Friday, December 31, 2010

An excellent message

I'm planning on recapping the year that was 2010, just as soon as I go through my budget and examine areas where I failed and succeeded. Despite the setbacks: underemployment, a commute, general lack of money I think I've done pretty well this year. But that's another post.

One thing that burns me up is the way we're constantly told we need more stuff. We get this from advertisers and we do it to ourselves too. I've quit reading most frugality blogs because instead of actually being about spending little and living well for less, they end up being about getting good deals on stuff you don't need. Yes, I get sucked in sometimes too, I'm certainly not perfect, but it seems like some people will buy something just because it's two dollars, rather than because they actually need it.

The frugality blogosphere is abuzz with talk of this new TLC show Extreme Couponing. I haven't seen it, I most likely will not watch it, but the premise in a nutshell is that it profiles some of those extreme couponers that stack coupon on top of coupon and somehow manage to get thousands of dollars worth of stuff for practically free. I also find it incredibly bizarre that there's one show called Hoarders that derides filling your house with crap, and this new one that seems to celebrate it.

One of the extreme couponers "has more than 10,000 items stockpiled in his garage" Another, " Amanda is preparing for her largest checkout ever consisting of nine baskets of food, beauty and pet products including 218 boxes of pasta, 268 containers of noodles, 100 bottles of sport drink and 150 candy bars.
Retail value: $1,175.33. Amanda's cost after utilizing her coupons: $51.67."

Ok, good for her? Personally, I've had a terrible time trying to eat all of the boxed pasta I hoarded back in the day, and now two years later, I still have some left. And 150 candy bars? Why would you ever, ever want to buy 150 candy bars? This stuff has an expiration date, isn't very healthy in the first place.

This is a bit of a rant, but my point is, we need to stop buying stuff we don't need. I recently read the statistic that American spend about 12% of their disposable income on food. Compare that to the 25% that Mexicans spend or even the 14% that Canadians spend, and we come out looking pretty good, but we take it to such an extreme when it comes to looking for deals, that we seem like crazy people. My resolution, for New Year's and forever, is and has been to buy less stuff. I have what I need, my life is comfortable, everything else is just clutter and something I'll eventually have to move.

I'm not a huge fan of Bill Maher, but I saw this yesterday, and he really got it right:

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

January is the worst time for resolutions

I've long been unimpressed with the notion of New Year's Resolutions, mostly because people make them (myself included) and then fail spectacularly by February. Then, after having failed, people usually just give up completely vowing to get it right next year. It's just depressing.

I seem to write a blog or a magazine column about this topic every year, but as I see people make the same mistakes every year, I guess it bears repeating. That sounds condescending and rude, which is not the way I intend it to be, I just want to give a fresh perspective to these notions of all or nothing New Year's Resolutions, and try to think of ways people can actually succeed.

Top five perennial New Year's resolutions are:
  1. Lose weight
  2. Quit smoking
  3. Pay down debt
  4. Get fit
  5. Enjoy life more (or some variation thereof)
I can tell you, January is the worst time to try to get in shape and lose weight.  Just think about it: it's miserable outside which means that all you want to do is hibernate; everyone else is trying to lose weight so the gym is packed; there's no daylight which means you have very little energy; and frankly I don't know anyone who enjoys life in January.  Plus, from a purely evolutionary standpoint, our bodies don't want to drop weight in January, we need it to keep warm.

There is good news though.  January is the best time to start paying down debt.  With holiday buying out of the way, this is the best time to really sit down with your finances and figure things out.  January is the most miserable month weatherwise, so let's harness that and use it to our advantage:
  1. Fewer outside distractions mean that you can take the time to really examine your finances, make a budget, and start good habits.
  2. Miserable weather and unsafe driving conditions mean that it takes significantly more effort to travel to stores where you may blow your budget.
  3. Freezing temperatures make cooking at home cozy and fun.  Go to the library and get some cookbooks, or go online and find some new recipes, then save money by not going out to eat as much.
As far as fitness is concerned, use January to develop better eating habits by cooking at home, then start exercising once there's more daylight.  If you wait until around March, you can often get fantastic deals on used exercise equipment on craigslist (from people who have already given up their fitness resolutions), or you can just start going outside and running, bike riding, walking etc.

As always, with fitness or finance, the most important thing to remember is that one minor setback does not equal failure.  If you stumble, catch yourself and keep on focusing on your goals.  Everyone has had a day where they inexplicably overspend or overeat, but you can always negate it by spending less later or skipping dessert the following day. 

