Louise and Dave's Blog


The finer points of setting goals

When we started Project Money our number one goal was to pay off our $14 K van loan.  Then we got busy tracking and cutting our spending.  We set up sub accounts for planned expenses and started to fund them every month.  We’ve been really successful funding our sub accounts to cover future expected expenses.  For example, in December and January all of our big insurance premiums are due.  This year we already have the money we need for Christmas and for the insurance payments in separate sub-accounts.  

But what about that van loan?  Our coach Sherry asked us to set a new goal.  She pointed out that we had taken a step backward.  Before PM we were paying $580-600 a month on the loan.  After refinancing the monthly payment went down to $420, and we put the extra money into our sub accounts and not the loan.  The van loan is still charging us 2.29% interest, and the money in our sub accounts is earning only about 0.13-0.15% interest.  

We went home and thought about it.  At first it felt kind of bad, like our team didn’t understand how hard it is to live with the uncertainty of cancer — that setting goals feels bad when we don’t meet the goals.  But Dave’s cancer is more stable.  And a big part of why we are doing Project Money was for us to learn that we could set goals again.  Living without the goals hadn’t made us happier.  It made us feel like we were stuck.  And when we were stuck we were much more likely to spend for short term pleasures (ie:  trips to Costco and eating at Noodles) then take the long-term view and save.

Soooooo, we have set a new plan of paying off the van loan by December 2015.  How are we going to get there?  Currently we owe $12,878.50 on the loan.

We have budgeted $420.58/month for the next 3 months = $1261.74  

At the beginning of October, we had $4231.45 in my flex spending health and dependent care accounts.  This week I submitted reimbursements for $3984.98.   We should have receipts next month that will allow us to withdraw the remainder of the account.  

We expect to get $350 in wellness reimbursements through our health insurance by the end of the year.  We should get another $150 back in early 2015.  

Everyone who participates in Project Money receives $2500.  We have decided to put $1000 towards our van loan. 

Total payments to van loan:  $1261.74 + $4231.45 + $500 + $1000 = $6993.19 

Loan balance:  $12,878.50 - $6993.19 = $5885.31

To meet our goal, we will need to pay $491 a month in 2015 to pay off the balance by December 2015.  We are pretty confident we can meet that goal.  If we get extra funds, we are committed to using the money to make extra payments against the principle.  

Takeaway for the Week

What is more important than we realized:   We have to set financial goals so we know what we are working toward.  Setting goals can be stressful.  Talk it through.  It’s okay to change goals.  We realize we need to be happy even if our progress towards our goals seems very incremental (ie:  sometimes it may seem like a drop in the bucket.  But every drop adds up.  So don’t get discouraged).  

What is easier than we thought:  If you have registered for the Summit Estate planning conference on Oct. 14th, don’t forget to attend. 


Sick in Bed

Dave caught a cold and has been resting in bed this weekend.  We had a busy week, starting with our interview with Ashley Matthews on the NBC 15 news 5 pm broadcast.  Afterward we celebrated our anniversary while Dave’s parents watched the kids.  It was a rare night out for us and much enjoyed.  I was even more delighted to come home and find that my father-in-law had repaired the light switch for our master closet. 

Dave and I are looking forward to attending the free seminar on estate planning that Summit Credit Union and Edgewood College are hosting next Tuesday, October 14th at 5:30 pm.  Attendees will receive a binder with helpful checklists and tools to organize their estate planning.  Click on the Estate planning link for more information and to RSVP for the event.

If you have kids, check out the events at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID) on the UW Madison campus.  We attended Science Saturday which is always held on the first Saturday of the month.  We usually start off with the Drawing Jam with Lynda Barry and then explore the science.  Check out the upcoming Wisconsin Science Festival  Oct 16-19 with events in Madison and across the state.  

Takeaway for the Week

What is more important than we realized:   Small but crucial home repairs are such a morale booster.  Work with friends and family to see if you can barter for help with small jobs.  We have started a sub-account for home repairs that we can use in the future for bigger jobs. 

What is easier than we thought:  If you have put off your estate planning, take the first step by registering for the Summit Estate planning conference on Oct. 14th.  You will get a road map to get started.  


Medical Expenses - Cont.

