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Thursday, November 7, 2019

How We Decide Which "Optional" Projects Get the Go-Ahead in Our Budget

I wanted to share a semi-small thing that is a big thing for me. We replaced a window this week. No, we didn't do it ourselves. We hired a window contractor to do the job. This is a big deal to me because this window is in the room where I spend the most time, the master bedroom. This is where I have a writing space, a reading space, a relaxing space, and a sleeping space. The previous window in this room was about 45 years old. Over the years, the house had settled, so the window no longer fit the opening perfectly, leaving tiny gaps where cold air drifted in during winter and hot air came in during summer. In addition, this was a double-paned window whose seal had broken. The air space in between the two panes was filled with condensation, completely obscuring any view. We've been replacing the windows in our home, one at a time, based on how bad each was. This was the second to the last window to be replaced.

A view of the outside is something of importance to me in fall, winter, and spring, when I don't go out as much. With the window replaced, not only does it seem quieter, but also warmer, and, now, it actually has a view! While the view part really mattered the most to me personally, the decision of when this project would be done was not based on aesthetics, but on need, priorities, costs, and dollar return.

There are many expenses that are just a routine part of our budget, such as groceries, insurance, utilities, giving, taxes, and clothing. Then there are the one-time expenses, projects or occurrences that happen sporadically in our lifetime. Some of these are necessary large expenses, like medical and dental expenses or the costs associated with keeping us with reliable transportation. Other expenses are optional. Our livelihood and well-being do not depend on these projects being completed. 

In our household, we've had a lot of big bills in the past 6 years, some of which were more urgent than others. To date, we still have several large projects looming on the horizon. So, how do we go about deciding which of these projects get the go-ahead in our budget? We ask ourselves 7 key questions, questions which prompt us to more deeply examine our hopes for each project and conclude whether or not the timing is right. Here they are.

1. Would putting off this project wind up costing us significantly more later on? 
This should be my first question that I ask myself, concerning a project with a big expense. However, in my excitement to have something "pretty," I sometimes overlook this one (oops). Asking this question helps us see just how "optional" a project is. 

Our leaking roof, for example. The leak is in the attic space over the garage. Right now we have the leak tarped. However, we're well-aware that allowing a roof leak to continue could wind up costing us big time if we wait much longer. This knowledge bumps the roof repair way up on our project list, as it's not really optional at all. My husband's got this one, so I hope the repair will be taken care of this fall.

2. Will we benefit financially by doing this project? And by how much? 
So, this is assuming that a project is truly optional. We won't lose additional money by not doing it. But completing this project may positively affect our finances. It isn't enough to say that we will get a small percentage of the cost of a project back. For my household, we feel we need to recoup  a large proportion of the improvement cost in order to go ahead with the project, as is. If we won't see that much of a return, then we brainstorm ways to downsize the project -- cheaper vendor, redo only a portion of an item, or do some of the labor ourselves. 

For our window replacement, we happen to live in an area where window replacements pay off when it comes to reselling a house. According to HGTV, window replacements in Seattle and a handful of other cities recoup more than the expense of that reno. We expect that our new window will help sell our home one day, especially because this is a master bedroom window (and master bedrooms are significant when it comes to resale of homes). In addition, we also expect to see a reduction in our annual energy costs to heat and cool our house with less heat-transference with this new window. 

If you're on the fence about an expensive home renovation, google the payback on your type of project. When you see how much or little you will benefit when you sell your home, how much you want this project may become crystal clear to you.

When it comes to clothing purchases, sometimes the purchase of new clothing has the potential to positively affect ones finances. Suppose, for instance, that you have a job interview coming up. And also suppose that you don't have anything in your closet that is suitable for an interview (this would be the case for a lot of new college graduates whose entire wardrobe for the previous 4 years has consisted of sweatshirts, jeans, and leggings). Buying a moderately-priced interview outfit, then, could be seen as something of an investment in landing a good job. 

