Enjoy Your Engagement

As I’ve rambled on about before, I learned a lot in planning my wedding and would do lots of things different if I had a time machine. I don’t though, so let me pass on some tips to you! So many of the lessons I came away with after my wedding could come to one simple thing: I wish I had enjoyed my engagement, and the whole process, more. I get it: It’s super easy to get caught up in the details. You want to plan the BEST day ever and completely lose yourself while striving for a Pinterest perfect wedding. But it could come at a cost. Your sanity.

Save yourself from an embarrassing meltdown like I had and avoid having regrets.

enjoying your engagement tip picture

So without further ado, here’s some of my own tips for enjoying your engagement to the fullest:

-Be organized without overdoing it. Not everything needs to be color-coded and meticulously organized, but you do need a basic system so that you can easily find something when you need it. Keep all your wedding items and papers in one place (the corner of a spare bedroom or closet is great), and have a binder or folder with the most important papers, including a checklist, phone numbers of vendors, etc., that you can take with you to appointments or planning sessions with your bridal party.

-Ask for help! Seriously. Don’t suck it up and do it all yourself like I tried to, because you simply can’t do it unless you find a way to live without sleep. Enlist your bridal party, parents, crafty friends, co-workers, whoever you can get. Bribe them with candy. Whatever it takes to get some assistance in any area you need. And revel in the great people in your life that are willing to take time out of their day for you!

-Stick to (and make) a budget. When you get to the point you’ve realized you’ve overspent, there’s probably not much you can do to take it back, so don’t let it happen in the first place. Remember that it’s more important to invest in your marriage, not your wedding.

-Breathe. If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, sit back, close your eyes for a minute and simply breathe deeply. It’s crazy how much something as simple as that can help you calm down. If that’s not enough, walk away and do something else for awhile. Try yoga even!

-Have plenty of date nights with your fiancé. Make time for each other and be in the moment! It’s so important to not let your relationship slide to the back burner during this time. You’re engaged! Enjoy it! Prioritize spending quality time together and find fun ways to connect. I think it’s also important to talk a lot. Get to know each other on a deeper level. Ask each other hard questions. It’s amazing what you learn about your partner when you take the time to ask!

-Make lots of time for you. Go ahead, get massages leading up to the big day, schedule a facial and plenty of pedicures! Pamper yourself, because loving yourself is important too. If you’re tight on money, have an at-home spa day, or devote one entire weekend day to reading on the couch with your fave beverage. Go for a long walk in the park. Whatever it takes to relax your mind, have some fun and recharge your battery without doing anything wedding-related.

-Think about your expectations of your husband, bridal party and close family members and communicate to them what EXACTLY you want out of them. Never assume anything. (I assumed my mom would show up to help me get ready before the ceremony, but she didn’t because I didn’t tell her to be there. She simply didn’t know and wanted to help make sure the church was prepared and greet guests as they arrived, which was nice, but not what I had envisioned. That is 100% my fault.)

-Stick to your guns. Don’t let anyone else persuade you from wandering from your wedding-day dreams. If you really truly want to walk down the aisle to Spice Girls, do it. If you want to serve broccoli-flavored cake, do it. Who cares if someone thinks it’s weird or untraditional. It’s your day. Do what YOU want. They have/had their own day to do what they want.

-Accept the fact that things more than likely will go wrong on your wedding day and leading up to it. You probably will be disappointed in something, someone will make your big day all about them, and people you thought you could rely on may fail you. And as much as all of that sucks, it’s completely normal and there’s nothing you can do about it.

-Remember the big picture. What’s most important at the end of the day is that you get to marry the man (or woman!) you love. View your wedding as a success if that happens. As long as you and your spouse are happy with your decisions, you’re set.

The reason I think it’s so important to have an enjoyable engagement is so that you can carry it into your upcoming marriage. You want to set a good tone for your new life together. You don’t want to go into it frantic and frazzled! You (probably) only get to be engaged once, so you want to be able to look back on that time of your life and smile. It’s a happy time; enjoy it!