OK, we realized that people might have blown a fuse trying to read our last post on Medicare coverage.  When Dave was diagnosed with cancer it was like a rogue wave that swamped our boat. Tests, and more tests, a trip to Pennsylvania to see a specialist, and medicine-- even with good insurance it has been expensive.   Here is some advice for handling these costs:

  • Read your health insurance policy.  It will function like a road map during medical treatments, giving you information about what the insurance company will cover and what your co-pays and deductibles will be.
  • Read and save your medical bills
  • Call your insurance company about charges you don't understand, before you pay them
  • Use sub accounts to save for medical expenses
  • If you're getting overwhelmed, get help!  Financial counselors can help you figure out your monthly and incidental expenses.  You may be able to refinance high interest debt with lower interest loans.  

One more thing, if your clinic or hospital gives you an "ABN" (aka Advance Beneficiary Notice) please watch your step. By signing it, you are saying "I understand that Medicare may not cover this procedure, and I am willing to pay full price for it." The non-profit Medicare Right Center has good advice for dealing with this and other Medicare challenges.

Takeaway for the Week

What is more important than we realized: Handling finances during a health crisis can be scary and complicated. Get help! Even an observant friend can help ask the right questions-- "Why do they need to sign that?"

What is easier than we thought: Help is closer than you think. Gilda's ClubCenter for Patient Partnerships, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society are some of the community resources helping people everyday.


What is an ABN? And, how can it affect your Wallet?

The proper name for an ABN is Advance Beneficiary Notice of Noncoverage and it is a important health care document to understand. It is a Medicare document that has no bearing on non-Medicare services or Medicare Advantage private plans. But, to anyone on Original Medicare, or helping a parent or friend on Original Medicare, it is a big deal.

By signing it, you are saying "I understand that Medicare may not cover this procedure, and I am willing to pay full price for it." Obviously, both of these clauses can affect your pocket book. If the clinic or hospital says Medicare will probably not pay for this procedure, the key question is why not? The CMS.gov site lists criteria like:

  • Medicare does not pay for this procedure or test for your condition.
  • Medicare does not pay for this test as often as this (denied as too frequent).
  • Medicare does not pay for experimental or research use tests.

For the ABN to be legal, it has to apply to a specific procedure or set of procedures. And, each procedure must have the reason for non-coverage. And, each procedure must have a reasonable estimate of the cost.

Often it is delivered as a precursor to an appointment by the administrative staff who can't answer medical questions about the procedure or alternatives. Or, the form doesn't include a cost estimate. So, what can you do?

First, you need to be sure to select Option 1 to the form-- this is the "bill Medicare anyway option." Then, if Medicare refuses to pay, you can appeal. Since, overall, Medicare appeals are 70% successful, this is not a fool's quest. The non-profit Medicare Right Center is a good source for information. They note that signing an ABN does not limit your right to appeal. In fact, if the ABN was handled incorrectly or deceptively, your appeal will be much more likely to succeed.

Takeaway for the Week

What is more important than we realized: Handling finances during a health crisis can be scary and complicated. Get help! Even an observant friend can help ask the right questions-- "Why do they need to sign that?"


State of the Estate

Dave’s cancer diagnosis forced us to do the things that as a couple we should have done from the start - talk about estate planning.  We finally made a will and worked with an estate lawyer on a living trust. 

As hard as it is to plan for dying, everything we take care of ahead of time will make life easier for those we leave behind.  My Dad would joke that he would, “come back to haunt us if we paid more than we had to for his funeral.”  It became a small bright spot as we shopped for a vault for his burial; we chuckled as we intentionally bought the cheapest one knowing it would have made him happy.  These small conversations loved ones have about dying become remarkable gifts once they are gone.  It’s as if they are sharing the experience and still with us.   These conversations give us permission to keep living, and to make new lives for ourselves.  

Dying can be a messy and exhausting process.  It is not the time you want to be figuring this stuff out.  So I encourage everyone reading this blog to take a big breath and start talking about this stuff with your loved ones:

  • how and where we want to die
  • who will make medical and financial decisions for us if we become incapacitated
  • want kind of burial or memorial arrangements we’d like
  • how our personal belongings and financial assets should be handled

If you already have a plan, take it out and review all the pieces.  Think of it as taking your car to the mechanic for an oil change.  The last thing you want to do is strand your loved ones in a financial blizzard after your death.

