So Long, 2015.

What a year. A wild, momentous, tumultuous, change-filled, love-centered year.

Everything changed for me this year. Everything. I got a new degree, a new last name, a new state, new living quarters, a new daughter puppy, a new job. My diet changed. My personal finances really changed. My hair finally grew out.

Through it all, I've learned so much. I've learned a lot about sacrifice. About putting others before myself. About urinary tract infections. I've delved deeper into my own inadequacies and insecurities. I've been threatened by anxiety, but I've continually mustered up the strength to fight it, day after day. I'm learning- ever so slowly and unwillingly- to relax, to relinquish the need to be in control, to realize that I can't plan everything, to rest and rely on God.

2015 was filled with happiness and tension, late-night pillow talks and early morning panic attacks. Romance. Excel spreadsheets. Dreaming. Worrying. Saying goodbye to my family, my friends, and everything I've ever known. Saying hello to new opportunities, new people, and new adventures. Long drives across the middle and lower United States. Long days on achy feet.  Cuddles with a bearded, blue-eyed hottie and a little ginger pup. And so, so, so much laughter, which is, in the end, pretty much the only thing that matters.

2016, I'm all at once terrified, ecstatic, and incredibly grateful to see what adventures you hold.

Our First Christmas

When I was offered the job at the nursing home, I accepted on one condition: that I would be off December 23-27. Matt had already been allotted this specific time period for a holiday break, and our parents were dead-set on having us back in Alabama during that time. Thankfully, the hiring coordinator obliged, and spending Christmas with our family back home became the plan.

But, as this was our first Christmas together as a married couple, we also experienced the conflict of desiring to have our own quiet Christmas Eve and morning with each other in our home. To do this, we had our own little Christmas on December 17, the only shared off day before our Alabama trip that didn't seem waaaaay too early to celebrate.

Part of the fun of adulting/starting a family is being in charge of holiday traditions. In the weeks leading up to our Christmas celebration, Matt and I discussed and brainstormed potential ideas, things we would like to start doing now that we'll want to continue doing each year when we have kids. The one new tradition we developed together is Christmas Eve Game Night. The family picks a board game, and the winner gets to pick one gift to open that night. When I was a kid, our family had a tradition where everyone could open one gift Christmas Eve night. I thought this was a pretty fun spin on that idea, and we loved the fact that it forces the family to sit down together (without electronics) for some quality time.

With gleaming candles, guilt-inducing sprinkle-covered cookies, and rich, almond eggnog around us, we tested our new tradition with In a Pickle on December 16, our "Christmas Eve."

If you're not familiar, In a Pickle is a silly, light-hearted word game that requires creativity, open-mindedness, and, well, giggling. Guess who won this time and got to open a present?

Yes, we did make a medal. An aluminum-foil-and-twine  family-heirloom-to-be.
YEP! The gift I selected turned out to be this really pretty journal I had on my wish list.

That was our "Christmas Eve." The next morning, we got up a little later than usual and made a special breakfast of homemade pancakes, scrambled eggs, and hashbrowns o'brien. Then we opened the stockings we'd secretly prepped for each other. And for Annie.

We opened the gifts we'd gotten for each other, then spent the rest of the day figuring out how to play and playing Dead of Winter, the awesome zombie apocalypse roleplaying board game I got for Matt.

Each player controls their own team of survivors trying to make it through a harsh winter during the zombie apocalypse, The gameplay consists of defending the colony, building up a supply of food and medicine, making supply runs to abandoned buildings in town, avoiding frostbite (and zombie bites), and killing zombies. As if that isn't enough, each character in the game comes with his/her own backstory and secret goal/motivation that can affect the game (pretty awesome). 

There are seemingly hundreds of game pieces, but they're all incredibly detailed. The artwork is fantastic!

The leader of my team of survivors just so happened to be a nurse. Pretty fun. 

We seriously spent all day on this game. 

Then it was back to work for a few days before making the 14-hour drive back to 'Bama.

We went to his parents' house first and spent two days there. It was wonderful to see everyone again, and especially to meet my new niece, Aiva. She was born this past September, so we'd only seen her in pictures and via Skype. It was pretty great to finally hold her. She's such a sweet girl!

A glitchy panorama of lovely Christmas messiness at the Olivers'
Then we visited my parents' place on Christmas Day.

