February 28, 2013

Money Talks: How We Got Rid of Student Debt Faster


In this second installment of Money Talks, (click here for the first post) I'm going to spill the beans on how we paid our student debt faster.

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First, I have a confession: I never accumulated student debt.  Early on, my parents told me they had no funds for university and I'd have to win scholarships or go broke.  I chose the former and I feel VERY privileged to have parents who helped facilitate that goal.   To help me study successfully, I had my own study space (a little nook at the top of the stairs), and, as an added bonus, nobody smacked sixteen year old me when she stomped into the living room of our small home, demanding the TV be turned down because "I'm studying, you asshats".  Through a combination of hard work, good luck and a strong support system, I won scholarships for my undergrad degree.  I was also fortunate enough to have been able to live at home for my undergrad, which saved me oodles of money, but I did work a lot of jobs so as not be a mooch.  One semester I worked full-time, went to school full-time and sat on the Board of Directors for a not-for-profit organization.  I gained a lot of weight from stress-eating that year :(  I won scholarships for my MA and am on a scholarship right now for my PhD (which runs out soon).  I have worked part time through grad school, but Hubby is the super star.  He is a super smart cookie and landed a job he loves right out of school, earning much more than me and landing the oh-so-fun responsibility of primary breadwinner.  I am completely aware that my income is meager, he's supporting me right now, and I'd likely have a big fat loan if it weren't for him.    

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I say all this NOT because I want to make it sound like our student debt was Hubby's responsibility or fault.  I just want to point out that Hubs and I are lucky that we weren't a couple with two sets of debt.  Still, the loan wasn't small - we could have bought one of these.  Everyone's situation is different but, at the end of the day, debt stinks for all of us.  Here are some things that helped us say "buh-bye" to a scary amount of student debt in 3 years (and shaved off 7 years from the original repayment plan). 

1. We worked as a team (this applies to single folks too!).

I'm not going to lie, I was a bit shocked to all of a sudden be facing student debt because I had dodged that bullet for so long.  At first, I felt glum and I stubbornly refused to acknowledge responsibility.  I quickly realized that sharing a life together didn't just mean sharing incomes (yay!), it also meant sharing debt.  We pooled our incomes, throwing whatever we could at the debt, and scrimped and saved together, which made us a stronger debt-fighting team.  Because we were in it together, it also felt less stressful.  I know not all couples pool incomes like we do, but I think working together can happen in other ways as well.  For example, if Sam has debt but Jamie doesn't, Jamie can take on more chores around the house so Sam can work extra shifts to put money toward the debt.  If Sally is single, she can still work as a team by telling her friends and family about her debt and asking that they not lure her out for expensive social gatherings, but help her save cash by doing more free or inexpensive things, like spending time outdoors or having potluck parties.  There's lots of things friends and family can do to help one another get out of debt (and not just student debt): forgoing gift giving until debts are cleared, car-pooling, hosting clothing swaps, etc.

2. We faced the debt.  Showed the debt who is boss.  And tricked ourselves a little.

After deciding to work as a team, the most important step was saying, "Hey, student debt.  Bite me".  I know a lot of people who bury their heads in the sand and avoid thinking about it.  I know, it's a shock!  I wanted to bury my head too.  Opening those statements felt like being punched.  So many zeroes . . .  But facing it and hatching a plan that suited us were necessary to get rid of it faster.  Part of our plan included building an overpayment into our budget right away, so we automatically thought of our monthly payments as bigger than they were required to be.  We quickly forgot what we had to pay and automatically paid the larger sum we had figured out what manageable.  Essentially, we kind of tricked ourselves into paying more each month. 

3. We got to know our debt, inside and out.

Hubby & I read the fine print and tried to understand everything about the loan, including options for if he didn't find a job within the grace period, if we couldn't make the minimum payment, etc.  Government student loans usually have lots of fine print, including points that can help people, especially if they're having trouble making payments, so it's a good idea to be familiar with the terms. 

4. We ignored the "grace" period.

Hubs was fortunate enough to get a job right away, so we didn't need the grace period his student loan offered (they vary).  Although some folks need the grace period to find work, some just use it to enjoy their new wage.  I get it.  Paying debt back is about as fun as a root canal, but delaying the inevitable only makes it worse.  We started paying Day One (because that's when interest started being calculated on the Federal part) and we saved some major bucks.

