Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Creating the Blueprint -- Finances (part 3 of 3)

I want to very clearly state that I am not a financial planner or expert. I share here what I've learned from my own experiences as I've redesigned my life after the unexpected and untimely death of my husband.

If, upon analyzing your checkbook a few weeks ago (Creating the Blueprint ((part 1 of 3)), you determined that your spending is aligned with the values by which you want to live your life and if you are comfortable with how and how much you spend -- congratulations!

Grab a snack and a good book or turn on the tv and relax.

But perhaps you're more like me. When I first analyzed my spending, I discovered a very disturbing truth: my spending in no way reflected the values I purported to live by!

Now, several years later, my income is about 1/2 of what it was then, but I live just as comfortably, if not more so, and -- most importantly to me -- I'm at peace about my finances because they are aligned with my values.

Here are a few tips that I hope can help you get to the same place financially.

You may already be doing some of these things. Some of these things might fit your style or your needs. Some may not make sense to you. No problem. Pick and choose what you feel is right for you.

1. This is for me non-negotiable. Always -- from planning and budgeting to spending $1 for a super-saver soda at the gas station -- approach finances from the standard that governs your spiritual life. For me, that means Biblical principles guide my budgeting and spending.  That doesn't mean I don't have fun. I do. But I do so without guilt because I have made allowances for that. 

2. Long story short, my husband and I were already in the process of getting out of debt but didn't feel comfortable "going it alone". After a tremendous amount of research on personal finance, we determined that Dave Ramsey's approach was most closely aligned with our own values and style, so about 6 months before my husband's diagnosis, we read The Total Money Makeover and began following his "Baby Steps" for taking control of our finances.  That fell by the wayside with my husband's diagnosis and passing. But when I learned through an analysis of my spending that I needed to make changes, I returned to Dave's guidelines. I've made mistakes, and I'm not totally debt-free (I have a mortgage), but following his program was absolutely essential in my gaining control of "my" money and allocating it it more intentionally and appropriately.

While I whole-heartedly recommend Dave Ramsey's books and program, it may not be a good fit for you. If that's the case, do diligent research (online, in your public library, in the bookstore or on amazon) to learn about personal finance experts so you can find a philosophy and strategy that is right for you. 

3. If you are in debt, make eliminating it a priority. My husband and I, and later I on my own, followed the "debt snowball" approach to debt. You can find information about it on Ramsey's site, but you can find the exact same idea many other places. Banks, financial planners, etc., routinely recommend its use, and many banks and lenders provide an interactive tool on their sites.

4. Develop a spending plan (aka "budget"). Do not, however, begin by listing your bills. Instead, do the following, in order:

a. List your values/priorities, in order; add "miscellaneous" at the bottom. This will be explained in #6.
b. List your bills or monthly expenditures beneath the value/priority it reflects; if an expenditure
    doesn't fit a specific value, place it under "miscellaneous".
     Example: -- one of my values is personal safety/health. I placed my house payment fits under this
     value because I choose to live in a home because of the personal physical safety it provides
c. Somehow (put a star, hi-lite, etc) the "essentials" -- rent/mortgage, food, etc.
d. Consider every single expenditure, even the essentials, very carefully. What are you willing to
    tweak, or even eliminate, in order to realign your spending?
    Examples: Yes, a house/apartment is a need. But do you need a five-bedroom, 4-bath home? Or
    can you and your family live just as safely -- and at less cost -- in a 3-bedroom, 3-bath home?
    Yes, food is essential to life. But how often do you eat out? What's on your grocery list? Do you
    need soda and name-brand labels, or will water and store-label items provide you the same, maybe
    even healthier, diet?

5.  Make a list of changes that you want to implement and then do so in the order and at a pace at which you feel you can sustain. I'm an "all-in" type of person, so when I did this, I made an entirely new spending plan, plugged it into Dave Ramsey's "EveryDollar" app (on my phone) and followed it. I've tweaked it slightly as circumstances have changed --- job change, debt paid off, retirement, etc -- but the overall plan has remained consistent.

