This article is by staff writer Kristin Wong.

Lately, life has been a little hectic. I have a full schedule of work. I’m trying to plan a surprise party. I’m working on three different passion projects. My laundry needs to be washed. Hell, I need to be washed. It’s noon and I haven’t even showered.

I don’t mind a packed schedule, and I’ve learned to better manage my time. But for those moments when a lack of time gets the better of me, and my stress level rises, I’ve noticed something unsettling: I have a really careless attitude about money.

In short, I’ve been stress spending. Some of it is emotional, and some of it is spending out of convenience. Here are a few examples of my recent stress spending:

  • Instead of cooking, I’ve been ordering takeout.

  • I ordered some clothes online because I thought I deserved it.

  • I’ve been paying at parking meters instead of opting for free street parking.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these expenses — if I were planning for them. But I blew my food budget because I felt like I didn’t have time to cook. And I bought a bunch of clothes that I didn’t really want to spend money on. And parking on the street in my neighborhood takes an extra minute, at the most, but I didn’t feel like thinking about it.

With each of these expenses, stress clouded my judgment.

The problems with stress spending

My stress spending didn’t bring me to my knees, no. But I like to practice conscious consumerism. Being a better spender has saved me quite a bit over the years. It’s also helped give me a better appreciation for the things on which I choose to spend my money.

Impulse-fueled stress spending has quite a few drawbacks.

It takes away from my goals.

I budget my expenses because I have savings goals I’d like to meet. The less I spend, the faster I can reach those goals. Haphazard spending is like stealing money from my future self.

Small amounts add up.

When I recently ordered a pizza because I didn’t feel like cooking, I actually patted myself on the back. I found a good deal on a greasy, unhealthy wad of dough: $6. “Hey, that’s not bad for a splurge,” I thought to myself. Except that, over the course of the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent more than I care to admit on takeout and fast food. Those small purchases add up, especially when you convince yourself they’re insignificant.

My spending decisions are unhealthy.

I mean that my spending decisions are both physically and emotionally unhealthy. I bought those clothes to make myself happy and relieve my stress. Whether it’s clothes or trips or cars, it’s OK to buy things you like, of course. But what I didn’t like about my spending decision was that I used it as a quick fix, instead of actually addressing my stress problem.

And then there’s the physical consequence. That pizza was cheap, sure. But it was also pretty unhealthy. And I’m not going to lie — I love unhealthy food, but in moderation. Most of the time, I eat like your garden-variety hippie. So my stress spending has also lead to stress eating.

It creates a cycle of bad decisions.

I stress spend. I get mad at my bad decision. This adds to my stress. I stress spend.

Stress, spend, regret, repeat.

What to do about it

OK, so you know that stress spending is not a good thing. So how do you put a stop to it? Here’s how I’ve been approaching it.

Stop the cycle.

Throw a wrench into your vicious cycle. Lately, when I sense my judgment becoming clouded, I stop whatever it is I’m doing and walk away and listen to a song I love. Whether it’s exercising, meditating or just zoning out on a song for two minutes, a moment of reflection can do wonders. It clears my mind and keeps my judgment sharp.

Don’t overwhelm yourself.

I have a bad habit of overwhelming my to-do list with an impossible amount of tasks so I can get a head start on the next week. But, if I’m stressed out trying to get a head start, I’m not sure that it’s worth it. I’ve learned to let go and cut down my list. There are some things I won’t get to today, and I’m learning to be OK with that rather than to lose sleep and, eventually, money over it.

Identify your triggers.

By understanding the thought process behind my stress spending, I can usually stop it in its tracks. When I want to buy something unplanned and frivolous, I’ve discovered that I always tell myself something along the lines of: “You work hard. You have money. You can afford not to give this much thought.”

When that thought pops in my head, my savings goal pops out. So I remember that now. That thought is my spending trigger, and it’s helped a great deal to understand that.

Another trigger? It’s 4 p.m., and I haven’t given any thought to dinner, and I still have stuff on my to-do list. This scenario is what leads to my ordering takeout. Now that I’ve identified that trigger, I can do something about it.

Have a backup plan.

For convenience-based stress spending, it helps to have a backup plan. Whatever you spend money on out of convenience, look for a way to avoid it, or at least find a cheaper alternative. For my takeout problem, this might mean cooking meals in advance, and then freezing them.

