Better Me, Better World: Year in Review

Tomorrow starts a brand new year, with 365 exciting opportunities to do something you’ve never done before. How cool is that?? I know I’m pretty happy about it. I’m happy to start something new but I’m also happy to post the results of our year long Better Me, Better World project. We had two goals this year – to live simply and strive toward zero food waste. Here’s how we did on both:

Better Me Goal: Live simply. Prove that we can live a happy, healthy, and prosperous life with less.

Yard Sale Puzzles

Last January, we set a budget and for the most part, we stuck to it. There were some splurges along the way, mostly at yard sales and the Farmer’s Market, but we had no extravagant expenditures. Even when I had to get a new cell phone, I bought one that was two generations old and on sale. Our vacations were cheap. Our fun dates out were frugal. Our fun days staying in were also filled with cheap activities – knitting, coloring, putting together yard-sale puzzles, watching free documentaries, and reading. This year, we read 52 books between the two of us.

Frugal living allowed us to save $7,166 toward retirement, travel, and emergencies. Our net pay from my job was $29,778.72 this year. We received another $3,557.32 from side hustles, gifts, and proceeds from our decluttering efforts. While I know saving 22% of one’s income is something to be proud of, I still feel conflicted when it comes to money. This is something I plan to work on in 2019.

Another of our Better Me goals was to eat a mostly plant-based diet, with no more than 10% of meals containing meat. I’m pleased to say that only 8.8% of the meals we consumed in 2018 contained meat. We had a total of 322 completely meatless days. As the year went on, we made a few other adjustments to our diet. We started taking a harder look at ingredients and buying more organic, non-GMO products when possible. (Our rule of thumb on fresh produce is that saving a fruit or veggie from becoming waste trumps where it comes from. In other words, dumpster finds don’t have to be organic or non-GMO.)

Hiking in Lafayette, TN

We (or rather I) attempted to be more active. Angie already does some sort of stretchy resistance band/jumping around the room routine 2-3 mornings per week. My thoughts are with her, but my body is usually sitting at my desk. To trick me into exercising, Angie would often tell me that we were going to walk to the dumpster or the thrift store or go to the park for a picnic (followed by a walk). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy being outdoors. I enjoy hiking and paddling (both of which we did this year) but if you call it exercise, my brain refuses to allow my body to participate. If you call it play, we’re all in though. And if you call it yard work or gardening, I will stay outside all day – hauling compost or raking leaves or pruning plants – until my muscles are as sore as any athlete. With that being said, we did try to take more walks this year. I’m not sure how far we walked/hiked though. We were up to 110 miles at the beginning of August when my fake Fitbit died. I have yet to replace it.

Self-score: A-

I always think there’s room for improvement when it comes to living more simply. There were times this year that we used our wallet instead of our brain to solve a problem and in every single one of those cases, the problem got worse. For example, we spent $160 on 2 pair of barefoot running shoes because we read that it was a “more natural” way to walk and would reduce stress on our feet. Within just a few weeks, I went from sore, tired feet after a long walk to full-blown plantar fasciitis. It was awful! Then there was the matter of the folding kayaks. We thought owning a kayak again would get us out on the water more often. The first time I tried to fold my origami kayak, I nearly passed out from heat exhaustion. It took 4 people 30 minutes of wrestling with plastic to get it set up, only to have it collapse inward in the water. We ended up selling both pair of shoes and both kayaks at a slight loss. The better path would have been the $25 super comfortable hiking boots I ultimately bought on sale at Academy and renting a kayak for the afternoon.

Better World Goal: Zero-food-waste. Prove that one couple can have an impact in reducing global food waste.

