How I conquered money woes, arguments, and holiday stress…mostly :)

So, as I detailed a couple posts ago, I’ve definitely been feeling stressed about a lot of stuff, mostly related to money.  And in my last private post, I ranted about Carl and my first “classic newlywed” argument–a doozie about chores that lasted two days.

But, a month later and I’m feeling much less stressed, thanks mainly in part to what Carl and I are calling “the 12 Fights of Christmas.”  In reality, we’ve been discussing a series of 15 questions our pastor has given us to discuss and be in agreement on before we walk down the aisle.  Most are simple, but important.  Others seem silly to me, and are bound to lead to arguments.  Here they are, copied for your reading enjoyment:

1) Have we discussed whether or not to have children, and if the answer is yes, who is going to be the primary care giver?

2) Do we have a clear idea of each other’s financial obligations and goals, and do our ideas about spending and saving mesh?

3) Have we discussed our expectations for how the household will be maintained, and are we in agreement on who will manage the chores?

4) Have we fully disclosed our health histories, both physical and mental?

5) Is my partner affectionate to the degree that I expect?

6) Can we comfortably and openly discuss our sexual needs, preferences and fears?

7) Will there be a television in the bedroom?

8) Do we truly listen to each other and fairly consider one another’s ideas and complaints?

9) Have we reached a clear understanding of each other’s spiritual beliefs and needs, and have we discussed when and how our children will be exposed to religious/moral education?

10) Do we like and respect each other’s friends?

11) Do we value and respect each other’s parents, and is either of us concerned about whether the parents will interfere with the relationship?

12) What does my family do that annoys you?

13) Are there some things that you and I are NOT prepared to give up in the marriage?

14) If one of us were to be offered a career opportunity in a location far from the other’s family, are we prepared to move?

15) Does each of us feel fully confident in the other’s commitment to the marriage and believe that the bond can survive whatever challenges we may face?

We’ve decided to discuss one per night, leading up to Christmas.  But when we encountered the second question, we realized something even more troubling–neither of us even knew how to talk about money.  How do we plan for our financial future when we don’t even know what Carl’s job will be, or what it will pay/benefits/job stability?  And how much are we supposed to put toward the 529s of those as-yet-undetermined-number of kids we discussed in Question One?

So, after a few days of fretting on it (and spurred on by very little interest in re-watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy with Carl on blu-ray) I got to researching.  Using solely my own income, which is at least fairly stable for now, I figured out a plan that maximizes 401k retirement savings (and my company match) and puts at least a little bit aside in a 529 for some college education.  Then, looking at my after-tax amount, changing my direct deposit election to have at least a little each month put into my general savings for an emergency fund/down payment on a new house/travel fund/etc.  Granted, the budget would be tight, but livable, even if we were only on my salary.  That way, when Carl finds a job, he can focus on paying off his student loan debt and set aside one additional bundle in an IRA that could be used for future college expenses, retirement, or whatever later on.

I also got another $200 or so off the cruise price by continuing to check the rate daily, haha.  So that helps 🙂  And we also finished all our holiday shopping, wrapping, and shipping, so that’s another load off.

4 more months.  Wow this is starting to go quickly!

Get ready for me to sound like an infomercial, y’all!

Being a bride is stressful, not least of all because you’re expected to be this thin, well-coiffed, perfectly manicured model of a woman at all times; after all, why would anyone want to marry you if you’re not?  Not to mention all the photography.  The year or so that you’re engaged and the wedding day itself, you’re likely to be photographed (and professionally photographed, at that) constantly.

So, uh, you better be lookin’ good.

And, as I realized soon after I got engaged, I wasn’t.  My skin was disastrous looking.  My cheeks, forehead, and chin were covered in small red bumps and acne.  The area between my eyebrows had little creases that weren’t going away when I wasn’t smiling.  And the rest of my face was astoundingly dry.

This, of course, was all made more crushingly frustrating by the fact that I had had PERFECT skin up until now.  As a teenager, I maybe got one zit coinciding with menstrual cycle each month, but that was it.  I washed my face with water, and I didn’t even use moisturizer.  Yet my skin was gorgeous–I didn’t need to wear foundation or concealer at all, basically brushed myself with powder each day and was ready to go.

But, there I found myself, a recently engaged 27-year old with adult-onset acne, combination skin, and fine lines.  Joy.

So, I went and saw a dermatologist.  He spent all of five minutes with me, told me I’d need to be on prescription antibiotics for the rest of my life, needed to buy expensive cleansing pads and moisturizer from him, and should get botox for my fine lines.

That wasn’t really what I was looking for.  So I found a second dermatologist, and he too tried to put me on antibiotics for the rest of my life.  Again, no thanks.

So I did some internet research, and tried cutting out dairy and gluten.  No change.

Up next, bi-weekly facials.  Pricey, but worth it if it actually did something.  But, it didn’t.  This was especially infuriating, as the aestheticians (I tried two different ones) both told me that “other than the acne, I had such nice skin and tiny pores”!  Yeah, well, that’s kind of the point.