The worst thing you can ever do is be too extreme with your goals because all you can do then is fail.  Rather than saying "I'm going to save $1500/month by never going out to eat and by never turning the heat on."  I've done that, I made myself so sick I couldn't get out of bed for three days and missed a whole bunch of work.  Instead, aim to save $500/month and eat out sometimes.  Moderation is the only way to go, and then you'll nail the "Enjoy life more" goal because you'll be a success.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Barley, take one

I mentioned in this month's goals that I got a fantastic deal on barley, but now have no idea what to do with it. Indeed, I brought it home and then became incredibly intimidated by the innocent-looking grains, so it just sat there, uneaten by me. I did make a soup with barley in it, which was good, but I had a hunch that it could serve as much more than just soup add in. Plus, since I have so much, if I just added it to soup, it would go bad before I could possibly use it all. Does barley go bad? Probably. I'm not going to bother to research that, instead I will just force myself to adapt.

Experiment 1: Barley stir fry
We had a work party a while ago, and like I always do after work parties, I scavenged tons of leftovers. Most of those leftovers were cookies, but we also had a veggie tray that was barely touched. I came away with two handfuls of cherry tomatoes and some broccoli. I ate the broccoli right away because I love broccoli, but I'm not a huge tomato fan. Don't get me wrong, I like them, just not without something else. So I decided to make lemonade, and by make lemonade, I mean barley.

First I soaked the barley for four hours. 1 cup pearl barley and six cups water
Then, brought that to a boil and simmered for an hour.
By this point, the barley looked...weird. It was very gloopy, kind of like oatmeal. It tasted fine, but was a grayish color that freaked me out quite a bit. I put it in a tupperware and put it in the fridge overnight while I decided how to proceed.

The following day, I decided to try rinsing it to get the gloopiness off and make it look more like the barley I'm familiar with. I left it in the tupperware and rinsed it three times in hot water straining it with the lid (ingenuity!). It worked perfectly, and I was left with delightful grains of tender barley that was not at all scary looking.

Ingredients:
Handful cherry tomatoes
2 cups cooked barley
2 cloves garlic
two handfuls fresh spinach
crumbled feta (as much as you like).
Olive Oil
Preferred spices (I used a little basil) plus salt and pepper
  • Dice garlic and throw in a skillet with a couple glugs of olive oil. Sautee until garlic is golden brown
  • While garlic is browning, dice tomatoes
  • Add barley to skillet and cook five minutes
  • Add spinach and cook until wilted
  • Add tomatoes and cook until warm
  • Add any spices
  • Serve from pan and sprinkle feta over the top
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Note: I had five black olives, which I added and highly recommend.  This was totally delicious, and I will be making it again--soon.

Friday, December 10, 2010

It's Easier to be Broke

Has anyone else ever felt that way? Sure, it sucks to be broke, but when you have no money, you know you can't spend. If you have a little bit of money, then you have to pick and choose where it goes. It requires a lot more thought and effort than just knowing you can't afford to spend.

Do you save it? Where/how do you save it? Do you spend it little by little? Do you save it up for one big purchase? Do you invest it?

Even if you are good and save, it seems like you could always save more and do without something. Did I really need that coffee? Why did I buy those brown pants? When you make the committment to frugality, even if it's a change you want to make, there's still the lingering guilt occasionally of not being frugal enough, or not being able to go without something that someone else seems to never think about. It's kind of like the tea bag situation all over again.

I read an article the other day about a local lottery winner. He had been laid off from his janitorial job for nearly a year, but continued to play the lottery twice a week. He actually won last week, and his take-home was $680,000. It's one of those heart-warming stories that we don't get enough of, made all the nicer by the fact that he really needed the money and it's right in time for christmas. Certainly I'm very happy for he and his family, but I immediately started thinking about what I would do with that much money and started freaking out a bit.

Naturally, I would pay off my student loans immediately. I'd still have over half a million dollars then. FDIC insurance is only for $100,000, so I'd need six different savings accounts to store the money that way. I guess I could buy a house, or two, and renovate them; I could travel, but I don't want to quit working....

Obviously, I will never have this much money, but just the idea of it completely stressed me out for about 30 minutes. It doesn't take a genius to see that that is probably an unhealthy way to think about money, but I may not be as crazy as you think. My primary concern is to use the money well, which should always be primary. My secondary concern is to save/invest it in a sensible way where it will either earn interest or grow in another way (like real estate investments used to do). Tertiary is not giving up my career and earning power just to live a life of luxury that certainly will not last.

Even though such a large sum is overwhelming, I think my three rules are pretty sound. Yes, it's easier to be broke, but it's also easier to live with your parents and sit around the house watching tv all day, which is certainly not preferable.

What would you do if you won the lottery?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Want vs. Need

I've reached the point in my life where I really don't want or need anything.  Sure, sometimes I need to buy groceries or toilet paper, but the major items are taken care of.  I also don't really want anything.  I may overspend on clothes from time to time, but I don't want any more stuff in my life. My apartment is full, and I've reached the point where I like getting rid of things more than I like getting them.

