Where We’re Starting From

This is a post I’ve meant to write for about a year now. If we are going to document our journey for us and for those to follow we figure that we need to establish where we’re starting from. It’s more than just knowing how we got from A to B, it’s also an evaluation of the factors that have lead to our current standings, both the factors we’re proud of and the ones that we’re not so proud of.

We all like to toot our horn, even if it’s only to ourselves. To know what growth is needed, what steps should be taken, and what habits to change we can’t just look at our strong points, we have to look at the whole picture. I know I’m not thinking of everything and for privacy/protection I can’t share every little detail, but this gives us a foundation to look at now to evaluate what we need to do, and gives us a point to look back on to see how things have changed in the future.

Preface: I knew this would be long…summing up 13 years of decisions plus family background that has brought us to where we are today is a lot of info to condense. However, I didn’t know it would be this long (8 pages on Microsoft Word). So I have the very very very basics in the first section and break it down in subsequent sections. I figure this is here more as a point to look back on for us, but if someone is actually interested it’s here for them too!

BASICS OF WHERE WE ARE TODAY

One income family living in the higher lower-class income/lower middle-class income

Minor amount in savings, not enough to save us if Cameron lost a job but enough for a basic ER or car repair bill; first time ever to have any minor safety net like this

One car with 234,000+ miles

No current debt, but car and house debt could be a possibility in the next few years

One phone

No internet at home

Renting a small but comfortable home

Mostly a container garden…and half of those aren’t doing so hot

2 super cute and high personality kids with a third on the way

Amazing family support; not rich in money but rich in relationships, experience, and support

Okay, let’s break that down.

FINANCES

The College Years/Our Early Years

This one is a bit of a roller coaster. We’ve gotten by, but sometimes just barely. Through most of our school years we lived off of summer jobs, scholarships, grants, and work study (on campus) jobs. That worked, and it was nice to not have to stress about a big job while trying to graduate, but it did mean that we sometimes found ourselves in tight spots. Looking back we probably should have each gotten part time jobs just to give wiggle room and prepare for the future.

One semester I was awarded a pell grant that seemed entirely too much. I took the paperwork to the school twice to have it checked and each time the financial aid worker rolled their eyes and told me it was fine and to go away. So we put that money in our account and divided into our monthly living. That semester was easy and care free financially until October when we got a letter saying that the pell grant indeed was too much and I needed to pay back a little over 1,000 immediately. That left us with just enough to pay rent the final few months until the next semesters scholarship/pell grants came in, but not enough to eat or buy toilet paper. So we started taking all our books, games, movies, and anything else we could find and selling it to Bookmans, a local awesome bookstore in town that would give you store credit or cash for good items (of course they gave more store credit than cash, but store credit there wouldn’t buy us beans and rice). We squeaked by…but barely.

We pretty much started our marriage living in a paycheck to paycheck mentality. We didn’t have to, but neither Cameron or I have a money geared brain, and those were the habits that just felt natural. We pretty much carried on the paycheck to paycheck mentality for 11-12 years (we just hit 13 years of marriage to give you perspective on that). We were never ahead financially, just kinda floating along. Our money motto was “Quick! Spend it before it goes away!”

And we got by. But when is getting by the goal in life?

Silver lining though: I do wish we’d learned better balance between saving and fun, but I do cherish the memories of road trips, date nights, and trying new places. However, we should have saved for those and planned for them rather than just taking them when we wanted, there was a better way to do what we did. We worked hard and played hard…we just didn’t save hard or know how to plan hard.

Budgeting

We started to make changes when our first baby came along, but still didn’t have a good system in place and still had the paycheck to paycheck mentality. We didn’t know how to plan ahead so by the time winter came we didn’t have enough money for propane, so we went all winter with NO heat. In 2018 I discovered an account called Fun Cheap or Free, and their companion course Budget Boot Camp. I followed them for a while and everything they said made so much sense. It worked for my brain like no other money books or tips had before (even Dave Ramsay). So in January of 2019 I’d saved up enough and bought the course.

I would love to say that all is well financially and we’ve quit all our paycheck to paycheck ways. We’re working on it. We’re making good headway, but when we end up with a little extra money come in our first inkling is to play with it. We’re finding we have to name it and give it a job right away or we just fritter it away on dumb things that don’t even last (I’m looking at you Taco Bell…dumb right?).

However, for the first time ever we have a tiny drop in the bucket in savings. Enough that if the car broke down (in a fixable way) we wouldn’t be completely up a creek without a paddle. Not enough to save us from a catastrophic break down, but even knowing we can fix something reasonable gives so much peace of mind.

