Adjusting our giving strategy to 2% and a milestones checklist from 2015

2015 future milestones checklist

Back in December 2015, I wrote a post entitled “Envisioning the future of my finances”, which I refer to occasionally because I talked about how I planned to adjust my giving strategy in the future. What I didn’t realize until just now is that I have actually hit several of the milestones on this list:

My pre-tax 401(k) is worth $165,000 today. That is more than my salary has ever been, so I successfully have more than one year’s annual salary saved in pre-tax retirement accounts.

Withdrawing 4% of my (or our) investments could cover all of my (or our) needs, with a bit of room to spare.

Our liquid assets far outweigh the mortgage now, by several times.

My 401(k) grew by $24,420 in 2017, with no contributions by me. That’s more than I can contribute myself, if I currently had access to make such contributions.

We are millionaires. (I forget what I meant then by “on paper”.) I should be a millionaire by myself soon too, in the next year. I remember eight years ago, running the math and not fully understanding compound interest because I thought I would be 50 when I became a millionaire!

I used most of my husband’s final condo buy-in money to contribute to my taxable account at Vanguard, catapulting it into the six figures. We are going to start a joint taxable account at Vanguard very shortly too – it’s on our to do list for the month of June. My retirement accounts aren’t worth half a million dollars yet, so I think my projections were a bit off on that part.

I learned about tax loss harvesting I think actually back in 2015 because my husband had some shares in his taxable account that he could apply it to!

A new Donor Advised Fund at Fidelity

Just after we got married in 2016, we opened a Donor Advised Fund at Schwab. It was a painful process that involved filling out paper forms, taking them to a nearby branch, the person we were supposed to meet with not being there, and them taking the wrong shares out of my husband’s Vanguard account. It worked just fine for donating to various charities over the last year and a half, but to make new cash contributions, it wasn’t a one step process – we would need to first transfer cash to the checking account we have at Schwab and once it settled there, we could transfer it to the brokerage account and then we could contribute to the DAF. Plus, we wanted to use the DAF as part of our overall estate planning strategy and with Schwab, you can’t see your succession (i.e. where the money in the account goes if you both were to pass away) settings online and you need to mail/fax a paper in to update them, which isn’t so useful.

Needless to say, our existing DAF was running low on funds and we didn’t want to contribute anything further to it. We spent quite a while hemming and hawing and I discovered that the Fidelity Charitable website has a demo online account that you can check out! That showed me that not only can you see and update your succession settings online, but you can also make cash donations online from your checking account easily on a one-time or recurring basis and their website is a gazillion times cleaner and easier to use.

We opened and funded our new Fidelity Charitable account with $5,000 within about 10 minutes online. It was really easy!

If we were really trying to tax optimize, we would have opened the Fidelity Charitable account in December and saved a bit on our 2017 taxes, but we chose not to as it would have been too much additional work to add in when things were already a bit chaotic with reorganizing our finances.

Adjusting our Giving Strategy

In the post I mentioned at the beginning, I talked about how when I paid off the mortgage, I wanted to increase my donations from 1% to 2% of gross income. By my original formula for paying off the mortgage, we would have already paid off the mortgage, so I suggested to my husband that we should increase our charitable donations budget to 2% of gross income! With how much my husband’s income has increased, that actually puts our donation budget for the year at a high four figure dollar amount, which we are both really excited about! With 2% of gross income, we are still pretty far from donating with the new $24,000 standard deduction for married couples filing jointly. My goal is to eventually donate enough that we will itemize again!

I really like having the donations budget be a % of gross income. It’s easier to calculate than net income because it doesn’t change from month to month and the % allows us to scale it up and down with how income changes quite easily.

Sometimes it’s simply easier to make donations not from the DAF, so we plan to continue monthly budgeting in YNAB for donations and keep a portion of the money there rather than sending it to the DAF.

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Reflections on Condo Ownership: 6 Years In

Rightsizing your space for your needs is so important. We have worried we didn’t have quite enough off and on. Without plans to have children, however, a large two bedroom apartment is really a great size. It’s forced us to change our packrat mindsets and get rid of stuff we don’t need, which is great.

In 2017, this condo cost just shy of $15,000 in housing expenses (mortgage interest but not principal, condo fees including special assessments, property taxes, condo insurance, electricity, and repairs). Despite minimal income from me in 2017, our housing expenses are still quite low compared to our income for the year. That’s the pro side of buying a reasonably priced place when your income is lower. We are currently budgeting about $2,000/month for our 10 year mortgage payment, condo fees, property taxes, and condo insurance, which includes a parking spot, in-unit laundry and a storage unit and sees about $800/month going to principal of the mortgage payment. For a similar rental apartment nearby, we would pay at least $3,000/month before even getting a parking spot. Purchasing this condo when I did was an incredible financial decision and has substantially influenced the wealth that we now have.

Although we didn’t meet my original five year payoff plan, we have made substantial progress on the mortgage over the years. The balance has dropped by $30,715.48 since I last made an extra payment in December 2014. We have now paid off 60.7% of the original mortgage. We refinanced to a 10 year amortization, which means we have at most 10 years left on this mortgage. We have a new plan to pay it off within 5 years from now and should see the balance drop to five figures sometime in early 2019. We also have enough in cash to pay off the current mortgage balance due to our cash holding preferences.

