Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Basing life on what you can afford.

Short profiles like this can never tell the whole story, but I thought it was an interesting read to see how regular people around the country make trade-offs around what they earn and what they spend.

Basing life on what you can afford (New York Times)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Savings and Retirement 2016

Even though our spending went way up in 2016, our income did, too, and our overall cash net worth increased by $47,000 or 32%.

Where did those gains come from? The vast majority of it was in our retirement accounts.

We contributed just under $17,000 to our accounts (includes pre-tax and Roth IRAs) and our employers matched almost $4,000. And we had nearly $25,000 in market gains. So more than half of our growth happened because of retirement savings that we did prior to 2016. That's pretty cool!

Next year, we are set up to max out my 403(b) as well as our Roth and an HSA (total savings of around $35,000). We've never attempted to match a pre-tax account before so we'll see how that goes. I'm a bit nervous to see how much of a bite it takes out of my paycheck but we've run the numbers and it looks like we should be fine. And it will be very exciting to see the numbers grow! I just hope that it's another good year for the market.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Women's Money Week: Identity Theft #wmweek17

There are two kinds of identity theft: one is true identity theft, where a person has your information (birth date, social security number) and is actually masquerading as you, opening new accounts, using your social security number to file taxes and get a refund, or otherwise actually stealing your identity. Usually this is done by someone close to you (sorry) or when you fall for a phishing scam and provide your identifying details by phone or email to someone you don't know.

The other kind is where your banking or credit card information is compromised and the thief has enough information to make purchases using your information but isn't trying to, say, get a mortgage in your name and then skip out on the payments. These thefts often happen en mass (hello, Target, Sony, and many other major business data breaches) and the information gets shopped around the black market. It feels personal if you're out the money but it really isn't.

The steps to prevent each type of identity theft vary, but the underlying principles are the same.

1. Protect your information. Don't give out information unless truly necessary. I decline to share my email address or phone number when asked by cashiers (if I want coupons, I have an email address that I use for that purpose). Definitely never give out information unsolicited - if your credit card company, bank, or the IRS calls you and asks you for a bunch of information they should already have, hang up and call them back at the number that's publicly listed for them (NOT one that they give you) and see if it's a legitimate call. Don't leave statements lying around your house for people in your life to see. Use tough security questions that people who know you wouldn't be able to guess.

2. Practice good security hygiene. Your bank account and your email account should have different passwords. Full stop. Actually, you should not repeat passwords across any accounts that are likely to be linked. We've started auto-generating all of our passwords for additional security and storing them in a password-protected and encrypted password storage system (we use KeePass; others are OnePassword and Last Pass). One good tip for creating hard-to-crack passwords is to think of a sentence like "That's no moon" as a trigger and then use that to come up with a shortened secure word like "Th4t5n0Mo0N!". Hard to crack, easy to remember. Also, enable 2-factor authentication on any account for which it's available - this is where you get an email, text, or phone call with a code when logging in from a new device. It's available on most of the types of accounts that are likely to get hacked (email, Facebook, Twitter) and you can register each device you regularly use so you don't have to do it every time you log in - but someone without access to your phone won't be able to log in to your account.

3. Use a credit card instead of a debit card for purchases. Two reasons: one, debit cards take money immediately out of your bank account, so if someone goes on a shopping spree with your card, you are out that money straightaway, probably before you even notice. And two, a federal law in the US called the Fair Credit Billing Act means that your liability for credit card fraud is limited to $50 (which in my experience the credit card companies usually waive). With a debit card, depending on how soon you discover and report the card missing or stolen, there is no limit to your liability, meaning if you wait 60 days to figure out something is wrong, that money is gone. Use a credit card for purchases whenever possible to get that protection. Assume that your card number will be compromised at some point, whether by a skeevy waiter or a mass data breach at a big box retailer, and protect yourself accordingly. (Pay the full balance of the card monthly to avoid carrying debt - you can treat a credit card like a debit card in that if you don't have the money to pay the bill, you don't buy the thing.)

