Interview with a Savings Expert: Kelly Whalen

Since 2009, Kelly Whalen has been the owner and editor in chief of The Centsible Life, her blog on family, finances, and “fulfilling your dreams” all while on a budget. Before Centsible Life, Kelly was Co-President of her community’s online forum. She also collaborates with Splash Creative Media in addition to running her own site.

As a proud stay-at-home mom of almost two decades, Kelly is well-equipped to talk about family matters and making money without leaving the house. We had the great pleasure of getting the chance to ask Kelly to share her story – take a look.  

Great to have you with us today. You mentioned that what inspired you to start The Centsible Life were your family’s experiences battling debt. Could you talk to us about how you think your family found itself in debt, when you realized you needed to take action, and what your first steps were for recovery?

Thanks for inviting me! It’s great to chat.

I started the Centsible Life when it became clear to me that I needed to learn to manage our money better. It goes back all the way to the beginning of our relationship though. We made a choice early on in our marriage to have me stay at home with our young kids. Living on one income was challenging, but we always found a way to make things work.

We always did fine, we had debt, but we’d pay it off, we had savings, but then we’d use them. We managed ok day-to-day, but we weren’t really doing well. When we moved into a new home about six years ago, things quickly got out of control. We had some minor debt, but it quickly became an issue as our new home was more expensive, needed repairs, and was more costly to maintain.

About a year after we bought our house I knew we were heading in the wrong direction, and started to take steps to manage our money better and get our debt under control. I started reading everything I could, participating in personal finance forums, and changing our financial lives step by step.

The first steps were to assess all of our accounts and get a handle on where we were starting. Then I thoroughly examined every expense we had. It was a slow process to change the direction of our finances, but we started to make headway in the opposite direction and watched our debt shrink. It was a great feeling, but we have had to continually work hard to keep going in the right direction when other expenses, repairs, and emergencies arose.

You’re a mother of four. You managed to find part-time work doing odd jobs and launch the site, even when you were raising your kids full time. How did you manage your schedule so that you didn’t go crazy, to put it bluntly?

The key is my husband. He is amazingly supportive and encouraged me to start my blog, and took on childcare duties whenever I needed to work. I was able to find good paying jobs that were on the weekends (childcare at a church nursery for instance) so they were easy to fit into our family life.

When I started my site, I worked whenever I could. I worked around his and the kids’ schedules, sometimes late at night, answering emails in the carpool line, or working while on a break from my job.

My family actually keeps me from going crazy. Spending time with them is always a way to remind me why I’m working hard. And when I needed a break, my husband had this amazing sixth sense for it and would send me off to have some alone or girlfriend time so I could recharge.

Children are expensive! A recent CNN report calculated the average cost to raise a child in America from birth to age 18 to be about a quarter of a million dollars. As a mother who’s frugally-minded, how did you go about cutting costs when it came to your kids?

Where to start? There are so many ways to keep costs down when it comes to kids. Buying gently used items, NOT buying all the things we supposedly ‘need,’ and finding frugal ways to keep kids busy and entertained.

Another big part chunk of those expenses comes from childcare and education. You can save hundreds of thousands of dollars by alternating schedules with your spouse, having one person work from home, or finding alternative childcare arrangements for your children. Where you live also plays a huge part in education costs and in general your cost of living, so consider where you ‘settle down’ carefully.

You make the argument that working a stay-at-home job can actually save you more than working a commuter job. For those of our readers interested in finding home employment, could you talk to us about the logistics of such a job, how to make that decision to stay at home, and also how to budget and stick to a personal schedule?

Making the transition may seem challenging, but in many careers it is possible. Even for jobs where you need to be in the office frequently, you can often work from home one or more days a week. To make the transition you’ll need to prove your case to your manager or supervisor, and be sure to remain diligent about getting tasks done from home.

If you’re looking for a new job or career from home, I always recommend looking at what skills and interests you have. For instance, you may have worked in sales, but if you have amazing sewing skills you could start a small alteration business or make custom pieces from home.

The logistics can be challenging, but it helps to have even a small space that’s dedicated to your work, and being organized can be a great way to stay on top of work without getting overwhelmed. You can read more on my site as part of the Work at Home series I shared.

One of your Best Times to Buy rules of thumb for saving money is to plan a shopping schedule a year in advance. I can’t even plan what I’m going to have for breakfast tomorrow. When you go about making projections into your future spending, what are three or four things you consider for purchases down the road?