When you’re buying a condo, you read through so many documents. You get access to condo association meeting minutes for the last while, budgets, and nest egg (this is not the technical term, but the technical term seems to vary regionally) information. You do due diligence then. You have to keep doing that due diligence even after you’ve bought. Every year, you should get a budget, updated fee schedule, and nest egg information. You need to ask questions.

People complain about condo fees being “high”. Take a look at what your condo fees cover. Condo associations do need to pay for items that you don’t have to pay for when you own a house, such as filing a tax return and other fees, licenses and permits related to being a non-profit association, management fees, ridiculous costs of photocopying and postage, regular studies on the building’s nest egg, elevators, fire systems, and a phone line for the callbox. Never buy a house with an elevator – they’re expensive as all hell. The condo budget also covers building insurance (why our condo owners policy is so cheap), water, sewer, garbage, cable TV, cleaning of the common areas, outdoor landscaping, roof maintenance, plenty of plumbing, electrical, and repairs of many structures including windows. Those fees aren’t a waste of money, though they surely feel high when it’s one single chunk coming out each month instead of small dribbles.

I remember when I was looking at condos, everyone talked about how special assessments are bad, without much discussion of why they are bad or how they happen. In my experience, they happen when the people running the board don’t plan for the future, but also, when unexpected events arise. Our condo building is now older and needs a fair amount of work done in the next several years. The board in the past had chosen to never save money for future maintenance issues and to only raise money from homeowners each year for the maintenance that they planned to do that year. That turns into a problem when you need to replace the elevator, windows, roof, decks,and siding all at the same time, to the tune of a five figure amount per homeowner (about $25,000 at the maximum).

Thanks to some turnover, this year, the board in our building chose to raise our monthly condo fees by a bit more than 50% to start saving money for the future. They also did a small special assessment (< $1,000 for our portion), though presumably a larger one will be coming in 2019 or 2020 as we still have a low five figure amount to pay according to the last nest egg analysis.

The money part is a smaller portion of the issue to us – coming up with a low five figure sum to pay the special assessment when we've been spending so little on housing the last several years isn't a huge deal. The more frustrating part to us is realizing how much maintenance has been deferred (roof, elevator, windows, siding, as well as ongoing pipe issues – basically all of the major projects), how out of the loop homeowners not on the board have been kept, how little control we have over the general maintenance level of the building, and how much random power the board thinks they have. I spent 2017 on the Board, which increased our knowledge of what was going on, bringing with it, the stress of how chaotic the board was and how no one on the board really agreed with each other other than that all maintenance should be future owners' problems and not current owners' problems. The Board has, on multiple occasions, done work that affected our unit without notifying us or shown up at our door without notice to do work, both of which are against the actual policies the building has.

Well, that future is now. The maintenance is the current owners' problems because it needs to be taken care of.

All of this led us to open houses of small-ish single family homes. You can't, however, find a single family house as centrally located as we are. And then instead of being frustrated with the condo board not doing the maintenance, we would need to take care of it all. A house is a substantial lifestyle change from our current situation. A house that meets all of the requirements we laid out would end up moving us to a new neighborhood, increasing commutes, not necessarily come with a garage, be further from lovely walking trails, and its purchase price would be somewhat more than what we estimate we could sell the condo for at the moment. All to avoid being in a condo association. Is that worth it?

So in the end, which compromises do we want to make about our housing situation?

For now, we concluded that we should work on improving our cash position over the next few years to get ourselves in a position that we could buy without selling stocks, if we wanted to. The financial plan that I drew shows that we could save a 20-30% down payment on our ideal house's price over the next two years, depending on how much we choose to invest and how much income I add to the pot. Our current idea is to invest 1/3 of our available money for savings and save the other 2/3 for a house, which we can adjust depending on how we are feeling as the plan goes along. We'll also likely stick to our new five year mortgage payoff plan as a hedge of staying, it has a small impact on our overall cash flow, and we would roll any condo equity into a house.

Would I have still bought this place if I went back in time? Probably. I would have done more research into state law on condos though and more due diligence each year.

Readers, how have you decided to move in the past?

Is your spouse really “disinterested” in the finances?

Or is that actually an example of personality differences? Just because your spouse doesn’t want to spend endless hours going over spreadsheets, charts, and forecasting, doesn’t mean that they are disinterested in the finances. Or at least that’s the case in our household, where we both had money management systems in place when we got married. I could also imagine that one spouse being intimidated by the other spouse’s financial knowledge could resemble “disinterest”, but I don’t want to speak to that since that wasn’t our situation.

As I said in a previous post: one of the lessons I’ve learned so far about married finances is that the tools and systems that worked for each of you single are not necessarily the same tools and systems you should use when you are working together as a couple. It’s important to take into account both spouses’ preferences when you’re figuring things out.

My husband’s system when he was single was pretty simple. He had Mint connected to all of his accounts and looked in on it every few months. He maxed out his 401(k) throughout the year and had a portion of his paycheck direct deposited to Vanguard directly. He contributed the full (Backdoor) Roth IRA contribution at some point in the year when he felt his cash position had some room to spare. He carefully researched purchases before selecting items. A month or two after his bonus(es) would hit his checking account, he would rebalance his taxable Vanguard account. He would occasionally check in on things and exclaim about exciting milestones! and round numbers!

