Minimalist in DC

The Quest for Less "Stuff" & More Time

Category: Money (page 1 of 2)

Why (and Why Not To) Shop at a Thrift Shop?

Halloween is here and this holiday is generally the only time I set foot inside a thrift shop to buy something. Despite my minimalism project, this past year was no different. I dropped stuff off at Good Will many times, but I wasn’t shopping there. However, my team at Opower decided to dress up as Minions for Halloween and I needed a pair of overalls to complete the ensemble.

Minion Costume

Minion Costume (w/o Overalls)

There is a thrift store near my house (Treasure Trove) that benefits the local INOVA Hospitals and my search for overalls was the perfect excuse to try it.

For being a place that sells random, unused items, Treasure Trove was refreshingly clean and organized. I quickly discovered that they didn’t have any overalls, but by that point I didn’t care anymore because I’d found the rack with my shirt size and was having a good time perusing it.

What’s so great about a thrift shop?


This store had some really good brands. People in DC spend a lot on clothing, but it’s nice to see their lightly used items being recycled! The shelves were filled with everything from Banana Republic to Calvin Klein to Loft (one of my favorite stores). Not everything was a gem, but there was enough for me to find about eight items to try on.


Everything was in really good shape. I found nothing that had stains, holes, or anything else that would suggest someone else once owned and wore these clothes. Some items were wrinkled, that’s about it.


Everything I took into the dressing room was between $7-$13, even the two sport jackets (Banana Republic & Ann Taylor). Not too shabby.

When not to shop at a thrift shop?

Don’t buy something at a thrift shop if you answer “no” to any of these questions:

  1. Is this versatile and well-made?
  2. Do you love it? Does it look great on you?
  3. Is this something you’ve been thinking about getting for a while?
  4. Do you have the money?

Even though the stuff is cheap, you still shouldn’t buy something you don’t need!

I got two shifts for $18.

Thrift Shop Finds

Thrift Shop Finds

I could potentially be hooked. Next time I need something, I know where I’m going first.

Have you found a good thrift store? Where is your favorite place to buy used?

New Year, New Goal: Happy Anniversary to my Minimalist Project!

One year ago this week, I set out to achieve a goal:

By September 22, 2015, I will “earn” $25K by reducing spending, getting rid of things we don’t need, or earning a little extra doing something I love.

That date was last Tuesday, so how did I do against that goal?!

I earned $10,330.51!!

Do I feel bad about missing the larger $25K goal? Absolutely not. This has been one of the best, most enlightening projects I’ve ever done! I also realized halfway through that tying this journey to a dollar amount was a pretty terrible idea.

#1 Lesson Learned

Why? Because it’s not the money that matters, the real reason to embrace having less “stuff” is that it leads directly to having more time.

Time to spend with the people you love

Time to travel

Time to learn a new hobby

Time to try a new recipe

Time to relax

Time to read

Time to learn

Time to be you.

Time is the only thing that matters and this year I’ve given myself a lot more time.

How I Saved $10,000

I also ended up saving a substantial amount of money that I otherwise wouldn’t have. Who wouldn’t want an extra $10,000? That’s huge! Where did that come from?

  • $1288.67: We refinanced into a lower cost mortgage in March and since then have saved over $1000.
  • $4219.77: This is the amount we’ve saved simply by not buying extra stuff we don’t need for the house (furniture, knick knacks, etc). It’s amazing to see this amount consolidated into one number. That’s a lot of money that I’m happy I still have.
  • $1410: We paid off our car with our tax return and have been saving the extra funds.
  • $3412.07: This is miscellaneous savings. Extra funds from coming in under budget on groceries, bills, and other budget categories. We saved most of the money from raises we were lucky enough to get this year, I sold a few things, and saved all of the interest earned on various accounts.