Dave Ramsey encourages people to use cash and envelopes. I tried this more than once and for several months each time. I did not like it; I have friends who love using it. Instead, I use a debit card and the EveryDollar app, and I enter every single expenditure, no matter how small.

6. Do not expect that your percentages are going to line up mathematically with your priorities/values. In other words, if you have 5 priorities, do not expect that priority #1 will receive 40% of your funds, priority #2 will receive 30%, and so on. Dave Ramsey explains this far better than I can, and other financial gurus have their own explanation, but I'll just say that housing -- mortgage, utilities, house insurance, property taxes, etc. -- is not my #1 priority; it is, however, my largest budget item.  The point of listing your values first and then placing your expenditures under them is so that you can see if, as best you can and as you hopefully free up some money by making changes, you can allocate what discretionary funds you do have so that your spending is aligned with your values. 

What do I mean? Okay, let's say you've decided that you can borrow books from the library rather than buy so many new novels every month, and by doing so you're going to save $100 a month. If you do not have a plan, if you do not know beforehand where you want your money to go, it will "disappear" without you even thinking about it. But if you consider that your priority #1 is your spiritual life, you can consider how you could allocate at least a large chunk of that newly-freed $100 toward that. Perhaps your church youth group is going on a mission trip and needs adult volunteers or maybe you want to spend a weekend at a spiritual retreat in a nearby city. Let's say that your #2 priority is becoming self-employed. Put another chunk of that newly-freed $100 toward a class you need to take or a piece of equipment you need to launch your new business.

I realize that my strategy may seem pretty vague and that it may not fit you. But I hope that reading this post has caused you to consider what you can do to more closely align your finances to your own values.

It will take time, commitment, perseverance. It won't always be fun. But it will be rewarding!

It's your turn now. What budgeting tips can you share? What challenges do you face? Please share via a comment. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Creating the Blueprint -- Time (Part 2 of 3)

Last week you spent some time determining your true values and considering whether your day to day life reflects those values. You might have been thinking, "Well, that's well and good in theory, but how does that translate into reality, into how I live my life day to day?"  

The answer is that it depends.

If your reflections last week showed that you are living according to your priorities, you're already on the right track and need to simply continue as you are.

But what if that wasn't the case?

The first time I worked through the process of determining my priorities and assessing whether I lived them, I quickly discovered that I knew what my values were. I patted myself on the back.

I also learned I wasn't living them.

Let me give you the most glaring piece of evidence. I claimed that my #1 priority was God and my relationship with him. But when I looked at my planner and reflected on how I spent almost every day, and when I looked at my checkbook register, I quickly saw that I paid at best only lip-service to God and my spiritual life.

I was spending a much higher percentage of my time (I only considered my time outside of work hours, because those are a necessity over which I had little control) and discretionary funds on things that weren't even one of my listed priorities than I was on my relationship with God.

I want to stress here that when I consider those percentages (time, money, attention, etc), I focus primarily only what is discretionary. But it's important to remember the difference between an absolute need (job, home of some sort, food, etc) and a want (large home with swimming pool, for example).

I was embarrassed and ashamed of what I discovered about myself, and I was determined to make a change and live my priorities. Making those changes hasn't been easy. It's been the proverbial "one step forward and two steps back" dance at times.


But I've stayed the course. I'm still staying the course. Because, truth be told, I don't think I'll ever master the art of intentional, priority-driven living. And that's okay with me because I am content to make progress, to forgive myself when I fail, to make adjustments and be flexible as I need to be without going back to my old ways.

Even though I haven't mastered the art of living according to my priorities 100% of the time, I have found that certain practices on my part allow me to be more consistent in doing so. The specifics of what I do may not work for you, so I urge you to be open-minded, choose what makes sense to you, adapt what you can to fit your own personality, and be flexible as you employ practices that will help you live the priorities you hold most dear and create a new life that is positive and productive.

Here's what works for me:

1. I use a "paper" planner with a week-at-a-glance (2 side-by-side pages per week) layout with 3 boxes for every day of the week. There are also 2 other boxes each week: one for "priorities" and the other "notes".