Summit Credit Union and Edgewood College are hosting an upcoming free seminar on estate planning.  The seminar is Tuesday, October 14th at 5:30 pm.  Attendees will receive a binder with helpful checklists and tools to organize their estate planning.  It’s going to be a great seminar.  Dave and I are looking forward to attending it.  Click on the Estate planning link for more information and to RSVP for the event.  

Takeaway for the Week

What is more important than we realized:   We still have to go through all of our accounts and make sure our beneficiary status has been updated.  This is a crucial step we need to push through — the best made estate plans fall apart if the accounts are titled incorrectly or the beneficiary status is not up-to-date (to accommodate births, divorces, adoptions, etc…).


What is easier than we thought:  If you can’t get started on estate planning on your own, come to the upcoming seminar by Summit Credit Union.  They will give you a road map to get started.  


P.S.  Dave is doing great by the way.  His cancer appears to be very stable off his chemo.  As I wrote this he started to talk about how his assets would go to the trust after his death, and I got all offended because who’s to say he’ll die first.  And that’s the point — the best time to do this stuff is when everyone is feeling good.





The Reality of Dreams

We have been talking a lot about dreams lately. In part, because our family lost sight of our dreams. Cancer can make looking into the future a scary thing. But two things have happened-- my health has stabilized, and our family started Project Money. Now the future just looks complicated, not scary.

Louise and I have been talking to each other and the kids about what our family dreams should be. Ellie summed it up saying, "if you don’t have dreams, you don't have anything, because you don't know what to do with your life." So, we've settled on our major dream — traveling to Hawaii to visit family and friends.

Our homework from our coach Sherry was to price out a ten-day Hawaii trip. The airfare from Madison to Honolulu is about $955 for each ticket. Round trip airfare to Hilo on the big island (volcanoes!) is $190 each. We can stay with friends and family there, so we think we can get by with about $1000 for groceries and incidentals. When the tickets are multiplied by five and everything is added, the total is $6725.

We have $500 already saved in our “dreams” sub-account. We’ll add $1000 from the $2500 we earn by participating in Project Money. This means we have $5225 to go. Our current budget allows $95 per month for our dream account, so that means it will take another 55 months or 4½ years. We may be able to cut that time by using reward points on our Summit credit card to pay for some of the airfare costs.

We have a dream, and it will be a reality in 4½ years. That feels awesome. Plus every $95 dollars will get us there one month sooner. When we get extra money, or pay off our car loan, this dream will get closer and closer. That feels even more awesome. And, when we get there, the kids will know how we did it. They can make their dreams a reality, too. That feels the most awesome.

Takeaway for the week

What is more important than we realized: This dream trip is more than we can afford now, but it's not more than we can budget and plan for in the future.

What is easier than we thought: Family consensus — none of us has ever been to Hawaii but it is the clear choice for everyone in the family. Having a family meeting to discuss goals, do research on prices and add up the numbers is a great way to get everyone involved.


Budgeting at Woodman’s at 10 pm

One of the things Dave and I are struggling with is tracking our spending.  We’ve really cut back — we aren’t buying much besides gas and groceries — but keeping track of our spending together is still hard for us.    

The other night I did the self check-out lane at Woodman’s at 10 pm.  I paid with cash so I knew I was within my budget.  I thought about getting my phone out to enter the purchase into my budgeting app.  It would have taken less than 2 minutes.  But I didn’t.  And I still haven’t.  I just stuffed the receipt in my wallet.  Sigh.  Taking care of your budget is probably a little like taking care of the mail.  Doing a little everyday can help keep it from building up into a big pile.  

Dave has needed to link his budgeting app with my dropbox account so we can share budget updates.  Dropbox is a service that allows you to store and share information on the web.  My drop box account and budgeting app were free, but I did pay a fee for the initial budgeting software program on my laptop.  

