How We Do It: Organizing Our Finances

16 January 2018

Wow, y’all! I figured you would like this series, but I’ve been blown away by the response – I LOVED reading your thoughts on last week’s post on time, so thank you SO much for sharing! Truly.

To catch up any new gals: Nancy Ray and I are writing an eight-part series every Tuesday in January and February covering “how we do it” in eight different areas: the rhythms, habits, and routines that help us get things done and make the space and time for what matters most. You can read more of the backstory here.

Today’s topic is finances! I’m particularly excited about this post for many reasons (obviously), but one is that it really drives home what I love about this series: that you’re hearing from two people with similar hearts but different ways of living them out, showing that there’s no one right way to do things. Anyone who knows Nancy or I knows that we are both extremely passionate about financial literacy and freedom, but the fascinating thing is that “how we do our finances” is in some cases very different.

How We Do It: Finances

Let’s dig in! I wanted to begin with a few of the principles that guide John’s and my thinking on money, because all the tools in the world won’t be much help if your thought patterns are constantly conspiring against you. Here they are:

1. Whenever possible, we take advantage of the power of compounding and the time value of money. We want to make our money work for us as hard and as often as possible, which means starting NOW, even if that means starting small. Time is so powerful, and it’s the only part of the wealth equation you can’t make up. More about this here.
2. We remember we can’t judge anyone else’s financial situation from the outside. We might see a coworker going on a European vacation and be tempted to think we should be able to do that, but not realize they carry credit card debt or rent a super-small apartment or never eat out or don’t save for retirement. We try not to make decisions based on comparisons, especially since they’re always incomplete.
3. We believe our money has been entrusted to us. By God, to be clear :) And because we believe that, we feel an extra measure of responsibility to spend, save, and shepherd that money wisely and for the greatest good.
4. We believe money is a tool. It’s not inherently good or evil. I’d liken it to a chainsaw. It is very powerful, and very effective at what it does, but it can’t hammer a nail. You can’t expect money to do things it was never meant to do, like make you happy.

So how do these principles play out on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis? For us, it all comes back to the budget. We live and die by our budget, because without it, I’m sure we would be in very sorry financial shape. We make an annual budget and track it in a Google Doc. (Note: our doc and how we use it have changed a bit since I wrote that post five years ago, but it’s still a good overview!) It’s a system that requires some upkeep, but we’ve found a few things that make it easier: we commit to updating it twice a month (generally on the 1st and 15th, the same day we pay our credit card bills), and we almost exclusively use cards, so transactions are easy to reference and record.

That’s right, we use credit cards! I wouldn’t recommend them for everyone, but we pay ours off in full twice a month and have never carried a balance. The rewards (2% cash back for us) and the ease of tracking our spending make them the right fit for us. We have three: one predominantly used by John for his expense categories, one predominantly used by me for my expense categories, and one used by both of us for joint expenses (which include most things, including gas, groceries, gifts, dining out, June expenses, vacations, etc.).

We also each have a checking account and savings account (which we both have access to, but our paychecks get deposited into our respective accounts). I pay most of the bills out of mine, so to keep things simple, John simply “levels our accounts” on the 1st and 15th by transferring the difference from his checking to mine, so that we each have the same amount.

Our savings and checking accounts are at Capital One 360. I LOVE CAPITAL ONE 360! I’ve considered writing a Marvelous Money post just about this bank because I love it so much :) Why? The interface is great, there are no fees, and most importantly, they let you open as many savings accounts as you want!! Over the years, we have opened accounts to save for vacations, for our backyard renovation, for a new car, for our wedding, and many other things. You can give each account a unique name and set up automatic transfers each month, making setting aside a pool of money and building it over time fun and mostly painless! Highly, highly recommended. (NOTE that that is a referral link – I get $20 if you sign up, but I would NOT share something we didn’t adore! We’ve been customers since 2006 :))

Another thing that has simplified our finances: our charitable giving account. If you give away money regularly, whether to your church or other organizations, I would highly recommend one. I went into much more detail here, but the reason it helps simplify things is that at tax time, you only have to look one place to itemize your deductions.

