Debt Snowball Progress- January 2018

This month I learned something that just might be a game changer for realizing our financial goals. We need to treat them like one big game. That helps to bring out our competitive side.

If it’s a game, we will find every which way, without cheating, to win.

We Gerkens, don’t like to lose!

Remember we’re a gamer family, so friendly competition is our thing.

Mid-January I entered receipts from our Sunday basket and was surprised to see the amount of money we had left in our food category (eating out and groceries). It’s no secret that I have a serious love/hate relationship with menu planning. I hate to do it, but I love how much money, time, and headache it saves us at dinner time.

I knew we could come in under or at budget for the food category if we seriously buckled down.

This meant sitting down to figure out what we were going to eat for dinner for the remaining 12 days in January. After deciding on a menu plan, I made my grocery list and figured out what stores would have the best prices.


13 Fun and Free Activities To Do with Kids When You’re Stuck Inside

It’s cold, it’s dreary, and the days are short. You may be wondering if winter will ever end. Some people like winter; I’m not one of those people.

I don’t hate winter, but I’d be fine if winter only lasted one month. And in that month we enjoyed sunny skies, temperatures not below 30 degrees, the roads were clear for driving, but the fields and hills were covered in perfect white snow that could be used for sledding and building snowmen. It could happen, right?

Alright, so winter in the Midwest is never going to be like that, and with kids underfoot we need to find something to do to entertain them for the long, dreary, and cold days.

Don’t break the bank and make memories to last a lifetime the next time you are stuck inside. Your kids may even be begging to stay inside and play.

13 Fun, Free Indoor Winter Activities for Kids.

Bake or Cook

Have your kids join you in making a special treat or a fancy dinner for the whole family to enjoy. Look through recipe books or search Pinterest together to find something everyone is interested in eating.

Build a tent city

You can do this even if you don’t have kids’ pop-up tents or tunnels. Grab some sheets and chairs and get to work putting them up. It works best if you pick the largest room in the house and create multiple tents. Clothespins or clips of any kind work great for holding the sheets up. If you don’t have those, use heavy books  The bigger the sheet, the better. My kids created an entire room of tents, and the fun lasted a whole week. It only ended because I wanted my living room back.  You’ll be the coolest parent ever if you let them sleep in the tent too! (more…)

5 Biggest Challenges to Decluttering and How to Solve Them

You’ve decided to declutter and organize the hardest room in your house. Maybe it’s your basement, maybe it’s your storage closet. For me, it’s the office. This is the room in the house where paperwork goes to die — I mean be filed. Sometimes it feels like the challenges to decluttering outweigh the benefits, but I have solutions.

challenges to decluttering

It’s no secret I love to organize, but that doesn’t mean that everything I have is organized or that all of my spaces are organized. It simply means I love the process of organizing and even more so I LOVE the feeling of being organized.

Ever since I made the move to work from home I knew that our office needed to be organized so that I could be more productive. Hence my 2018 SMART goal.

Now the time has come to begin and I am overwhelmed just like so many of you. In fact, I am having complete paralysis of where to start. I want to help all of us overcome this paralysis and get started on our biggest clutter challenges.

If you, like me, are struggling with where and how to start, it’s okay. You are not alone, even lovers of organization struggle sometimes.

the office: a declutter challenge

How to Overcome the Challenges to Decluttering:

Challenge: I don’t have enough time to devote to complete the project.

Solution: You are not alone. Most of us cannot dedicate an entire weekend to one organization project, and even if you could, you may not want to. The solution is to devote just 15 minutes a day to the project. I know it doesn’t seem like you can get much done in 15 minutes, but you’ll be surprised. Set a timer, turn on some music, and get to work. Stop after 15 minutes and you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.


Challenge: I don’t have the space to empty everything out of the room to get started.

Solution: You don’t have to. Yes, it does seem ideal to empty out the room and slowly put only the items that you need and/or want back in. However, that’s just not feasible for most of us. Instead, you need to declutter first, which will make it look much messier at first. Then, reassemble the room in sections. Be sure you have your donation station set-up to make this process even easier.