4. Keep an eye on your credit report. Pretty much the only way to find out about new and unauthorized accounts is to take a regular look at your credit report and make sure everything you see there is accurate. You can get your report for free once a year from each of the reporting bureaus through AnnualCreditReport.com. I pull from one of the bureaus every four months, so I can stay on top of things.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Where It Went 2016



2016 2015 % change
blog $26.75 $40.50 -34%
business $67.38 $46.68 44%
car jeep $151.40 $669.95 -77%
car mazda $962.47 $1,882.43 -49%
Car Toyota $6,966.71 $6,866.73 1%
cat $0.00 $169.26 -100%
cell phones $1,727.49 $1,529.95 13%
charity $392.63 $454.18 -14%
clothing $2,875.17 $1,183.10 143%
Daycare $23,432.95 n/a 234329400%
dental $790.33 $2,814.55 -72%
electric $1,090.66 $1,178.40 -7%
electronics $2,419.67 $17.23 13943%
Entertainment $2,179.78 $989.82 120%
food  groceries $6,707.67 $5,234.81 28%
food  other $3,606.54 $3,178.88 13%
gardening $201.63 $175.76 15%
gas $673.66 $727.39 -7%
Gifts $764.97 $1,185.30 -35%
helicopter/robot $109.75 n/a 1097400%
house $17,458.10 $19,199.83 -9%
household $2,671.79 $2,206.51 21%
hygiene $94.22 $380.43 -75%
insurance $892.48 $1,224.96 -27%
internet $806.80 $803.13 0%
medical $3,680.87 $4,407.81 -16%
sewing/quilting $0.00 $52.48 -100%
school $900.00 $270.00 233%
transportation $102.69 $140.00 -27%
travel $1,359.76 $1,167.03 17%
water & trash $897.84 $919.73 -2%
Total $86,028.16 $59,116.83 46%

Notes: YOWZA. A 46% increase in spending in one year?! A difference of almost $27,000?!?!

Well, it's not really all that surprising when you consider that $23,432 of it was childcare expenses (six weeks in daycare + seven months of full time nanny) which we had never had before. That leaves a $3,479 lifestyle inflation that we experienced after doubling our income in 2016. Half of which I spent on work-appropriate clothing after three years as a stay-at-home mom. 

We actually decreased our spending in some key areas: house (only one major appliance replacement in 2016!) and cars (sold one car, no repairs on one of the remaining ones).  Our entertainment and electronics spending went way up. We got some home automation stuff and two new cell phones but the biggest chunk of that was a very nice camera that we bought used from a friend, which should last us for years. Our entertainment budget was mostly stuff for the kids (a museum membership, indoor playgrounds) and I also got a membership at Massage Envy. We can bring both of those categories down for next year but I think it was also kind of a fluke so I'm not too worried about it. 

We've been able to max out our Roth IRAs again this year, we starting contributing to an HSA (instead of just cycling money through it as we had medical expenses), and we were able to save a bit as well. Overall, I'm very happy with how this year went. 

Previous Years: 2010201120122013, 2014, 2015

Monday, January 2, 2017

Women's Money Week: Goals #wmweek17

I used to do monthly financial goals as well as New Year's Resolutions. I used to have savings targets and sinking funds and ways to help me measure and track my goals.

I've moved away from that in recent years, in large part. Partly it's that we are much more financially comfortable so I don't "need" to meet those goals in order to survive. Partly it's that we got busy with kids and so I pay less attention to my daily spending than I used to. And partly it's that our goals are boring now: retirement and college funds. It was more interesting to be saving for a house downpayment or a sunny beach vacation than it is to set my 403(b) contribution and forget it. I can review the allocations once a year but there's just not as much incentive to fully participate, and in fact, paying too much attention to the market makes me anxious and makes some people make shortsighted decisions like pulling out after a big loss and missing out on the rebound gains (I've never done that, but when the market was crashing in 2008, I really wanted to. I'm glad I didn't!).

