more into their taxable investment account–is due to the tax advantages.”

    Question about this: If James does not have an investment option through his employer’s 401k with a fee lower than the 1% mentioned above, would it still be better for them to save with a 401k, as opposed to saving in a taxable account where they can choose a much lower fee? Is there maybe an online calculator to help figure that out? It seems like the 401k’s tax advantages could be lost if there’s no choice but to pay the high fees.

    1. Hi Blair, all excellent, insightful questions… that I have no idea how to answer! but thanks for bringing these up! I’ll have to look into this and refer to Liz here.

    2. Hey Blair, that 1% certainly bites! But that fee is small compared to even a fund that is fee free if funded with AFTER tax money. I can only estimate the tax rate on their income but it’s likely 15% in taxes they avoid in that pretax 401k that is costing 1% in fees and growing tax free. Even a bad 401k is still worth it for company match and tax deferral over any other investment account!

  38. They may not be in quite as bad of shape as suggested. It doesn’t look like they take into account their tax situation. With a modest income and 2 dependents I would assume they pay nothing in Federal taxes and likely get a refund and it doesn’t look like they accounted for that. Even with that I agree with Frugalwoods that the OP should only be doing renovations for safety reasons rather than cosmetic at this time.

  39. Elizabeth, would you be open to cloth diapers and cloth wipes? I used them with all 4 of my children including twins and know I saved a bunch. I used green Mountain diaper prefolds and covers.

    1. Hi Julie! A bit intimidated by it to be honest, but like anything, I know it would just take some research and time on my end. I will look into that brand!

      1. My advice about cloth – research the different brands/types as much as you can before investing. I had twins and felt most comfortable using all in ones (AIO) that you literally wash, dry and put back on the baby. I loved BumGenius brand for daytime and SLOOMB for nighttime. We spent about $900 in total investment between diapers, wet bags, etc. When my twins were finally potty trained over three years later, I sold them all for about $700. Not a bad return! Good luck to you mama 🙂

        1. We used cloth for my two and did a mixture of AIO and prefolds. I preferred the prefolds (with a Snappi for closure) and they are CHEAP. Like Lesley, we sold all of our diapers for ~75% of what we paid for them. Win!

  40. If you like where you live, and the general layout of your house, I’d stick with it. It may be “worth” more, but finding a replacement house, with increased mortgage rates and unknown future repairs is a gamble. Refinishing a basement is a nice thing, but not a necessity. Roof and heater is. Your house and yard look very nice.

  41. I am also someone who gets overwhelmed owning a fixer upper, and yet my frugal brain really can’t wrap itself around buying a newer/flipped house, although having lived in two fixer uppers I’ve vowed never to do it again! So I feel your pain there. The expenses feel never-ending, and I’ve owned one fixer upper without kids and one with a toddler, and I’ve personally found it impossible to DIY with a (single!) child.

    If you end up deciding you don’t want to deal with your fixer upper anymore, I just want to mention that if you wait to sell your home when the market levels out, you will be selling at the same price point you are buying. IE, if the home you purchase is cheaper, your current home will sell for less in that market. Even if the market is high, if you buy and sell at the same time, you will make more on the sale of your home and can thus put those profits into buying the new house, thus leveling out the purchase. So I don’t think this choice is dependent on the market. I’m in a part of the country where the market has gone crazy, and when I consider selling my fixer upper I look at the insane prices of homes for sale I have to remember my home would also sell for an insane price!

  42. A ( relatively) painless way to cut grocery costs was to cut out packaged snacks and canned/ bottled drinks, and shop generic and seasonal. This cut my grocery bill by 30% immediately, even as prices were going up! As an increasingly obese society we ,somewhere along the way, absorbed the idea that 3 meals weren’t enough!A useful metric, given me by a dietitian, was that a child’s stomach is roughly the size of its fist! Knowing that can reduce food waste enormously, or perhaps encourage you to set aside a snack size portion for later when dishing up meals, if you prefer to have some snacks available.

    1. Yes! I also have set snack times for my kids. They need the snack but if I let them, they’d just eat constantly because they’re bored or something. And they have to be willing to eat the piece of fruit or slice of cheese or carrots. I try to avoid packaged snacks and definitely avoid those expensive toddler snacks. No veggie straws. They can eat carrots or frozen peas (the baby).