One extra special treat? Since we were only in my hometown for 24 hours, I forced/guilt-tripped invited my parents to go out for brunch with Matt and me. They were feeling pretty well that day, thankfully, and they mustered up the strength to join us at IHOP. It's been years since I've gone out to eat with my parents, and we've never gone on a parent double-date with them. It was such a fun experience!

Blurry pic from my mom, who doesn't know how to use an iPhone.

Ugh. Stupid photo-bomber.
Both of our families blessed us with incredibly generous Christmas gifts, including a stack of cash that we're about to put toward car insurance, medical expenses, and of course, the ol' Debt Snowball. But in addition to the gifts, I also received, for the first time, the true joy that comes from being with family. I suppose being fourteen hours away from everyone makes you appreciate each other.  

All in all, it was pretty spectacular holiday. I feel so, so thankful for the safe travels, the family's generosity, and the chance to be surrounded by loved ones whose presence has become an unfortunate rarity. 

Oh, and a side note: this was also the first Christmas during which I did not use a credit card to buy gifts!!! We planned our budget accordingly and didn't get crazy at the stores. Huge milestone there!

Financial Update: September - November 2015

It's been just over four months since I opened up about our $70,000+ debt. In that time, we've made a notable amount of progress toward our debt-free goal, and I thought it would be fun/inspiring/motivating to share a detailed update of said progress.

Early August 2015. Matt and I sat down with our computers, checked the outstanding balances on each of our debts, listed them one by one in an Excel spreadsheet, and faced the numbers until we made ourselves sick. Our grand total that day? $75,411.73. 

I still feel sick. I feel more sick. I hate that number.

The day we realized the depth of this pit, I didn't have a job. Despite applying everywhere that was hiring, I had gotten only one interview, and I was over-qualified for the position (a grocery store clerk). I was jobless, we were scraping the bottom of our savings account, and $75,411.73- that massive, insurmountable sum- towered over us.

We were getting pretty scared.

Though I didn't want to abandon my new B.A. in English and go back to working as a nurse, our little family finance meeting got me moving. I got a Missouri nursing license and applied to every horrible-sounding LPN job advertised. I printed out resumes and tried the door-to-door technique. And by the end of the month, things started changing.

The last week of August, while my sister was visiting, the three of us went out for Chinese. I received this fortune cookie at the end of our meal:

 As silly as it sounds, the fortune cookie lifted my spirits. I felt encouraged and hopeful. Quite eerily, that same day, I got a phone call from a doctor's office who had received my application and wanted to interview me. Later that same week (actually on the day of the doctor's office interview), I got a phone call from a nursing home who also wanted to interview me.

I don't know what kind of dark arts that Chinese restaurant is dabbling in, but um...I was offered a job with the nursing home the first week of September.


September was a major turning point for us. My new job more than doubled our income and allowed us to stop chipping away at our savings.

During my last year or so as a school nurse, I was careful to make sizable deposits into my savings account because I knew I would probably be unemployed for a while after the wedding. I actually managed to accumulate over $4000, and though that sounds like a lot, we burned through it fast. For the months of July, August, and September, I was forced to withdraw around $1200 each month to pay our bills. We didn't know what we were going to do after that, because after September 1, we just over $1000 remained in our savings account. And that $1000 needed to stay there as an emergency fund (that's Dave Ramsey's Baby Step #1).

But as I said, I got hired just in time and began earning a paycheck. For the first time since our traumatic debt-acceptance moment, we were finally in a position to begin making real progress on our debt repayment. I created this little inspiration zone on our fridge to keep us focused:

The painful truth, all out in the open.

Our Excel debt list. And of course I saved that magical fortune.

A dry-erase board to be updated each month so we can visualize our progress.

September was our official starting point. Day Zero. We started making an actual dent in that $75,411.73 when October rolled around.


Excited and highly motivated to get our debt snowball rolling, we had a garage sale the first weekend in October.

It was the coldest morning of the season. I mean, there was a frost advisory and everything. But we used this to our advantage and set up a hot beverage station (which we included in our advertisement on Craigslist).

Also, we set up a little bed for Annie to boost our likability and lure in customers socialize her and get her more comfortable around new people.

I think her presence helped. Who couldn't buy something from a cute little crippled pup huddled next to a heater for warmth?

Though our garage sale looked pretty pitiful, we actually ended up making almost $280. The books, movies, and CDs we didn't sell went to Hastings, a local buy-back entertainment store, to sell for cash or store credit. All the cash went straight to the bank, then onto our smallest debt- Matt's Citi Card. This was in addition to the $50 minimum payment, plus all the extra "snowball money" leftover from our paychecks after our fixed and adjustable expenses, which amounted to around $600!