Does that sound like someone who doesn’t care about his finances? No, not at all.

My systems, in contrast, were pretty complicated. I started tracking my money before Mint started in spreadsheets, and then in software custom built by myself. I would excitedly download my pay stubs every pay day, as soon as I got the email notification a day or two in advance and update my tax spreadsheet with the exact numbers to the penny. (An ex-boyfriend was worried I lived paycheck to paycheck because I was SO excited about pay day!) When I got a raise, I would re-calculate what % I needed to contribute to my 401(k) to max it out with my last paycheck of the year and I would adjust it. I checked in on my 401(k) transactions every month, to make sure they happened as planned. There were months where I would adjust my 401(k) contribution allocations every month, which was completely overkill. I was never a fan of splitting my direct deposit, preferring to split it myself exactly on pay day so I could allocate the updated balance of my savings accounts to that month. I budgeted down to the penny every month for years, checking in on my spending daily for years until I slowly reduced it to weekly, biweekly, and then mostly monthly. I allocated my bonus(es) within a day of them appearing in my accounts, preferring to allocate manually rather than set up automatic savings or investing other than my 401(k).

My level of caring about my finances constitutes a hobby. I like to compare it to exercising. How much time do you need to spend exercising to be reasonably healthy? Anything past that becomes a hobby. If you average 20,000 steps a day and go to the gym daily, exercising is more in line with being a hobby for you than being strictly necessary to be reasonably healthy.

Compromise in any relationship is important! No spouse should dominate the decisions and both spouses preferences and dispositions are important. I was always slightly jealous of unmarried couples who split expenses by both partners regularly updating a spreadsheet! That is not us. I am the spreadsheeter and my husband is not.

Our first attempts at tracking our spending together resulted in me doing my exact single systems for our joint spending and for my own personal spending, which turned out to be a lot of work. I was spending far more time than ever doing the manual work of entering receipts weekly (one hour) and reconciling and pulling into a spreadsheet once a month (at least an hour). It turns out that two people can make a large number of transactions – not a day goes by without us making at least one transaction. We’ve averaged 160 transactions per month (which counts a transfer as two transactions) through April of this year in YNAB, which works out to 40 transactions a week – no wonder it was taking me an hour just to enter them! That was a huge time commitment for very little value. YNAB is far more helpful at accomplishing the parts I do value with less time commitment than our previous system was.

My husband’s employer switched from paying him monthly to biweekly recently, which caused me to suggest that we allocate new money more often in YNAB. My husband said that our current system of allocating new money on the morning of the 1st of every month seems to be working, so we should keep with that. Since we can fund the whole month on the 1st, that seems like a reasonable compromise to me (more frequent fidgeting is fun, but not strictly necessary), though it certainly is difficult to watch the “To Be Budgeted” stay really full for a couple weeks now since all of the May income actually came in around mid-month. I am patiently waiting until the 1st because I would rather allocate the money together than do it by myself now without my husband’s buy-in. In my parents’ relationship, for example, one of them does all the budgeting with no buy-in from the other spouse, which results in the other spouse just spending freely and “blowing the budget” every month, to the frustration of the budgeting spouse. That’s not how we want our relationship to work.

For us, the best money system is one that both spouses contribute to, not just one spouse.

I still have fun with spreadsheets! I occasionally do budget forecasting, but I never save it unless we were doing the budgeting together. I update the net worth spreadsheet on the 1st of the month, rather than throughout the month like I used to. This means a lot less time spent on spreadsheets and a lot more time spent reading books and exercising. Every month, I show my husband the month’s updated spreadsheets and charts and ask him what his favorite of the charts is. In February, the chart he thought the coolest was the one that showed we had lost tens of thousands of dollars of our investments in the stock market.

I spent the time researching mortgage rates and presented all of the options. We made the final decision on which new mortgage to pick together, but I did all of the research. There are plenty of other times that my husband does more research than I do, e.g. the hours he spent researching which new camera lens to buy recently and the hours he’s spent researching a barbecue that he still hasn’t decided between the final two options after many hours of research over the last six months because he just isn’t sure it’s worth spending $X more for a specific feature. To me, it’s perfectly reasonable for one spouse to do more of the research, but both spouses should be on board with which funds to actually allocate their investments in or which mortgage type to choose in the end.

Readers, how do you compromise with your spouse on your money management systems?

Q1 2018 Update: 67.8% FI ratio

I didn’t update much last year as things were so much in flux with how we were managing our finances. I feel like they’ve settled a bit more now, so it’ll be easier to update again. Excuse the dust as I figure out the best way to update on things going forward. Our goals at this point seem to be (1) pay off the mortgage within 10 years before we are both 40, (2) use all tax-advantaged investment space available to us, (3) budget our spending and invest everything else in a Vanguard taxable account once we have enough buffer in savings, and (4) have 25 years of expenses in investments, with at least 10 of those years in taxable accounts, by the time we are both 40.

Savings (0.79-1.1 months)

We spent much of 2017 riding the credit card float, so this feels like a good start. We have a solid cash holding in each of our separate accounts, but we want to develop a solid holding in our joint accounts too. We haven’t decided how many months we want yet, so we will plug away at it until we find the right number. This is our primary savings goal at the moment and then we will switch over to taxable investments once we reach it. As of the end of March, we were sitting at 0.79 ideal months including the mortgage payment as an expense, or 1.1 months once we allocated the March income. That obviously needs a bit of work! We did get a mid-four figure income tax refund (setting your withholding correctly with two people and multiple income streams is way harder than it was with one person with one income stream), which helped jump start that account, among other cash flow items.

