Pictured above: Stacy (right) and her sister Cheryl in 2009.
I may write a lot about personal finance, but it wasn’t until about eight years ago that I made my first wise, budget-driven decision ever—which also turned out to be the biggest regret of my life.
In 2008, my sister Cheryl asked me to go with her to Buenos Aires, and I said no. My credit cards were maxed out and I had no savings, besides a little in my retirement accounts, which I knew not to tap for travel. Instead, I promised we’d go on vacation together another time.
A little over a year later, my sister died at age 35. My promise (and heart) broke. I will carry this regret as long as I will love her: forever.
And that is why I save. For the last five years, I’ve been socking away money into what I call my “no-regrets fund,” which is earmarked for travel and any other fun stuff my loved ones might want to do. I never want finances to be the reason I have to say no again.
Here’s what I’m doing to make that a reality.
You can’t know where to trim your spending and how much you can save if you don’t know where your money is going. Since I started budgeting, my finances have fluctuated, but having a plan in place has provided a great starting point and made it easier to figure out how my no-regrets fund fits into my overall goals.
Right now, I’m putting about 20 percent of my income toward a variety of savings priorities in addition to the no-regrets fund, including my emergency account, retirement, and my kids’ college fund.
Happily, my retirement and kids’ college savings are on track; less happily, I’ve recently drawn down my emergency account and zeroed out my no-regrets fund (more on that in a bit). So I’m currently rebuilding my emergency fund to three months’ worth of expenses, at which point I’ll resume divvying up my dollars more evently.
My biggest expenses are the same as a lot of people with kids: housing and child care. To minimize both and save more, I’ve made some compromises.
When my husband and I bought our first house, we would have loved to stay closer to the main hubs of D.C. But instead we focused our search outside the beltway, where prices were much lower. Ultimately, we found a home that demanded just about 20 percent of our household income—an amazing feat (if I do say so myself) in a metro area where plenty of people spend more than half their pay on rent. Having the extra breathing room in our budget let us continue to live comfortably and save at the same time.
As for child care, when our daughter was first born, we (okay, I) got sucked into the highly competitive sport of child rearing. We enrolled her in a variety of classes and activities, and hired a part-time nanny, who I insisted teach her Tagalog (the national language of the Philippines, which is where my parents are from). At 2 years old, we sent her to the best Montessori school in the area even though it cost more than other options.
Then we had a second baby. He went to far fewer activities and did not have a nanny. For a few months, he went to a great daycare that came with a reasonable price—until my dad retired, and my parents offered to watch him for free. They even teach him Tagalog. And guess what? They’re both amazing children.
When we moved to New Jersey last fall, we found a new school for our daughter that costs less than half her old tuition. It doesn’t have a name-brand philosophy, but her teachers are attentive and caring, and she’s learning, active and happy. That’s really all we need.
The extra cash goes straight into savings each month—split evenly between my emergency and no-regrets funds.
As they say, the best way to save more is to make more—and fortunately, my income has grown substantially since my entry-level-salary days of 2008. With the Great Recession in full swing, it wasn’t a steady march up the pay scale. But I worked hard, jumped at new opportunities and asked for raises when I felt I’d earned them.
Whenever possible or necessary, I’ve also picked up extra money on the side, periodically selling old CDs, videos, DVDs, books and clothes. I babysat. But mostly, I freelanced. Lucky for me, I love to write. Before I had kids, I never minded doing extra assignments for more dough after putting in eight hours at my day job. Today, freelancing is my main gig, and I still take on as much work as possible to maximize my income—which has more than doubled in the last eight years.
I used to have a serious shopping problem. I’d frequently buy nice clothes and shoes that I’d rarely wear, music and movies I’d never heard or seen before and even furniture that didn’t really fit in my apartment.
But now I resist all that (still-tempting) stuff by reminding myself that things aren’t more important than adding to my no-regrets fund. When I do feel the need to go fancy, like for a big holiday party, I rent the dress. I satisfy my love of movies and music with affordable streaming subscriptions. And through many moves, I’ve kept the same furniture I bought all those years ago.
Changing my spending habits in these ways has saved me from continuously maxed-out credit cards and the monstrous interest payments they used to accrue. Instead, I’m able to save for the things that matter—without feeling like I’m depriving myself at all.
In fact, this summer, my family—including my parents and my eldest sister and her family—and I are going on a nice, tropical vacation for the first time ever. It’s not a cheap trip, and it’s the first time I’ve completely drained my no-regrets fund. But, hey, that’s what it’s for—so I can afford to say yes.