Finally, with less than a week to my engagement photo session, I spent an hour at my local Target reading the labels on every single skincare product they had.  I left the store with a nice long receipt and the following products:

  

And within a week, I had a HUGE change in my skin.  I wash with the scrub twice a day, do a mask with the cleanser twice a week, spot treat acne with the rapid clear at night, and then use the moisturizer twice a day.  I also use good ol’ fashioned Neosporin for any bites/sores.

It’s really been an amazing change.  The acne has cleared everywhere but on my cheeks, where it’s still severely lessened.  The fine lines between my eyebrows are GONE as is any dryness.  And the most obnoxious of all, the not-quite-acne raised red bumps are getting smaller and less red daily.

I’ve never, ever, in my life, been this impressed with a skin care product.  Highly recommend.  No antibiotics or botox needed.

Hurry up and wait! Hurry up and wait!

Planning a wedding seems to come in waves.  When you start, there are a ton of things you have to nail down right away, or other brides with the same date will snap them up: the venue, the photographer, the band.  Then there are things you have to do ridiculously far in advance: order your dress, register.

But once you get past that initially blur or activity, things seem to settle down again–for a while.  We just hit another blur of activity over the past few weeks.  

First, as my last post mentioned, we found or minister and had our first meeting with him.  This led to us needing to plan out our ceremony as well, which is now in a draft format and back with the minister.  Next up was my first bridal shower in Cali, which was a lot of fun and a great chance to catch up with my USC ladies.  The following week, I had my hair and makeup trial run, we took our engagement photos, and we had our tasting.  Oh–and we booked our transportation.

Seems like now, I’m sliding into another lull, but it also gives me some time to focus on a few of the craft projects I need to do.  But I’m also starting to get a wondering eye when it comes to my budget—this I blame entirely on the WE channel.  Platinum Weddings, David Tutera, and Four Weddings are a giant conspiracy for me to find more things I want at the wedding–not good!

Oh!  And I bought some perspective wedding shoes…they might have to just be for my reception dress though, because they are TALL!  What do you guys think?

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The Money Pinch, part 2

Alright, saving money.

So, I’m by no means an “Extreme Couponer” but I am fairly reasonable about using the internet to try to find what deals I can.  Here’s some examples that other brides could hopefully apply as well.

1.   Using deal sites like Groupon, LIving Social, TravelZoo and Google Offers.

The key with these deal sites is patience, and knowing what you’re looking for.  You can’t be one of those impulsive people that snaps up any random deal that looks cool–figure out what you need, and then check often to find it.  The best “categories” of deals for deal sites that I see pretty often are for paper goods and travel.

First, paper.  Across the three above deal sites, you can almost always find at least one deal on paper products.  Right now, Living Social has $17 for $70 at Vistaprint, plus 30% off site-wide, AND free shipping if you spend at least $25 on top of your $70 voucher.  So what does that translate to?  You could get 70 of these pretty invitations (probably enough for at least 130 guests), customized, on their most premium-weight paper, with matching customized envelopes, and matching customized envelope seals shipped to you for a grand total of $45.  And this deal isn’t at all uncommon.  Similar deals come up for Zazzle.com, and many other smaller paper sites regularly.

Second, travel.  We’ve gone on two vacations now using Living Social deals and have always been really impressed.  Unsurprisingly, we used LIving Social for part of our honeymoon as well, for a four-night stay at Hatchet Caye resort in Belize.

We’re going here 🙂

If you look at Hatchet Caye’s website, four nights for two people all-inclusive (which is what we’re getting with our deal) costs $2,400.  We paid $1597, so that’s already saving $800 -win!  But it gets better.  Living Social and TravelZoo are great about adding “extras” to their deals.  So ours also came with our flight transfers from Belize City to Placencia Belize (that’s another $350 saved), our ground transfers from the Placencia Airport to the Ferry Dock (another $15 saved), a sea turtle snorkeling excursion for two ($150 saved), and 25% off all spa services.  So, basically, we’re getting a five-star, all-inclusive resort on a private island in Belize for the same price as a three-star hotel in a busy resort town like Cancun.

Beyond paper and travel, they also routinely feature discounts on photobooths, desserts, jewelry, and even occasionally get a great deal from a national retailer like Amazon.com.

2.  Airline Credit Cards and Airline Miles, Generally

I’ll preface this by saying a) this will probably only work if you have pretty good credit to start with and b) this totally isn’t worth it if you’re the type of person that routinely leaves a balance on their card.

However, if you have decent-to-good credit and usually pay off your balance from month-to-month, then playing the credit card game can really pay off.

We LOVE our Rapid Rewards Visa card.  It’s my go-to card, and I’ve managed to earn five free flights so far this year, PLUS earn a free companion pass for Carl for all of 2013.

Unfortunately, Southwest doesn’t fly to Belize. But, both American and United do, and wouldn’t you know, both offer a miles card that has a $0 annual fee for the first year and comes with a good deal of travel miles just for spending a certain amount in the first few months of having the card.

The American Airlines Citi card gives you 30k miles for spending $1k in the first 3 months of getting the card.  If you make it your go-to card for that time period, this shouldn’t be hard.  And guess how much two flights from Miami to Belize cost in AA miles?  30k.  By ordering this card, spending $1k (and not carrying a balance) then cancelling the card after my trip, I’m essentially getting about $600 worth of flights for free.