Teach kids to save money, even if you’re still learning

Kids learn more from what we do than what we say. This is no different when it comes to money management. Modeling good money saving in your own life is the easiest way to teach kids to save money.

It seems that in our world of instant gratification, no one has to wait for anything. Patience is something that adults and children alike don’t get much practice with. You don’t have to wait for commercials on television. You can buy something and have it delivered in a day thanks to Amazon Prime. We are shocked when someone doesn’t respond immediately to our communication since email showed up on phones and text messaging became a thing.

Why in this world of instant gratification would we be shocked that kids are having a hard time learning to save money?

I want my kids to understand money management and I want them to know how to save money.

teach kids to save

There are definitely money decisions I wish I had made differently years ago, but there are far more things that I am thankful I did know about and did wisely.

Even if you are struggling with money management yourself, you can still help your kids learn to save money and overall money management skills.

In fact, watching you learn how to save and pay down debt can be a great lesson for your kids. Our debt snowball started after we had kids and our oldest, Cassidy understands our goal on a basic level. She knows that sometimes we say no to things because we are working on paying down debt. She also knows that nearly 10 years after her dad finished law school we are paying off the money it cost for him to go.

This is and will forever be a lesson in how student loans and student loan interest can impact your life for years to come. His student loan is older than she is!

cassidy counts her money

How to teach kids to save money:

Be open and honest.

Share some of your financial goals – age appropriate. I do not advocate for sharing all of your financial information with your children. This is an important part of explaining money to a child. It is okay to tell your kids they can’t have something at the store, because you don’t have extra money for it. However, you don’t want to share so much that your kids are worried that you don’t have enough money to live. In our family we talk openly about our debt snowball and how we are paying off a student loan. If you can’t afford a family vacation now, but it is a financial goal- share that information.


2017 Budget Recap & 2018 Financial Goals

financial goals

Happy New Year! This is going to be a great year.

You have to believe it to achieve it, right?

I love the newness and opportunity for a fresh start that a new year brings.

I’m excited for 2018, especially when it comes to our financial goals.

I get a little too excited to do our year in review financial statement. Yes, I know that makes me a huge nerd, but I’m okay with it. If you haven’t done one before be sure to check how and why to do a budget recap every year.

Last year was the first year we recapped our year in this format and also the first year we publicly stated our financial goals.

Our financial goals for 2017 were the following:

  1. Pay $20,000 towards student loan debt  (we paid $8,206)
  2. Average $650 spending or less on food every month (average was $796/month)
  3. Average spending on home supplies and improvement at $75 or less a month. (instead our average was $298/month)

Well we didn’t do so well on those, but it was our first year with such specific financial goals. One thing I will do differently in 2018 is to input the monthly income and expenses on the yearly spreadsheet at the end of each month. This will help us to monitor how we are doing throughout the year rather than just at the end of the year. Similar to how we track our monthly expenses on our everydollar budget throughout the month, rather than just at month’s end.

Annual budget recap sample

Sample year in review budget form. All you have to do is change the expense and income categories to the same ones you use from Everydollar or whatever budgeting system you use.


To The Person Struggling with Depression

struggling with depression

To the person struggling with depression,

Let me first say it loud and proud, “YOU ARE NOT ALONE.” No matter what you think, you are not alone. There are other people who struggle just like you and there are people to support you. Please, if you take nothing else away from my letter take this: YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

I know it feels lonely. Trust me, I know. The hardest thing you may have to do is to admit that you are struggling and ask for help. Depending on the depths of your depression, you may just need to communicate to a close friend or significant other that you need help and extra understanding. If it is just a minor holiday/winter blah funk, that is sufficient. If your depression is more than that, you should seek the additional support of a professional counselor.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Strong people ask for help. You may feel weak right now, but you are not. The strongest people I know are the ones who admit they need help and ask for it. It took me a long time to realize this and accept it as fact in my own life.