My Favorite Wedding Planning Books

When I was planning my wedding, I overresearched everything. I subscribed to tons of websites and wedding newsletters, got tons of magazines and books and scoured message boards. What I found was that most actually weren’t that helpful. None of the bridal magazines taught me anything, and much of the information everywhere was either common sense, or the same tips regurgitated over and over.

However, there were a few that actually were useful. Ones that I bookmarked, dog-eared and referred to several times. These are my highly recommended wedding reads!

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Of course, The Knot website is well known, but I also found it the most comprehensive website out there for all my needs. I also used its virtual checklist to keep track of my to-dos, made my wedding website there, researched vendors and read tips lists, but I most loved their wedding shop. Their prices rivaled other websites and stores, and I bought about half of my decorations and ceremony/reception items from them. They also always had great sales and coupons, so I saved a good amount of money by ordering there too.

Real Simple Weddings. This book was given to me as a gift from a sweet co-worker who told me her sister found it super helpful in planning her wedding. It had chapters for all the big things to plan for in your wedding. It overviewed the different types of dress shapes, flower types for your bouquets, and had the most comprehensive checklist of any source I found. This was the first book I had that really helped me get a handle on planning.

The Knot Book of Wedding Lists. It’s no secret. I love lists. For everything I do in my life. This book had a list for every possible thing to consider in planning, and I found many of them incredibly helpful. Questions to ask your vendors. Order of events for the ceremony and reception. Items to put in guests’ welcome bags. Things to consider for the rehearsal dinner. Duties for the wedding party. Types of stationery to consider. Sample invitation wording. List of shots for the photographer. Dress types for you and bridesmaids. Items to have in your day-of bag. Top reception songs. Items to put on your registry. Organizing your honeymoon. Loved this book.

The Nest Newlywed Handbook. Another book from the folks from The Knot. This one was what I read on our honeymoon. It had great tips for starting your married life together. Tips for combining finances, dealing with new insurance choices, buying your first home, decorating as a couple, throwing parties, having date nights, combining families and dealing with in-laws, starting your family and having children, communicating as a couple, and your futures together. But what I liked most about this book was its list of questions at the end of each chapter. They were questions to ask your spouse and discuss together to get to know eachother and expectations better. One night on our honeymoon we went over most of them, and it was really nice to have those questions to prompt our discussions. Some of the questions included: What aspect of your parents’ relationship do you most admire? Say I get a surprise bonus…do we splurge on something big or save it for a rainy day? What belonging of mine would you throw out first? Who are the five friends you most hope to still have in ten years? What will happen when our parents get old?

The other book pictured that I didn’t write about is one that my husband read. It had very thoughtful ideas on marriage and comes very highly recommended. It’s on my to-read list when I get caught up.

For any newlyweds or future brides, I hope you find these as helpful as I did! For any married ladies, what other resources did you find most helpful in planning your wedding?

How I’m Digging Myself Out of Debt (with Actual Numbers)!

credit card debt how to pay offI’ve talked on this blog before about how I made some really bad financial decisions, especially related to my wedding. I had no self control. If I saw something and liked it, I threw it on plastic, never once paying attention to my balance, interest rate or fees. Then one day as I was paying bills, I realized that even though I’ve been paying the minimum payment every month on my cards, the total balance was still going up on some. That’s when I looked at the terms of my credit cards and realized how bad my situation was. It was worse than I ever thought it would be, and it was out of complete carelessness. I realized that if I was ever going to afford a house or a child, I had to make big changes quick. I decided to get my act together, tackle my debt, make a budget a financial plan to try and right my wrongs and get back on track.

I’m going to be very honest and open with my financial situation here. I know a lot of people are scared to reveal actual numbers, and I am too, but for the sake of being open and maybe possibly helping someone else, I’ll let it all out. Numbers and all. It’s incredibly embarassing to admit for me, and please don’t judge. Here we go.