5. We threw extra money at it.

Any time we had extra money (after we'd saved some, of course), we tossed it on the loan.  Rules stipulating payments also vary, but most loans let you pay some extra.  Although we didn't make a lot at the time, we did it whenever we could and saved some more money on interest because those extra payments went right to the principle.  Every little bit (even $20 here and there) helped.

6. We found creative ways to save and make more money.

Step #5 was much easier when we started making more money.  I started tutoring and selling my handmade spiders, while Hubby took on overtime work when he could.  We were already into yard sales, so we saved major bucks furnishing our apartment, but I also started a precursor to the Etsy shop, selling a few sweet vintage scores through kijiji.  Consignment shops were great for recouping money from clothes that no longer fit.  I mean it when I say every little bit helped.

7. We put our tax return toward it.

I'm not sure how rules vary from country to country, but the tax we paid on student loans was tax deductible and boosted our income tax return.  Yay!  A silver lining!!  We took all that money and put it onto our loan (saving some to add to our emergency/house buying/please don't lose your job, Hubby funds).  

8. We calculated everything we bought with student loan interest added on.

In the first few years of living together, things were tight and we were on a strict, strict budget.  Any non-essential item we bought, we treated as if we were paying for it with a loan because, basically, any frivolous item kept us from paying down the debt, which in turn incurred more interest.  I think this really helped keep our spending in check at the time.  Did we really want to go out to see a movie when that $15.00 had a prime+2 interest tacked on?  No thanks, a stay at home movie night was good enough!  This is also where teamwork was important: neither of us tempted the other with unnecessary purchases or evenings out.  We started dating as teens, so we were old pros at free date nights!  We entertained ourselves cheaply and helped each other avoid temptations (mmmm, snacks, oooo, purses).  I think the fancy term for what we did is The Spending Fast.  We're trying to get back to being more frugal.

9. We didn't buy a house until we saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

This was somewhat a coincidence, but we didn't buy a house until we were only four months away from repaying the debt.  The timing was pretty lucky and I'm so happy it worked out that way because we learned that it was much easier to fast-track a debt repayment with fixed expenses in an apartment.   In fact, once we bought the townhouse and had to deal with unplanned expenses like a $400 plumbing emergency, rising utility costs, etc., our debt repayment slowed and 4 months turned into 6 or 7.  I'm so happy we didn't buy a home earlier because it definitely would have slowed our repayment plan.  

Some other ideas:

10. If applicable, pay loans with higher interest rates first.
11. Don't overextend on debt repayment because paying extra to student loans makes no sense if it pushes you into overdraft, forces you to rely on credit cards or hinders the payment of a mortgage or larger loans.
12. As with mortgages, biweekly payments can save money on interest, even if you put the same amount as you would with a monthly payment (read more about biweekly payments here).
13. Considering transferring a higher interest debt to something with a lower interest rate.  For example, if student debt is actually credit card debt accumulated while getting a degree, paying off the cards with a personal line of credit (which has a much lower interest rate) and then paying that off ASAP might be a good choice - but speak to a financial pro.
14. Remember to keep saving.  It's tempting to put every cent on debt but it's important to have a cushion.
15. If you're really stuck, speak with a professional about options for debt relief, deferring payments or debt consolidation.

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Have you tackled a student loan?  What tips have helped you get the student loan monkey off your back?

February 27, 2013

Pinterest Challenge: DIY Dyed Dress

I heart dresses.  I'm a fair weather friend, though, because I don't wear dresses in the winter (I don't heart tights).  It's easy enough for me to find a good sleeveless dress, but affordable, comfy dresses with sleeves are harder to find.  Maybe that's why I panicked and bought this beige 1950s-style cotton shirt dress?  Actually, I think the pockets sold me.  The dress was cute - perfect for warm but not quite sleeveless weather - but a touch frumpy and the drabbest colour out there, making me look a little . . . blah.  I packed this for my trip to Hungary and literally only wore in once.


I'd been itching to dye something and had pinned so many DIY dye projects, including this gorgeous kelly green makeover.

