Six Inexpensive Ways To Get Your Yard Ready For Summer

The following post is by MPFJ staff writer Travis, who blogs at Enemy of Debt where he candidly shares his family’s financial struggles, failures and successes. As a father and husband, he provides a unique perspective on balancing debt, finances, and family.

I remember driving through a neighborhood with big houses when I was a teenager and admiring the immaculately manicured lawns, the perfectly shaped trees, and landscaping that looked so perfect I wondered if it was fake. My yard may not look quite as exquisite as the ones I remember from my childhood, but I take pride in the exterior of my home. It’s really not that difficult, and it isn’t even that expensive. To give myself the best chance of having a great looking yard this year, there’s one thing that I absolutely must do.

If I want a great looking yard, I have to start early.

Here’s my list of the top six things I will be doing in the next week or so to get my yard green and growing as quickly as possible, as well as how much it will cost me:

MYPFJ_Rake-my-personal-finance-journey1. Get A Rake

This is especially essential for me because I live in a cold weather climate where my grass gets matted down by 6 months of snow. Raking the yard will remove the dead grass, making it easier for the blades that remain to get the needed sunlight to start growing again. A good lawn rake can be had for about $15 from Walmart and will last for years.

2. Fertilize The Lawn

The first application of fertilizer is the most essential. The recommended application will not only give the grass the needed nutrients to start growing quickly, but it also contains crabgrass killer.   Crabgrass cannot be killed during the growing season after it pops up in the lawn. When it comes to crabgrass, prevention is the only solution, and it must be done early in the spring.   I picked up a bag of Crabgrass Halts plus fertilizer on sale at Costco over the weekend for $47.

MYPFJ_Fertilizer-my-personal-finance-journeyNote: To apply the fertilizer, I use my broadcast spreader. One of these costs $35, but it can be used for years. Mine is over 10 years old and still going strong.

3. Spike The Trees

One of my favorite things to do in Summer is to lay in the grass and listen to a warm breeze rustle the tree leaves. They give us shade, and they look majestic in our yard. Trees need food, so I give them some fertilizer spikes in the Spring and then again in the Fall. The spikes are put into the ground along the perimeter of the estimated root line. The bigger the tree, the more spikes you need. I can get by with one $10 package of tree spikes for my Spring application.

4. Trim The Bushes

When my wife and I bought our first house, I decided to trim the bushes in the front of my house in the middle of July. I cut off almost all the leaves, exposing the leafless, uninteresting branches of the infrastructure of the bushes. Guess what, friends? New leaves didn’t grow back and I was left wondering if I had killed my bushes. The next Spring all was good, but I’ll never forget staring at my dead looking bushes for months. Now I trim my bushes in the Spring before they start growing. There are more expensive electric trimmers, but I get by just fine with my $20 hedge shears I picked up at Home Depot.

5. Trim The Trees

As my trees grow, they sometimes extend towards the house, power lines, or just create a shape that isn’t nice to look at. Spring is a great time to take off those unwanted branches. I have a 14 foot Bypass Pruner that allows me to easily remove almost any branch I on my trees. I purchased mine for $40 a few years ago, and it still looks brand new.

MYPFJ_Mulch-my-personal-finance-journey6. Replace Mulch

Some people have rock around their landscaping, and some have mulch. We have a combination of both solutions. The wood mulch discolors and disintegrates over the summer months so I like to refresh my mulch in the Spring. Mulch costs about $2 a bag, and I can get my job done for a total cost of $14.

Overall Costs

One Time Costs:

  • Fertilizer Spreader: $35
  • Hedge Shears: $20
  • Bypass Pruner: $40

Total: $95

Yearly Costs:

  • Rake: $15
  • Fertilizer: $47
  • Tree Spikes $10
  • Mulch: $14

Total: $86

I used the phrase, “One Time Costs,” for items that can be used for years. Obviously they may break or eventually wear out, but they’re not an expense that will be incurred every year. The point is, given an afternoon of being outside in the sunshine and a relatively small amount of money I will get my yard in tip top shape for the coming growing season.

Maybe you’ve admired someone’s luscious looking yard wishing that someday yours could look like that. If you like working outside, with a little effort you can inexpensively make your lawn the envy of the neighborhood. The time to make it happen is now, so grab your tools and get to work!