Investments

I didn’t really update much last year, but we hit a really exciting milestone last year – our combined taxable accounts surpassed our 401(k) balances in June 2017! That was pretty cool to see. For people who discover FIRE in their thirties or later, they seem to often have much larger 401(k) balances than taxable, but that is not the case with us. (You can see this in the chart – it’s of our investment types over time in 2017.)

In 2017, our combined investments saw a six figure gain! That was pretty cool. In January, they increased by a multiple of our gross income for the month, which was pretty cool. (Of course, they promptly lost most of that in February, which was also the largest drop we’ve seen in one month so far.)

We both made our 2018 Backdoor Roth IRA contributions at 12:01 am on January 1st, from separate cash. Why 12:01 am even though they don’t post until overnight on the 2nd? For fun, because we were awake, and then it was checked off!

My husband has been contributing enough to his 401(k) each month to max out the $18,500 employee contribution and get his full employer match each paycheck. Unfortunately/fortunately, he received a distribution from his 401(k) in March due to being classified as a highly-compensated employee. He invested it, including the taxes they withheld from the distribution, into his taxable account, re-balancing.

Our taxable accounts saw substantial contributions this quarter, as we put some lingering cash to work once we came to an agreement about sharing the condo equity.

We plan on opening up a joint Vanguard taxable account sometime this year. We have been working through many questions:

  1. What fund do we want to use in Joint Taxable for bonds? We’ve both mostly followed the advice to keep bonds in our pre-tax 401(k)s, but since we are in our early thirties, we don’t want to weight our 401(k)s too heavily towards bonds, especially when they are already at 36% across the two accounts. That means that we will definitely be putting bonds in our taxable account and are leaning towards using an intermediate-term tax-exempt bond fund.
  2. Do we want to manage our joint investments as a third portfolio, separate from our existing personal investments?
  3. What asset allocation do we want to use? We both already are at 50/50 US/international stock indices, but one of us has more in bonds than the other, so we need to figure out how to balance that.

Mortgage

12/31/2017 balance: $115,761.14. 10 years, 9 months remaining.

January payment: $786.15 principal, $241.17 interest

February payment: $219.61 principal, $395.23 interest (that’s what re-amortizing to 25 years left at 4.125% and only paying the required payment does. We budgeted for the original payment but only paid the required one to allow for a buffer for closing costs on the anticipated refinance.)

March payment: $220.37 principal, $394.47 interest

3/31/2018 balance: $114,535.01. 12 years, 0 months remaining. (That’s what happens when the interest rate jumps. It’ll go back down to 10 years left in May since we refinanced.)

Spending Ratio – Portion of the ideal annual budget cumulatively 

January – 54.6% – 1.15/12
February – 73.1% – 2.02/12
March – 79.2% – 2.97/12

Q1 – 67.8%

I calculate the spending ratio with expenses in the numerator and the denominator as 4% of our investments plus the value of any redeemed credit card points. The second figure is the cumulative spending so far for the year divided by our ideal annual budget, expressed as a fraction of 12. Both of these figures ignore the mortgage payment.

The denominator covered all non-mortgage housing, food, transportation, personal care, and medical expenses throughout all months in Q1! That’s some pretty solid progress. Remaining categories to work through are: entertainment, shopping, travel, life, and his and hers spending.

When you take out the mortgage payment, our top three spending categories in Q1 were food, housing, and travel, in that order. (Is that a good thing or a bad thing that we spend more on food than housing ignoring the mortgage payment?)

In housing, our condo fees are up 50% from 2017 and our property taxes also went up substantially as well. That combination is now about $910/month, compared to $530/month when I bought the place six years ago. Whoever says that housing doesn’t go up when you buy a place is lying.

In travel, we had a weekend getaway and bought flights for a summer wedding. We used UR points for the flights, but we budget for the full cost of trips and then count the amount of any points redeemed to cover a part as spending and then the same amount as income. We don’t see points as free money. We are still hovering around 200,000 UR points, thanks to both of us getting the 100,000 bonus on the Chase Sapphire Reserve, our wedding venue qualifying as a restaurant, and paying cash for all of our honeymoon hotels (via Hotels.com and cashback sites!) and having many UR cards (Freedom, Freedom Unlimited, and one Reserve), despite using UR points to cover our honeymoon flights last year.

In other spending, we made some updates to our postnuptial agreement (and resolved to hopefully never do that again because two lawyers aren’t cheap), bought a lovely leather wedding album and some other prints <3, replaced some sheets after we found a hole in one of our two sets, and spent more on bicycle maintenance than car maintenance. My husband says that’s because the bicycles are the “daily driver” and the car is for long road trips.

Readers, how was your Q1?

Adjustable Rate Mortgages adjust eventually: time for a new one!

If you’re a long-time reader of the blog, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of my Adjustable Rate Mortgage (ARM). When I bought my condo, I took out a 5/1 ARM with a 3% initial rate. I refinanced six months later to a 5/1 ARM with a 2.5% initial rate.