And here’s a confession: I have one prepackaged frozen meal on hand. Most frugal people will groan at this, and understandably so. It’s not a good everyday food option. But when I don’t have time to cook, and I’m stressed, a cheap Trader Joe’s meal beats takeout. It’s not ideal, but it’s a backup plan. I also know that, when I break out that meal, it’s time rethink how I’m balancing my time.

Of course, it’s better to focus on the long-term solutions and find a way to stop putting yourself in a position to stress spend in the first place.

Do you guys ever stress spend? How do you avoid or correct it?

This article is about Consumerism

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This article is by staff writer April Dykman.

Today I present the second and final installment of my property tax saga — the informal hearing. (You can check out the first post here.)

To briefly recap, I’m a new homeowner and my assessed property value shot up by 31 percent from last year. So that, along with the fact that I have a tax-protesting father to please, landed me in County Appraiser Brad’s cubicle for an informal hearing.

The bad news

First, County Appraiser Brad pulled up three comparable properties, meaning they were in my general area and fairly close in size, year built, etc.

“Well,” he said, “the thing is, you bought right before we hit a seller’s market. So you got a great deal, but now you can see that similar properties in your area sold for much more, because a seller’s market means higher sales prices.”

He showed me the comparables, and how the values compared to my house when adjusted for the market and differences in square footage and other improvements.

“So you can see here that what your property is assessed at is actually lower than the average of these comparables,” he said.

Hmm. This wasn’t looking good.

“Okay,” I said. “But I thought that property taxes on a homestead couldn’t increase by more than 10 percent from one year to the next. That’s what I read on the county’s website. Does that not apply here?”

“Were you living in the house on January 1 of last year?” he asked.

“No, we closed on January 18.”

“Well, you have to be living in the home from January 1 for that 10 percent rule to apply.”

“Huh,” I said. “So I miss it by 17 days and my taxes can go up 31 percent? That is sneaky!” (I said this in jest, and it seemed to amuse him.)

Knowing that I didn’t really have an argument on those points, I moved on.

My Hail Mary

“Okay, Brad, but I have this other issue,” I said. “When my septic system was inspected, the inspector said she recommended a full replacement. The system is 40 years old, too small by today’s standards, and it had a leak. When she found out that the city was annexing our area, she said that repairing the leak would suffice until city sewer was available.”

County Appraiser Brad asked for the septic inspection report, which I handed over.

“Well,” he said, “the problem is that the septic is working right now.”

“So I would have to have a non-functioning septic system right now to get my property value lowered?” I asked. This seemed kinda crazy to me. If the septic wasn’t working, I’d of course have to have it replaced or fixed immediately. The point was that the thing was running on borrowed time.

“Okay, do you have an estimate to have it replaced?” he asked.

“No, we’re not going to replace it,” I said. “We’re going to hook up to the city sewer now that it’s available.”

“Do you have estimates to do that?”

Ugh. No, I didn’t. I knew I should have done that, but I just plain forgot. Also, the city just finished installing the pipes on our street not too long ago.

“We’re just now in a position to have the work done, so no, I don’t have estimates with me,” I said. “I could get that this week…”

“You would have had to have brought it in today,” he said.

“I’ve talked to my neighbors, and they’ve paid between $8,000 to $12,000, depending on how far back their house is from the street,” I said. (This was 100 percent true, but I knew that without an estimate in hand, my argument was pretty weak here…)

“Okay, how about this?” he said. “Since you don’t have estimates, I’ll split the difference and take off $5,000.”

“Sold!”

“You drive a hard bargain, April Dawn.”

The recap

So $5,000 off isn’t too bad. I certainly felt it was worth my time, especially because next year my assessed value could go up as much as 10 percent. That means that keeping the value as low as I can saves me money now and in the future.

In review, the best thing I did was to bring documentation about a major repair/replacement issue — the septic system. On the other hand, my biggest mistake was not getting written estimates before my hearing for connecting to city sewer. Had I done that, I probably would have been able to lower the assessed value even more. Lesson learned!

One last thing…

Finally, I want to touch on something that I should have explained better in my first post about property taxes.

In the comments on my previous post, some readers had questions about whether it’s a good thing to have your assessed value lowered.

“It seems like if you are planning to sell in the next few years, it would be better to have it assessed higher,” wrote one reader, “or am I looking at it wrong?”

And reader “cd” had a great explanation:

“Your tax appraisal value and your market value are different things. I don’t think many people use the property tax amount as a gauge for how much to pay for a home. Also, the appraised value is what your home was worth last year. In our county, tax appraisals can vary widely (always lower) than what homes actually sell for. Supply and demand should dictate what your home is worth, and your buyer will be required to get a third party appraisal in the selling process anyway by a company that does not assess values for taxation.