Still, when I actually stop to think about it, the kind of retirement savings we are doing right now IS very exciting. We are past the point where we need to save for retirement (meaning, if we stopped contributing right now, we could retire on time with enough to live out our expected lifespans at a reasonable standard of living). But that means that everything extra that we save for retirement either moves our retirement date up sooner, or improves the standard of living in retirement (hello, permanent cruise life!), or creates wealth for us to pass along to our kids. Shouldn't that be more exciting than saving for one measly vacation?!?!

I hope so. We are taking steps to feel a financial pinch thanks to retirement savings in 2017. We're maxing out my 403(b) and HSA contributions (~$18,000 and $6,750 respectively) and are still going to try to max out our Roth 401(k)s as well ($5,500 each, so another $11,000). That's a total of $35,750 into retirement savings*, which is about a third of my income. We also have our regular lives to pay for and want to build up our liquid emergency funds as well. It might feel kind of tight, which is good - I think feeling that pinch is what helps me stay focused on meeting our goals.

As for college savings, right now all monetary gifts that the kids get go into 529 accounts but we're not funding them out of our own pockets. There are no loans for retirement the way there are for college! And we have lots of options right now for what our financial assistance might look like (maybe we cash-flow those payments, maybe we pull out Roth contributions, maybe they get scholarships). Once we have a sense of our maxing out retirement feels, we add a college savings goal.

How have your financial goals changed? What are your goals for 2017?


* Technically, an HSA is not a retirement account. But it is the only account that is triple-tax-advantaged (pre-tax contributions, growth is tax-free and distributions for medical expenses are tax free). If you can cash-flow your medical expenses now (when you have income) and keep the savings until retirement (when you have no more income, and medical expenses tend to rise), you can bask in that tax-free goodness.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Women's Money Week: Financial Organization #wmweek17

I've had a financial organization system for longer than I've had this blog. It went through a number of changes while I was single, and then a big change when Peanut and I merged our finances, and every year we tweak it a little and make it a bit better. Here are the components:

1. A tracking system. I've used everything from a piece of paper in a notebook to our current Excel spreadsheet that uses a pivot table to calculate our monthly spending by category. For me, tracking spending is the most important component of a budget or financial organization system. If you don't know where your money is going, you can't tell it what to do. We don't have a budget but we do track every dollar we spend, and it helps us meet our goals.

2. A filing system (or two or three). We have one small filing cabinet for paper stuff, but mostly I use email as my filing system. I set up filters in gmail so that all my financial documents go to one folder, and I set up electronic delivery for every bill, statement, and financial paperwork that I can. Email is keyword-searchable, so it's a lot easier to find something there than wonder, did I file it under C for Car or T for Toyota or I for Insurance? We also have a lot of things filed away in an offsite backup program, like digital copies of tax returns and other important financial paperwork. Some stuff just has to be paper though, so we do manage

3. A goal. It's hard for me to stay excited about money when we don't have a goal. It's easy for me to cut back on my spending or save when it's for a downpayment on a house or killing a student loan bill. It's much harder for me to save whatever's leftover at the end of the month without a "reward" in sight. (This is why I try to max out pre-tax savings first!)

And one warning: a financial organization system should not be overbuilt. I tend to overbuild my tracker in a mean way. For a while I was juggling multiple checking and savings accounts due to freelance work, as well as multiple trackers and it's just so complicated. It doesn't need to be that complicated. I recommend the fewest number of accounts that you can get away with (including retirement - keep rolling those babies into an IRA!) and the simplest method of recording your spending. It makes it easier to use and therefore more likely to be used.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

BANG!