It’s now over five years later (almost six in the condo!) and I didn’t actually pay off the mortgage like I had planned I would. I/we have paid off just over 60% of the original balance though! Back in early June 2017, we got a letter from our mortgage company explaining how the reset would work, with what the interest rate was then. Then again in early December, we got another letter, which is when they committed to an interest rate and new payment for the year. That letter explained:

  • The new interest rate: 4.125%
  • The new payment: $614.48 (versus the old payment of $1,027.32)
  • How much of the new payment would go to interest versus principal ($395.23 versus the prior $242.80 would go to interest)

This was a huge jump in interest, which we were not happy about. Yes, it was mitigated by the extra principal payments that I had previously made, but it still seemed unnecessary. I had been doing research haphazardly and had found a lender a few years ago that offered low cost refinances, which was really important with the fact that our mortgage balance is now in the low $110,000 range. It’ll take about 3 months to break-even, so we will only save about $500 on interest in 2018, but we’ll save about $2,000 in 2019, especially since our current mortgage would have continued to reset annually (and at today’s rates, it would go to 4.875% at the next reset). We concluded back then though that we should wait until the rate reset to refinance again and that we would probably go with a 10 year amortization.

Research was done, spreadsheets were made, and I eventually won my husband over that we should refinance to another ARM! I was pretty surprised he came on board with the ARM. He attributes it primarily to realizing what the mortgage balance will be in another 5 years on a 10 year amortization – it will sit around $60,000 and by then, we will likely have gotten bored of it finally and paid it off. We did ponder this quite carefully though because it seems once your mortgage balance goes under $110,000, you can’t get as good of rates any more, so that means that this is our last chance to refinance to a more favorable rate. When we first started looking, the 10 year fixed rate mortgage was 3.19% and the 5/1 ARM with 10 year amortization was 3.09%, so the fixed rate seemed like a better choice. By the time we actually applied though, the 10 year fixed rate was up to 3.59% and with a 0.5 percentage point difference, we pulled the trigger on the ARM!

We’ve also discussed our strategies for paying off the rest of the mortgage, after letting it go with “just” the required payments for the last 3 years. (I say just in quotes because they paid the balance down by $28,465 or just about $10,000 per year thanks to all of those extra principal payments I had made in the first 2.5 years.) We’ve tossed around two main ideas:

  1. Paying it off when one of us receives a bonus that is more than the remaining mortgage balance
  2. Paying enough each year to keep it on track to pay it off before the rate resets in 5 years, which works out to about $12,000 per year or $6,000 twice per year

If we let it ride for the remaining 10 years, don’t pay anything extra, and the interest rate resets in the worst way at each adjustment date, then we have $25,415.07 left to pay in interest, which is a huge improvement over the $300,000+ that I started the mortgage with back in mid-2012, so no matter what we decide, it doesn’t have nearly as huge of an impact anymore.

Refinance by Day

It turns out that applying for a mortgage when your annual salary income is more than the mortgage balance is really easy and quick to be approved! It was a relatively calm refinance, compared to my previous one that involved stressing over whether the appraisal would come back high enough to give me 30% equity! They didn’t even ask our condo association for any information beyond the building’s insurance records. I was really worried that they wouldn’t put both of us on the mortgage since I currently have no income, but that wasn’t a problem at all, likely because we are married and our loan is under 20% of the condo’s appraised value.

Day 1: Saturday of a long weekend, we applied for the new mortgage, right after filing our taxes. An exciting date night!

Day 2: Second business day after we applied, both of our credit was pulled and we got a request for my husband’s 2017 W-2, 30 days of paystubs for him, and our photo identification. We uploaded the documentation and signed some documents.

Day 3: The appraiser contacted me to set up a time to come out and measure and photograph our place.

Day 4: The appraiser came out. The loan was approved based off of our income, though still contingent on the appraisal.

Day 14: The appraisal came back and all of the contingencies on the loan have been removed.

Day 28: We received the preliminary closing disclosure, which contained the original numbers from the application.

Day 29: We were contacted by the title company to schedule closing, which we scheduled for the following week.

Day 30: We received the closing disclosure.

Day 36: Closing day! We signed 90+ pages of documents and gave them a check that covered our $295 closing fee, $98 in fees to pay off the previous mortgage loan, interest for all of March and a bit of April to the old loan company AND interest for most of April to the new loan company.

Day 42: Loan disbursement day. The old mortgage was paid off this day and has been marked as paid off on my credit report. It feels a bit anticlimactic to log into the online banking and see the mortgage paid off when a new one is still coming, with a different bank.

Conclusion

We don’t have to make a payment to the new mortgage company until June 1st, so we calculated how much we missed paying in principal since we paid all that interest at closing, but no principal. I’ve already made a $670.85 principal only payment to the new mortgage this month and we will make a similarly sized one in May, plus any interest we get back from the old mortgage, which should hopefully come in the next couple of weeks.

The other side benefit of this is that now both of our names are on the mortgage and the deed of the condo! Now my husband has a better response for when his friends sass him about this being “my” condo and not ours or his. (Yes, this means we settled up the equity in the condo so we both own half of it. It’s really nice to have a decent sized taxable account of my own now!)