From Melancholy Smile, pinned to my DIY to Try Board

When the famed Pinterest Challenge was announced, I decided to stop pining (and pinning) over DIY dye projects and dye my drab dress.



Since Sherry is a DIY dyeing extraordinaire, it was a fitting choice!  I decided on dark green with a hint of teal, but prepared myself for any shade of green because I had read that dyeing can have some unexpected results.

1, 2, 3

Rit Dye has a formula guide on their website for mixing colours and I liked the look of dark green mixed with navy or teal (221 or 224 - top row).  I meant to buy dark green and navy dye but I accidentally grabbed dark green and royal blue.  I didn't realize until I was pouring the dye into the machine!  At that point I abandoned the formula and poured both bottles in.  I read that Rit dye can be lighter than expected, so I figured doubling the amount wouldn't hurt (instructions on their website say to use no more than two bottles at a time, so I was in the "safe zone"). 

Supplies:
  1. Washing machine (that isn't brand spanking new)
  2. Rit Dye (amount depends on weight of clothing)
  3. Rubber gloves
  4. 1 cup salt (helps achieve more intense colour with cotton, rayon, ramie, or linen)
  5. 1 tbsp. laundry detergent
  6. Timer
  7. Bleach (for cleaning up)
  8. Centipede poking stick (may not apply to everyone - I encountered three during my dyeing extravaganza in the basement)


How-to:
  1. I washed my dress in warm water, then set it aside.
  2. I filled the machine with enough hot water for the dress to be able to move around.
  3. I added one tbsp laundry detergent and the two bottles of dye as the machine was filling.
  4. I let the machine agitate, to mix up the dye, for a minute.
  5. I smoothed out and added the dress, then closed the lid (boy, does it splatter!)
  6. At the five minute mark, I added 1 cup of salt, diluted in warm water (the delay helps the dye process).
  7. The dress was in the dye for a total of 25 minutes because it rinsed and spun before I could stop it in time (30 minutes is the minimum).
  8. I rinsed the dress in warm, then cold water, until the water ran clear.
  9. Then I washed it again on the warm cycle, before rinsing it again.

At this point, the dress looked okay: dark green, not much blue, but good.  EXCEPT that from the one time I wore this dress my crazy strong anti-perspirant chemically altered the fabric so there were lighter splotches under the arms.


Sexy.  No worries!  I went out and bought more dye.  This time I purchased two bottles of navy.  I figured a darker colour might cover the lighter areas better.  And the green was seeming a bit military, anyway.

I repeated the process, but stopped and re-set the machine to the beginning of the agitation, so it was in the dye for about 40 minutes this time.  I rinsed and washed the dress again.  The underoo region looked better!  The colour turned out really interesting - a deep, inky hue that's kind of navy but warmer.  (The light spots aren't on the dress - it's the camera).


I'm going to call this a success because it's no longer blah.  Added bonus: it didn't even shrink after being dyed in hot water!  I would definitely dye something again, but would probably do it before wearing the item, for better results.
Here's another look at the before:


The stitches didn't take the dye and were really visible at the waist, but I always found this dress a little frumpy anyway, so I added a hand painted belt I bought in Hungary last year.



How to clean the washing machine (top-loading):
  1. I quickly wiped down any splatters with a soft cloth and soapy water.
  2. I poured in one cup bleach.
  3. Then I ran the washing machine - empty - on the hottest setting.
  4. I washed a load of dark laundry first, just in case.
My machine tolerated the dying process well!  A few plastic areas were tinted every so slightly, even after I scrubbed them, but I knew that was a possibility and I wasn't concerned because our machine is really old.  It works like a boss, but isn't pretty.  You can also dye clothing in a basin or sink but you have to stir the dye bath for the whole time for even results.  That sounded too labour intensive for me (plus, hanging around in the basement that long really doubles my centipede-seeing risk). 

Some tips:
  • Read the instructions carefully - instructions vary from brand to brand.
  • Double up the dye if you are using a dark dye, to get desired results.
  • Be flexible about the results & don't dye anything precious.
  • Be sure to wash new items well to remove sizing (although you wash everything before dyeing).
  • Be wary of dying clothing that may have come in contact with chemicals like perfume, anti-perspirant, etc.
  • Use the hottest water you can because it helps the dye take
  • For the first few washings of a dyed item, wash it by itself in cool water with small amount of detergent that does not contain bleach.
  • Always wash a dyed item with items of a similar colour. 
  • Be prepared for an item to fade over time, here's a really good example.
  • Note that thread, zippers, and other parts may not take the dye



I'm linking up my newly navy dress to these Pinterest parties!