“Most importantly, getting the value lowered works the same as compound interest. If you get it lowered by 5 percent one year, that’s less you pay every year forward. In addition, if they raise prices as a percentage of your current home value, then shaving dollars off that value saves you money in future increases as well. It’s a no brainer for a few hours of work.”

That actually clarified a couple of things for me too!

So, readers, that’s what the property tax protest process was like for me. I’m happy with the result, especially because I think County Appraiser Brad was being pretty lenient. And that reminds me of one final tip: Be nice. Appraisers are people too, and they’re not out to screw you over.

On that note, maybe don’t accuse the appraiser of being sneaky, although it seemed to work out okay for me. It’s a judgment call, really.


This article is by staff writer Lisa Aberle.

Although I have liked almost every job I’ve ever had, I decided early on in my professional career that the most important thing to me was schedule flexibility. And so, I gravitated toward jobs that were flexible, and each new job had more flexibility than the last. I haven’t had a strict schedule since 2007, and I have to say, I like it like that.

After we planned to have children, I knew that, once they arrived, I wanted a job I could do totally from home or at least have a very flexible schedule. While I didn’t realize how challenging a flexible schedule could be, I like knowing that I will be home when the kids are done with school. If they need new pants at school because the button fell off (true story), I can quickly take them a spare pair of pants … instead of being one hour away at my old workplace.

Can you work from home?

If you also like flexibility, you may want to seek at-home employment. But here are the things to keep in mind. Working from home is filled with distractions (especially if you have kids), a blurring of boundaries, and competing priorities.

Distractions

Kids are my main distraction. In one of my recent articles, a couple of readers commented that parents could not (or should not) work from home while they had children at home to care for. According to a 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, I found that adults who lived in a household with at least one child under six spent 5.4 hours per day doing secondary childcare. That means they were caring for the child AND doing something else (but not necessarily working). Compare that to two hours per day doing primary childcare.

Anyway, I see the readers’ point. But it’s clear that many adults are multitasking when they have children to care for, not just me. And not just when they’re working. And there is no question that it is very challenging.

Strategies for getting work done with kids at home

  • Fortunately, my kids love to read. After a trip to the library today, all three of us are hanging out in the den. They are reading, and I am writing this article. Of course, I get interrupted. But quiet time gets me up to an hour of work time.
  • Take advantage of sleeping kids. Our kids must stay in their bedrooms until 7 am. I am usually up at 5:30, so I get 90 minutes of work time. I also get 90 minutes of work time after they go to bed. And I still get seven hours of sleep on most evenings.
  • I have mentioned it before, but my friends and I trade babysitting. Even when I am babysitting kids, especially if they’re older (like 10 to 12), they and my kids play even better together. (Read: fewer interruptions.) Of course, I still need to supervise. I do get a lot of work done during my kid-free hours.
  • My husband has a flexible summer schedule which is helpful when the kids are out of school for the summer. Occasionally, he can take one child to work with him, which helps me get more work accomplished. Even if he can’t take them to work with him, many summer evenings, he can work or play with the kids while I continue to get work done.
  • Our kids spend very little time with electronic devices, but that’s also a way to keep them occupied while you work.

Boundaries

When I first started working from home, I didn’t turn down social plans. You want me to come over for coffee? Sure! But I quickly realized that I had to create a schedule that allowed me to accomplish my working goals for the day. My schedule was flexible, but my job’s demands weren’t. Since I must put in 20 hours per week for my main job, I have created a schedule. While I deviate from the schedule sometimes, both from planned outings and emergencies, I have to find another hole in the schedule to replace my work time. It’s not always easy.

But blurring of boundaries is more than that. Sometimes I feel pulled in too many directions. Sometimes I crave the clearly divided responsibilities I used to have when I was gone to work all day. Even though I have always also worked from home since we’ve had our kids, I can see how not having any extra work (other than household chores) would be freeing.

And a weekend without pulling out the laptop and working? That would be nice!

Competing priorities

Going along with boundaries, sometimes priorities compete as well. In order to meet our family’s budget requirements, I must work. There is no allowance in the budget for childcare costs. And yet, there are days when it would be lovely (and perhaps better?) to send the kids to childcare, or not have to work as much.

While I can do much of my work during any hours I choose, occasionally I have to take part in a conference call or webinar. I try to schedule these when the kids aren’t around, but I did have to leave a conference call once to play referee. Professional? No. But that’s the reality of working from home with children sometimes.

