I’ve known Steve and Jan Berger for 11 years. I first met Steve, a writer, when I joined the Colorado Author’s League and he was the organization’s president. Over the years we’ve gotten to be friends, and last fall when we were at a gift show selling books together we started talking about finances. Steve and Jan told me they were retiring and enjoying life, and since they’re youngsters and both in the creative arts I wondered how they’d done it.
The Bergers have a shared philosophy about spending and an unusual way of saving money that has worked splendidly for them. I thought their story was fascinating and inspiring, and they generously agreed to let me share it with you.
First, a little background: Steve and Jan have been married for 39 years. Jan is a successful graphic artist, and Steve is a writer and author. His novels include acclaimed titles like Ursula’s Yahrtzeit Candle, The Fifth Estate and his newest mystery, Fat Chance. Jan designed the books’ striking covers.
The couple lives in a beautiful home in a Colorado community located between two state parks. They own an income-producing rental property, they live debt free, and are now comfortably retired. They are on the waiting list for the new Tesla 3, and are taking a cruise from Greece to Venice this fall.
In short, they live a good life.
Keep reading to find out some of the ways they’re worked together to build a solid financial foundation.
Q: As a couple, you seem to agree philosophically about how to best manage your finances. Since this is an area that many couples struggle with, can you share any insights?
A: We both believe in open communication about money. It’s like building a house; you have to be on the same page, or you’ll tear each other apart. It’s helpful to have shared goals and agree on a financial strategy, and trust is key.
Both of our parents came out of the Depression, and they influenced us to be thoughtful about spending and always save a percentage of our money for a rainy day. Being rich was never our goal, but we wanted to have enough.
Q: Can you describe your unusual system for saving money?
A: It’s simple, really. We round up expenses to the nearest dollar, and we round down deposits. So if we spend $39.12 at the grocery store, we enter $40 in the check register. If we deposit $157.89, we add in $157.
We also put every “found cent” into the slush fund: birthday checks, tax refunds and refund checks all go into the kitty.
You’d be surprised how small increments of money, saved steadily over time, can grow.
(Here’s one of their actual checkbook registers, so you can see their actual process which includes credit card purchases as well as checks. When the statement arrives, the funds have already been set aside to make the payment:)
Q: If your checkbook register shows a different balance from what’s actually in the bank, how do you keep from getting confused?
A: Steve uses Quicken to track every penny, and reconciles the balances on a regular basis. We move the slush fund to an interest-bearing account periodically.
Q: Do you use credit cards?
A: Yes, but not in the typical way. We use no-fee, cash-back credit cards for every expense we can charge. Our current favorites are issued by American Express and FirstBank Visa. We pay the balance off every month and never accrue interest. We’ve found that a cash-back card is a better deal for us than cards that offer airline miles.
Q: What are some of your money-saving strategies?
A: We try to control recurring expenses. For instance, we installed solar panels when we could afford them so we won’t be at the mercy of the utility company that will continue to raise rates for the rest of our lives.
We’re also on the list for the Tesla 3, an all-electric car with a 200+ mile range priced in the mid- to upper-$30,000s. Available in late 2017, we will be able to charge the batteries off our household solar panels. We believe it is a given that oil prices will go up again. So we will be saving money, controlling expenses and, not insignificantly, helping the environment and contributing to the mitigation of climate change.
Again, as we could afford it, we’ve replaced almost every light in the house with LEDs, which has reduced electrical usage, leaving more generating power from the solar panels for our use and to go back into the grid until we get our Tesla; then we’ll use it to power its batteries.
We belong to Costco and purchase things like stationary and checks there. We also bought our refrigerator at Costco, after researching models and determining that they offered the best value.
We both like to cook, so we prepare most of our meals at home. We’re also fortunate that we’re in good health. We think part of this is due to reduced stress from not having to worry about money, which means not having to spend as much on healthcare, which means less stress.
Q: Do you ever use coupons?
A. Yes, but only on things we’d buy anyway. Using the same criteria, we also take advantage of sales.
Q: What is your philosophy about spending?
A: We invest in quality and value. We use Consumer Reports to research every major purchase. We always save our receipts in case there’s a problem with something we buy.
We don’t go shopping to buy things and improve our moods. Doing this is hollow. It might bring very temporary enjoyment, but it doesn’t last. To get that feeling again, people just go out and buy again.
We prefer to buy what we need and take pleasure in its functionality, amusement (like some of the art we’ve splurged on), and lasting pleasure––because it works well, saves time and energy, is cost-efficient and reliable.
Q: What are some of the best things you’ve ever spent money on?
An antique, blue, Chinese rug for our living room after we went from carpet to hardwood. We both absolutely fell in love with it, but it was 2.5 times what we had mentally budgeted. We negotiated the price down 20%, which made it only 2 times more than our mental budget, but we had the money, so we bought it. We still enjoy it every day.
[Steve:] A few months ago, Jan saw an ad for a beautiful, expensive, ring. Half joking she said, ‘If you ever want to buy me jewelry (which we rarely do), you can get me one these rings.’ I tracked down where the ring is sold––Boulder–– and finagled a trip up there for fun and lunch. Our walk after lunch took us down the Pearl Street Mall to the only place in Colorado carrying that jeweler’s wares. You can guess the rest.
One of the best things we’ve done with money is to give Jan’s former boss, who was very good to us for more than twenty years, a gift card for $500. That made three people very happy at a time when she could really use the money.
Our other splurges include a couple of self-indulgent trips to Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs in New Mexico, including massages, great food and a serene setting with nothing to do but relax and enjoy. Steve took Jan to Italy for one of her birthdays, Jan took Steve to Washington DC for one of his, and we took Steve’s dad on a trip to Hungary. We like to travel and consider it one of the best things to spend money on since the experiences last a lifetime, as the mother of one of our friends always said.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: To be honest, we’ve actually never though this much about what we do with money. We think it’s because we’ve adopted many of these practices as needed, not all at once, and just assimilated them into our lifestyle. We do consider ourselves very fortunate for many reasons, and don’t take our good fortune for granted or feel particularly exceptional for these material achievements. To us, money has always been a means, not an end.
Thank you, Steve and Jan, for generously sharing your money strategies and giving us insights into how you’ve made a comfortable life through shared goals, open communication and smart spending.
How About You?
Readers, does Steve and Jan’s advice resonate with you? Do you have advice to add about strategies that have worked for you, either as an individual or as a partner in a relationship or family?
Would you like to see more real-life stories about how people manage their money?
I always love hearing your thoughts and comments.