The Problem

I had a total of 11 credit cards. ELEVEN. At the height of it all, one month after my wedding, I carried around approximately $8,500 in total credit card debt. (Plus some more lost money in overdraft fees from my always-low checking account.) It was a lot for me.

It started out innocently enough. My senior year of high school I signed up for my first credit card at Express as a way of building some credit in the first place. I barely used it that first year at all. Then I got one at Victoria’s Secret in college because I worked there. I did pretty good with these two cards at first. But then it got out of control fast. I saw how easy it was to manage these two so I thought surely I could get some more and it’d be no biggie. I was lured into nearly all of them by sales associates talking me into the sign-up savings. How could I NOT save an extra 15% on those new pants at Macy’s?! There was no harm, right? Wrong. I said yes way too many times to that sales pitch at the register.

It only got worse. For a work trip at my former job, my checking account balance was super low and I knew I wouldn’t be able to even afford to buy meals for the week. At that job, we got reimbursed for expenses after the trip, so I had to find a way of funding my expenses upfront. Signed up for a new credit card before the trip and used it frequently. Got home and decided I wanted a new laptop so bought one with that same card. Then around wedding time, I was again lured into saving on our wedding bands, my dress, the groosmen’s tuxes AND our honeymoon flight by getting even more new cards. Oh yeah, and the entire time I was also eating out frequently, ordering delivery, getting fast food and shopping far too much. All on my cards.

The reality is, I saved nothing. I lost a lot. I never asked the credit card terms before signing up and got hit with loads of finance charges, high interest rates and who knows what else. Knowing that all that money could have gone toward my house savings infuriated me. I hated myself for being so irresponsible. But wallowing doesn’t fix anything so I had to get serious.

The Solution

First I called my mom and confessed the trouble I got myself in. She agreed to “allow” me to dip into the savings account she had set up for me as an emergency/house fund to start chipping away at the debt. But to figure out which card needed paying off the most, I had to make a list (yay lists!). My first step was to make a spreadsheet detailing all my cards, interest rate, total balance, available credit and any yearly fees or other terms worth keeping in mind. I took $800 out of my house fund to pay off one card entirely – Zales, which had the highest interest rate of them all (28.99%! *cringe*).

Then for awhile after, I just paid a little more than the minimum due on all my cards. It was something, but it wasn’t enough. Enter Amberly. I found her Money & Marriage series and was intrigued. She introduced me to Dave Ramsey, and that very day I instituted his debt snowball. Slowly I started getting those balances down but only was able to close a couple cards that had small balances to begin with. I did feel victories with each, but I was egaer to knock the big ones out.

…and then my tax return came. Hallelujah! I got the biggest return I ever have thanks to filing as married for the first time. Together, Cal and I got $2,850, and we decided to split it in half. I applied every cent of that return to my credit cards (and his all went to his own student loan debt, which is another story in itself). With that, I was able to pay off two more cards entirely and half the balance of the card with the biggest total balance and next highest interest rate. This was the biggest win I have felt yet, and it feels so good.

I now only have four cards with balances, and with the money I’m saving from no more payments on those other cards, I can chip away at these four much more quickly. I also put a freeze on my remaining cards. I only actually carry one card with me to use in absolute emergency (which I did have to once when my car died on the side of the road and I simply didn’t have enough money in my checking at the time to cover the repairs). Otherwise, if I don’t have enough money in my checking or it’s not budgeted for, I don’t buy it. With continued hard work, I think and hope I can knock these last four out by the end of this year.