Volunteering with SoSA

When we first set this goal, our plan was to simply continue our food rescue efforts (aka dumpster diving) at the grocery next door, possibly interviewing other dumpster divers and talking with management about their food waste policies, but their remodel in the spring shut down the store for 3 months and for a while thereafter, it seemed as if the amount of food being tossed out was improving. Not to be deterred, we opted to go in a different direction and help reduce food waste through volunteer work. In April, we worked with Compost Nashville to direct food waste into its proper receptacle at VegFest. From May through July, we worked with Society of St. Andrew to glean the Nashville Farmer’s Market after market day. Through our efforts, we rescued and donated 133 pounds of produce to our charity of choice, the Nashville Rescue Mission. Overall, SoSA volunteers gleaned 11,520 pounds of food from farmers’ markets in Tennessee during the 2018 summer and fall season.

Throughout the year, we did keep an eye on the dumpster next door. Our total dumpster haul for the year was 348.11 pounds. The majority of this was comprised of fresh produce, breads, and 3 spiral-sliced hams. We shared our finds with 10 individuals. A few non-perishable items were placed in the Blessing Box, a brand-new free pantry outside of the Baptist church down the street.

We also had the opportunity to talk with a few key folks in our community about food waste this year. During Grit, Grace, Grub, a culinary scavenger hunt hosted by our city’s Chamber of Commerce, we spoke at length to the manager of one of the local chain restaurants involved. She was impressed with our project and even brainstormed a few ideas with us on how she could reduce food waste. Our biggest success though was when we were contacted by the executive chef of a full-service 76-suite independent living (55+) community that was just opening an hour north of us. His board wanted buffet style meals served 3 times a day and as a new facility, he was concerned about the potential for food waste, since full occupancy could take at least a year to achieve. He had been told that donating cooked food was illegal and he wanted to know what his options were for reducing food waste. We talked to him about the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996 and he presented our information to his board. The facility now donates their food overages to the local homeless shelter and battered women’s shelter.

At home, we continued to plan our meals and source local foods first and reduced-to-clear items second. We scored well with both, and with our tiny garden, which produced cowpeas, squash, tomatoes, blackberries, snack peppers, jalapenos, radishes, cilantro, and green beans this year.

We also increased our composting efforts, adding a new finishing composter (made completely out of rescued materials) for year-round composting. In total, we turned 115 gallons of food and yard scraps into dirt for the garden. Though we did not have a zero-waste year, we did manage to reduce our food waste to only 15.73 pounds for the year (for our family of two). About ¼ of this waste came from a problem with our refrigerator/freezer door that defrosted several items before we knew it. Maintenance replaced the fridge and we salvaged what we could, but I was afraid to eat the meatless meatballs and bay scallops after they had been thawed.

Self-score: A

I think we could have done a little better on our food waste but I’m not going to complain too much about having less than 8 pounds of waste apiece. (The average American wastes 250 pounds of food per year.)

How was your year? Did you reach or exceed your goals?

Home Budgeting Tools: Mint vs. YNAB

Thanks to my friends over at Decluttering the Stuff for suggesting I write this post.

In July, I decided to take a break from old-school budgeting (via an Excel spreadsheet) and join the 21st Century. There are so many personal finance budgeting tools out there – from standalone software to smartphone apps – it’s hard to know which to choose. I bet your bank even has one as part of their online banking portal. Mine does.

I wanted something simple but simple budgeting apps are a bit of a misnomer (kind of like affordable healthcare). Or maybe it’s just that “simple” is a relative term. Simple to me means that I can set up the handful of spending categories that I want to track, set spending goals, and “tag” transactions to automatically post to those categories. Simple to me means that income is defined as funds I earned and savings is an allocation of those funds into a special account. Simple means that I can import info into the app from all of my accounts so that I have a clear picture of my financial standing at all times.

First, I tried YNAB (You Need a Budget). That lasted a few weeks. Next came Mint. I stayed with them for a full month. I’m not knocking either app. They each have their good points and not-so-good points and both would be great for folks who are 1) new to budgeting, 2) love technology, and/or 3) need/want to micromanage their finances in order to cut expenses, increase savings opportunities, or simply find out exactly where their money goes. Unfortunately, I found both apps only complicated my already simple financial plan.

If you are one of the folks mentioned above and are debating YNAB or Mint, here are some tips I hope will help you.