Don’t try to make sense out of your feelings, there may be none. Perhaps you have a great life with a wonderful family and no major worries to speak of. It doesn’t matter – you can still be depressed. It’s a funny thing depression. It’s not just an ailment for people who are struggling with finances, health crises or death of loved ones, though that is what many non-sufferers think. I don’t care how amazing your life is, you can still be depressed. Stop trying to convince yourself you shouldn’t be depressed because of how blessed and fortunate you are.  It will just make you beat yourself up more.

I have learned a few things about depression from my own experiences. Maybe they will help you, maybe they won’t. It never hurts to get ideas though. Please note that if you are suffering from depression beyond the normal “funk” you MUST see a professional. I won’t lie, that first phone call will not be easy, but you are STRONG. Asking for help is being strong, not weak! You are important and people need you to feel better.

One observation I have made is that there is a very important role in our lives that a “funk” fills. You cannot live life without some ups and downs. While I don’t love the feeling of being down and depressed, I do love the perspective it provides me afterwards.

I have found that after having a down, I appreciate the ups even more. It is typically after a bought of depression that I appreciate the happy feelings, the everyday joys of life and the simple things even more. I’m not sure that I would appreciate the beauty around me and the simple laugh of my daughters as much if I hadn’t struggled to find joy. Yes, I would appreciate them, but there is something to be said for the richness of those things after depression.

Also depression has allowed me to open up more to those around me about my truest feelings and insecurities. I don’t often admit openly that I don’t have it all together, but when depression hits I must. I have to ask for help, which is not (understatement of the year) easy for me. You must ask for help too. Trust me it does get easier.  I’m starting to get better at asking for help even in times when I’m not depressed.

I know there are people and circumstances where you still pretend to have it all together even when you don’t. I get it, we all do that and it’s okay. Not everyone needs to know that you’re having a rough time, but those closest to you do.

If you have kids or a pet, someone that relies on you, they can be the best helper for fighting depression.  Guess what, they don’t care if you are depressed. In my case I still have to be a mom. I still have to get up and get them ready for school. I still have to make food and buy groceries and read them stories at night. These might be the absolute last things I want to do, but I don’t have a choice. I really want to curl up in my pajamas and sit in a chair and wallow, but I can’t.

A great suggestion from my counselor was to do the opposite of what I want to do. She said if your body is telling you to sit and do nothing, you need to get up and go on a walk. It will make you feel better. If your body is telling you not to eat, you need to make yourself eat a nutritious meal. If your body is telling you to binge on cookies, you should eat a healthy snack instead. Continuing to do this will help to fight the depressing thoughts and feelings.

The things you want to do least during depression are the things you need to do most. Eat nutritious meals, exercise, and get enough, but not too much, sleep. You also need to make sure you are getting enough Vitamin D- this probably means a supplement during the winter months. If you can get out for a walk during the sunniest part of the day, that will help.

I know right now in the midst of this depression it feels like it will never get better, but it will. I promise there will be a day that you smile again without pretending. You will laugh again and appreciate the simple beauty all around you. In the meantime take care of yourself and be forgiving. Remember it’s okay to say “NO” and take things off your to-do list.

Remember you are NOT alone and you are strong.



Someone who has been there and cares about you


How to Completely Organize Your Home in One Year, and not feel overwhelmed

There is no end to organizing.

I know it’s not what you wanted to hear, but it’s the truth.

Just like there is no end to cleaning or laundry or making meals. As long as you live there will always be more to do.

You will find more peace in your life the sooner you accept this as a fact.

While there is no end, it doesn’t mean we can’t strive for more organization in our lives. Says the woman who loves to organize.

organized home in 12 months

For 2018, I have decided to try a new tactic for my organizing so that I don’t feel overwhelmed. I am going to tackle one room/area each month. Some are going to take a lot less time than others, so I will plan those accordingly.