  43. We bought a fixer-upper as our first home (and only moved once since then). We also had two children during the almost decade span of remodeling. I will admit we did have the flexibility of the can-remodel person shutting down his business during the winter which made remodeling a bit easier in our case. BUT we had a plan which is key. Yes, we paid cash as I had a FT job. You need to prioritize and save up. Unfortunately, you likely missed locking in a HELOC at the lowest fixed rate but it may be too late. We are far past child rearing, college, and remodeling BUT took advantage of a fixed rate HELOC when we renewed (gone are the days of the open ended HELOC). It is a peace of mind safety net in the event of a major unexpected necessity (think non-conventional septic).
    Finding another home is going to be difficult, rates not withstanding. If you like where you live, you have plenty of time to get-r-done. I’d not knee jerk and move. Only reason we moved is what was happening around us plus a better age-in-place opportunity. I cannot stress the importance of family close by. I always opted to commute versus moving the kids. It can and did work out in the long run.

  44. In the past, I have contacted the Director of the Honor Society at the local high school about students that might be interested in babysitting opportunities. After discussing my requirements for hours/timeframes/compensation , they have been able to refer several excellent and reliable babysitters. Just a thought and good luck.

  45. Something to consider when investing in renovations: it’s good to make sure that cost of improvements + your current mortgage don’t eclipse the overall value of the property. Zestimate can be inflated. If you refinanced, your lender did a professional value assessment based on the current condition *with* the upgrades and pulled comps from recent sales. I would use that as a guideline for how much you put into renovations if/when you resume the work. That said, it sounds like you’ve put in a lot of sweat equity. I’ve been there & it’s A LOT of sweat! Much luck to you.

  46. Elisabeth, the plate you designed and painted is beautiful – could you do some more of this to cut down on your gift giving costs? maybe even sell some to friends for them to gift?
    someone else mentioned the website budgetbytes for low cost recipes and I second this suggestion! can’t think of a single recipe from her that my family hasn’t liked. I also would recommend going to children’s consignment sales/stores, yard sales etc and buy hardly anything new for the kiddos. Then turn around and consign back when you are done with it if you can. There is a huge market for used. I loved shopping the sales and would get so excited about all the deals I found for pennies on the dollar!
    The fee for the 401k was glaring to me as well so I would definitely see if another fund has a lower fee but do think it is worthwhile to keep contributing to the 401K to at least get the company match. However, I also think it would be good to start funding Roth IRA’s for you and your husband now as well if you can swing it, even if you can’t put in the maximum. Your tax rate is low now and all of the earnings would be tax free when you take them out in retirement.
    Finally, there has been little discussion about college costs and you mention that you want to help your children with that. I was lucky enough to have partial tuition reimbursement through my employer for my 2 children but even still with room and board and other expenses, it is crazy expensive. yes there are other paths, community college, technical schools, living at home, scholarships, etc but it’s still expensive. We opened up a 529 plan when the kids were little and had $100/month directly deposited into it for about 17 years. when it was time for my first to go to college it had ~ 37K in it which was a huge help. We set it up and forgot about it and even when times were tough we didn’t touch it. Family can also contribute to it so when the grandparents ask what to get your kids for Christmas, you can direct them to that which will be much more useful than a soon forgotten toy.
    Best of luck to you. You are in the thick of it for sure so give yourselves some grace, you’ve taken the huge first step of even thinking about all this!

  47. I hope that both elisabeth and James won’t be mad or offended by my question, but it’s offered from the perspective of a woman who never thought that it would happen to her. Here in England, spouses’ pensions are looked at as part of any divorce settlement. Nonetheless, it’s not always a 50/50 split overall. I’m obviously not clued up on US State and federal law in this area, but if there are any sad developments, could/should Elisabeth be factoring into her decision about increasing her working hours the need to increase her earnings and her own pension contributions? It’s a hugely sensitive and emotive issue to raise. I promise that it is done in a spirit of concern.

  48. I agree with Paige about your painted plate designs!!! What about selling your artwork designs on Etsy, EBay, or FB Marketplace or feature your artwork at a local coffee house (customize/decorate coffee mugs), maybe floral shop or garden center (floral pots, mugs, vases), or another business in town- think local/seasonal designs for the town/state or tourist attractions in area- and advertise featuring your designs at the local library, post office, groceries, hardwares, etc.? Your design is beautiful and could be a way to bring in extra income as a side gig?