We aren’t able to put much away in savings each month, only $60 a month. But that’s $60 a month more in savings each month than we’ve ever had before. We have a system that is finally helping us learn better habits. Planning for future purchases is still something we’re having a hard time with. For example when our car registration popped up it through our budget off because we forgot to plan ahead for it. Christmas is always a scramble. When we had to take Ione to the ER last year it was a rough bit we didn’t have a buffer built in for. We want to have plans in place for known yearly expenses, not just the typical monthly expenses. And a buffer for the unknown as well.

We’re working to cut expenses. We don’t have any entertainment subscriptions, or even internet for that matter. Having only one car and one phone in our family is a conscious choice. I get my hair cut at the cosmetology school. There are times two cars, another phone, or the internet would make life more convenient at that moment, but as a whole we don’t feel like we need or even want those things. It forces us to live more simply.

Types of Income and Assistance

Our family funds come entirely from Cameron’s job as a biology professor. It’s bringing in more than his high school teaching job did, but even college teachers in AZ don’t make much so we’re right at the line between lower class and middle class income levels. The job does come with insurance though. It’s ok insurance. There’s a part of us that misses the state medicare (that paid for all of Darrow’s eye/neuro appointments and paid for Ione entirely with her early delivery, air lift, and NICU stay…we never even saw a bill) from when our income level was low enough to qualify, but we are grateful to even have this insurance for the family. The medicare program was a huge blessing to us and we know it is there for a reason. I’m not ashamed that we utilized it; the program is there to help people, and it helped us when we needed it. 

For a good handful of years I ran a photography business. It brought it a little extra, but just enough to cover the phone, internet, and a little extra because I “invested” the rest back into the business. Some of those investments were good and necessary and some I look back on and regret. I bought courses I didn’t end up needing, gear I didn’t end up using, and resources that were beyond my scope. The plan was to build that up and live on two incomes. Last year (at the end of 2018) I shut down the business for a number of reasons, and we are working and living off of Cameron’s teaching income. We’re determined to make it work, but it’s taking a lot of learning how to live cheaply.

In the past we’ve received help at times from Food Stamps and WIC programs. We are working on the paperwork for WIC once again to help ease up the grocery budget as we prepare for baby number three. We believe these programs are here to help. They aren’t programs we want to be on our entire lives, but they both have been huge blessings for us when we’ve been struggling. WIC basically kept both babies alive when nursing Darrow didn’t work and we needed to feed with formula, and when Ione was on specialized preemie formula.

We’re working on basic plans for opening a “Wilderness Mowers” business so that we can earn some side income here and there to help save up for things like Christmas, wiggle money, a car, baby stuff, etc. It would be so Cameron could sell the spoons he carves, I could take on a portrait session here and there, or whatever else we come up with. It wouldn’t be a full time venture, but more of a side side side gig to ease the budget a little.

Debt

Thankfully we’re not currently in debt. We took out $10,000 in student loans for Cameron’s Master’s Degree, but were able to pay it (and the interest, so just over $12,000) within three years mostly with tax returns and work bonuses. For the first year we paid out of our paychecks but finally got ahead enough where we didn’t have to make monthly payments and only paid on it when we had extra come in (the one things we did half way decent at using our extra money for – sometimes).

Thankfully we recognized early on that credit cards would likely be disastrous for us and we have stayed away from them. This does mean I have zero credit and Cameron’s credit is only from his student loan and maybe our electric. But we’re grateful to not have credit card debt hanging over us. We know there’s a way to make zero credit work.

We don’t currently have debt, but we’re driving a car with 234,000+ miles on it, we know a new car is in the nearish future. And someday we want to own our own place.

EDUCATION

Cameron and I both spent some time in public school and some time as a home school student. We see pros and cons to both methods and don’t feel like there is one totally perfect or correct method of schooling. I feel quite strongly that I benefitted from getting to do both methods. It made my college experience easier and better. We plan on doing both for our children depending on what they need each year and what our family is going through.

For our children, our options right now in our town mostly consist of public school and home school (the other alternative are either out of our budget or don’t work with our one car situation). With Darrow’s extra needs (vision and developmental), we’re grateful for the extra support that we can find through the public school system right now. But there are plenty of things we don’t care for with the school situation right now too. We’re working on figuring out the best option and aren’t sure yet that we’ve hit it, but not sure that we haven’t.

Cameron and I put ourselves through college; I hold a Bachelors Degree in English and Cameron has a Masters Degree half in Biology, half in Education (Masters of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies). We both got our Associates at a Community College and love the foundation it gave us. I have my degree from the University of Arizona, but after anxiety attacks, some rough semesters, and a career path change we changed to Western New Mexico University for the rest of Cameron’s education and it was the perfect fit. Having both successful and unsuccessful semesters has given him perspective as a teacher as to how to help his students better.  