I have started using a free grocery shopping app called “Out of Milk.”  It allows me to track the cost of pantry items at different stores and create shopping lists.  It has a bar code reader to scan products (The scans worked 2 out of the 3 times I tried to use it in the store).  The nicest feature about the bar code reader was that it included product size.  Unfortunately, the scanner doesn’t load prices — prices needs to be manually entered.  It’s not a perfect app, but for me it’s better that the price database I had started on my laptop — chiefly because the app is available to me on my phone, so I always have it with me in the store.  

Coping with the Cost of Care

Gilda’s Club in Madison is hosting a lecture on Thursday, September 18, from 6-7:30 pm on “Frankly Speaking About Cancer: Coping with the Cost of Care.”  The goal of the lecture is to discuss resources available to people in treatment for cancer.  It will address issues of employment, insurance, and incurring debt after a cancer diagnosis.  

The lecture is free and open to the public.  Gilda’s is a cancer support community, open to all ages and people affected by all types of cancer.  Community donations and fund raisers keep the events at Gilda’s free.  Call Gilda’s Club if you have any questions about the event.  

Takeaway for the Week

What is more important than we realized:  Budget and track your spending as you go.  Enter receipts at the point of sale.  Or as soon thereafter as you can.   If you have a partner, find a method of tracking spending that you can both use easily.

What is easier than we thought:  Dave reached out to his parents, and they are watching the kids for some extra after-school hours this fall.  We are going to save about $1500 on childcare costs this fall.  We are incredibly fortunate to have such amazing grandparents in the area.  Also, commuting to work by bus has been much easier than I thought it would be.  


Projects and Gifts

Louise has been prepping the living room to paint. We haven’t spent anything on the project recently — we got the supplies two years ago but never found time to paint. Buying a good paint brush and cleaning it thoroughly after each job has saved us from needing to buy replacement brushes. Doing little or big projects around the house has a cheery effect — everyone seems to appreciate the fresh changes. And it feels nice to get something done.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by your undone house projects, or by your finances, Louise recommends the Martha Beck column on the ophrah.com site. Here are links to two articles that might inspire you to tackle part of your money/house/life problems: How to Overcome Fear and Break Free from Old Routines; and Martha Beck's Advice on How to Keep from Being Overwhelmed.

School shopping: We’ve spent $15 by watching for sales and using the pencils and composition books left over from last year’s Costco shopping trip. The kids are fine for shoes and clothes so we haven’t had any big expenditures.

Dave had the biggest job this week: buying presents for the cousins on a $60 budget. It took about 3 hours and 3 stores-- the Dollar Store, Barnes and Noble (discount area in back), and then Target. The kids were happy with the gifts. He skipped wrapping paper/gifts bags so he would have more to spend on the presents.

We had a great weekend with our family-- swimming, talking and play games.

Takeaway for the Week

What is more important than we realized: When buying gifts everyone wants three things: give nice gifts, not spend much money, and not spend much time. But, usually you only get to pick two. Dave chose nice gifts and spent within our budget, but it wasn't quick. Being in a rush, usually costs you.

What is easier than we thought: setting a budget before you go gift shopping makes it easier to chose what to buy and where to shop.


Budgeting — Putting money into our dreams and some nuts and bolts

Our coach Sherry gave us some homework in July.  We had talked about funding our dreams (a trip to Hawaii and remodeling a bathroom), but we still hadn’t put any money behind it.  That changed last week as I was fine tuning our sub accounts at Summit.  I realized that we had $500 in a general savings account that didn’t have a job.  It was very satisfying to change the name on the sub account to “DREAMS.”  

The next step will be figuring out how much money we can transfer to the DREAMS account on a monthly basis.  Our monthly budget continues to have some loosey gooseyness on the order of $500-1000 that we haven’t nailed down.  Part of the uncertainty is that we are saving money in sub accounts but not spending it (which is exactly the point of having a sub account).  So, we should probably leave the money there for when it will be needed.  Or should we steal that money to make a bigger car payment?  Or get a jump on saving for our dreams?  I think it will take the next 4 months or even a whole year to get a handle on some of this. 

Our homework also included fine tuning our sub accounts so they matched our savings goals.  We got rid of some sub accounts that were more work than they’re worth — this was the case with our groceries sub account.  At the beginning of the month we’d put in $480.  Then every week we’d transfer $120 back to checking to replace our equivalent cash withdrawal.  We didn’t need this extra step to stay on budget, and it felt silly.  So we renamed it.