How about you all?  Do you like to work on your yard? Is there anything else you would add to this list to help make your yard look the best is possibly can? How much do you spend each Spring getting your yard ready for the warm season?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

Things to do Over Spring Break Without Breaking the Bank

spring-break-my-personal-finance-journeyThis following is a post by MPFJ staff writer, Jeff. Jeff writes about sustainable living and finances at his website, Sustainable Life Blog. Jeff really enjoys traveling with his wife as much as he can, to wherever he can.

It’s March, and that means it’s almost spring break for those of you in school or those of you with school age children. Unfortunately, I’m neither and don’t get any time off, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not any fun to day dream and research about vacations I would take if I could.

A Matter of Time

One of the first things that I look for when planning a vacation is how much time I have. Many on spring break have a week (9 days if you count both weekends) but not everyone wants to be away from home for that long. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for you to get settled back into school and work or take care of any small things around the house before you hit the road.

This is a common trap to fall into, and I’ll admit it happens to me all the time. I went on a two week vacation once, and gave myself exactly half a day before I had to go back to work again. I was scrambling the rest of the week to get caught up with housework and other things.

Picking The Right Place

There are plenty of great places that you can go to, and even more so when the weather is warm. My favorite thing to do on vacation is go camping or spend time outdoors. In March, the weather may be a bit cold for tent camping, but there’s probably a scenic area (like the forest service or recreation.gov) near you where you can rent a cabin or something similar to stay in for a few days. Once you get the lodging and travel costs taken care of, you can soak up all the time you need in nature and enjoy the free entertainment it provides.

Of course, if that’s a bit out of your price range, considering doing a few “staycations“. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a staycation is where you stick around your local area, and do “touristy” things that you have not done yet, or have not had a chance to do up to this point. I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve gone to visit friends in other cities and asked about going to a specific place, only to have them respond with something similar to “we’ve lived here X years and have never been there”. You can check out local museums, an art show or perhaps a local play.

The last time I tried this, I went on a “food tour” and found a bunch of awesome restaurants and had a little bit to eat at each one. I really enjoyed the food tour, and I didn’t have to deal with the major expense of a vacation. There’s also no travel headaches to deal with, like airport parking and long lines.

Relax on the Cheap

I’ve never found a reason for vacations to be difficult on the pocketbook, but sometimes people can make them that way. Getting away and spending time with those that you care about is what matters, not where you go or what you’ll be doing. Focus on the right things when you’re vacationing, and you can easily save a bit of money too.

How about you all? What sort of things do you like to do for spring break that can also help you save a little money?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

***Photo courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/tomronworldwide/16048660691/

Should You Cut Up Your Credit Cards?

cutting-up-credit-cards-my-personal-finance-journeyThe following is a post by MPFJ staff writer, Derek Sall. Derek is the owner of the blog, LifeAndMyFinances.com, where he teaches people how to get out of debt, save money, and become wealthy.

There is a big dispute going on right now between those that are earning money with credit cards and those that cut them up because they want to avoid overspending.

One side loves to use their credit cards all the time because they earn hundreds of dollars a year with their reward points, and they just simply don’t understand why anyone would forgo this money that the credit card companies are giving away, free of charge! Then, there are those that have seen families rack up credit card debts to the point where they were unable to pay even the minimum balance. Due to this fear of overspending, people decide to do without credit cards entirely and live with only checks, debit cards, and cash.

So who is right? Should you cut up your credit cards and live on a cash basis?

The Credit Rewards Perspective

I got my undergraduate degree in Finance, and I thought I was pretty hot stuff when I got graduated. After all my courses, I had an understanding of net present value, future values, interest rates, price-per-earnings ratios. I knew almost everything that there was to know about Finance! I know that there was such a thing as good debt and bad debt. One helped you build even more wealth than you had currently, and the other ended up depreciating your assets, but when used as a tool for wealth, debt could be a great thing.

On a smaller scale, credit card rewards fall into this realm of good debt and bad debt. Obviously, if you hold a balance on your credit card and are making high interest payments each month, this would be considered a bad debt. But, what if you pay the balance off each month, and are still earning those rewards? This temporary debt (which you probably would have incurred anyway) is allowing you to earn points that can soon be redeemed for actual dollars. This must be a form of good debt right? Well, for those that are playing this game, they certainly think so.