I thrill at filling up a bag to drop at The Salvation Army, I'm making a concentrated effort to eat my way through all that pasta I hoarded a year ago.  Every time I eat another box, I feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction.  What I want now are experiences--going ice skating, taking a trip, having a nice meal, going to a good play/movie/ballet, having cocktails with my lovely friends, historical tourism, etc. Sadly, paying for experiences is keeping me poor, financially, but with my student loan debt, I'll be poor forever anyway--might as well live!

What's troubling though, is that I live with someone who still does want stuff.  This someone also wants to buy stuff for me, and when I say I don't want anything, that makes him sad.  I understand and appreciate the spirit of gift-giving, but does it always have to come in a box?  Can't I just accept a giant carton of egg nog and share that with everyone?  I really like egg nog.

My budget doesn't have much wiggle room right now, and I don't want to go out and buy a whole bunch of stuff because, well, it's coming home with me, and we're running out of space.  Plus, everything I bring into that apartment looks to me like something I will one day have to move, or sell at a loss.

Maybe it's just because I'm a lousy gift-giver.  I prefer instead of buying gifts for occasions to just buy that thing that you happen upon that's perfect for a person, and giving it to him or her whenever.  If you want to buy me something for my birthday or for xmas, take me out to a restaurant I like, or to a show.  If you don't want to do that, don't do anything, it doesn't hurt my feelings.  I'm lucky in that not many people expect things from me, or maybe they're lucky because it'd probably be scented candles all around (or something equally lame).  Either way, I have to accept that I'm not changing.

Anyone have any ideas for what to do in this situation?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Spicy Tuna Melt Pie

This was unexpectedly wonderful. I read the recipe initially on $5 Dinners, and she basically said the same thing--unexpectedly good. I adapted the recipe a bit to match my own tastes (of course), but what I like about this is that you expect it to be more like a tuna noodle casserole--heavy, gloopy, but this one has three eggs, so it's more light and quichelike. Delightful!

Ingredients:
3 cans tuna, drained
1 can diced green chilies
1/2 cup frozen spinach
1 6oz can sliced mushrooms, rinsed and drained
1/2 tsp hot sauce (I used 1/2 red tabasco and half green tabasco)
3 tbsp mayo
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup frozen corn
2 glugs olive oil

  • Preheat the oven to 450°. Lightly grease a quiche plate, pie plate or 9 inch cake pan with non-stick cooking spray.
  • In a large skillet, heat the olive oil add spinach. Saute for a few minutes, until softened. Add the mushrooms and green chilies cook for about 5 minutes.
  • In a large bowl, combine the tuna and mayonnaise, breaking up the tuna. Stir in the sauteed veggie mixture, add corn, then stir in most of the shredded cheese.
  • In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, flour and butter. Stir into the tuna-cheese mixture, then stir in the hot sauce.
  • Pour the spicy tuna melt into the greased pie plate, cake pan or quiche plate. Top with remaining cheese.
  • Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until is set in the middle and begins to golden on top.
1/2 cups cheese $1.25, 1 can mushrooms $1, 1 can green chilis $1.5, 3 cans tuna $3, 3 eggs $.55, spinach, corn, mayo, hot sauce, olive oil $1.

$5.80 for 9 servings, or $.64 apiece

*Note: I used spinach and corn just because I had some ends of them left in the freezer, but I think this has the potential to be one of those delicious kitchen sink type meals. I currently have some leftover salsa, which I may sub in for the green chilis next time I make this. The possibilities are endless!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Charity + Savings?

I've noticed a new trend in retail. Most everyone knows that times are tough, we should be saving not spending, etc. Certainly anyone who reads this blog is on that page. For a while it seemed that the trend was to tell people to spend to help the economy rebound. As we all learned more and more about the Keynesian model of economic theory--the model that got us out of the depression and the reason behind the economic stimulus bill--where you need to "prime the pump" by spending to create and keep jobs, which will then make people spend more because they'll have money, and the economy will get back on track. When this was our national philosophy, last year, it seemed like everyone was saying "the worst thing you can do right now is save, you need to spend to keep people from being laid off."

I certainly didn't fall for it, I couldn't really because I was underemployed at the time, but I do remember feeling a thrill of pride every time I did purchase something almost like there was a little voice in the back of my head telling me that I was doing good by buying--doing my part for the economy.

Now that idea has been carried even further in that at least one retailer this holiday season seems to be going with the message, "if you spend money at our store, we'll give money to those less fortunate." I first noticed this when I got coupons in the mail last month from Gap. Their whole scheme this year has been Give and Get, which means that when I use these awesome coupons that they sent me, I can feel even better because a portion of the money I spent goes to one of three charities.