I’m really glad I didn’t let myself be scared into a 30 year mortgage when I bought the place six years ago. I went from a 3% 5/1 ARM to a 2.5% 5/1 ARM and now to a 3.09% 5/1 ARM with a 10 year amortization. Thanks to reducing the amortization so much (from 25 years to 10 years), the rate we have now is really not that different from my first rate six years ago and the required payment is even lower than my first payment was ($1,205.79). I’m glad I didn’t take out a 15 year fixed rate mortgage six years ago – that would have left me with a $1,975 required monthly payment, which felt huge on my monthly salary at the time. Instead, I took out a 5/1 ARM with the same interest rate and made extra payments when I could, with my non-salary income.

 

Married Finances: Budgeting 2018 with YNAB

I talked previously about how something had to give after our expensive 2016 and 2017 years. My husband has never budgeted, but I used to have complicated budgeting spreadsheets. Trying to mesh those two strategies resulted in us not really staying on top of our spending as life changed over the last year, so at the end of December, we set up YNAB.

One of the lessons I’ve learned so far about married finances is that the tools and systems that worked for each of you single are not necessarily the same tools and systems you should use when you are working together as a couple. It’s important to take into account both spouses’ preferences when you’re figuring things out.

My spouse and I have similar money values (living below our means, saving for retirement, index funds, high-interest debt is bad, etc.), but we have very different personalities. For us, I am very detail-oriented, worry about money, and check in on it regularly while he is very easy going, likes automatic payments and checks in on things on a less specific pattern. His form of budgeting has always been to carefully consider purchases and then buy things he values and plans to get good use out of. That means that we respect each other’s purchasing choices fairly well, which is good, considering how different our money personalities are!

Our previous systems all involved a bunch of manual reconciling into spreadsheets by me. Mint didn’t work for us because we didn’t want to associate say all of each of our Chase credit cards – we just wanted to partially share credit cards. PC was better in that it let us pick which specific accounts to associate from our Chase logins (as an example), but I didn’t like that you had to wait until transactions posted for them to appear in the app. Neither of these tools were very good with the various special assessments our condo association has been doing or the fact that no month is really normal for us, so I was left with a lot of spreadsheets and manual tracking. Last year, I had a spreadsheet that I used to manually track against our budget for the year, but there was no system for when we eventually started going vastly over the budget, other than every time the checking account balance could no longer pay the credit cards at the end of the month, we put in a few thousand more dollars. The good thing that came out of our method of budgeting last year though was that my husband learned that I’m not going to stop buying groceries just because we used up the grocery “budget”, so he was cool with us trying YNAB. Needless to say, our cash flow needed some improvement.

We have now used it for two full months and it really feels like the best tool we’ve tried so far! It marries all of the features we had liked about the previous systems and (for us) minimizes the cons of each of them.

iPhone app

We both have the app on our phones and iPads, which is a huge improvement of visibility versus my husband not wanting to damage my spreadsheets.

It has manual entry with the phone app, which even has geo-tagging for where you were when you logged the transaction. That means that both of us enter the transactions on the go at the time of purchase now and subsequent times you go back to a place, the entry is usually even easier since it populates the category and account info based on what you used on your last transaction at that merchant. This beats our previous system of me collecting all of the receipts and spending an hour or more manually entering them every weekend. It also beats Mint/PC not knowing about checks we wrote (we write about 25 per year) or getting the wrong amount at the gas station or being full of pending transactions that never post. New con of this: receipts now pile up in my wallet for months since I never check on them.

I like how the app has an “inbox” of tasks you should do, which covers approving scheduled transactions, approving imported transactions that it matched to ones you had manually entered, and categorizing transactions that you did not enter.

The app lets you pin categories to the top of the budget screen. I pinned most of the food categories so that I can easily see them since those are the main categories I spend on while out.

Cash flow

We learned that a lot of our cash flow this year is in the first half of the year. Hopefully with YNAB, we’ll feel less of a cash flow crunch at the beginning of 2019 since we will use our low spending months at the end of the year to set aside for the expensive things at the beginning of the next year. Why is more stuff due at the beginning of the year? Car insurance comes due in January and July, but we hadn’t been setting aside money to pay for the January car insurance, so we had to pay the full amount in January. Property taxes are paid in April and October, but we only started setting aside the money in January. Utilities are more expensive in the winter months. Condo and umbrella insurance is due in July. This year, we only planned on trips in March and July, aka they will be mostly paid for in the first half of the year. Our theater subscription renews in May. Our condo association did a small special assessment that is due in June.

I like that it’s really flexible and forces you to cover your spending you didn’t plan for, before rolling over to the next month. That’s a key piece that was missing from our previous system. It does roll over positive category balances to future months, which is great. It wants you to “roll with the punches” as you overspend, but so far, we have determined we would rather keep a $1,000 buffer in the checking account and then deal with the overspending at the end of the month unless there was something big since that way, we can both sit down together more easily to look at it instead of just one of us dealing with it throughout the month.

YNAB has significantly reduced my stress about where the money is coming from to pay the bills because now I know that we will be ready to pay the county the over $2,000 for property taxes next month and all of the credit card balances are covered by the checking account because it’s all accounted for in YNAB. I do really hope it is a long time before we have a $10,000 credit card payment again like we did two months in 2016 and one month in 2017, but if we do, it’ll be accounted for with far less stress.