In November, we tightened our budget a bit and sold more stuff. I sold a necklace on eBay for $20 and Matt sold an old saw on Craigslist for $80. Another $100 extra for the snowball. Unfortunately, I had some medical expenses during this month that set us back about $300, but we cut corners enough until we made a decent snowball payment on the Citi Card.

By the end of the month, our fridge inspiration board looked like this:

That's where it stands now. We won't make our December snowball payment until the end of the month, when all our extra income has been totaled up. But so far this month, I've sold an old iPhone on eBay for $115, Matt sold a video game console on Craigslist for $80, and we've told our families we just want money this Christmas to add to our snowball. Soooo, if we're extra careful, we should be able to pay off the Citi card this month! 


This side-by-side comparison of our debt board says it all:

That's just THREE months of following Dave Ramsey's method. Pretty awesome, huh?

I really want to start giving updates like this on a monthly basis. It would really help us stay on track, and it might even encourage someone out there reading this blog. Plus, we've calculated that, if we keep scrounging up at least $600 in snowball money each month as we have been, we can be free of credit card debt and car payments by May 2017. That's 18 months from now. I could do a sort of monthly countdown.

Man. No credit card or car payments. Do you have any idea how much take-home pay that would free up each month?!?!? We could actually obliterate those monstrous, life-controlling student loans in a few years while putting money in the bank for the future!

I'm starting to get a little of that "gazelle intensity" Dave talks about, where you get so incredibly mad at your debt, you work as hard and fast as you can to rid it from your life as quickly as possible. We look around our house all the time going, "What can we sell?". We've been talking about opening an Etsy store and setting up a booth of homemade goods at next spring's farmer's market. We've even been discussing second jobs. Second. Jobs. It's insane! We're just seeing how quickly this snowball thing could roll if we really let it.

It's exciting.

Decking the Halls...on a Budget

Okay. First off, let me tell you how intensely I've longed to have my own place to decorate at Christmastime. Even though I've pretty much handled the Christmas decor at my parents' place for the past ten years or so, they were never my decorations or my house. You know? It's different when it's your stuff and your home. 

So. I've been stocking up (heh, stocking; how festive) on ornaments and putting back a few random Christmas knick-knacks over the years, saving them in a "Christmas hope chest" of sorts for the future. 

Well, it's finally the future, and I finally have my own place to decorate!!!

Buuuuut in this future, I'm also on a tight, cash-only budget and in the process of defeating our loathsome, life-controlling, $74,000 debt. 

It's funny. If we hadn't had that financial wake-up call thanks to Dave Ramsey earlier this year, I would have been excitedly swiping the plastic right now, buying every Pinterest-worthy, rustic-and-cozy-yet-chic, piece of Christmas cheer I came across. I'm incredibly thankful for that fact, because I'd be digging an even deeper hole right now. 

But at the same time, this Christmas is kind of a big deal. It's my first Christmas in my own place. It's exactly one year since Matt proposed. It's my first Christmas as a married adult. It's our first Christmas. And hey, it's my first Christmas with a good-paying job. I want to go all out with it, decorating like crazy, getting gifts for everybody. Like Oprah. And, well, I just can't. 

Matt and I talked about it. We looked at our budget and decided we could set aside $100 to spend on Christmas decorations and mailing cards. After a quick price-checking trip to Hobby Lobby, that seemed like an impossible challenge, but I had no choice but to meet it. 

Here's how it went. 

First up, the tree.

Thankfully, my mother-in-law gave us her old pre-lit tree for free when we moved. That cut out a huge expense for us. And as I said, we already had collected quite a few ornaments over the years. What we still "needed": tinsel/ribbon, tree topper, tree skirt, and decorative picks to fill in the unavoidable holes that come with an artificial tree. 

I shopped everywhere in town. I couldn't find a decent star or angel topper for under $15. Not even at Walmart. So I didn't get one. Instead, we just put this giant owl ornament Matt had received as a gift a year or two ago atop the tree. 

It's a little questionable, I suppose. I mean, we honestly just stuck it up there as a joke at first. But it looked pretty good, so we left it. It goes with the tree's overall theme and fits our style as a couple well. And was free. 

Michael's just so happened to be having a huge Christmas decor sale on our weekend off. I mean, one-day-only, 80% off. We already needed to go to Columbia for other things, so we made Michael's one of our destinations. 