In conclusion, is it better to send your kids to daycare while you work from home? Your work time and your time with your kids is more defined. However, you have the expense of childcare, which, according to Child Care Aware of America, is expensive. In fact, the cost for center-based care for two children exceeds the median annual rent payments in all 50 states, and exceeds the housing costs for those with a mortgage. Or is it better to work from home with your kids? Your work time is not defined, but you are available if they need something, even if you’re not always available for their wants.

It’s a personal decision, of course, one that should be made by your family, by carefully weighing the pros and cons. While working from home with kids is not easy, it is possible.

Which strategies have you used to be both a worker and a parent? I am particularly interested in those of you who have worked at home with an infant or toddler as I have not done that.


This guest post is by reader Mike in New Hampshire. Mike wrote an Ask the Readers article last year, looking for ideas to help his dad get set for retirement. He wrote to us recently and asked if he could update their story. We were only too glad to provide a forum for them.

It has been a little over a year since I wrote in looking for suggestions on how I could help my father retire. I want to thank everyone so much for the comments, ideas, and support – they came at a time when I really needed it. In the end the solutions came not from me but from the relationships he had formed and the sacrifices he had made over the years. Everyone loves a story with a happy ending, right? Let’s get to it.

I know the community gets annoyed when specifics are not available so I will try to be as detailed as possible on the financials. Last May when I wrote the initial piece my father was going to turn 65 in December and worked in a career that he could no longer stand with no retirement savings. He made about $45K per year, had a mortgage of around $400-500/month, and had about $20K in cash savings that was offset by nearly the same amount in credit card and home equity balances.

He also had about $12K in college loans that he continues to pay as part of a promise that if I did well, he would help with the costs. (Funny side note: a few people commented that I should just pay these off without telling him. He would have been insanely ticked that I messed with his second-favorite tax deduction!) At that point I was considering multiple options and was even entertaining the idea of finishing my basement so he could move in and utilize his house as an income property. He was miserable and I was getting there as I ran out of ideas to help the man who had given up so much for me.

And then…

Over the summer a couple of really important things happened. An old friend who runs an auto repair shop offered to give him a part-time job working in the office for about $300 per week net income. This was perfect for three reasons: the work was right in his wheelhouse without being stressful, it was only three days a week with plenty of flexibility, and, in addition to needing money, he needed something to do since drinking beer and watching TV is not a legitimate hobby.

Will his part-time job affect Social Security?

I went with him to his meeting at the Social Security Administration office and we learned that even working part time he could still get his full benefit (93 percent based on retiring at 65), which came to a little less than $1,850 per month. This part was actually very surprising in terms of how much he could earn and still be able to collect his full benefit – it was a LOT higher than we expected. Between the $1,850 from SS and the $1,200 from his part-time job, he suddenly had replaced his income while being able to work three days a week in a stress-free environment. Not a dream retirement on an island, but for someone who never really planned or saved, it’s a great deal.

Getting medical care via the VA

The only thing left to worry about was the elephant in the room: health benefits. My father had proudly served in the Army and was stationed in Germany for several years in the ’70s, but he had never set foot in an actual war zone. As a result, he was told repeatedly that he did not qualify for full VA health benefits. Through a friend he learned of a gentleman who specialized in representing veterans to help with getting their approval, free of charge. Not sure how he did it or why a veteran would even need someone to fight for this cause but, politics aside, my father eventually was approved for his full benefit.

I had heard some interesting stories about VA hospitals, but from my perspective he is getting better-quality care there than he was before. He came back from his initial physical asking me about a new word he learned – obesity! It’s not funny, but it was a little comical after years of his regular physician just prescribing pills and telling him to keep doing what he was doing, much to my dismay.

The happy beginning

He didn’t always make the right decisions and I have chosen a much different path for myself, but in the end it worked out OK. This was mainly due to him having pretty low expenses in the needs department and realizing that it was time to tame his wants/waste, utilizing the resources/network available to him, and not giving up or easily accepting no as an answer.

On the 4th of July I was able to drink a beer and watch some World Cup with my pops. The World Cup is a fairly rare occurrence as it comes around only once every four years. Even rarer than that, it was Dad’s first summer holiday off in nearly 40 years. He was happy, I was happy, and we even had some new things to talk about. The man who once said he would just work until he died has suddenly become a big fan of budgeting, paying off debt, and managing to build his savings.


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