  49. Elisabeth; I think you’re doing marvelous all things cpnsidered. By that I mean with 2 children and your incomes. You just need to think more outside the box. I am an ex-nurse and paralegal. I did not have a good grasp of how to spend and save. I do have what I call a tiny nest egg which includes a Roth IRA. I also do have medicare and a supplemental policy on top so no medical bills for now
    I also have an emergency fund. I try to keep it at 6 months worth of savings. I may bump that up soon. I refuse to touch my Roth. I am debt free and I save every month even though I don’t have much. I work with my young nieces and nephews on doing things .much less expensively. And so that’s what I was trying to say. Do things your way. Spend what you need to. The rest will come if you are patient. Figure out diy solutions. I have many times and I’m not always the handiest. The old saying goes when the going gets tough the tough get going. No wonder I did marathons lol. OK so best regards and best of luck. Living the life in indiana smile. Becky

  50. You might also consider using cloth diapers and making homemade wipes. I preferred cloth diapers, and both my boys did well with them. Better for your budget, the environment, and your baby. Homemade wipes are also super easy to make.

  51. Check to see if you have a Buy Nothing group in your area. I cannot believe how generous the gifts are on my local group. Bags and bags of children’s clothing, baby stuff, snow suits, sports equipment, plant cuttings, furniture….it’s amazing.

  52. Great post, it appears Elizabeth and James could benefit from an increase in revenue and cut in expenses. It’s easy for us to look from the outside and say thats the problem, I totally understand that the hard part it putting it into practice. I’ve been there! The REALLY good thing is they have steady employment, and they have youth on their side. I really didn’t get serious about investing until I was in my mid-forties, so it is certainly not to late for them. Some things I’d recommend would be: Is there any way for Elizabeth to do something like ‘teach english as a second language’ online? After the kids go to bed. Or, develop some other side hustle at night, online. Maybe look to sell things that could generate some cash and invest the proceeds in quality ‘dividend producing’ stocks or ETF’s. Their expenses seem very reasonable so cutting them may not be the most beneficial. Perhaps when the kids are older and assuming they will go to public school, then “child care” costs will drop. When that happens, I’d put that toward some sort of low-risk investment vehicle . You guys are doing great though!

  53. My daughter did dyslexia tutoring and bc we started doing it during early Covid, it was all on zoom. We eventually did in person but I wonder if zoom tutoring would give you more options, like 1/2 here or an hour there, no commute.

    Also our local buy nothing group is amazing. Definitely recommend.

  54. You are definitely in the thick of it now! My suggestions:
    1. Keep your eating out budget the same. You have a baby and a lot going on. Sometimes you just need to eat out so you have a break.. As the kids get older you can focus on reducing this expense if needed.
    2. One of my favorite FW posts is: https://www.frugalwoods.com/2019/02/15/how-i-saved-tons-of-money-during-my-babys-first-year/ The post convinced me to switch from Target diapers to Wal-Mart. While I was at it I switched most of our other personal care items to generic stuff from Wal-Mart (equate face wash, moisturizer, lotion, etc.) to save money.
    3. I’ve been in a similar spot with renovations/house projects and young kids. Like you, this meant me spending the weekends on kid duty with him on project duty. It certainly led to some resentment on my part and was exhausting for both of us. I agree with everyone else who says to put the projects off, or at least space them out a bit so you have some months and weekends where you can just focus on being a family together. You will all have more bandwidth for this stuff in a few years.
    4. Turn your house projects into gifts. For example, I asked my husband to paint a room in the house as my birthday present. I get to pick the paint color, he will do the labor while I watch the kids, and the cost of my gift is the cost of paint and supplies. Personally, I have too much stuff and would rather have this project done than have more “things.”
    5. Can you and your family members agree to stop buying gifts for kid birthdays? It could save you some money and some clutter (if this is something you are trying to reduce). Maybe instead you could do a birthday childcare swap where you take the birthday niece or nephew for a few hours to go do a fun free outdoor activity with your kids. Then they do the same for you on your child’s birthday. It could be a nice time to bond with aunts & uncles and also give the parent of the birthday child a little breather. (I realize this is hard with EBF but perhaps next year, or only for your older child?)
    6. Having a house, whether old or new, is a permanent project. It will never truly be “done.” Especially with a growing family, the way you use your house now will not be the same way you use it in 5 years. You will need/want to rearrange/redecorate or get different pieces of furniture/storage to create solutions to some of those changes. Just knowing it’s a process can help you not feel pressured to get all the projects done now.
    7. The pandemic led my husband to cut his own hair and he does our sons’ too. Not only has this saved money but it’s saved so much time. The last thing we want to do on the weekend is wait in line at a place to get their hair cut. Could this be an option for your family?
    8. Your internet sounds really expensive. Can you ratchet back to a cheaper plan?
    9. Charitable giving. Maybe you do your charitable giving through your gift expenses instead to save some money. Instead of buying a mother’s day gift, make a donation in your mother’s name. Seems like a win-win that saves you so money while also allowing you to provide a gift and do something for the greater good.