If I’d had more motivation to make money, I also would have tried harder to sell some of the items we de-owned. I have a huge pile downstairs of the things I’ve earmarked through the KonMari Method. The only reason this stuff is still around is – quite frankly – because I’m being a bit lazy. However, I like to think of my laziness simply as prioritizing time spent with the kids in the evening over making progress on this goal. It will be donated or sold by the end of the year.

Stuff We're Getting Rid Of

Stuff We’re Getting Rid Of This Year

New Goal

I loved this project so much that, for the next year, I’ve decided to continue it, but with a slightly different goal:

Over the next year (by Sept 30, 2016), I will finish organizing using the KonMari Method and then concentrate on finding at least two hours a day to work toward long-term goals such as starting my own business and writing a book.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me and joined me in the past year! Especially my husband, Nathan, our two daughters and my friend, Jossie, who have all gone above and beyond in their support this year.

Here’s to another great year!

Mortgage Refinance Lessons Learned

Mortgage Refinance Lessons Learned

Home, Sweet Home

Housing in and around DC is expensive, but we love our house and our neighborhood. I wouldn’t mind if it were smaller (in fact, if my spouse would let me, I’d begin construction on a tiny house in Montana tomorrow), but the fact remains that I couldn’t think of a better place to raise our family right now.

We bought our house nearly three years ago, without anywhere near 20% down, so we’ve been paying Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) — $8250 so far, to be exact. It’s an incredible waste of money.

So a few months ago, I started researching how to get rid of PMI and we finally decided to refinance. I naively thought that it would be a breeze because we already own the house, so we wouldn’t have to wait for a specific closing date, right? Sign the papers and bam we’ve got a new mortgage! Wrong.

We chose PNC Mortgage because we already have a checking account at PNC and the rates and fees were decently competitive. We applied officially on January 8, but didn’t close until March 9. First, the paperwork came, but was laden with errors. (For example, Nathan’s social security number and birthday were wrong. Apparently the bank wasn’t worried that I’d married a 63-year-old Park Ranger.) It took a month and a half to get that changed. Later our house was listed as being in Georgia. The change to put us in the right state (Virginia) was not made officially until the closing day. Day after day something new would go wrong. The loan processor would disappear for extended “sick leave” or “vacation” or the bank would wait until the last minute to check our employment status or file for the new title. As the closing date drew near, we had to sit through our loan officer and loan processor yelling at each other via email. It was the most unprofessional process I’ve ever been through. While we waited, the fees rose a bit and our target closing date of Feb 26 came and went without the bank proactively keeping us in the loop. I had to pay another month of our expensive mortgage and squeeze in a closing date between travel and a major quarterly meeting. The rates had since gone up, so we were stuck with PNC’s locked-in rate unless we wanted to pay a lot more over the life of the loan to switch banks.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Mortgage Refinance Lessons Learned

  1. I wouldn’t use PNC Mortgage again. Ask friends for referrals (which I did) and be patient enough (which I was not) to use one of them instead of someone you find on your own.
  2. Set expectations low and be patient. Refinancing is a major pain and takes a long time. Be prepared for that when you start.
  3. Refinance at a time when you’re not busy. Just like buying a house, it takes a lot of back and forth to refinance. Do it when you’re not busy and at a time when you won’t be out of town around closing day.
  4. Save what you save. It was easy to start thinking about where I’d re-appropriate the money saved, but instead of finding a creative way to spend our newfound cash, I’m saving it. It will likely go into a major home maintenance project someday, but for now, it’s just earning me interest in the bank.
  5. It was worth it. We saved nearly $400 a month after refinancing and many thousands of dollars over the life of the loan. There are many calculators like this one and this one that can help you decide whether to refinance and will show you how long you need to stay in your home to start making a return on investment.

Do you have any refinancing advice? Share it!

Why I Love the Library

Library BookWhen I first bought my Kindle, I used it all the time. I could have most books delivered in a matter of seconds and could take a dozen of them with me on vacation (or on my lengthy commute) by carrying something that was less than the size and weight of one typical book. I still think this is pretty amazing.