To me, a budget is less about being restrictive in how you spend your money and more about managing cash flow. Our end of month checking account balance in 2017 averaged $5,659.12 and now it’s almost $20,000. No wonder I am a lot less stressed about paying the property taxes this year!

Import and automation

Even though YNAB suggests you manually enter your transactions, the online version which we are using automatically imports transactions from the banks you connect to it, which means that it if you forgot to enter a transaction, it brings it in for you. It also means that it automatically clears our manually entered transactions when it finds them through the bank, which is awesome. That used to take me so much time logging into each bank to check on the transactions!

Scheduled transactions, even recurring ones, are awesome. My manual system didn’t have recurring transactions, though it did have scheduled transactions. I also like that YNAB makes you “approve” a scheduled transaction when its day comes, reminding you that you are still paying for this thing. We don’t have a ton of recurring transactions, but it is useful.

Budget categories (and groups!)

We both love that you can name category groups and categories however you want. Mint, for example, doesn’t let you make new category groups, just categories and you can’t make new categories from the app. PC doesn’t have category groups, just categories. I really like to be able to see all housing items together, for example. We each have our own category group for personal spending and then we get to make our own categories in there as we prefer.

I like how for each budget category, you can set a separate goal. This is great because we made a budget category for each specific thing. So for example, in our “Housing” budget category group, we have the mortgage, condo fees, cell phones, and internet with monthly funding goals. The property taxes have a target balance date goal, so right now we are setting aside 1/8 of the bill each month; in May, we will set aside 1/12 of the bill; in November, we will estimate an increase for the 2019 year. For the utilities, we budgeted for the estimated winter bills and then in May, we will start setting aside an average for the year. For the condo insurance, we are setting aside 1/7 of the bill until July and then after that, we will set aside 1/12 each month. This sounds somewhat complicated describing it, but YNAB makes it really simple and I don’t have to do the constant different fidgeting with formulas that I did before. Plus, now I can see all of these things in the app! This all is especially awesome because I find that no month is really “normal”. I also like that all of these balances just build up until we actually need them and don’t require much effort to work towards.

If you have goals set up for your budget categories or scheduled transactions, then when you’re budgeting for the next month, you can select a number of budget categories and use the “Quick budget” functionality to cover those amounts, which makes having many small categories really easy to budget for.

My husband thought I was silly to suggest budgeting for driver’s licenses, trusted traveler programs, passports, etc. until we added up how much we should set aside for those and it added up to about $20/month for both of us combined, which surprised him.

Credit cards and accounts

I really like how it handles credit cards. It seems to confuse people on the subreddit, but it makes SO MUCH sense to me and is really how I handle them in my head. For much of 2017, I manually paid all of the credit cards on the 1st of every month to help me feel comfortable with the balance in the checking account, which was an annoying time sink. Now, I’m happy to let them go on auto pay again and not worry about it. (Though I did pay one in full recently when we got the statement and the card hadn’t had any activity in most of a month and its under $5 balance was annoying me.) The side effect of this is that our checking account now has a ridiculous amount of money in it (almost $20,000), but it is all accounted for, so I’m happy with that. Basically, they say that if you had $100 allocated for Groceries and you spent $50 on Groceries on a credit card, then they move the $50 allocation from Groceries to that credit card.

I like how easy it is to manually create an account for something, like the gift card balances on each of our Amazon accounts.

I like that YNAB mostly shows you the “working balance” for an account, so for example, your checking account with all of your uncleared checks already subtracted from it. PC wasn’t very good at that, which would bug me when *I* knew I had spent money, but the app I was using didn’t know about it yet!

Savings

The slightly weird thing to me is that they want you to assign jobs to all of your dollars that YNAB knows about, including to any savings accounts. We haven’t had a lot of extra monthly cash flow lately with only one income, but we do have a target category balance goal for our primary savings account to get up to three months expenses in our joint savings account. I also have a budget category for “Vanguard taxable” that we will soon assign some dollars to.

Reports

 

 

I like the online spending reports. They are generally sufficient for my interests. You can see a pie chart or a stacked bar chart of your spending for any date period you specify and if you pick the stacked bar chart, it gives you one for each month. You can also exclude categories from it. (I’ve excluded the mortgage payment, for example.) You can also get a pie chart or stacked bar chart for a category group too. The phone and iPad apps have “Age of Money” and “Net Worth” reports, which I care less about than the spending report, since I really prefer to only check on “Net Worth” on the last day of the month.

Time

The time cost feels way lower than our previous system. 30-60 seconds to enter a transaction at the source, especially with 3D Touch to get into the transaction screen of the app. I spend a couple minutes most mornings checking the “inbox” of transactions to approve and leaving my husband to categorize his. Now that we have things mostly set up, our end of February “budgeting meeting” took about 30 minutes to consider our February over spending and set up a budget for March. I try really hard to not tinker with the system other than that meeting. Every couple weeks or so, I log onto each bank and make sure that the balance on each account is the same as what YNAB knows about (which it usually is) and click “reconcile”.

Misc.

We both like that they are actively working on the software, which is not something that we have the time for with my homegrown software.

As always, this post is not sponsored – this is simply my review of how we’ve been using this system.

My Accidental Sabbatical of 5+ months

When I last talked about what I was doing with my life, I was working on my Master’s degree, right? And I was going to finish soon.