We recently were in a minor car accident. The kids were in the car but we are all fine. We hit some black ice approaching an intersection and slid through it into a car that was turning left in front of us, which then hit a third car. It was slow enough that there were no injuries, but it was kind of scary - I had never been in that kind of an accident before, and while that part of me was quietly freaking out, the rest of me had to stay calm for the kids and make sure that they were okay and staying warm (it was -14 degrees out, but we couldn't leave the car running in case of exhaust leaks).

At any rate, this accident came less than a week after we paid almost $600 to have the wheels aligned and a bearing replaced after we hit a curb on a different patch of ice in the last snowstorm.

In other words, this winter has been expensive for us! It's also an anomaly, because in a combined 38 years of driving, neither of us have ever had any kind of winter driving situation requiring car repairs.

Luckily, we do have insurance which should cover the repairs and also a rental car if we need it. Our deductible is only $500 although I guess our premiums will probably go up a bit. We might raise the deductible to $1,000 if we can (I think our lender might require a lower deductible, because typically we always set higher deductibles). We may not need the rental car because we've been intentional about reducing our need for a car - Peanut walks the kids to preschool and I take the bus, so really we only need a car for visiting family in the 'burbs and grocery shopping.

As always, I'm thankful for the situation we're in that mean that something like this is unfortunate but not a disaster. It'll be an expensive month but our savings can cover it, and most important, no one was hurt. The kids are asking a lot of questions about what happened (and it might be a while before they want to watch Cars again!) but we're all okay.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

I'm practicing right now!

Are you an expert computer user? If you're reading this post, likely you are in the top 5% of computer users in the world.

 I was surprised by that article, but perhaps I shouldn't be. It's said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, and I use a computer in some form probably 90% of my waking hours and have done so for, hm, between 15-18 years? I've definitely got my practice in.

The interesting lesson to take away from this is that expert experts are the ones designing software and writing code, and they literally cannot see things from the most elementary users' point of view. They can't un-know what they know, or lose the understanding or assumptions they have about how software works.

I think actually this goes a long way towards explaining my frustration when dealing with a digital tool that is badly designed - the coders didn't even stop to think whether the end user would have different assumptions than they do.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Amazon Go (Away)

So Amazon is opening a new store where you don't have to pay for anything; you just go in, pick up what you want, and leave, and your purchases are automatically charged to your Amazon account via an app on your phone.

I think this is a terrible idea. I have documented previously why I am anti-Amazon, but I would think this was a bad idea no matter who came up with it.

First, the system relies on extensive surveillance, more than I am comfortable with experiencing in a public place. A series of cameras and microphones as well as tracking software is needed to make this experience seamless for the end user, but surveillance technology is still not perfect, and I see this system as rife for abuse. (Good information about that technology here, but be warned that video and audio autoplay when you load the page*.)

Second, all of this technology replaces real, actual jobs that could be employing human beings. And at least in the beginning, that technology is going to be more expensive than humans, so there will not be any real savings to pass along to the consumer. I expect that Amazon will operate as it has before and take a loss on products to establish itself, then take a monopolistic approach to its vendors, forcing them to operate on its terms.

Third, and most important from a personal finance point of view, is that removing the barrier of paying means removing the psychological understanding of what has transpired in the transaction. We already know that paying with a credit card causes us to buy more than when we spend cold, hard cash. What will happen when it doesn't feel like we're paying anything at all? I presume the app would allow you to see your total as you shop, but the video makes it look like you don't need  to think about what you're spending at all, and that's dangerous territory.


*Which was a good incentive for me to install a browser extension that blocks that from happening. It worked so nicely that I'll be installing one on all the browsers on all the computers that I use regularly.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Book Review: Essentialism

Essentialism is, well, an essential little book. It could be summed up as "less, but better". I liken it to The Lifechanging Magic of Tidying-Up for its inspiring but still very implementable message.