Now we have separate sub accounts for:

  • Insurance premiums
  • Gifts
  • Vacations
  • Charitable giving
  • Personal expenses (like haircuts, clothing, and eye glasses)
  • Co-pays for medical and dental care
  • Utilities (to save for winter heating bills)
  • The tax accountant
  • And something called “auto bus park.”.  The auto bus park account is a place to stash money for gas, car repairs, parking and bus pass fees. 

What isn’t in a sub account? 

  • Regular expenses/monthly bills that we pay every month.

We use our checking accounts to pay our recurring monthly bills — Charter, MG&E, Madison Water, preschool, tutoring, and WPR.  We withdraw cash from our checking account to pay for babysitting and groceries.  This requires good communication and accurate math between Dave and I.  We have a nightly talk after the kids go to bed to check in and plan the next day.

Speaking of Dave, he has been off his chemo for a month or so and seems to be doing well.  His kidneys are happier, and he doesn’t miss the side effects of chemo.  Hopefully he will stay well as cold and flu season start in the fall.  

Takeaway for the Week

What is more important than we realized:   One of the kids handed me $3 back when I paid her allowance and said, “I’m always going to save a little.”  Two days later she found one of her many little sacks of money, and she again counted out $3 and asked me to put it in her savings.  I felt like Summit had just handed me the biggest prize of Project Money — lifelong savings habits.  I know we might sound like a broken record about this, but talking to kids about money can bring about transformative changes. 

What is easier than we thought:  spending money at the boy scout bingo tent at the Orton Park Festival.   I spent about $8.  We did win $20 in pizza, a jet engine model kit, and other “major awards.”  We had a blast and spent our festival money there rather than the ice cream tent.  Next year, I will be smarter about it and put all of our bingo money on the table at the beginning.  When the money is gone, it will be time to leave the tent.


Share, Solder, and Save

I love Madison's recycle culture. So many things get exchanged in this city by putting them on the curb. This weekend we carried two wooden benches home that a neighbor put on the boulevard. Both are work benches, well built overall but one had a wobbly end. Louise has a vision to use them for the kids play area.

With Louise sanding, and our neighbor Tim clamping and gluing, they are starting to look quite usable. Of course this saves us money on furnishing the kids' play area, but there is more. We got to chat with Tim and others while working; two other neighbors volunteered to donate spare paint; and the neighbor who put the unneeded benches out saves space and disposal effort. And, they're not costing the tax-payer money by filling the landfill. All from two wood benches on the curb. If you shop the curb, be careful not to take home bed bugs (Read more about bedbugs from the UW Dept of Entomology)

My particular specialties are toys, electronics, and computers. Today I used my soldering gun to fix the broken wiring in Celine's new toy mixer. A couple weeks after she got it on her birthday, a tragic toy accident left it broken, leaving her very sad. It was a nice mixer. As is the custom in our house, broken toys land in my book room (during peak toy-breaking-season it can look like the island of misfit toys.) Today, with Celine's help, we fixed the broken motor and reassembled with mixer. She was gushing with excitement showing Mom her restored mixer.


In May, our family gave Louise money to buy a new stand mixer because her Kitchen-Aid was broken. But she decided to try fixing the old one first, so she did a google search and found Kiefer Appliance. They have a very nice on-line service request form to get more information. They replied within a day. So Louise took the mixer in and 15 minutes later it was fixed. The repair was so minor he didn’t charge anything. This is an awesome small business to support — friendly, helpful, incredibly competent, good web/email communication. Now Louise's mixer works better now than it did when she first got it, and it saved us a lot of money. We will definitely take our appliances there in the future.

In school our kids learned the three R's-- reduce, reuse, recycle. In my world, it could also be the three S's-- share, solder, and save

Takeaway for the Week

What is more important than we realized: Small appliances can be repaired, and neighbors or local businesses can often do the work. We exchanged strawberry shortcake for a lovely carpentry tune-up on our "new" bench.

What is easier than we thought: Kids love to help. Celine's mixer was broken for over a week because I didn't have time to fix it. But as soon as I teamed up with her, it wasn't just another thing to do-- it was a way to have fun together.

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