The Cash Only Perspective

When we picture those that avoid credit card use, they are often over 60 years old, have gray hair, and are totally ignorant as to how easy money is made. Why would somebody ignore the use of credit cards when they could earn an extra $300 a year in credit card rewards points? It just seems ludicrous!

This group of people though, may not be as ignorant as you might think. Instead, many of them have done their research and discovered that credit card spending can actually hurt your finances by a greater amount than the rewards. How could this be? It’s pretty simple actually. Just follow this logic for a minute.

Let’s say that you withdraw $40 from the bank to spend on whatever you wish during the week. As you walk around the mall or in your downtown square, that $40 is safely in your pocket, just waiting to be spent. Throughout the week, you see some shoes that you might want to buy, but then think about how similar they are to what you already have, so you pass on them. Then, you see some artwork that you think might look nice in the house. But no, there really isn’t anywhere to put it. Finally, you decide to spend some of your money on a nice meal with your friends and on a book that you’ve been dying to get your hands on. Throughout this whole process of spending your own money, you actually have been quite selective.

Now, imagine that instead of pulling $40 out of your own bank account, your grandmother hands you $40 to buy whatever it is that you want. As you walk through the mall, you see a video game that looks pretty awesome and the price tag is $40. Perfect, you buy the game without thinking twice about it. For some reason, the thought that you put into your purchase has severely decreased, but why? It’s simple. You did nothing to earn the money.

The same is true with your credit card. Because we are not literally pulling the physical cash out of our bank account and handing it over to the cashier for a purchase, the emotional aspect has been severely decreased. Even though we are still paying for an item with our own money, it feels more like the $40 that we got from grandma, so we spend it more frivolously.

Studies have been performed that prove this theory. When we purchase items with credit cards, we tend to overspend. And, over the course of the year it is entirely likely that our over-purchasing will exceed the amount that we received back in rewards.

So Where Do I Stand?

I imagine that you’re asking the question, “Well what about you, Derek? Do you use credit cards?” The simple answer to that is, “Yes”, but I believe that I am a special situation. I am what you might call an extreme saver. When I was in high school already, I avoided going out to eat at Wendy’s or Burger King because I knew I could eat for cheaper at home. So, instead of giving into the peer pressure of my friends, I would invite them to my parents’ house so that we could eat their food for free!

Today really isn’t much different. I am extremely content with the possessions I own and feel no need to buy anything extra. For this reason, I don’t feel like I am overly compelled to buy more when I have a credit card in my hand. Or, even if I am, it’s probably the difference of spending $5.00 instead of $4.00. The difference is probably so minimal that the overall effect is unnoticeable.

For many though, I think that it would be the right move to cut up those credit cards. If your credit card bill is constantly over $200 a month, then you are probably consistently overspending and earning nothing on those credit reward points. And, in the grand scheme of things, if you are striving to become wealthy (the right way), then what impact does $300 a year really have? Probably little to none. Don’t get hung up on the credit card game. Instead, use it as little as possible and focus your efforts on reducing your expenses and increasing your income. By focusing on the big picture day in and day out, you will certainly come out ahead!

How about you all? Do you use a credit card? Do you feel like you spend more than usual because of it?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

***Photo courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/434pics/3494630853

Have We Forgotten How To Be Frugal?

money-belt-my-personal-finance-journeyThe following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Melissa Batai.  Melissa is a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from personal finance to business to organics to food.  She blogs at Mom’s Plans where she shares her family’s journey to healthier living and paying down debt.

I was born in the early 1970s. In 1978, there was a huge blizzard that closed school for over a week. I had hand-me-down boots that I wore, and yes, I wore bread bags to keep my feet dry in my boots. So did my best friend down the street and many of my classmates. It was normal.

After the storm, when school was closed, my friend and I put a ladder up by the side of the house and climbed up. We slid down off the roof into a huge pile of snow. I can’t tell you how many hours we did that and how much fun we had.

Too much fun, I guess, because the friction from the shingles wore out the seat of my snow pants. My mom was not impressed. Buying a new pair wasn’t an option. Instead, she set to work patching them.