I also took some other small steps to cut back on spending itself. I started meal planning, which is saving me so much on eating out, buying groceries and wasting food. I coupon more. I took freelance jobs to have more money coming in. And in general, I try to live on less. That sometimes translates to saying no to fun things you otherwise would have said yes to. I declined concerts with friends, eating out, going for drinks and traveling to places that would require spending too much. And now when I do go out, you can bet it’s with a coupon or to catch a happy hour special. To go along with the new me, I wanted to do a good big clean up at our apartment, and I purged tons of items and donated them. Less stuff = less clutter = less stress = less spending.

I also knew it was important to get my savings account built up again, so I changed my direct deposit at work to send $20 every month straight into it, and I have vowed to not touch it again, pending disaster, emergency or when we’re ready to use it to buy a house. It’s not a big contribution, but it’s better than nothing. I should also note that I compared just about every bank in my town and picked out the one savings account at the one credit union that would yield the most interest earned and lowest (read: no) fees. Seeing that savings number very slowly go up again gives me even more confidence. Little steps lead to big changes, I’m telling you.

Not gonna lie. Getting your finances back on track is TOUGH. I’ve slipped a few times, but I try to make up for it and am far more aware of it now. Getting closer to my end goal of being debt free with a nice savings and owning a home is so worth it.

I’ve seen a lot improvement already. Freeing up paying so many cards has given me more money to work with paying off the ones that are left. In turn, my credit score is going back up and my credit utilizaton rate (or total balance versus available credit) is pretty darn good too.

I should note as well that I’m purposely keeping all my paid off cards open a little longer. I’m saying no to temptation to use them by stashing them in my nightstand and never carrying them with me. But to keep that credit utilization low, I need that total credit to be high as my balances get lower. This gives me a better overall credit score and will work in my favor when we do apply for a home loan. As soon as we’re to that point and the loan has gone though, I plan to close at least half of my cards.

What I’ve also learned is that now that I’ve changed my bad behaviors, there are benefits to keeping just a few cards. I plan to keep Victoria’s Secret and Express simply for the discounts and rewards from each store, but will always pay off all balances immediately. These two cards were never a problem for me in the first place, so it makes sense to keep them. I’m also keeping Tires Plus because the card has good terms and is peace of mind in case one of our cars needs a repair more costly than we can afford in our checking. I’ll be keeping my Wells Fargo visa as the general emergency card because it has the lowest interest rate of them all (9%! what what!). I’m on the fence about keeping my Target card though. I like that I get 5% off using it, but it’s been the card that I’ve got in the most trouble with, and the interest rate and fees are higher than I’d like. I may keep it for awhile and see if I can keep self control having it but stick to paying it off right away.

This all being said, my last point is that just because I’m on a budget and am trying hard to pay off debt, doesn’t mean I allow myself no fun. You have to make some exceptions now and then, or else you become so upset with all work and no play that you self sabotage. Like I mentioned, I still go out occasionally, but when I do, it’s with coupons or for happy hour deals, or I try to find free things to do with friends instead. I say yes to far fewer concerts than I once did, but I make exceptions for events that I absolutely love. An Alice in Wonderland ballet will be happening here in April and I splurged on tickets to see that because I know I will love it.

I also prioritized my other expenses outside of credit cards to find other places to cut back. I rate shopped for car insurance to make sure I was getting the best deal for the best coverage (and I am. Progressive FTW!). I’m going to cut out the DVD plan on our Netflix and only have streaming. We got rid of our garage at our apartment to save $30 a month on renting that. I only pay for one fecal test at the vet now (instead of two because if one has worms the other will too! durr.). One thing that’s super important to me though is TV. I pay a lot for DirecTV every month, but it’s an expense I find worth it. I LOVE my TV, and while I could live without it or with a cheaper plan, right now it’s simply not something I’m willing to give up. #Sorrynotsorry.

Tips for You: My Takeaway

-Check out Dave Ramsey’s resources. His “seven baby steps to financial peace” helped inspire me a lot and start my financial plan, including the debt snowball.