How to Set SMART Goals

For the New Year I have a BIG goal:

I want to be more productive with my blog. 

Now that I do the majority of my work from home, my home office has become an integral part to my day. As a person who thrives on order and organization it is no surprise that a cluttered work space leads to a cluttered mind and decreased productivity.

I know exactly what I NEED to do to increase productivity. It’s just a matter of finding the time to do it. That is where this big goal comes into play. If I set my goal and make sure it is SMART, then I am far more likely to accomplish this goal.

SMART goals title

So my SMART goal is:

Specific: To organize my office and eliminate clutter.

Measurable: Surfaces (tabletops, desktop, floor) will be free of random papers, supplies and stuff. Systems will be set up to simplify where things go and where to find things. The desks, book shelves and file cabinets will be decluttered by January 19. I will have Brian’s game area and closet decluttered by January 28. I will decide on organizational flow by February 9. Finally, everything put away and systems in place by February 16. I will spend 15-30 minutes 5x a week working on the office decluttering and organization.


Debt Snowball Progress – December 2017

We did it!

No we’re not debt-free yet. Don’t worry that I’ll be shouting from the rooftops.

Another month closes on our debt snowball journey, and we are

getting closer to our dream of debt-free.

debt snowball progress

We may not be a lot closer, but if we don’t celebrate the small victories, we might lose sight of the prize.

Thanks to our Christmas budget, our December budget was not impacted whatsoever by the holidays.

Now is the perfect time to establish a Christmas budget for this coming year. It will take you about 30 minutes of work and will save you hours of a headache and worry next year.

We had a delightful holiday with family and friends, and we didn’t break the bank. There is no fear of opening our credit card statements this month because we have money from our budget to cover all expenses.

In fact, rather than worrying about our bills we get to enjoy a little extra money when we receive our Ebates cash back check, cash in our Ibotta money and cash in our credit card cash back. In total we will be getting about $200 back through these three avenues of shopping/spending for the last month.

I’m looking forward to sitting down with our budgets from the last year and recapping how 2017 was for us and setting new financial goals for 2018. Yes, I know this makes me a giant nerd, but I’m okay with that.

Besides if you don’t set goals and set them high then what are we working toward?

What would stop us from frivolous spending?

We were able to make a sizable extra payment on our student loans this month, and we are optimistic this momentum will keep up. After nearly ten years of no raise- thank you State of Illinois, I received a 3% raise that will start showing up in my paychecks this month. It’s not much, but after so many years without one, it seems monumental.

Unfortunately, even though Brian works for the same institution, his unit is not yet receiving the raise. Their union is currently in negotiations that have been ongoing for over 18 months. We are hopeful they will settle their contract soon, and if it includes back pay that will help us tremendously. I’m trying not to count my chickens before my eggs hatch, BUT it’s hard not to imagine how much that could move the needle our debt snowball.

Be sure to check out 2018 financial goals later this month, which will include a recap of our 2017 financial goals and whether we met them or not.

So here’s the update for December

Income report from December

Money from Varage Sale      $   22

Mileage check for work     $ 272


Total extra income                               $ 294


Extra from paychecks     $406


Amount extra put towards student loan      $700




Current outstanding student loan debt    $29,020


Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you choose to make a purchase. Thank you for your support in this way!

Megan’s Top Books of 2017

Who loves to read books?

Whose idea of the perfect night is a warm blanket curled up in a comfy chair with a good book?


Give me a book and some quiet time any day.

top reads of 2017

I have loved to read books ever since I learned how to read – 32 years ago.

Wow, I’ve been reading books for 32 years. I think that is something I am an expert at!

I remember begging my parents to let me stay up just a little bit longer to read a book. Then I’d hide under the covers with a flashlight to finish. Of course, now I know that my parents were onto me and could see the flashlight lighting up a book, but they pretended not to see.

I am forever grateful for the love of reading that my parents have instilled in me from an early age.

My parents read to me, and I saw my parents read. It was normal to see my mom lost in a good book.