Learning has been a big part of our marriage so far, and we want it to continue to be a lifelong pursuit. Cameron is better at continually learning than I am, I will readily admit that. Outside of formal courses I have to really work to actively seek out new things and information. I forget to, but I’m working on that. I tend to jump into things and learn by experience (both by failing and succeeding). Cameron is good at reading up on things ahead of time.

We thankfully have an advantage with formal education right now. As a full time faculty member at the college, our family can take courses for free each semester. It’s not something we’ve taken advantage of yet for a number of reasons (kids at home, one car, time, lack of wanting to put the effort in, etc). It is in our plans though to utilize that not only for Cameron and I, but eventually for the kids.

“WILDERNESS” SKILLS AND RESOURCES

Gardening

This is the first year we’ve had a garden. We tried once before…but I built big rows and just put seeds in the ground without reading the directions, without learning how the seeds needed to be planted, or anything. I forgot to water it 6 days of the week. Surprise, surprise, nothing grew. I think the few sprouts we had were eaten by rabbits. After that we offered to share a garden with out landlady, but mostly it ended up being her garden that we picked from and helped weed, tie up here and there. So we learned a little from that, but really this first year was the first time we legitimately tried. We’ve had a lot of garden fails already, but I’m trying to see them as learning experiences. Again, from the education section above, I tend to jump in and learn as I go instead of researching ahead of time. I need to change that.

Meals

We used to eat out and eat quick meals A LOT. It was expensive and definitely not healthy. The past three years, especially the last year, we’ve worked at cutting those down and eating home cooked meals as much as we can. We’re learning to eat more healthy and save money. We don’t have the budget for eating all organic, farm raised, super foods, but I’m slowly learning ways to increase our nutrition and staying on budget. But that’s another blog post. When we got married Cameron was easily the better cook, but I think we’re about even now!

We still rely too much on Taco Bell’s value menu when we’re on the road or want a fast meal.

Foraging

We really want to learn to utilize local nutrition. We live in an interesting mix of desert and forest/mountain plants. We don’t forage a lot yet, but we’d like to. We’ve picked prickly pear (fruit and pads), blackberries, acorns, and collected maple sap. The acorns mostly went to waste because we couldn’t figure out how to use them, and the maple sap only yielded 2 tbs of syrup, but we’re learning. We’d love to get out and find the raspberries, learn how to use the juniper berries, try harvesting wild oats, and learning what else is available here (so we can learn to use it and maybe grow/cultivate it).

Full transparency, I need to figure out the legal limitations here. I always worry about that and don’t ever know if we’re breaking the law or how I feel about that. Cameron doesn’t worry. I worry about everything. So we need to look into a foraging license (if that’s a thing?!) and what to do there.

Living Situation

For 13 years now we have only ever rented as we’ve hopped around for school and jobs. Someday we want to own our own place with land to grow a family, plants, and animals. For now though, we rent. We’ve lived in everything from a typical city apartment complex, to a one bedroom house (with four of us) that was once occupied by chickens, to a big nice double wide on a ranch, to a month and a half with my parents between school and a summer job, to our current little house in a tight little neighborhood. We’ve learned from each place, and we’re grateful for each place…but we can’t wait for a place that is truly ours.

We scored huge in finding our current rental. Rent in Arizona is ridiculous these days, and living in a little mountain town it’s especially hard finding a good place. We’ll be in this house until we either change jobs (not that we have plans for that to happen) or we find “Our Place”. That’s the plan at least. It doesn’t have much space for a garden or for the kids to play outside, but we’re learning to make every foot count. Inside it’s a goofy mix of furnishings…we still decorate/live in the early married style where most things were given to us or cheap. But we’ve never been super worried about having a trendy house or up to date items. We have what we need and we’re happy and content with it.

Self Reliance

I feel like we’re still so new to everything here.

I am able to can applesauce, tomatoes, some jellies, and prickly pear juice. Canning still scares me but really interests me at the same time. I dream of being able to have a productive garden and to can our excess crop and eat on it through the year.

We finally started our food storage. As in just this year. As in a bag of wheat and a can of Morning Moos Milk Powder. And we’re working our way through the wheat learning how to use it. Technically we do have some jars of home canned applesauce that we’re still eating on too from last fall. But that’s it. We hope to expand that fast.

Beyond that…we’re kinda clueless. A bit to the point that I don’t even know what we don’t know.