It is overwhelming with how much we juggle to think that far ahead. The key for me has been blocking off about an hour or so each week where I pay bills, update financial accounts, and track upcoming purchases and plan savings for larger purchases.

It helps to have categories such as home repairs, renovations, appliances, clothing, vacations, and of course things like school supplies, and holiday or birthday shopping. Breaking down all the things you’ll need into smaller chunks and more manageable dollar amounts can be a huge help.

It seems like you and your husband are on the same page when it comes to financial planning. Is that right? Spousal cooperation is no doubt a prerequisite to a stable, debt-free household. How do you two discuss financial matters, and, if ever, when you disagree about something, how do you resolve the issue?

For the most part, we are on the same page. Since I tend to be organized, I manage the day-to-day and bill paying, and check in with him each week. We also have a rule about checking in with each other about purchases that go beyond our monthly ‘allowance.’

We definitely disagree, but in the end we can always come to a mutual compromise that works for both of us. It takes some back and forth, and sometimes we need to we take a ‘cooling off’ period until we can set aside the emotional component to discuss it pragmatically.

A whole section of your site is dedicated to Tips & Tricks to save money. What are three of your foxiest tricks that might not be that obvious, but sure are effective?  

1. Keep membership cards and coupons in your purse or car. If you don’t have a physical coupon, take a few seconds to Google coupons and the store or restaurant’s name before you even set foot inside. This can save you hundreds of dollars!

2. Evaluate your spending and bills every 2-3 months. Your spending isn’t always in line with what you value. For instance, you may be saving up for a once in a lifetime trip, and seeing $150 go to your cable company each month isn’t in line with that goal. It helps to evaluate these numbers on a year-long basis, so that $50/month you save adds up to $600 for the year!

3. Have a one in, one out rule. Clutter can cause chaos, take up time and money, and cause stress. It’s easy to curb the clutter by getting rid of things as you bring new items into your home. Additionally, this allows you to donate items which can add up to a hefty tax deduction.

When you’re planning Do-It-Yourself (DIY) jobs around the house, how do you know what’s something you can accomplish, and when you need to call in a professional? Where’s that line? Is it financial or physical, or both?

Spend time researching your projects before you jump in should give you an idea pretty quickly if it is within your scope or not, since you’ll be able to find advice and information from all kinds of websites and blogs.

As long as you’re physically able, most projects can be DIYed. They may take longer, but the savings are often worth it. Of course, running the numbers will pretty easily tell you how expensive the tools and materials needed would be, and if you are considering hiring someone for a job, you’ll want to get multiple quotes.

I always recommend calling in a professional (or family member or friend) who is trained for projects that could lead to large repair bills if a mistake is made. For instance, you may not feel comfortable doing any electrical wiring in the walls, even if you feel confident enough to hang a new lighting fixture.

In most cases, you’ll know when not to DIY when the bill is something you’re willing to pay for the sake of not doing the work!

In our home, we’ve hired out for major tree work, plumbing work that we couldn’t accomplish ourselves, and carpeting. All of the projects were beyond our physical capabilities or knowledge, and while hiring a professional can be pricey, we felt it was money well spent. By saving in other areas (like by DIYing the majority of our family room gut remodel), the costs don’t blow our budget.

You’ve got a Life List – a list of things you want to accomplish. How’s it coming? How did you come up with it? Do you think you’ll be able to do it? Do you try and fit everything into your budget, or are you willing to splurge a little?

I was inspired to start my Life List by seeing similar lists on other websites and blogs. It’s a constantly evolving list! I won’t ever truly be ‘done’ with it, and I’m always adding to it when a new idea strikes me. I’m definitely willing to splurge when it comes to life experiences. By saving in other areas, I can really enjoy those experiences to their fullest.

Thanks for taking to time to speak with us today, Kelly. We really appreciate it. Is there anything you’d like to tell our readers before we let you go?

Thanks for having me! I always like to remind my readers that living centsibly is less about being frugal or cheap in every area of life. Living a centsible life is making smart choices so you can spend on the things that truly matter to you. 

Like this interview? Check out the rest of our Interview with a Savings Expert series. Have a question for an expert or someone you want to see interviewed? Tweet your suggestions with #SavingsExperts to @CouponPal!

By: Seth

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