3. Is what we want actually more than we need? Is there a good alternative that would cost a whole lot less?
I admit it. Sometimes I want that top-of-the-line, premium, ultra-deluxe item, simply because I saw it somewhere else and thought I wanted one, too. I think I've wanted French doors in the master bedroom for almost our entire 30-something year marriage. When we'd been married for about 5 months, we looked into the possibility of buying a starter home. That, of course, didn't work out (silly newlyweds). But one of the homes we looked at had French doors in the master bedroom, leading out onto a rickety-looking, mostly rotted deck. My dreams for French in the master began on that day. 

I think I've carried that dream with me in every home in which we've lived. In my mind, it just looked so nice. When I began consulting with a window company this summer, I really had to take a good look at this dream of mine. To replace the window with a French door would have doubled our cost, largely because some substantial work would need to be done to that wall. My want was greater than our need. And there was most definitely a good alternative.

When it comes to cars, I am the first one in our marriage to "fall in love" with something really expensive. It takes a lot of inner-work to talk myself down from those luxury SUVs and to more modest sedans. This brings me to my next question.

4. Would I make sacrifices in other areas to have this one thing?
Buying a luxury SUV, now, could mean less money going into retirement accounts. Do I really want to have less in savings when I'm 70 years old, because I wanted to look a certain way or have a certain prestige when I was 50-something? When you're young, you have your whole life ahead of you to make up for financial mistakes. As you get older, you realize that "make-up time" is more limited. Retirement finances are serious business. There won't be any elves who quietly remake my shoes while I sleep or deposit money into my bank account to cover my expenses. Funding our retirement is wholly on us. 

On the other hand, a window replacement that has the likelihood to net us more than we spend really won't incur much in the way of sacrifices in the long run. We did make small sacrifices along the way to save for the new window. And in our planning, we felt that those sacrifices were less significant than having a new window. What did we give up? We gave up eating in restaurants, going to the cinema, travel, new clothing (we still bought clothes, just not new ones), and expensive gifts to each other. Willingness to sacrifice is a clear marker that a project or item is important to us.

5. Is the quality high enough that we won't need to replace this item down the road?
While it's important that we don't overspend, I also think it's important to not significantly underspend. In other words -- don't cheap out. 

If you need a new coat for winter, it makes more financial sense to buy a coat that is quality-made and will last for a decade or more, than to buy a cheaply-made garment that will end up in a landfill in just 4 or 5 years. There's a trend in fashion called fast fashion. Fast fashion is clothing designs that move quickly from the catwalk to the neighborhood mall, bringing trends to the everyday consumer quickly and cheaply. These garments are not made to last a decade. By their construction, it's clear the corporation's intent was for the clothing item to be replaced with a new garment by the next season. 

Coming back to our window replacement, yes, there were cheaper manufacturer options available. However, we wanted quality construction that would outlast our time in this home in its design and integrity of materials and craftsmanship.

6. Is there a way to repair this item instead of replacing it? 
Our "newest" car is a 2004 and has over 150,000 miles on it. Our oldest car was made in 1988. With a good mechanic, I believe that we can keep our newest car running well for several more years. So, although last winter we had thought we'd be replacing one of our cars this past summer, with my husband's job elimination in spring, that prospect went out the window. 

In contrast, repairing the air-leak in the double-paned window (to allow us to see through the window again) would have been kind of expensive. And that wouldn't have addressed the issues of the window, itself, as no longer fitting its framing, due to house-settling. In addition, the new and improved window offered more in potential resale value of our home, and a better u-value and/or r-value of the new window, leading to a reduced utility bill and greater comfort for us.

7. Is our fund for this project completed? 
When a project is optional, we pay upfront. I wouldn't feel comfortable taking on debt for something that isn't completely necessary. We put aside money every month toward these big projects. 

We've known that our furnace will need replacing in the next year or two, so we've been putting aside money for a furnace every month for the last 4 years. The fund for this window project was completed a year ago. With the money in place, we feel comfortable to go ahead with the project.