-Comparison shop for banks and make sure you’re at the instituation where you can get the highest interest and lowest fees. Also shop for new car insurance, TV or Internet service, etc., to make sure you’re getting the best deal you can.

-Make a list and evaluate all of your monthly expenses and see where you can cut back. Try using Mint.com to track everything and help you budget.

-Find ways to earn extra income and put that toward either savings or paying off your debts. Take on freelance work, find a side job, sell some clothes, offer to clean your friends’ houses, babysit or mow lawns for a small fee, or if you’re crafty, set up a shop on Etsy. I firmly believe there’s always something you can do to make some money; you just might need to get creative.

-Make other lifestyle changes for an even bigger impact, including couponing, watching sales and specials, budgeting, meal planning, savings contributions, even the envelope system if you think that’s right for you.

-Give yourself goals and challenges to make sure you stay on track and build in accountability. I also like giving yourself rewards when you do well and discipline when I mess up.

-Don’t get too rigid or strict about it. Allow yourself to still have some fun!

Do you struggle with debt too? What tips do you have?

I want to garden

I do not have a green thumb. Two summers ago when I tried to keep a catnip plant alive, it died a gruesome death. When I was a child and my mom asked me to help her weed our family garden, I wanted to do anything but that.

But recently, something changed. I got into meal planning and cooking more. I grew more concerned with eating healthier and making better food choices. I tried new things, I bought more organic. And I feel a responsiblity to keep all of that up!

I really like the idea of being a little more self sustainable. No, I’m not gonna go all hippie farmer pioneer lady, but having some of the items I regularly buy anyway at the grocery be from my own garden sounds so good. No pesticides, no whatever else is on the stuff I buy at the store, plus hey, I’ll probably save some money.

I think having a garden is another one of those things I relate to being a grown up. I love trying new things that make me feel like a wife, and maybe possibly a mom sometime. Heck, I never once flipped over to HGTV until I was married! And I kind of love it. My husband even seems excited by the idea!

With that being said, I need some help. I have no idea what to do or where to start. Disclaimer: We still live in an apartment, so any gardening would need to be out of planters/pots/trays/tubs on our patio. I know tomatoes are easy to grow, but neither of us like them and have no interest in ever having one in our house. So that aside, what are some of the easiest plants to grow? So far I’ve heard cucumbers, leaf lettuce and peppers. I would LOVE to have some asparagus and carrots too, though word on the street is they’re harder. What are some successes you’ve had, readers? What other tips can you give? Where do I start? What do I buy at the store? How often do I water? How long will it take to have actual food?

I may fail miserably at this, but it’s something I’m really excited to try.

Wedding Planning Tips & Lessons Learned

For work a little while ago (I help a local wedding venue with their social media and marketing), we decided to create a little handout to use in mailings and at wedding shows; something that would be informational and helpful to brides. Thankfully I had plenty of personal inspiration to draw from my own recent wedding.

It’s sort of text-heavy from this view, but the front is designed all pretty and such. Here’s my tips:

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-Start early. The more you do early on, the less you stress as your big day comes nearer.

-Be budget smart but splurge on the big stuff. While you may need to go outside your budget once in a while, you also don’t want to create large debt that follows you into long into your married life. It’s OK to skip the personalized reception napkins and welcome bags for out-of-town guests if it means you get the best photographer and tastiest food.

-Be you. You want your wedding to reflect your personalities as a couple, so break a few rules and insert special touches and moments into your day.

-Enlist the help of friends. Ask your crafty aunt and/or super organized friend to help you with the details. Making favors with friends is fun, and saves you money!

-Register wisely. Sure, you want to scan every kitchen knick-knack you see, but winding up with five different toasters doesn’t do you much good. Register for what you truly need first, then allow both your and your fiancé a couple of fun items too.

-Relax. You (probably) only get to be engaged once.  Savor the experience and don’t get too caught up in minor details. Remember, no matter how the day goes, you’ll still get to marry the love of your life.