I’m not going to chat too much about debt in this post because aside from our mortgage it’s not a huge focus for us right now, but if it is for you, I’d recommend checking out this post which talks about how we paid off my student loans!

Retirement savings are a priority for us, and we both have 401ks we contribute to through work as well as IRAs. Most importantly, we always make sure to contribute at least enough to get the full match our companies offer. Here is my beginner’s guide to 401ks and beginner’s guide to IRAs, if you’re new to this arena! We also use an HSA (Health Savings Account) as an important part of our retirement savings plan, as they are highly tax-advantaged. Might be something to consider if you have a high-deductible health plan!

A number of readers have asked me about 529s and college savings for kiddos recently, so I will likely write a separate Marvelous Money post on that topic in the future. We do have an account for June that we have contributed to, but I wanted to mention here that it is not a priority for us right now, given that we are going so aggressively after our mortgage goal. We feel confident with the overall plan we have, and know that we can make more progress without dividing our focus unnecessarily! Just like when you’re tackling debt, I think it is often most effective to pick one area of focus and go hard after that one instead of trying to implement five different things at once.

Finally, I wanted to briefly share how we divide up the financial responsibilities in our family. I think it’s equally important for each partner to have a role, AND for those roles to be clear and defined. These are ours:

Emily: Bill payment and account maintenance (activating cards, calling customer service, etc.)
John: Taxes, investment strategy, and “R&D,” or bringing new ideas to the table (like our tweaked mortgage plan)
Together: Set yearly budget, record transactions in the budget, and participate in our every-other-month “net worth” meetings

We call them that not because our net worth is so high (ha), but because they are when we look at a global picture of our finances and our budget. We look at what’s in each account, talk about changes to our budget or financial situation, progress we’ve made toward our goals, and more. To be clear, we talk about our finances on a more regular basis than every other month, but this is dedicated time we’ve set apart to cover more in-depth topics.

Friends, I hope this post was helpful for you!! Don’t forget to read Nancy’s post here. I’d love to hear what tool or practice has been most helpful for you in organizing your personal finances! Or, if this post brings up a question for a future Marvelous Money topic, I’d love to hear that, too! :)

Where we’ve been and what’s coming up:
Time: Em’s post and Nancy’s post
January 23: Home
January 30: Personal Life
February 6: Work
February 13: Relationships
February 20: Spiritual Life
February 27: Kids

A Life List Book

12 January 2018

I’ve mentioned a “Life List book” a few times now (in my January goals post, most recently), and thought some of you might be wondering what the heck that is!

Life List Book

I first spotted the idea on Valerie’s blog, and instantly fell in love with it. As someone who is goal-oriented and experience-driven, I never want to skip over the beauty of trying something significant for the first time, or accomplishing something for which I worked hard! The Life List Book helps with that – instead of adding more to your bucket list, it’s a way to record and celebrate the amazing things you’ve done in your life.

Life List Book

To get started, I purchased a simple chambray journal with lined pages. Then, I just started writing! My Type A side hesitated, wanting all the things to be in chronological order, but I forced myself to just dive in.

Among the items I’ve included so far: “Married the love of my life,” “Birthed a baby,” “Camped overnight on Cumberland Island with wild ponies,” “Hiked the Mist Trail in Yosemite,” “Worshipped at Hillsong in Paris,” “Scored an 800 on the verbal portion of the PSAT” (#humble :)), “Hosted an adventure dinner party,” “Played Gollum in a middle school play” (yes, that happened), and “Saw a live taping of The Martha Stewart Show in NYC.” Who knows what could be next?!