However, my Kindle got me into the habit of buying books whenever I needed one. I wouldn’t even look anywhere else; I would just buy.

Years later we had kids and that reminded me of a wonderful pastime from my own childhood: our family’s weekly trips to the library. Kids go through so many books that there’s no way you can pay for them all. Suddenly, instead of being a forgotten building that I never used, the library became a treasure trove of not only books, but quality time spent with my children. When money started to feel tight after we moved to DC, my habit of spending money on my Kindle was one of the first to go. I used to spend at least $20 a month on books, but now I only make a Kindle purchase when I absolutely have to and I almost never buy a regular, physical book.

Why I Love the Library

  1. It’s free. Enough said.
  2. Book delivery: Large library systems (like ours in Fairfax County, VA) have many branches and will deliver the book we want to our local branch. It takes a few days, but it saves you lots of time.
  3. Holds: Hold requests allow you to get in line for a book and be notified when it’s available. Then, you can just pop into the library, grab the book, and pop out again. Yes, you do have to wait for popular books, but that just gives you time to finish the stack you already have.
  4. Quality Time: Most libraries have a great children’s section with comfy chairs and small tables. My kids can spend a lot of time there.
  5. Reading programs: Libraries put on great, free programs all the time. It’s the perfect way to entertain your kids on a cold winter day.
  6. Requests: Many libraries let you request books they don’t have. While there’s no guarantee that they’ll get them, if you can wait, this is a nice alternative to buying the book.
  7. Donations: Libraries also accept donations! You can bring your stacks of unused books to the library and write them off on your taxes. We traded in at least 30 books last year for an estimated tax deduction of $2-$9 each.
  8. E-Books: Most libraries carry a limited selection of e-books, so you can still enjoy the benefits of your kindle without paying a cent.

How to Search the Library’s Website

There is one thing I really hate about the library. Most of them have horrible website search systems that are nearly useless. While I am optimistic that someone will improve this system and make it easier to find books, my best advice is to know which book you want before trying to find it at the library. For me, that means searching on Amazon first, then, instead of using the library’s “Subject” search, search on the author or exact title in quotes.

Library Search

Library Search by Title

If you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for ahead of time, find something close, figure out which section of the library it’s in and then browse the nearby similar titles.

I estimate I’m saving $100-$200 per year at the library. Are you?

Find your local library here.


Tax Refunds

tax refund trip

2013 Tax Refund Trip

I realized this month that my goal of saving $25,000 in one year may have been a bit shortsighted and possibly detrimental to my real goal, which was to live more simply and not waste money. Saving that much cash is great if you don’t have any debt and if you don’t bypass future growth opportunities.

We got a large tax refund this year, partially thanks to all of the items that we donated, but mostly due to the interest on our expensive DC-area mortgage and a miscalculated W4. Because I had been working so hard on this goal, my first inclination was to just save the money in my savings account, which earns less than 1% in interest per year. Any other year I would have immediately recognized a smarter opportunity and taken it. We finally had enough money to pay off our car.

That’s eventually what we did. The 3.5% interest paid on our Subaru Outback was far greater than the interest earned in the bank, plus now we have an extra $400 buffer each month, which we can save for the next car (and eliminate the need to have another car loan…ever.)

It scares me a bit that the pursuit of this goal kept me from making this decision faster. However, given the fact that my first thought was to save the money instead of spend it is definitely a step in the right direction. I’ll keep pursuing the original goal, but I’m going to take my blinders off and make sure I do what’s best in the long run too. Here are some great, minimalist ways to use a tax refund.

Seven Smart Ways to Use a Tax Refund

  1. Pay off debt
  2. Rebuild an emergency fund
  3. Boost retirement or college savings
  4. Invest in a necessary home repair
  5. Take a class
  6. Give it away
  7. Invest in your memory bank (i.e. take a trip)!

The last one is my personal favorite. More great suggestions from lifehacker here. Happy saving!

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