-Be present. Your wedding day could be a blur, so make sure to cherish every moment with the special people in your life. Let your mom and girlfriends be there for you, and sneak off for some alone time with your man.

-If you’re not leaving right away for your honeymoon, invite guests to a day-after brunch. This gives you more time to visit with the people who came a long way that you didn’t get much time to catch up with.

-Honeymoon! You spent months planning the wedding of your dreams. Treat yourself to a relaxing break bonding as a married couple. You deserve it.

-Remember your vendors. You’ll make some great connections with various businesses, so show the extra-special ones some love with kind reviews online, referrals or even repeat business for future event needs.

The above was all very straightforward and “safe” for PR purposes, but for you bloggy friends, I’ll share a little more about some other regrets, and one embarrassing story.

Said embarrassing story goes like this: It’s maybe a month before the wedding, and it was just one of those days. I had entered into full-on panic mode a couple weeks prior. I had WAY too much left to do and not enough time to do it. I felt like I had to be superbride and do it all on my own (sure, I had my maid of honor help with a few things here and there along the way, but I didn’t ask for all the help that I hadn’t yet realized I needed). Hunting down missing RSVPs, doing seating charts, organizing schedules, assigning day-of tasks to family and friends, DIY-ing decorations, planning the honeymoon, writing our vows, I swear the list just did not end. One night after work when I was trying to tackle it all, I just had a meltdown. I had picked up some fast food for dinner, because who has time to cook when there’s a wedding to plan?! I was eating it with my then-fiancee and remember just feeling so overwhelmed and stressed and upset to begin with, but then the mushroom and swiss started dripping out of my burger and onto the couch and my clothes. I balled up the rest of the burger and angrily threw it in the bag. I moved on to my sundae. I had let it sit for too long, and it was drippy and soft. On the way from container to mouth, it fell. Enter meltdown. I screamed and put my hand in the container, picked up the rest of the ice cream and just smeared it on my face, shouting something to the extent of “I may as well miss my mouth because I can’t hit it even if I tried, and my life sucks and nothing is working,” then threw the rest of the ice cream on the coffee table and smeared it around.

My fiancee looked at me like he had just witnessed something straight out of one of those real housewives shows, and he had. But worse. About 30 seconds later, we laughed, because what I had just done was so ridiculous. And he cleaned up my whole mess. What a guy. That moment made me realize I was a hot mess and needed help.

Remnants of the table decorations

Remnants of the table decorations

Some time after, I gave him some to-dos and pleaded with my crafty friend to help me with the table numbers, escort cards and other crafty things I felt inadequate in my ability to do myself. She did, and thank God. Shortly after, we had a craft party at my apartment with me, four girlfriends, lots of colored paper, lace doilies, glue sticks and all sorts of unknown craft items she had brought with her. It was one of the best moments of the engagement. Not a big moment like the shower was, but a small victory. I had my wedding army, and we were attacking my to-do list. It felt amazing to accept help and get so much done. I really should have done it sooner. I didn’t get a great shot of my table numbers (dang!), but you can see one in this shot from the reception.

One other regret that I didn’t realize until recently was that I didn’t have a photo booth or disposable cameras at each table. I have plenty of photos of me and the bridal party, but not enough of my guests. I have some candid ones from the reception, but I really wish I had one nice posed photo of everyone who came. Sometimes I’ll have a hard time remembering who came, if they stayed for the reception, what they were wearing, etc. That day was such a blur that I just don’t remember as much as I would like. Sure, I have the guestbook, but it’s not the same. I want to see the smiling faces of everyone who came!

If I could get married again, I’d do a lot of things differently. But, that’s life, right? We live, we learn. I can’t go back in time, so for now, I at least get to help with my maid of honor, who is now engaged herself and guide her so she doesn’t make my same mistakes.

If you’re also married, what’s your biggest regret, or something that you learned? Did you have an epic meltdown like I did?