Author Greg McKeown offers insight and advice on how to change your entire mindset from scarcity and FOMO to determining what is essential for you and ruthlessly (but politely) carving out that which is not. Most of us, I think, are aware of when we are getting stretched too thin, and we can even identify the causes - bosses who pile on the work, friends and family whose feelings matter to us, an expansive desire to have it all. But we don't know how to deal with being pulled in all of these different directions in a way that allows us to keep our jobs, our relationships, and our contentment intact.

Essentialism answers those difficult questions and more. As a rallying cry, as a practical manual, as a manifesto, a call to action, and a muse, this one is highly recommended.

I got my copy from the library, but am keeping an eye out for a copy to own as well. Support your local library, indie bookseller, or brick-and-mortar bookstore!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

About those consignment sales...

When Pickle was born and people starting giving us bags and boxes of baby clothes, I just did not understand it. That stuff was WORTH SOMETHING. And they were just...giving it away! I cleaned, used, and then sold most of it at kids' consignment sales, after passing on the favorites to the other little babies in our family. I just could not wrap my mind around the fact that people would give away such great stuff with abandon.

I get it now.

Currently, I am staring at three boxes, three grocery bags, and a small pile of things too big to fit in those containers. That doesn't include the high chair and tiny potty on the kitchen floor or the two ride-on toys, the two baby strollers, the infant clamshell car seat, and the exersaucer thing in the basement. Nor yet all the rest of the toys and clothes that are scattered around my house, not being played with or worn or otherwise useful to anyone on the planet. Not only will I donate this to the next expecting parent, I come across, I would gleefully PAY someone to take it all out of my life.

That's how much kids' stuff multiplies as the kids get older and more numerous in a given household.

Last year, the consignment sales still seemed like a good use of my time but I just can't anymore. The time it takes to clean, repair, hang, catalog, price, tag, load, unload, inspect, and wait for payment on the stuff is just too much. My hourly rate at work is too high to justify taking time off to manage it, and my time not at work, I'd rather spend with my kids than trying to make money off of their used stuff.

This grates at me a little bit. I like to find efficient ways to use my time and effort, and giving away valuable stuff doesn't seem efficient (it is, of course, when compared with the frustration I experience during the course of doing all that stuff, but it's not efficient from a dollars-in perspective). I'm trying to look at it as paying forward all the generosity that was displayed towards us, which helps. I remember the delight I experienced going through a giant trash bag of adorable baby girls' clothing, and hope that someone will feel the same looking at Baby Bear's cute little newborn pajamas. I will try not to think about the $79.08 (or $1.21 hourly rate) I might have otherwise earned. And most of all, I will luxuriate in having no piles of baby crap anywhere in my vision for at least three or four hours.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Too Bad, Toys R Us

I get that the competition is fierce out there in Black Friday world. I really do; I run an e-commerce site as part of my job and make decisions about policies, promotions, and discounts on a daily basis. But one thing that I focus on both personally and professionally is customer experience, and Toys R Us just gave me a bad one.

Baby Bear's birthday is coming up, as is Christmas (in case you hadn't noticed?) so my mother-in-law and I went to Toys R Us to pick up some presents today. I checked the Toys R Us website before we headed out to make sure that the specific item I wanted was in stock there, and happily noticed that it was both in stock and on sale. I checked the website's price match policy to make sure that the online price would be honored in store, and saw that it was. We got there, picked up what I wanted as well as a cart full of other presents, and headed to the checkout.

At the register, the cashier confirmed that the store would match the listed price on their website. And he was able to do so for the first item he rang up. But the second item, the one I'd come for, he couldn't make the computer match it. So he called over a manager, who said that Toys R Us would not be price matching their own website this weekend, due to all the Black Friday sales. He said there was a sign near the front of the store that said so (which I never did see, though I looked for it when we left). I showed him the price matching policy on the Toys R Us website, which had no such disclaimer on it, but he shrugged and said there was nothing he could do.