We hit the jackpot. Their ribbon was marked down super cheap- the huge spool of 3" wired gold ribbon I got was less than $4. They also had these really cute, natural-looking pine cone picks on sale for about $0.60 a piece. We hated to pay for pine cones, but there aren't pine trees in this part of the country (makes me sad), and we thought that would be the perfect decorative filler for our tree. Take a look at how it turned out.

Ribbon and a pine cone pick from Michael's

The ornament we bought on our honeymoon! A nice detail of pine cones and ribbon, too.

We got Cedar, the lumberjack, at Target for $3. Had to. 

The Adventure Time ornaments I gave Matt on Christmas Eve 2014, the night before he proposed!
The other tree-related expense was the tree skirt. Holy crap, have you shopped for tree skirts lately?!? Everything I liked was upwards of $35! Determined to not give in, we cheaped out big time and got a fleece blanket for $6.88 at Walmart.

Maybe we can get a fancy one next year, but for now, it totally works. Annie approves. 

This being the first multi-level home either of us have lived in, Matt and I both wanted a garland for the handrail. I know, it's kind of silly, but we just did. We found a short (9 ft, I think) plain pine garland at Target for $3.98. Around it, we wrapped some gold beads we also got at Target for $1 and some of the leftover gold ribbon from Michaels, then stuck a few of the pine cone picks in, along with some faux poinsettias I got at Michael's (it was a single bunch of about 7 for $2 that I cut up). 

Another shockingly expensive Christmas "must-have"? Stockings. Luckily, Hobby Lobby had their stockings 50%, so we paid $15 for all three of them (yes, Annie has her own stocking.). The stocking holders were, like the tree skirt, another expense I just couldn't get past. I wasn't gonna shuck out $10 each for a cheap piece of metal to hold our stockings. So, I improvised.

I worked with our balusters (I think that's what they're called...). I looped some twine (which we already had) around them and tied them tightly and neatly through the stocking hangers. It didn't look bad like that, but to gussy it up a bit, I snipped a few sprigs off that 9 ft pine garland from Target, pulled out some of the candles we had onstage at our wedding, went through my craft supplies until I found the artificial berries I bought for some homemade holiday candles last year, and made this little display. The gold Christmas tree in the center is a Hobby Lobby special that I bought for my office at work a few years ago. Pretty savvy, huh?

The next two are kind of cheating, because I already had them in my "Christmas hope chest": a pine cone wreath and gold snowflake from Hobby Lobby.

Also already had the pup.

To spread a little Christmas magic to our dining room table, I hit up the Dollar General for some $3 snowflake place mats. I wanted to do some kind of centerpiece as well, and after seeing all those leftover wedding candles in the basement, I grabbed three more of them, fetched a Dollar Tree serving tray from the kitchen, and simply placed a few leftover artificial berries and poinsettias around the candles.

So inexpensive, easy, and pretty.

I felt like the living room still needed something more, and after pilfering through the wedding decor, I had an idea. After seeing pins like these all over Pinterest:

I wanted to do something similar on our coffee table. This lantern was one of several that lined the aisle at our wedding. The silver tray was another Dollar Tree purchase for some party of yesteryear. The pine cones were from picks stolen from a few spots on the tree that didn't really need them, the berries were from the craft box, and the pine sprigs were cautiously snipped from the hand rail pine garland. 

Talk about stretching your dollar. I think Matt was starting to worry that there would be nothing left of the garland on the stairs. But it worked out beautifully. This little centerpiece makes me really happy.

But what makes me even happier? All in all, the grand total spent on our decorations comes to about $49.00. Not even kidding.

We had plenty of money leftover to buy the kind of Christmas cards we wanted to buy: custom made photo cards. I always love getting photo cards from people, especially when you haven't seen those people in a while. It seemed like a great way to stay in touch with all our family and friends who are so stinking far away. I waited until Cyber Monday and ordered our cards from Vistaprint for 60% off. Woohoo! The hard part was taking the photo...

Someone wouldn't cooperate. 


Oh well.

How are you saving money this Christmas? Feel free to share links to pics of your own Christmas decorations; I love creeping other people's homes! 

Thanksgiving 2015

My husband and I were unable to go back to Alabama to be with our families for Thanksgiving. It was a pretty big bummer to not spend the holiday with my family for the first time in my twenty-six years, but Matt is my family now, too. And though we missed everyone back home, we didn't let the fact that it was just the two of us here stop us from preparing an enormous, traditional feast. 