Most of my clothes were hand me downs from my older cousins or thrift store finds. I didn’t feel bad when I got hand me downs. I was excited to see what new-to-me clothes I would get.

My family didn’t have much money; we had to be conservative. But most of my friends were in the same position, so living this way was normal.

Things have radically changed since then.

Now, if you rip out a pair of snow pants, you’ll likely get new ones because really, how can you be expected to go around with patches on the seat of your snow pants? No one walks around with patched clothes now, not even toddlers who don’t have friends they have to worry about impressing.

Frugality Is an (Unpopular) Option Now, Not a Treasured Skill

For many generations of Americans, being frugal was a treasured skill and a richly admired trait. My grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression, continued to be frugal into their old age. My grandma was well into her 80s when she finally stopped washing tin foil and baggies to reuse.

My aunt, who learned her frugality from my grandma, made hats for her bridesmaids’ to wear. The main component of the hats? An empty, washed tuna fish can that she covered in fabric to make the center of the hat. True story. (That hats looked good, too. You’d never guess what they were made of.)

Years ago, this type of frugality was not unusual. Now, it’s scoffed at or openly ridiculed.

Each Generation Is Wealthier Than the Previous One

This topic of how much our society has changed with regards to possessions and money was brought to the forefront recently when U.S. Senator Joni Ernst from Iowa mentioned wearing bread bags inside her boots when she was little. Twitter was soon abuzz with laughter and jokes about the use of bread bags.

Megan McArdle of Bloomberg View argued in support of Ernst, saying of America’s history, “all along, Americans got richer and things got cheaper—especially when global markets opened up. Payless will sell you a pair of child’s shoes for $15, which is about two hours of work even at minimum wage. Perhaps that sounds like a lot to you—two whole hours! But I’ve been researching historical American living standards for a project I’m working on, and if you’re familiar with what Americans used to spend on things, this sounds like a very good deal.”

McArdle goes way back to the late 1800s and says, “There’s a scene in one of the [Little House on the Prairie] books where Laura is excited to get her own tin cup for Christmas, because she previously had to share with her sister. Think about that. Now, go into your kitchen and look at your dishes. Then imagine if you had three kids, four plates and three cups, because buying another cup was simply beyond your household budget—because a single cup for your kid to drink out of represented not a few hours of work, but a substantial fraction of your annual earnings, the kind of money you really had to think hard before spending. Then imagine how your five-year-old would feel if they got an orange and a Corelle place setting for Christmas” (Bloomberg View).

While my extended family may not have struggled as much as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family, they did struggle. My mom and her brothers and sisters all went to a parochial school while growing up. My mom recounts one time she and her sister took the money from their part-time job to pay for their own schooling because my grandparents simply could not afford the tuition that year.

Yet we live in a time now, fifty years later, where parents are expected to help pay for their child’s college education. If parents decide not to or can’t afford to pay for college, they are often looked down upon, as if they’re shirking their parental duty.

At What Price Does Our New Found Wealth Come?

In many ways, Americans are very lucky. Thanks to globalization, we pay much less for the goods that we need. McArdle highlights this point saying, “Growing up in the 1950s, in a comfortably middle-class home, my mother’s wardrobe consisted of a week’s worth of school clothes, a church dress and a couple of play outfits. Her counterparts today can barely fit all their clothes in their closets, even though today’s houses are much bigger than they used to be; putting a family of five in a 900-square-foot house with a single bathroom was an aspirational goal for the generation that settled Levittown, but in an era when new homes average more than 2,500 square feet, it sounds like poverty” (Bloomberg View).

Even those among us who struggle financially likely have residences with clutter. Goods now are so easily gotten and for so little that stores like The Container Store flourish.

But the low cost of goods is not the only reason why we’re enjoying a higher standard of living. More and more, both parents work and bring in two salaries. In that way, we’re more affluent than the many generations before who typically had one parent stay home to care for the children.

Keeping Up with the Jones’ and Dealing with Peer Pressure If You Don’t

As I said, when I was young, most families had to be frugal because most mothers stayed home with their kids. Only one parent worked. This was the same in most families I knew.

Now, more than 50% of households with children and two parents find both parents working. In these families, they likely have two cars, nice (designer) clothes for both kids and parents, and money for recreational activities. They might save for their children’s college.