Obviously, front-line retail employees have no ability to influence the corporate decisions that are made regarding things like this, and often no ability to force the computer to make an exception to a dumb rule that's been handed down. But come on, Toys R Us. It is not that difficult to update a page on your website when you make a major policy change like that, even when it's temporary. It's reasonable to expect that customers will look at your policy online while they are shopping in the store, rather than for a notice tacked to a random bulletin board near the door. Frankly, I think the policy change is a stupid one overall - if your P&L for a promotion only works if you force weird restrictions on it, plan a different promotion. The extra stupid thing is that if I had ordered and paid online but requested in-store pickup, the price would have been honored but the employees would have had to do even more work than if I went and got stuff off the shelves myself.

I kind of wish I'd thought of this option and bought the items through the website while I was standing at the cash register, but in the end we made a decision I feel even better about - I canceled the entire transaction and I bought the item I wanted from a different retailer. I don't do business with companies that create policies and promotions that don't have the customer experience first and foremost. The short-sighted decisions to temporarily invalidate the price matching policy AND to not appropriately notify customers of it wound up costing Toys R Us way more than the sale price of the item I was looking for - they lost today's entire sale and any future sales they might have made to me. Next time I need to buy a kids' present, guess where I won't be going?

And as a bonus to this story, when we got home and related this story to my siblings-in-law, we had a great discussion about consumerism in general and decided to scale back our overall gifting within the family. Now the little kids will get presents from Grandma and Grandpa (and Santa) but not aunts and uncles, which means that I don't even need to do any more shopping to replace the cart full of stuff that I didn't buy today. So...I won't even miss you, Toys R Us!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Black Friday Sale

We didn't go Black Friday shopping - or at least, we did go to some stores, but we didn't go in search of doorbuster deals or anything like that. We went in search of bread, milk, and grounded outlet covers - or, the kinds of things we might buy on any other day.

One Black Friday sale I DO recommend, though, is Plan to Eat's 50% off deal.

Simple Meal Planning - Plan to Eat

Plan to Eat is a meal planning and recipe collection website, which I started using last year when a friend posted a link to the 50% off Black Friday sale. I couldn't imagine paying for a service that I could do for free with Pinterest, Google Calendar and Google Keep - but she recommended it so strongly and is a frugal stay at home mom, so I figured it might be worth trying it out, especially given that the sale price winds up being only $1.62 per month. I figured I was wasting at least that much a month with failed menu planning.

And guess what - it IS worth it! Yes, you can gather recipes on Pinterest, plan meals on a Google calendar, and create a shopping list in Google Keep, all for free. But it's just not as convenient, easy, and - dare I say it - fun to use as Plan to Eat.

I put their "add to Plan to Eat" bookmark to my browser windows and voila - all those recipes I had previously been starring in my feed reader and adding to Pinterest boards suddenly wound up all in one place. I revised the standard shopping list to include those staples I prefer to have on hand. Weekly, I created a menu within Plan to Eat, which told me how often I'd made a given recipe and whose search tools quickly helped me organize recipes I'd been wanting to try. With one click, I could create a shopping list based on those recipes and the staples I currently needed. Bam! Menu planning to grocery shopping, done, in one step.

I'm not the one who does the meal planning in our house anymore, but I'm still going to renew my subscription to Plan to Eat, because I found it that helpful. I rarely pay for software tools when free ones exist to fill the same needs, but this is one that actually delivers.

(Disclosure: Links in this post are affiliate links, so if you sign up for Plan to Eat, I get a little something. However, this is not a sponsored post, and I really have been a happy Plan-to-Eater for the last year. )

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Five frugal things

1. Our dryer stopped working - it spun but had no heat. Peanut took the whole thing apart and identified a likely problem, ordered one part (even with next-day shipping, it was cheaper than buying it locally, sadly) and replaced it. That wasn't the problem, so he went on to the next small part, which he was able to get locally, and bingo! A $30 fix, and enough understanding of how our dryer works now that we might be able to keep it going forever. WAY better than a new $300 dryer!