Life List Book

Now that the initial backlog is recorded, this little book sits on my bedside table for easy access whenever I complete a goal, hit a milestone, or have an experience that feels especially meaningful. The first 50 items only took up six pages, so surely I’ll have room to record seventy more years of my one wild and beautiful life, right? :)

A question for you: I’m not in love with the title “Life List Book,” so I’m curious if anyone has a better suggestion? I’m thinking something with record, but not sure…

How We Do It: Organizing Our Time

9 January 2018

Friends, I am so excited about this series!!! I loved hearing your guesses — everything from another round of Marvelous Mama to an extended personal finance guide (both of which sound marvelous, by the way) — but dare I say what we have planned is even better…?

A month or two ago, I was searching on Nancy’s blog for something when I stumbled upon the “organization” series she wrote in 2014. I remembered loving the posts when they were originally written, but as I re-read them, it hit me how much her life had changed in the last four years! I thought about how I would love for her to revisit the same topics, and then realized that they dovetailed perfectly with the most-requested topic from my reader survey last year: rhythms, habits, and routines. How do I make space and time for what matters most in all areas of my life? How do I get things done? How do I do it???

Well, I most certainly do not have all the answers, but one thing I have been given is a confidence in the decisions we make for our family and a willingness to share them. So here we are! Nancy was totally game for a revisit when I proposed the idea to her, and what I love most about this is that throughout this series, you’ll get to hear from two people who have similar hearts but different ways of living them out. There is no one right way to do things! Instead of a prescription, we hope to offer you inspiration, ideas, tools, tips, and encouragement. I am so excited. I also have WAY too much to say on each topic and am already having to rein myself in, ha!

Simplified Planner and PowerSheets

Let’s start at the beginning: with time.

Readers who’ve been here awhile know I’ve written about this topic before, and I would definitely encourage you to check out those two posts! The most important takeaways: I have a permanent moratorium on the phrase time is flying by, the response busy but good, and anything else that sounds remotely similar. I also have learned to embrace this paradox: time is both precious and plentiful. To have as much time as I need for the things I want, I must be ruthless about not filling time with things I don’t care about or that aren’t a priority for me.

So let’s start there. What do I NOT do? Here are a few from a very long list of things. In general, I do not…

— Paint my nails
— Browse in stores or go to the mall
— Wash my hair every day
— Clean (well, I do clean – ha! But I pretty much do the bare minimum and let the rest slide.)
— Tidy (again, I do this – but there are MANY days and hours when things are NOT in their proper place.)
— Sell clothing I’m getting rid of (I just donate it.)
— Scroll on Facebook
— Get together with girlfriends (except for Articles Club and a neighborhood book club)
— Switch my accessories (I wear pearl studs and my wedding and engagement rings and that’s it.)
— Own a dog
— Volunteer
— Text (pretty much only with my family and only in reply to texts sent to me)
— Curate my Instagram (I am a stylist by trade – if I spent more time on it, it would look different!)
— Binge watch TV shows

Are any of these things bad? Not at all. But in a full season, I have to say a firm no to good things to make way for better things. (Things like puzzles with June, prayer, making dinner for my family every night, reading, weekly calls with my sisters, evening walks, writing on EFM, and SLEEP. I love sleep and get 8-9 hours every night.) I look forward to doing some of these things in other seasons. Your list might look very different from mine, but it’s important that you have it.


An integral tool for helping me prioritize my time and clarify my yeses and nos: PowerSheets. Y’all have heard me talk about them extensively at the end of each year and in my monthly goal posts, but they deserve a mention here, too!

As for how I organize my time from day to day, I am a paper calendar gal. In fact, I am an old-school paper calendar gal: I use an *original* Simplified Planner, purchased in 2012, which is really just a pretty blue binder that I fill with printable monthly calendar pages. And yes, though bulky, it travels to and from work with me every day I’m in the office! :)

Simplified Planner

Why paper? I want to see every event on every day of the month at the same time. So much of what I’m scheduling needs to happen in relation to other things, and I hate having to click back and forth between days or switch between the day view and the month view so I can see every event happening on a certain day.