EASE OF IMPORT: Both YNAB and Mint allow you to easily connect to your bank and other accounts (like credit cards) through a direct import tool. Using the tool is as simple as putting in your user ID and password for your financial institution, pressing a button, and waiting. With Mint, the wait was longer. In fact, I had to go through the direct import process several times before it would properly connect my Capital One accounts. With YNAB, I was able to connect all of my savings and investment accounts, including my savings bond account with Treasury Direct. Mint didn’t have Treasury Direct as an option, though Mint did allow me to connect my PayPal account and Navient student loan account.

LOOK & FEEL: Both YNAB and Mint have a similar interface but I found YNAB to be cleaner and more user-friendly. Setting up categories in YNAB was really straight-forward. The default categories were very much in line with what a normal budgeter would expect – rent/mortgage, electric, water, groceries, transportation, etc. and it was easy to delete or add categories. The budget page is even organized by priorities, with areas for Immediate Obligations (or what I like to call Absolute Expenses) and True Expenses (or Flexible Expenses). This is great for folks like us who are striving to keep their Immediate Obligations to 50% or less of their income.

Sample Mint Budget

Mint is a different story when it comes to setting up budget categories. Main categories are divided into a multitude of sub-categories. Again, this would be great for someone who really needs to drill down on where their money goes. Personally, I just don’t need that level of detail. Mint automatically tags incoming transactions to the most likely category. Comcast, for example, got tagged as Television though we use it only for internet service. Not a big deal since both are listed under Utilities but routinely I found gas transactions tagged as groceries, savings tagged as income, and every transaction from Walmart tagged as clothing. I was constantly changing the tags, which was a bit time consuming.

Sample categories in Mint

ACCOUNTABILITY: This is, after all, the point of a budget…to hold ourselves accountable for our spending. Both YNAB and Mint color-code budget items. Green = within budget and red = over budget. Yellow on YNAB indicates the category is underfunded. Yellow on Mint indicates you are approaching your category maximum. With Mint, I received email alerts when a category was over budget and also when a due date was approaching. YNAB may offer similar alerts but I did not receive any during my trial.

Budget alert email from Mint

THE GOOD STUFF: Both YNAB and Mint are zero-sum budgeting tools, making you account for every dollar. This is the only way to budget, in my opinion, so kudos go to both. Both let you set goals. This is a great way to speed up you loan payoffs or reach a specific savings goal. When it comes to goal setting though, the advantage goes to Mint. Their goal setting tools are quite comprehensive and tell you exactly how long it will take you at certain amounts per month to achieve your goal. Both have mobile apps and web interfaces so that you always have your budget at hand no matter what device your’re on. If budgeting tools (or budgets in general) scare you, YNAB offers a free class for new users.

BIG PICTURE FINANCE: Mint gives more of a total financial view, with your credit score and overall net worth shown on the dashboard. YNAB offers a more limited view of overall financial health and focuses mainly on the monthly budget. If you’re new to budgeting, YNAB is a great tool. If budgeting is old hat and you’re looking to elevate your financial planning game, Mint is the better choice.

COST: Mint is free. YNAB costs $5 per month (or $50 per year).

For budgeting to be truly simple, you have to find what works best for you. So this month, I’m going back to my antiquated accounting methods. No offence to apps, but I do much better with my homemade budget. I have my mom to thank for that. When I was 12 years old she handed me the bills for the month, her ledger, and her checkbook. Together we reviewed each bill. She let me write the check, then she signed it. She taught me to post each transaction to the checkbook register and to the right budget category in the ledger, to write on the bill the date it was paid, and properly file it. Though much has changed in this era of digital transactions, the principles she taught me remain the same. My Excel spreadsheet is pretty reminiscent of mom’s ledger. It’s a method I grew up with and it’s one that works for me.

Do you use a budgeting app? If so, which one? Has using it helped improve your financial situation?

(All pictures in this post, with the exception of the featured image, are from Mint because I had already closed my YNAB account at the time I wrote this and did not want to pay to reinstate it simply for the screenshots. You can take a tour of YNAB at or learn more about Mint at