In the "priorities" box, I list my top 4 priorities for the week; often these are very specific but sometimes they aren't. I also color-code these, and I use a 5-color pen. Priority #1 is written in red,  priority #2 is in green, and so on. I use those same colors for everything -- appointments, tasks to be completed, etc. I use black for "extras", for things that don't fall into any priority.

In the "notes" box, I note things that come up during the week that I need to address the following week. For example, if I realize this week that I will need to clean the gutters next week, I jot that down under "notes".

2. Every Sunday, I sit down with my planner and a cup of tea (glass of iced tea in warmer months) and prayerfully plot out my week. I schedule first-priority appointments and tasks first. Then I add the second-priority items, and so on. I pray before I begin, and I ask God for His guidance as I plan the coming week.

3. Every night I spend another couple of minutes reflecting on my day and looking ahead to the remainder of the week. I ask myself a couple of questions. How did I do today -- did I live according to my core values as best I could? How does tomorrow look? Have I allocated my "first time" and appropriate time to my #1 value? Is the remaining discretionary time appropriately allocated among my remaining values? As I answer those questions, I quickly make any needed adjustments to my plans for the following day.

(photo courtesy of Pinterest; originally from
The KEY to this process and how it's different than what I used to do, is intentionality. I no longer just write down all the things that I realize I "have" to get done. I've learned over the years that just because something seems urgent does not mean that it should be prioritized.

As I'm writing in tasks and appointments, I deliberately keep an eye on the colors on my planner pages. For example, Are the #1 priority items being overshadowed by #4 priority tasks? 

If they are, I need to look at that. Perhaps that really is necessary that particular week. During Finals Week (I'm an adjunct instructor at a local university), for example, I know that I'm going to have to spend more time grading portfolios and finals than I normally spend on grading papers. As a result, a higher-priority item (but never #1) is going to have to temporarily take a back seat to that lower-priority of job.

2. As the week goes on, to-do's and events pop up that I hadn't planned for on Sunday. I add them in, but I am careful to consider their importance, weighed against my values and against the standard of their actual need. With every added to-do or event, I consider whether the item is truly urgent.

I'd been a paper-planner all of my life, but these adjustments -- this intentionality -- took time. Time I didn't think I had in the first place.

But I've found two things to be true.

1. Investing time up front eliminates almost all wasted time and time spent in regret and frustration later.

2. With tweaking, trial and error, and flexibility, I found a routine that works for me and takes minimal time. My Sunday planning time actually takes me less than 10 minutes -- sometimes about 5. Seriously! Of course, I'm a widow and  have only my own needs to consider, but I've worked through this with married women with several children at home, and it took them no more than 15 minutes.

It may take you longer than 15 minutes in the beginning; be patient, make adjustments, and eventually it will, I believe, become a much quicker process.

One last, but very important thing. Perhaps paper planners are not your thing. Perhaps you've been sitting there shaking your head and thinking "That won't work for me" as you've read this post. That's perfectly fine. Figure out what works for you. Try something. Start somewhere.

But whatever you do, live your life with intention, according to your values.

The rewards of doing so are outstanding!

Next week we'll talk about allocating your funds according to your values.

Okay, now it's your turn. Please share, via a comment below, any questions, tips, suggestions, frustrations, etc. that you have. What about my process doesn't make sense to you? What do you do that has allowed you to live more intentionally and more aligned with your core beliefs?

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Creating the Blueprint, Part 1 of 3

In 2006, my husband and I decided to build our forever home on acreage in the rural county in which he grew up. We bought house-plan magazines, checked out house-plan books from the library, and for weeks and weeks pored over various plans, trying to find the perfect floor plan.

(photo courtesy of Pinterest)
The longer we searched, the more frustrated we became. We wanted home smaller than our very large 2-story house, one that would certainly have a bedroom for each of our children but that was designed in a way that, once our son and daughter left home, would fit and be practical for just two people.