You can read more about how I use my Planner here.

A Lindsay Letters Creatives calendar is the newest addition to our home, and I think it will become increasingly important as kiddos grow and our schedule gets more complicated! It hangs in our kitchen, and at the beginning of every month I transfer over from my Planner events that affect both of us as well as our meal plan for the week. We’ve only had it for a short while, but so far it has been super helpful to get John and I on the same page!

Creatives Calendar

A final tip: there is NOTHING in my life that makes me feel more like I’ve wasted time or that I don’t have enough time than scrolling on social media. Nothing. If your schedule/life feels out of your control and you spend any amount of time on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, that might be a good (though hard) place to start. More about this and my social media boundaries later in the series :)

Friends, I hope this post was helpful for you and that you’re excited for what’s to come!! Don’t forget to read Nancy’s post here. And just to give you the lay of the land, here’s what we have planned for the next seven weeks:

January 16: Finances
January 23: Home
January 30: Personal Life
February 6: Work
February 13: Relationships
February 20: Spiritual Life
February 27: Kids

How do y’all manage your time? Are you a paper or electronic calendar gal? What do you say no to? I’d love to hear!!

Affiliate links are used in this post!

Christmas in California

4 January 2018

About a year and a half ago Marget and Seth moved to California, which was terrible in pretty much every way for us (because they are far away now!!), but seemingly a good choice for them :) The silver lining? This year, we got to spend Christmas in California! Here are a few photos and what we did, if you’d like to see…

John, June, and I flew out at 7am on Christmas morning. We were NOT about to spend $600+ dollars for a plane ticket for our not-yet-two-year-old, but were VERY thankful to score an empty seat in our row on not just one but both of our flights! Hallelujah and thank you, Delta!!! June decided she did NOT enjoy the cool headphones we’d gotten her in preparation, but was content to simply watch the TV screen on the seatback and push all the buttons repeatedly for the duration of our five-hour flight :)

Marget and Seth live in a beach town near LA, and the first afternoon, we walked to the beach at sunset! It was the perfect wide-open arena for J’s current favorite game, run and chase.

For Christmas dinner we had ragu and papparadelle, a newish Thomas family tradition! We opened gifts a little bit at a time over our entire visit. June doesn’t seem to have totally grasped presents – she was just kind of happy to be included :) This, however, was clearly her favorite toy she received!

The next day we went for a hike at Forrestal Preserve and had lunch at Malibu Eatery (yummy grilled chicken tacos!). I was so proud of our little hiker – she walked at least half of the steep uphill climb!

We also visited the tide pools across the street, beneath the Trump National Golf Course.

In the evening, we walked the canals of Venice to look at the Christmas lights (such a crazy place!!), then had a delicious dinner at Rose Cafe. On a return trip I would love to do some shopping on Abbot Kinney – so many cute shops!

The next morning we took the walking path that runs through Marget and Seth’s neighborhood to their favorite playground, where we ate a mixed-up breakfast of bagel sandwiches from Noah’s and acai bowls from Paradise Bowls. My first time eating the latter – SO good and so California :)

As you can see, Uncle Seth was the fan favorite all week :)

Pretty soon it was time to head to LA for an al fresco lunch at The Paley and a matinee performance of Hamilton!!! Yes!

Needless to say, it exceeded all expectations. And the theater was so beautiful! I feel so lucky that we got to see this spectacular show – what a treat.

On our last full day we had breakfast at Uncle Bill’s, a pancake hole-in-the-wall, then spent a few hours back at the beach. There was much digging, and Marget and I played Chicken Foot.

Our flight home was uneventful, and now as I sit here writing a few days later, it is SNOWING! So different from warm Cali, although to be fair, snow is rather unusual for North Carolina.

Hoping you all had wonderful holidays breaks, as well!!

Affiliate links are used in this post!