  55. Another OG advocate – my dyslexic (mild) daughter was helped by OG workbooks I found on A-zon. My question, having renovated several houses, is how much more do you have to do for renovations? It seems like you’ve done most essential things other than maintenance. For leaves, mow them to mulch into the grass – much quicker. Pay someone reliable to maintain your HVAC, which is $300-$400/year well spent. If you still have a lot to do, you won’t be able to get as much for your house if you do sell it although it seems you’re about done except for nice-to-haves. If the schools are good and nearby, I’d be tempted to stay. One caveat – your DH is an architect and you can build equity by buying, renovating, selling every 5-6 years or so (any more with kids is crazy unless it’s your profession). I would have your DH start to build relationships to know good builders, mechanical, foundation, and inspection trades so next time you know what you’re getting into. As others have said, having young kids is the most stressful time (other than teens I guess, but that’s another discussion!), so be easy on yourselves and do the best you can for yourselves and your kids.

  56. Dear Frugalwoods Community,
    I realize I did not respond to each of your comments, but I can assure you James and I have read through each one thoroughly! Thank you so much for taking the time to read our story and connect with us in this way. James and I don’t use social media, so it was a bit daunting to put ourselves out here. That being said, we are grateful for all the valuable advice, insights, and creative suggestions. Completing this exercise and taking this first step toward a more secure financial future has been challenging, but also empowering. We feel encouraged now, appreciate your support!

  57. You do need to follow the reduce expenses or increase income budget rule. I started doing surveys to get Amazon GC to offset gift purchases. I made 2x dinner for multiple nights to have freezer assets to avoid take out. I would sit down with my husband and produce a wants and a needs list for home repairs. Then establish a budget for each project. Right now I would not sell the bubble seems to have burst.

    And I want to be careful with this one (and I assure you I once sat down and asked the same question,) you are spending 999 between eating out and groceries. Do you think there is room to reduce? Can you reduce waste in this area? Can you batch cook? When I had my son (2nd baby) I was told by a lady at my church that the only 2 things I had to promise was food and clean clothes. She never said what kind of food.

    Most important. Give yourself a break. Do what you can not what you think you have to.

  58. I noticed a little accounting or spreadsheet error unless I’m misunderstanding: Electric fixed cost appears to have gone from $85 per month to $0. (an additional $1020 a year on the proposed budget). 🙁

  59. Apologies, I now see the typo about electricity already mentioned several times. Nothing like another dose of criticism, sigh.

    Definitely in agreement with the general advice; take a deep breath and accept there’s a difference between “necessary” and “nice”. Cover “necessary” end to end, top to bottom, and then see what’s left over for “nice”. I have found that sometimes I need a focus that feels productive, and if I can swap out nice for necessary (example, instead of spending half an hour picking out the perfect $50 bath mat and then congratulating myself because I found a 15% coupon, I spend half an hour sewing a towel I already have into a bath mat. I still get the glow that comes from accomplishment, and the added bonus of not stealing success from another goal to get it.

  60. And yes, to add, I do get it, with small kids, it’s not like you’ve got that 30 minute luxury of time all at once. I think that’s probably where a lot of people fall apart – I don’t have time for this and I can buy this $50 bathmat in 30 seconds, done. Which just shifts the question a little: Do I really need it NOW?

  61. “Electric” was marked as a fixed cost, but allocated $0 in the budget analysis. It should remain as $85 in the budget analysis.

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