One Saturday while my husband was at work, I asked my daughter for a few pages of graph paper from her math binder, sharpened a couple of pencils, and began designing a house plan that incorporated everything we wanted.

A few months later, and many erasures and additions to that original plan, a grizzled part-time-farmer and part-time- backhoe-operator dug out the basement for that house. Forms were put in place and concrete poured.  We spent the next three years building our house. And when I say "we",  that's exactly what I mean. My husband and I helped with the concrete work, the framing, and even the installation of the trusses; after that, the professionals left, and my husband -- with help from me -- built the rest of the house. From flooring to roof, plumbing to electrical, everything was done by us as time and money allowed.

I learned so much from that experience, and I was reminded of principles I had learned as a child but had either forgotten or about which I'd become complacent.

One key principle I was reminded of and also learned in a new, very real way is the importance of creating a good blueprint before starting new construction. And as a homeowner for over 30 years, I've learned it's equally important when remodeling an existing structure as well.

The same is true when redesigning your life. A blueprint, a plan to work from, is essential.

So how do you create such a blueprint after a major life change?

Through trial & error and lots of frustration & false starts, I found a technique that worked for me. Over the past few years I've shared this with others who have asked how I've gotten to where I am now; every person who has tried this has told me later it helped them immensely.

What worked for me may not work for you, of course, but I hope you'll give it a try. So grab your favorite planning tools -- paper and pen, computer, iPad, etc -- and a nice tall glass of your favorite beverage.

There's no right or wrong timetable for working through this process, this first step in designing your new life. It took me months. Months of jotting lists, putting ideas into practice, and then making revisions. A dear friend accomplished this first step in an afternoon, while relaxing by her apartment-complex pool, and five years later, she continues to live by the blueprint she created that day. Work through this step at your own pace.

Creating a Life Redesign Blueprint

1. Determine your true priorities.

I know, I know. You already know what your priorities are. Or do you? Let's find out. Right now, jot down a list of the priorities and/or values that you believe govern your life. When I started this process, I jotted down the following: "God, family, others, career, self". It was the list I had kept at the front of my day planner for years and that I had successfully convinced myself governed my life.

Tear it up. In tiny pieces. Throw them away.

It's time now for you to determine not what you think your values are and not what you've been told they should. It's time to discover what they really are. How do you do that?

a. Look at your calendar for the past year. If you keep one, look at your planner. On what activities do you spend most of your time?

b. Look at your checkbook register or your bank statement. Where do you spend most of your money? Convert the dollar amounts to percentages. What percent of your money is spent on housing (mortgage/rent, utilities, etc), entertainment (cable/satellite package, trips, etc), charity, family, yourself, and so on?

c. If you are on social media, go back and look at your posts. Consider also your conversations with family and friends. What do you talk about the most, particularly before your life-changing event?

d. If you feel comfortable doing so, ask family and friends (one on one) what they think your priorities are, based on what you do and say.

What you spend your money on, what you spend your time doing, and what you talk about is a pretty good indication of what your true values are.  So study your habits and create a list of the priorities that you have actually been living by.

2. Honestly determine whether the priorities you have been living by are the same priorities that you want to govern your life moving forward.

Are you perfectly okay with the values/priorities on your list and the order in which they are ranked? If so, wonderful! You are already on the right track.
(photo courtesy of Pinterest)

But what if you aren't perfectly -- and I mean 100% -- okay with what is on your list and/or the order in which they are ranked? What if you are a not happy with how you've been spending your time and money and what you spend most of your time thinking and talking about?

That's wonderful, too! Oh, it may not feel wonderful. I know that
when I completed this activity seven years ago, I was disappointed -- even regretful and embarrassed -- by what I learned about myself. I thought about the time and money I had wasted and about how I had, in at least some ways, been a total fake and hypocrite.

And that's okay. Face the truth. Forgive yourself if need be, and focus on the positive here:

You've learned what's important to you and are now ready to take the next step in designing your life around your true priorities and values. 

We'll talk next Wednesday about how to do just that.

In the meantime, please share your thoughts below. What did you learn, through this activity, about your priorities/values and, by extension, yourself?