This past year for the first time I set a reading challenge. Goodreads has a spot where you can set what your reading goal is for the year and then it tracks the total number as you mark them read.

I decided to set my goal at 52 books, one for each week. In February when I set the goal I didn’t know if it was realistic, but I figured I would try.  I reached my goal in October.

Did this mean I stopped reading?

Of course not, because I LOVE to read.

By the end of 2017 I had read 64 books.

I read all sorts of genres in all sorts of formats. However, I tend to read more mystery and literary fiction than any other genre though. I read on my Kindle app (not my favorite way to consume books), I listened to books while I drove and worked out, and I read actual books with a spine (still my favorite way to read).

Random fact: Did you know that reading and listening to a book activates the same part of your brain? To your brain there isn’t a difference.

Of the 64 books that I read this year, I only paid for two of them, and both were books that I knew I wanted on hand for reference later on. Two of the books I read, were gifted to Cassidy or me and all the rest were borrowed from the library.

As my sister says,

“did you know there is this place you can go and get a book, read it and then return it without spending any money?”

Why yes, yes I did.

I LOVE the library because I can get almost any book I want for free and it doesn’t clutter up my house. Sometimes I have to wait awhile for a popular or newly released book, but again did I mention the key word – FREE.  

Free and no clutter, my two favorite things.

I saved at least $600 by using the library instead of buying books.

There are times, very rarely, that I want to own a book. If that is the case, I will put it on my birthday or Christmas list or buy it for myself.

I want to pass along the top books I read in 2017. This does not mean they were published in 2017; it just means I read them this past year

Megan’s Top Books of 2017

Beartown by Fredrik Backman and You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott


I wanted to have a top 10, but someone came up with 10 ½ . This is where the 1/2 book comes in. It’s actually two books, but honestly, they are so similar I couldn’t justify separating them. Both involve towns rallying around a sport and its elite young players. In Beartown, it is ice hockey and in You Will Know Me it is gymnastics. In both books, there is an event that threatens to destroy the image of the athletes and will forever change the town and community.

I do not recommend one over the other, but advise that you don’t read them back to back. I read them several months apart and could appreciate them both without comparing too much. Both books are quick reads. I will caution you that there is a point in each book that you will have a hard time putting the books down.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown


This particular book I listened to the audio version of which I recommend. McKeown is informative and inspiring in his book about essentialism. He motivated me to focus on what’s important and forget the “fluff” stuff. It’s a great listen/read for anyone interested in simplifying their life whether it be work or home.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh


This is a book that I could not stop talking about once I read it. When a book makes my list it is usually because I simply enjoyed the book a lot, it made me think or inspired me somehow. That is still true of this book, but I also am amazed at how well written the story is. Clare wove a story that made me cry and sit in shock. In fact, at one crucial point in the book I stopped and started rereading earlier portions of the book to see what I missed. Caution, if you hit this crucial point in the book late at night, it will interfere with your sleep. I speak from experience.

The premise of the story is about a mom who is walking home from school with her son, and her son gets hits by a car. The story will make you cry all the while keeping you completely enthralled. Be prepared not to put this book down once you hit the midpoint.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng


While this is not a young adult book it could easily have been categorized that way as well. The majority of the characters are in high school, and it involves their interactions. The book opens with a family sitting outside their house that is burning to the ground. There are definite plot twists that make you wonder what is real and how the author will bring it back around to where it began.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid


Evelyn Hugo was an on-screen star who happened to have been married seven times. This fictional story walks you through her life with the aid of a young journalist who has been asked to tell her story. The question all of America wants to know: which husband was Evelyn’s one true love. The answer will shock you. Reid shares a love story like no other, while also delving into the many aspects of marriage and why and how some marriages work and others don’t.

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult


I have to first start by saying that I am NOT Jodi Picoult’s biggest fan. I have read many of her books, but I find that they can be exhausting. Often the main mom character is painted in a bad light and many of her books have no redeeming characters in them. As a reader, I struggle with books where I can’t find at least one character I can either relate to or like.