If a family still chooses to have one parent stay home, money will be tighter. Perhaps the family only has one car instead of two.   Maybe they buy a smaller house than their peers. Maybe their grocery budget is more conservative and they choose not to buy their children expensive snacks for their lunches.

Chances are, both the parents and kids in these families will hear comments from families with more money. Adults may wonder why they only drive one car or say something like, “We could never live with only one car.” Kids might get teased for their hand-me-down clothes and homemade lunch snacks.

What used to be normal in our society is now something to be teased and mocked. Joni Ernst experienced that on a global level on social media.

How about you all? Do you agree that our culture no longer encourages frugality? If you’re frugal, how do you handle the peer pressure to buy more and make more money?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

***Photo courtesy: https://www.flickr.com/photos/teegardin/6097066382/

The Rise of Student Loan Debt and its Toxic Effects

The following is a post by MPFJ staff writer, Derek Sall. Derek is the owner of the blog, LifeAndMyFinances.com, where he teaches people how to get out of debt, save money, and become wealthy.

Have you ever stopped and studied the soaring trends of the cost of college tuition? Back in 1972, the tuition costs per year of a private institution were only $1,832. Today, tuition costs of the same institutions are north of $31,000 each year. If you attend school for five years (as many are doing) and have no financial aid during that time, you will owe more than $150,000 by the time you are handed that ever-so-special piece of paper!

Student-loan-debt-2014-my-personal-finance-journeyWith the rising costs of tuition, student loan debt is becoming a very real issue today. While many students are not graduating with $150k in debt, the average student loan debt is still a staggering $33,000 for each graduating student, and the average just continues to rise with each passing year.

For working professionals, $33,000 may not sound like that much, but consider the these costs when the average graduating student earns only $44,828 in their first year on the job. Paying rent, food, insurance, and transportation is hard enough without tacking on an addition $400 student loan payment each month.

The Impact of the Rising Student Loan Debt

Without even studying the trends or reading the reports, I have seen first-hand the impacts that the rising student loan debts are having on college grads today.

1) Debt Acceptance

This simple shift in perception is changing everything. When I was in college, many of us had debt sure, but we were all still trying to fight it. We worked jobs at night and on the weekends and put every extra penny we had toward our educational expense so we could keep our debts at a minimum.

Today, students go into college assuming that they’ll leave with mountains of debt. With this perception shift into “debt acceptance”, students are no longer scouring the neighborhood for jobs and could really care less if they put money toward their debts while they’re still in school. Many simply assume that they’ll be making bank once they graduate and get their fancy new job and can take care of their debts then. Oh, if they only knew how much this debt will affect them in the future…

2) Getting Chummy with the Parents, Take Two

After graduating with massive debts, new grads are coming to the realization that jobs aren’t all that easy to get. And, even if they can find a job, their loan payments are crippling their independence. With the huge payments that they need to make each month, many new graduates are finding themselves moving back in with mom and dad. It certainly isn’t life as they planned it, but it’s the direct result of taking on too much debt while in college.

Keep in mind that this action not only hurts the young adults and their freedoms, it’s hurting mom and dad as well! The additional stress and expense is likely keeping them from socking the amount of money away that they’ll need for their retirement.

3) A Lonely Retirement Fund

We just mentioned that mom and dad’s retirement fund might be hindered by the new grad’s student loan overage, but it’s killing their own retirement account as well! The most important time to start investing is in those early years and if your student loan costs are through the roof, then you probably won’t be jumping at the opportunity to take money out of your check and put it into your company 401(k). This will likely cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars in the long run.

4) The Downward Spiral of America

As I see it, this increased student loan debt issue is not only affecting us in the current moment, but it is hurting us exponentially in the future. This rising trend means parents aren’t able to fund their retirement fund properly, which means fewer dollars are passed onto their children when they die. Those kids’ retirement funds look even worse because they didn’t start them until they reached their late 30’s. With little-to-no inheritance, they will be looking to the government to fund their retirement, but as many of us know, Social Security likely won’t even exist 20 years from now.

It’s not a cheery picture, but it is very likely that our great country is heading down the hole in a hurry.

How about you all? Is Derek wrong? What is your opinion on the effect of student loans on our nation’s future?

Share your experiences by commenting below!