2. We managed to be realistic about how many trick or treaters we'd have this year, and didn't overbuy candy to the extent that I have done in the past. I'll say it here for posterity: one bag is plenty. (There is a commercial district near here that does trick or treating, and maybe that's why we don't get many kids at our house - we had more than last year, but still under twenty, I'd say.)

3. I voted last week, at one of the early voting centers available in the state of Minnesota, where you don't need a reason to cast what is effectively an absentee ballot. I consider this frugal because I saved time (and time is money!). Also, if I'd had to wait in the lines today, I would have ended up eating my feelings in purchases snacks, so in a way, it saves me money too.

4. Working hard to bring my lunch every day - I usually get frozen lunches at the grocery store for about $2.50 each, or I take leftovers. Compared to $8-10 for a lunch downtown, it's not bad!

5. I control a large budget at work, and we are in budgeting season for next year. I am so thankful for the experience I have in being actively involved in managing my personal finances, because this would be a very difficult task if I didn't have that background. Pro-tip: take a personal finance class in college if you can; it actually might help you more than your general ed requirements!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Health insurance

When Peanut decided to stay home with the kids, we had to switch from his company's insurance to mine. It's been fine so far but it's really interesting to see the kinds of things we have to think about now that we didn't think about before.

Peanut's job paid for the entire premium for our health insurance. I have never seen that as a perk anywhere before, and it was awesome. It was a high deductible plan, but even so, the deductible wasn't that high (around $3,000) and the coinsurance/max out of pocket was an additional $3,000. Pretty much everything we ever threw at it was covered, and we didn't need to get referrals or anything. This is the insurance we were on when Pickle was born, and for the first couple years of her life we didn't have to pay that due to the state medical assistance she received. In all, that health insurance company paid out at least $1.5 million in claims for our family and we never had a single problem or issue with them at all.

So I was a little nervous about switching to a new health insurance company.

My job shares the premium payments with the employees, and both the deductibles and max out of pocket were higher than our old insurance. This is why at the end of the day, our take-home pay situation hasn't changed much even though my salary on paper is 14% higher than Peanut's was. On top of the increased actual cost to us, we also had to make decisions about primary care networks - one of which means we have to do a lot of legwork to get referrals documented appropriately but save $90 a month, or the other one that works more like the old plan worked where we just go to wherever we want for whatever care we need, but we pay for the privilege. If Pickle still had lots of specialists, we'd probably have to go with the latter, but we decided to take on the work ourselves of managing the paperwork and having slightly cheaper out of pocket expenses up front.

And it turns out, I'm really glad we went that route. We haven't needed and don't expect to need any referrals in the next three months, and it was just announced this week that in January my company is switching to yet another insurance company, which will have lower premiums and out of pocket expenses than we currently have. I don't know about their referral requirements yet, but I do know that we haven't spent any time to set up any primary care situations with our current insurance (at least not for Peanut or me) so we will have saved more than $300 to do nothing but take on a little risk.

Insurance was never something I thought a lot about, until we really needed a lot of it. We are so fortunate to have had such a good experience with an insurer (and a secondary state insurance) and it has drastically changed how I feel about that out of pocket amount now. I assume we'll spend it all in a year (4 out of the last 5 years, that's been true). I can start a year knowing that our max OOP is $6,000 or whatever, and just think, okay, that's about $500 a month for four people for all of the medical costs we can expect to have in a year (add in premiums and it's probably double that, but pre-tax stuff is so removed from my daily consciousness that it's like it doesn't exist). It's an easy way to budget for it, whatever we don't end up spending is bonus to our bottom line, and it takes a lot of the emotions and politics out of it.

I wish I could solve the health insurance system for everyone, but that mental shift has done a lot of solving it for our own budget. I used to begrudge paying anything on top of premiums for some reason, and now I treat it more like a sunk cost. The rest of it is a racket, but the perspective helps me deal with the bills that come in for an emergency room or urgent care visit.