I had to work on Thanksgiving Day, but I was off the day before, November 25. Matt rearranged his work schedule to give us that day off together. Anticipating that our festive dinner would knock out a large chunk of November's grocery cash (especially since Matt reaaaally wanted a ham), we were extra cautious with our budget during the first part of the month. We had a lot of burrito bowls (which is really just a more appealing way to say beans and rice). After all that scrimping and saving, we couldn't wait to gorge like fatties. 

We began preparing the meal on the 24th, when I got home from work. I made a platter of deviled eggs and a skillet of homemade cornbread for my first solo attempt at my mom's amazing Southern cornbread dressing. The next day, we got up at our work-day-early time, had a light breakfast of cereal, and got cooking. Matt was in charge of the mashed potatoes (he knows how to make 'em good!) and the ham- a 10-pounder that he got at a local butcher shop- and I covered everything else.

The ham turned out to be our first holiday "disaster", though technically it wasn't a true disaster, because it worked out okay in the end. The butcher said to wrap the ham in foil and bake at 350 for 4-6 hours. Since we were planning to do this for lunch, Matt put the ham in the oven at 6 AM. Well, by 11, when I had prepped over things to replace the ham in the oven, the meat was still cold and bloody in the center. So. Apparently, those directions were wrong. Annoyed and hungry, we consulted Google, then bumped the oven temp up to 450, unwrapped the ham and instead covered it loosely with foil, and baked it for another two hours, deciding we'd just have ourselves a mid-afternoon lunch/dinner. 

In the meantime, we prepped everything else...and started putting up the Christmas tree.

About five minutes after taking this photo, the lights on the middle and bottom sections of our hand-me-down pre-lit tree went out (lol). Since this was an older tree that my mother-in-law had given us, there were no spare bulbs to change out to fix this problem. SO. Even more annoyed, yet chuckling lightheartedly about it because it's the holidays, we had to leave the problematic ham in the oven, hop in the car, drive to the closest Dollar General, and get $6 worth of more lights. 

The good news is, by the time we got back home, tested the new lights, and strung them, the ham was done. Our rumbling bellies outweighed the urge to decorate. We abandoned the tree and returned to the kitchen. The dressing was next in the oven.

Then the best homemade macaroni and cheese ever.

And pride and joy. Completely. Homemade. Yeast. Rolls.


While the rolls were rising, then baking, I worked on the stovetop dishes. Green beans- Southern style and wonderfully flavored with bits of ham. Oops. 

Matt's signature whipped potatoes.

So gerd. And I, after placing a quick phone call to my mom for directions, made some heart-attack gravy with the ham drippings. 

When the rolls came out of the oven (to the sounds of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus), we pulled the deviled eggs and cranberry sauce (some surprisingly amazing, naturally sweetened, organic whole berry canned stuff from a health store in Columbia) from the fridge and stepped back to admire our work.

Yep. All that food. For two people. (Oh, and there's an organic pumpkin pie in the oven.)

It was really, really, really good. Plus, we didn't have to cook or buy any more food for an entire week. Seriously. The leftovers kept us from going to the store until December, which kept us from going a penny over our budget. That was pretty awesome. And delicious.

And fattening. But we'll deal with that later. It's the holidays, man.

After we finished eating and took a Once Upon a Time couch break, we turned Classic Christmas on Pandora and got back to the Christmas tree.

We had so much fun putting up the tree together. I always said that when I had my own family, I would force my brood into a tradition of decorating the tree together. The last few years at the Bain house, if a tree went up at all, it was just my sister and me. Or just me. I was so thankful Matt jumped in, grabbed the ribbon, and cranked up the Kenny G. with me. 

Our first Christmas tree!!!
We were both quite pleased with how it turned out, especially since we spent less than $15 on the whole thing! Thankfully, we'd both amassed our own separate ornament collections over the years (which complemented each other remarkably well), so it wasn't as empty as I expected it to be. And it fit into this corner so nicely and warmed up the room. The place just seems so cozy.

Sadly, the tree was all we could manage in our nearing-comatose, post-dinner state. I put out the rest of the decorations a few days later on an afternoon after work (and I'll be posting pictures of that soon!). But I went to bed that night feeling very full of food and gratitude. After spending the day celebrating with my love (my husband- still can't believe it!) and our sweet pup in our nice little home, it was easy to see the silver lining, to be re-energized and filled with thankfulness. 

I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving as well!