This is not the case with Small Great Things. I resisted reading this book for a long time because I wasn’t sold on Jodi Picoult, but after having it recommended over and over again, I decided it was time to give it a try. I listened to the book this past summer, and it took some time to finish. It is a heavy book on a heavy topic. I will admit it took me longer to finish the book because I had to take a break. The topic – race relations – was hitting too close to home and the book was making me angrier. I knew that due to what was happening in the news with our President’s response to race issues in North Carolina, I needed something lighter to read. It was one way I controlled my exposure to media (Link). Once I knew I could handle the topic again, I finished the book, and I am so glad I did.

Please be aware it may anger you, and you may need to read it slowly to control your anger. Honestly, though a sign of a good book is one that can make you feel strong feelings – one way or another.

Talking as Fast as I can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls by Lauren Graham


This is light, fun, easy read. I chose to listen to this book because the audio is read by Lauren Graham herself. I thoroughly enjoyed having Lauren talk to me through my earbuds. It felt like we were friends just hanging out. If you were/are a Gilmore Girls fan, this is an absolute must-read. Though honestly, I recommend listening rather than reading this one.

If you are in need of something fun and simple, this is a perfect choice. You don’t have to be a Gilmore Girls Fan, but I’m not sure you’d appreciate it as much if you aren’t.

This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel


This book just made me think A Lot. Whether you agree with the parent’s approach to handling their young son’s desire to dress like a girl or not, it makes you take pause. Frankel takes us through how a family keeps a very big secret and the extent parents will go to protect and support their child.

If you are looking for a book that will generate a lot of discussion at your next book club, this book will do it. Caution it is a controversial topic and may lead to heated discussions.

When I’m Gone by Emily Bleeker


I enjoyed the premise of this book – a widow receives letters from his deceased wife after she has died. The story takes us through his grief as he tries to hold it together to raise their children alone. There is also a mystery to the book. The ultimate questions are who are these letters from and how are they being delivered to his house?

It’s a good tear jerker. If you are a wife and mom, there is no way you can read this book without crying – multiple times. Who doesn’t like a good, cleansing cry once and a while? As a sentimental person, I appreciated the letters that the wife sends. Different, but in the same vein as my birthday letters of love to my daughters.

If you have recently lost someone close to you, this would not be the best book to read right now. It will hit too close to home.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio


It’s hard to believe this book was published in 2012. I guess it just got a lot of hype this year because the movie was released. I had it recommended to me in the summer. Cassidy and I started reading it this fall together. It was a great book for us to read together. However, you don’t have to have kids to read or like this book. It is a quick read, and it will make you think. Choose kindness!

Wonder provides so many great talking points with children and adults, which is probably why so many teachers read it aloud to their classes. I cannot say enough good things about this book. While the movie was great, I still recommend reading the book first. Random fact, did you know that it was made into a movie because Julia Roberts read the book with her children and called her agent to say it needed to be made into a movie and she wanted to play the mom?

Once you have read Wonder, be sure to check out the companion book, Auggie and Me. It is not a sequel; rather it chronicles a different perspective on the story from three different characters viewpoints: Julian the bully, Christopher, Auggie’s oldest friend and Charlotte, Auggie’s new classmate.


Looking for a quick read or an escape from your everyday life?

Check out Anne Bogel’s, “Unputdownable: 17 books I read in 24 hours or less (because they were that good).”  I read several on that list, and Anne wasn’t wrong, I couldn’t put them down.

As this year comes to a close be sure to join Goodreads and set up your reading challenge for next year. I plan to set my goal at 75 books. In addition to reading more books, I plan to read books from different genres and to write honest, detailed reviews of each book after I read them. If I had done that, it would have made this list much easier, and it would have been much easier to explain why I liked a book to a friend when they were looking for a recommendation.


Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you choose to make a purchase. Thank you for your support in this way!