The United Airlines Chase card gives you 20k miles for signing up and making your first purchase, then 5k more if you sign up an “additional authorized user”.  Flights back from Belize to Austin (via Houston) cost 17.5k miles per person.  So, we’re about 5k miles short–but this is where “airline miles, generally” come into play.

Pretty much all airline reward programs have dining or shopping programs.  (Some also have partner programs with market research companies, meaning you can take online surveys to earn miles without spending any money at all.)  The dining programs tend to work by you forking over your credit card info, and them being able to “track” when you dine at their participating restaurants.  The shopping programs mean that instead of going directly to whatever site you need to buy something from (for example, target.com) you first click through the airline’s shopping portal to get to the website.  In both cases, you can usually earn between 3-5 miles per dollar you spend.

However, you can find even better deals for certain vendors.  For example, on United, you can sign up for the American Cellars Wine Club, and get six wines shipped to you for $42. Carl and I drink a lot of wine anyways, so for us, this expenditure is not really anything out of the ordinary–if we didn’t buy these bottles here, we’d probably buy them at the grocery store later (and maybe even for more money.)  But doing it this way earns us 2,500 miles.  If we order a second shipment (for about $12 a bottle–again, fairly standard or even below-average for a bottle of wine) then we get an additional 4,000 miles.  And boom–we now have enough miles for our return flight, basically for free (assuming we would have bought that amount of wine for ourselves anyways, and that we cancel the card within one year.)

If, like me, you also travel fairly frequently for work, you can REALLY start to have these loyalty programs pay off for you. Always enroll in the loyalty programs, and try to stick with the same chains that make the most sense for you.

Through gaming the airline credit cards and general travel reward programs, we’re getting our night-of-the-wedding suite at the W for free (Starwood points), our flight to Miami free (Jetblue points), our hotel room in Miami free (Hhonors points), and both our flights to/from Belize for free.  Net savings: around $3,000.

3.  Always search for online coupon codes

If I’m buying something online, I always–ALWAYS–search for online coupon codes on sites like Retailmenot and CouponCabin.  You can usually find at least free shipping, and about 3/4 of the time you can find at least some percentage off some of your cart.

For example, when the rental place we went to wanted $12 a piece for burlap table runners, I looked online.  I found a 40% off any one item and free shipping coupon for Joann’s Fabric using one of the above sites, and whatdyaknow, they were having a sale on burlap.  I got the amount of fabric I needed for about $30, including shipping.  Meaning I saved around $150 by buying the supplies online, then spending and afternoon with my maid of honor, making them.

But wait!  It get’s better (infomercial voice)!  Because I clicked through the Southwest Rewards shopping website to get to the Joann site, I also got 4 points/dollar and so I also managed to 120 airline miles–not a lot, but every bit adds up.

And don’t ever assume that a store is too small or “not the type to give coupons”. If you’re dealing with a small local store and can’t find any coupons on the big sites, try just visiting the store’s Facebook or Twitter accounts.  You’d be surprised at how many times this works.

4.  Ask for a custom package

This goes two ways: if someone offers you a package, work to make it custom to get rid of what you don’t need and reduce the price.  Alternately, if you’re buying more than just one thing/service from someone, ask for a package discount.

We’re renting shuttle buses for our weddings since our wedding is slightly out of town and, let’s face it, most of our friends are drunks.  So since we’ll need two shuttle buses, and our getaway car, and a limo shuttle for myself and my bridesmaids early in the day, I asked for a custom package.  Voila! 10% off everything.

In either case, it never hurts to ask.

5.  Invite less people.

This one’s pretty straightforward.  Less people = less cost.  Our rule was that if we didn’t have someone’s phone number in our phone and/or we hadn’t seen them in at least a year, they probably weren’t getting an invite.  We ended up inviting 150ish, and think we’ll probably get 130 final count.  It actually makes you less upset when people tell you they can’t make it, because each time someone declines, you can just think of the cost falling off of your budget sheet–woohoo!

So that’s it, my five top tips for saving money on your wedding (though most of them can be applied to every day living as well.)  Hope they’re helpful!

The Money Pinch, part 1

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Well, everyone said it would happen.  That as the wedding got closer, we’d start feeling the pinch of all that money we’re spending.  And boy do we.

I think this happens because no matter how many times the magazines tell you to set–and keep–a budget, once you’ve already spent so much money it’s really easy to say “what’s $500 extra dollars, after all the rest?” and so on.

But now that everything is planned, booked, and contracted the numbers are certainly staring me in the face.  I think the hardest part is that so much of it is due all at once, starting the month before the wedding and leading up to the day itself.  If I felt like I was able to spread out some of this right now, it wouldn’t feel so alarming.

But, I did get a nice surprise today, courtesy of my cruise line.  The price per person of our cruise went down $50, so I made a call and got $100 taken off our cruise date–yay!  Now I can use it to buy Carl his $500 custom suit…*groan*.

Anyways, part 2 will be how I *am* trying to save money.