February 26, 2013

Small Scale Renovations: Let's Start with Wallpaper

If you follow me on Pinterest, you might have been alarmed by all the miniature things that have been filling my "DIY to Try" board.  I haven't lost my mind and won't force you on to the Spruce Moose.  You remember how much fun Hubby & I had making the play kitchen for my cousins.  Now we have an even tinier project in the works: we're making a dollhouse!  I already found some fabulous 1960s dollhouse furniture that I'll be revamping and and I'm on the hunt for some more pieces, either to rework or make from scratch.


Here's my inspiration:

Mouse House
Young House Love

I am going to selfishly turn this dollhouse into my dream home before handing it over to a wee one in our family.  What will my dream dollhouse look like?  Well, lots of white walls (of course!) but I'm going to inject interesting colour and pattern in the form of wallpaper, something I secretly lust after.  That's why when the folks at Total Wall Covering approached me about writing a post exploring beautiful wallpaper designs and trends, I jumped at the chance to think more about what kind of patterns and textures I want the dollhouse to have.  Whether you're planning a small scale renovation like me, or looking to add a little zest to your full-size space, enjoy a little patterned eye candy, including some inventive uses for wallpaper.

I'm planning to pick some vintage-inspired patterns for the dollhouse, to go with my retro furniture finds.  I love a fresh interpretation of vintage aesthetics. 

Via HGTV
Contemporary Sidewall from Total Wall Covering
Via Handmade Charlotte
Children's Sidewall from Total Wall Covering
Via Timothy Sue
Archway Wallpaper from Total Wall Covering
This has to be one of my favorite designs!  I love the simplicity and the colour pairing.
Via HGTV
Sidewall from Total Wall Covering
Some of the patterns that have caught my eye are pretty bold, but I'm emboldened by how great Nicole's dollhouse turned out with such brave wallpaper choices.

Making it Lovely
Avian from Total Wall Covering
Although I'm excited to pick bold patterns, I may toss in a few more neutral patterns, in softer colours.  I'd like some of the furniture and accessories to shine too.  Patterns like the ones below will be a perfect backdrop to say, a mint green fridge or bright aqua table!

Via Houzz
Silhouette Ashford House from Total Wall Covering
Via Houzz
Tuxedo Wallpaper from Total Wall Covering
Via Decor Pad
Lollipop Leaves from Total Wall Coverings
Fine
Miniprints from Total Wall Covering
 Polka dots will be a must, am I right?

Polka Dot from Total Wall Covering
I'll have to remember to keep my project kid-friendly, with patterns that are quirky enough for little design enthusiasts to like too.

Via Jeannie Jeannie
Robot Wallpaper from Total Wall Coverings
House to Home
Tron Wallpaper from Total Wall Covering
Instead of just putting wallpaper on the walls, I think I'll experiment with other applications, using wallpaper to cover stair risers, shelves and more.

Wallpapered Stair Liners, Lonny
Wallpaper Lined Drawers, Made by Girl
Wallpapered Shelved, Martha Stewart
Framed Out Wallpaper, Via Apartment Therapy
Using wallpaper as a headboard, either affixed directly to the wall or a piece of plywood, is a fabulous idea, big or small.  I found a great pattern for making a wee little bed, but if that project doesn't succeed, I might make try a dollhouse version like one of these fabulously inventive headboards.

Wallpaper Headboard, Better Homes and Gardens
Floral Sidewall from Total Wall Coverings
Wallpaper Headboard, Better Homes and Gardens
Contemporary Wallpaper from Total Wall Covering
If you're jealous of my impending mini wallpaper projects, try a small scale project of your own, like this sweet tray.



This post was sponsored by Total Wall Covering, but the theme, content, design, words, and decision to highlight wallpaper products are all my own.  I was simply approached with the idea to chat about wallpaper, and knew this would be the perfect chance to share inspiration for my impending mini-renovation.  I'm not sure about you, but I have been left with a serious urge to wallpaper something.
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