General Maintenance

We’re okayish here. Ish. Cameron does the basic maintenance around the house. If I watch a youtube video I can usually figure something out. We’re lost on car mechanics. Cameron can change the oil, but doesn’t have the time or tools right now. We can change a tire. That’s about it. We have much to learn in the maintenance area.

FAMILY SUPPORT

We are richly blessed here. We grew up in homes with similar values and ideals. Neither of our families had much money (or any sometimes), but we were always fed and clothed and we’re not unaware of what a huge blessing that is. Our parents have each helped us along the way in various ways, and that has been a big part of our foundation and current situation. They haven’t paid our way monetarily (because of principle and the inability), but we would be fooling ourselves and being completely ungrateful if we didn’t acknowledge the leg up they did give us.

Upon my graduation from Eastern Arizona College, I was heading off to University. I’d paid my way through my three years there (an extra year for a double degree) and earned scholarships for University, so my parents saved and was able to give me a Geo Metro as a graduation gift. It blew me away, I never expected anything of the sort. Cameron and I got married that summer and the Geo was our sole transportation for the next 8 years. When my Grandfather passed away and his ranch was sold, we traded my bit of inheritance from there for the car my parents were graduating from, and that car replaced the failing Geo at the time (we still miss that Geo) and is still what we drive today. We’re so grateful for both cars and the help we got there.

Cameron grew up raising animals with his family, and his father continues to be a shepherd. That background has largely shaped him, his goals, his work ethic, and his values. My family got animals (beyond pets: goats, cows, chickens, ducks, etc) after I left for college so I don’t have the same experience, but I have an appreciation for them. We know that when our time comes to be able to get animals that we have both sets of parents as amazing resources.

Growing up in stable homes and having our parents as an active part of our lives, even though we live 5 hours away from both sets of parents, makes a huge difference. We’re beyond grateful to them and God for that blessing and know that no amount of money or experience could ever make up for that blessing. The taught us and continue to teach us the ideals that we hold and we are so grateful for their love, knowledge, and friendship.

Beyond our parents is our network of siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. Between us we have 8 siblings, 90+ first cousins (not including their spouses), and a whole network of 2nd/3rd cousins, aunts/uncles, grandparents, etc. We have found and met new relatives every place we’ve lived (mostly mine because we’ve only lived in the southwest, but if we were to go north we’d run into Cameron’s people everywhere). As we’ve moved around we’ve been able to get to know and to run with various family members, and that’s been a huge blessing in many ways. From emotional support, to sharing meals, to built in buddies, to bouncing ideas around, they have been an invaluable part of our marriage and I couldn’t leave them out of this section.

Our families, immediate or extended, are not rich or well off. Most are comfortable, some are struggling. However, “financial assistance” is not the only or the most important measure of family support (even though that’s often a big part of these types of evaluations where you hear of inherited land, farms, sums, etc). We feel we have a bigger leg up from the emotional, mental, educational, spiritual, and loving support we have in our families than any bit of money could give us. We’re proud of our heritage and grateful for the foundation we have to build on.   

RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AND SUPPORT

This may seem to some like an odd one to put in here, but it feels total natural to us. Cameron and I both grew up as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. We grew up with the same Christian values and beliefs, and that unity is a strength for us as a couple, an immediate family, and with our extended family.

We grew up singing songs in children’s Sunday School (we call it Primary) about planting gardens, reading scriptures, being kind, showing gratitude for the earth, etc. We spent high school years taking an extra scripture course in addition to our regular education. Cameron spent two years in Seattle serving a mission before jumping into college, learning to interact with people of all walks of life, learning about living with a roommate, planning, and gaining a strong testimony of Christ.

We believe God has a plan and path for us, that He leads us, that He wants us to learn and grow, and that we are supposed to care for and use His creations in respectful and efficient ways. He wants us to be happy, to have a strong family, and to help others. Those beliefs are at the core of all we do.

Our fathers have both served as clergy leaders (Bishops) in their local congregations, and our mothers have served everywhere from the children’s organization, to the teens, to the women’s organization, and more. It’s an integral part of our lives. We grew up serving and watching our families serve, and that makes a difference in how we serve in the church and in our community now. We now both serve in our church, him teaching the early morning scripture class for the high school students and I currently help in the women’s organization (the Relief Society) of our church.

This all isn’t stated here to pat ourselves on the back because we’re so awesome. These are big parts of our life, have shaped us, and continue to shape us. We grew up speaking in public because of church, so that doesn’t scare us. We grew up within a church family where we both gave and received love and support within the church and community. We have church education resources about money, self reliance, starting your own business, addiction recovery, counseling, etc. all available to us when/if we need them. We have support when we need it.

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