The answers to all of the above questions, when taken together, led us to think that this particular window replacement was financially worthwhile and should be done at this time. You wouldn't know this about me, but this project is something for which I took a very long time to decide. I try to look at all possibilities before coming to any decisions. I may be overly careful in that way. But it is who I am. And more than anybody else, I have to live with my own mind, thoughts, and doubts.

Now that I have a view out the window, I realize that I need to do something to spruce up that view. And I think I need new curtains, and the walls could use repainting. Now that I think of it, the carpet is really looking shabby. And the bedspread is very dated. And, and, and. Isn't that how it always goes with home improvements? You repaint the walls, then discover you really need new drapes now, too. Anyways, I now have a room with a view.


  1. Lili,
    That was nicely said. That is so true about wanting so much more than needing. My husband always says that wanting and desiring is a downfall as is comparing what you have to want you want or what others have is a downfall.

    I dream a lot of what I could have and would like but rarely act the purchase except for the newer van I now drive. We drove all of our vehicles until they literally fall apart and unfortunately our two vehicles and the kids' two vehicles ALL NEEDED REPLACING WITHIN THE LAST 12 MONTHS. Now that is a problem because replacing 4 vehicles in one year is never in anyone's plan. Hubby's van was dropping frame pieces into the roadway due to all the rust. So last November he got a newer vehicle. My son's car (we owned it) was always needing some kind of repair so when he became fully employed he bought a newer car and we sold and pocketed the money for his old car. Then our other kids car lived in Ohio with my daughter and a day before her wedding the car smelled of gas so we took it to the mechanic who deemed it dangerous. Gas line could not be replaced and motor mounts lost two of its four mounting abilities due to rust. It was brought to the junkyard. We bought them a car because they were in no financial position to do so. They can pay us back later. Then my car was beginning to show signs of some expensive repairs (nothing happened yet) so we sold it and bought a newer vehicle for me. But we should be set for many many years to come.

    We moved to a smaller house 6 years ago which is closer to town for the reason of growing old. We want to be close to town for hospitals, grocery stores and not so far out in the country as we get older. But this house needed a lot of repairs. We decided to them this first 6 years while we are employed so that they didn't all hit when we are retired. Well, hubby is retired but he still works part time jobs.


  2. You are going to love your new window for all of the reasons you mentioned--climate control, noise reduction, and most of all, the view. Our new house needed new windows when we moved in because of leaks, rotten wood, single pane glass, etc. It was a big expense, but one we put near the top of our list. And now, it's amazing how much better things are with them. The insulation alone is helping a lot. We have to run our heater and air conditioner less and don't hear much from outside (we have some road noise). And we can enjoy our nice views because we aren't hiding behind our insulated, black out curtains all of the time.

    Lili said, "You wouldn't know this about me, but this project is something for which I took a very long time to decide."

    Of course, we knew that you didn't make this decision quickly. If you have shown us nothing else over these years, you have shown us that you are a very careful spender and are most comfortable when you think things through very thoroughly.

    Or maybe I recognize all of that in you because, it is very much like me. We have been very careful with our money over the years and have had the good fortune of one of us always having a decent job. And even though we only had one salary for many years, our finances are in reasonable shape. (not rich, but okay). And even then, I have a hard time spending money even when we have plenty in the budget to cover things.

  3. Hi Alice,
    4 cars in one year -- that's a huge chunk of change! The mental picture of your hubby's van, dropping pieces on the roadway reminded me of my husband's previous car. It was rather annoying at the time, to lose pieces of trim, bit by bit along bumpy roads, but in hindsight, I think my memories are a little funny. I'm glad for you, though, that you've been so careful with money that you were able to replace all of your family's cars, especially nice that you could buy one for your daughter and her new husband at this tough financial time in their life together.

    Your choice to downsize and move closer to a city is a sensible one. I'm sure you'll be very happy that you've made this move, later on.
    I hope your day is off to a great start, Alice!

  4. Hi live and learn,
    ha ha, am I that transparent? Maybe it's true, though, that you and I have similar approaches to our financial lives.