Well. In the fall, I came down with a non-life-threatening health issue that took about four months to root cause.

We broke $10,000 in raw health care spending before insurance kicked in, for the entire plan year. (Of which, we paid about $1,500 out of pocket since we have good health insurance.) I keep track of my raw health care spending and this was by far the most expensive year I’ve seen yet. The previously most expensive year was $6,000, another about $4,000 and the others averaged $1,500.

I start with it took four months to root cause because it still isn’t fully solved. I’m working on that and I assume that will take another several months and some more health care spending, of course in a new plan year.

 

Bridget talked about financial black swans a while back. I would say that mostly until late 2016, I had experienced very few negative black swans. In the last two years, I’ve seen two: losing my job and this health issue. Both of those combined have had a huge impact on my finances – I haven’t seen a paycheck in over a year, a loss of about $200,000 in gross income over this time period. There have also been some positives: my husband got a huge promotion to the point that our household income has hardly missed my income and our net worth has grown tremendously since we married. It has, however, created a financial dependency between the two of us that wasn’t there before we got married and we would be further ahead if we had had my income as well, though we are still in a great financial position now.

How did we protect ourselves against these negative financial black swans?

Thanks to huge positive financial black swans like us both having careers in high-paying fields, my parents funding my college education, and H paying off his student loans quickly after graduation (his student loan balance at graduation was eerily similar to the hypothetical one I calculated in that linked post!), we had a great start in our twenties. Before we got married, we each lived off of about half of our net salary incomes and saved all of our bonus income after taxes. We each maxed out our 401(k)s and Backdoor Roth IRAs. One of us aggressively paid down the mortgage (her) and one of us aggressively invested in a Vanguard taxable account (him). We each had strong cash reserves.

Despite having six figure combined expenses in both 2016 and 2017, we continued to max out all available retirement accounts, take on no credit card debt, and watch our net worth steadily increase, which to both of us, feels like an incredible privilege that we not only survived the Very Expensive Fall of 2016 that saw multiple months with credit card bills over $10,000, but our finances continued to thrive during that time. It is thanks to our high incomes and previously more frugal behavior that we were able to swing such large increases in expenses simply with grumbles, reduced savings each month, and no debt. With those large expenses in our rear view mirror and solid health insurance, we are both on the same page that we hope to not spend six figures in one year again for a long time.

The catch with each of us having similar salaries before when we each lived off of about half of our net salary incomes was that we found ourselves spending all or more than the salary income after maxing out H’s 401(k) coming in for a while. We poured over our spending from 2017 and we tried to find areas in which we could cut, before H finally suggested that we reduce our budgets for personal spending since reducing retirement savings at our tax bracket was a silly idea. So far, it seems to be progressing. We successfully budgeted $5 less than the paychecks in January, $500 more than them in February and we are on track to be under by closer to $1,000 in March. It’s nowhere near his previous 50% savings rate, but any breathing room is a welcome change from 2017, when I used savings to cover my half of the wedding and expenses for the first 2/3 of the year.

We’re okay with running things somewhat close to the wire monthly for several reasons. That wire involves maximizing his 401(k) which is a decent chunk each month. H is at a point in his career where his salary is not the majority of his income and our plan involves saving all of his non-salary income. Withdrawing 4% from our investments would already cover all of our non-mortgage housing, food, transportation, and toiletries expenses, aka most of our needs. We also do still assume that I will return to earning an income when I fully resolve this health issue.

So, yes, this is a setback financially, but we set ourselves up well for it and are grateful that this is simply an opportunity cost financially rather than a financially devastating situation for our household.

Money isn’t the hard part of this.

For those long-time readers, you know how staunchly independent I am. This has been an emotional blow to that, despite my husband being pretty easy going about it all. It is so bizarre to go from earning half the household income, to over the course of several years, earning nothing and the household income still being the same. In a way, this experience has shown me that I could find fulfillment when I choose to step away from my career some day. There are so many things I don’t miss about the rat race.

Months where all I could convince myself to do was read books, watch Netflix, read the Internet, and go to medical appointments were not the best. Thankfully, I’m past that point now, which has substantially improved the situation emotionally. I’m slowly starting to climb back out of the withdrawal corner I had fallen into.

Everyone wants to label your status to quickly understand what you’re up to. At first, I struggled with how to answer when people asked me where I am working these days. Thanks to some advice on Twitter, I’ve concluded that I will tell people I’m on a health-related sabbatical at the moment and no, I don’t know when I’m going back to work yet. That seems to worry my in-laws since they don’t know how much H makes, but my family seem to assume we are fine and just worry about my health.

People tend to assume that I am currently wholly dependent on H in order to eat. It’s somewhat nice to be able to hide behind that offline, though I tire of it. I want to burst out that we’re not fully dependent on his income, that this is a team effort. Yes, he’s the one with the income now, but I did so much before. I bought this condo and paid off over half the mortgage. I own over half of our investment portfolio, the portfolio which helps our frugal hearts be okay with our current spending level compared to H’s monthly net salary income. Without my efforts, we would be in a substantially different place today. In some ways, though, his current income and our efforts with it mean that we are in a vastly different financial situation than we were years ago when I made all of those good decisions while single. We can save more now without me working than I ever could single. I keep quiet though and retort all of that after we’ve left the social situation, to get it out.