    That is very good to hear about your windows. I'm so glad that you can now enjoy a nice view, have quiet, and more comfortable indoor temperatures. That's what I'm hoping for in this room, too. I love sitting here looking out my new window and seeing how pretty it looks to have clear glass. Another thing I didn't realize had been an issue -- I don't have any lamps on during the day in this room, now. I know that will be different on very dark and dreary days. But I used to always keep 2 lamps on in this room during the day when I was working. I can't believe that just not having condensation between the panes of glass made the room so dim. I guess what we had in this room before was something along the lines of frosted glass, although the glass itself wasn't textured.

    Thanks for your comments, Live and Learn.
    Have a great afternoon!

  5. Oh, you will love your new window! We replaced ours a few years ago when there was some sort of tax break to do so. There was no question in our minds about doing it--the windows were original to the house, most were single paned, and drafty. I was shocked with the noise reduction. Along similar lines to your wants vs needs--I "wanted" a bay or bow window but we stuck with the "need". We would have had to completely redo our window treatments (and it's a big window!! Read: expensive). I hope you enjoy your new-to-you space. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on expenses.

    BTW,yesterday you said you hoped we were having good weather .... um, no. Six inches of snow fell overnight. Icy roads. 1 1/2 hour commute. But I made it safe and sound! The sun is out now!

  6. This is a really good way to think about weighing purchases. Right now, we have several big expenses on the horizon, but your pointers will help us make these decisions about where we should put our money first. Thanks for this post, Lili. And enjoy that new window! melissa

  7. Oh my, Kris! That much snow already?! Glad you made it home safely and I hope the roads can be cleared now.

    I'm so glad for you to have been able to replace your windows. I think especially where you live, with such cold winters, you must have seen quite a drop in your utility bills and increase in overall comfort. Yep! I totally get your wanting a bay or bowed window. That's me and my French doors. It just made sense, right? I was able to rehang the old drapes right after the workmen left. I did notice how quiet it was in the morning yesterday. I usually hear rush hour road noise from about 6 AM. Not now, or at least it's greatly diminished.

    Stay safe and warm! (Good thing you've got those good windows, right?)

  8. Hi Melissa,
    I sometimes find it hard to see which project gets priority, especially when most of them feel optional. One great part about doing the ones with the greatest pay-back first is you will save money at a faster rate than you had before. At least that's been our experience with a couple of projects. Good luck to you as you and your husband make these choices.

    Thank you -- I'm already really enjoying a clean and clear window!
    Have a nice evening, Melissa!

  9. Excellent post, Lili! Well thought out and clearly said - thank you! We are in the decision-making process for a generator (gggrrrr...California and our, at this point, 3-5 day power outages). We have small generators presently but, since we are in our early seventies and are planning (as much as one can plan!) on ‘aging in place’ here on our mountain property, we are carefully considering set up and ease of use. We are in no hurry because, as you have pointed out, ‘optional’ upgrades allow the time needed to make clear decisions.
    You forgot one downside to your new window: now you have to wash it occasionally (hehe)!
    I ALWAYS enjoy and look forward to your writing. Thank you for sharing your gift - tomorrow I start some lentil sprouts!

  10. So beautiful! I love large windows. Our living room has one wall of windows and I don't have blinds or anything because I love looking out over the backyard. And the light it gives is so good for my soul. I don't even mind cleaning them. Enjoy your new, sparkling view!

  11. Hi Conni,
    I can't imagine what it's like to have 3-5 day power outages. That must be very trying on everyone's nerves. I can see why a large generator would be important, just to keep basic appliances going, like a refrigerator/freezer and a stove/oven. Good luck with this decision.
    Ha ha. Yep! That will be the downside. Good thing I actually like window cleaning! (instant visible results)
    Thank you for your very kind words. I appreciate them. Good luck with your lentil sprouts.
    Have a great weekend, Conni!

  12. Your living room and its view sounds beautiful, Ruthie! I agree with how good for your soul all of the light brings. I feel the same way. I can never get enough sunlight.
    Thank you.
    Have a wonderful weekend, Ruthie!


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