Of course people need to remember to be charitable over the holidays, every holiday, but it makes me a little uncomfortable having it so tied in with shopping. It's the laziest form of charity. I wasn't using those coupons because I cared about the causes I was supposedly supporting (I don't even remember what they were), I wanted the 40% off. Plus, let's call a spade a spade, for all the good that Gap tries to tell people it does, their clothes are still made overseas where they can pay their workers significantly less.

Retailers will always come up with new ways to make us buy things we don't need. They convince us that we deserve it, we need it, they foster competition between us and our neighbors and they appeal to our giving nature. This is what being a discerning, savvy shopper is all about--not buying in to what they want us to think but actually thinking for ourselves about what we actually need rather than want. Saying stuff like this makes me feel paranoid and a bit deranged, but it's true. Businesses want us to spend money and they spend money making us spend more--it's just the way it goes. Home economy is recognizing a truly good deal, and dispensing with the hype.

Like I said, I love 40% off, and I did use those coupons, but I went into it with my eyes open, and did not buy more than I planned.

Friday, December 3, 2010

New Meaning of Frugal



A Guest Post by Danie D.

My name is Danie D, and I'm a lot like you. I consider myself to be smart, not arrogant. I'm frugal, not cheap. I buy in bulk to save the most, but I recognize the absolute savings of not buying anything at all. I started what you might call a frugality quest a little more than two years ago. It paid off in a low cost and plentiful bounty. But I got (steady) money and I got lazy. Now circumstances warrant I reclaim my "recessionisms," and I'm realizing it's a lot more difficult that I anticipated. But it's also a nice challenge. And who's not up for a good challenge?

First, the things you need to know to understand my situation. I got a new, higher paying job in 2008. My partner and I moved from Las Vegas to San Francisco with hope in our hearts and not much else. He didn't have a job (we, at the time, did not recognize the severity of the recession) and we made a lot of expensive mistakes ($195/month to park in a garage instead of an annual street parking permit for $78). I bought what I thought we needed, regardless of what was on sale. I charged everything for at least two months, probably more.  We moved into a safer, larger, more expensive apartment. The mister had two temp jobs that came and went. Credit card bills came and 0% interest expired.

We committed to change out of necessity. And it was exciting. We found interesting, free things to do. I clipped coupons and boasted my savings. We could pay the bills, eat AND go to a movie. We were doing it. Eventually the mister got a job. We didn't really need to be as frugal. We could eat out. We could travel. We got drunk on financial freedom. We talked about tightening up, but never found the right time to cut back. And then we broke up. "We," became me. Two incomes dropped to one. And I decided not to find a cheaper apartment. It was a risky move, but I had my reasons. So there I was, alone in a half empty apartment, realizing he owned almost all the pots. It seemed like a good time to get back into old habits. But while that was the goal, that's not what's been happening.

My definition of "frugal" has changed. I used to consider frugality as getting as much as possible for a little as possible, and keeping it handy "just in case." In my post break-up examination of the world, I'm asking "in case of what?" Worst case scenario, I lose my job. Cabinets full of food won't help me pay my rent. Boxes of noodles won't pack me up and ship me home to my parents. I am asking myself what I really needed. And the answer is not six boxes of macaroni and cheese for the price of one. The answer is "less." I need less. Frugality (the 2010 interpretation) is having and maintaining that which you need, not buying what you might need in a specific situation.

So I'm purging and I'm using. Broken things are being tossed. Wrapping paper is getting recycled. Plastic storage bins, donated. Items I don't like, sold. Clothes I don't wear and games I don't play, donated. I'm using all the lotions I've received as gifts, and all the toothpaste and floss my dentists have given me. I'm compiling all the notepads I've bought, used, but never filled. Frugality is (again, at this moment) finding I already have what I need. Just because deodorant is on sale, I don't have to buy it. I should remember the four I still have at home.The same goes for toothpaste, soup, rice, and the other things I've accumulated "just in case."

Instead of trying to get more, I'm focusing on doing the same with less. I do think I'll end up saving money but more than that, I'm creating a challenge and rising to meet it. And that's free fun.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

December goals

November just flew by. Honestly, that month was a blip, but another reason it doesn't feel like December yet is that we haven't actually turned on the heat in our apartment yet! I remember the last two years, it was a struggle to not turn the heat on until November 1, but this year we've been just fine with a couple space heaters and a blanket. I love it!

November goals were to stop over-spending on clothes; continue putting money in savings; and try baking bread again. Well, I failed two out of three. I'm still saving, I actually opened my new online savings accounts through ING this month, and am very pleased (I've already made over a dollar in interest!), but I blew my budget on clothes again, and I still have the bread fear. In my defense, it's been hectic, and the first time I made bread it was so damn messy I just couldn't face that again.

I will bake bread again!

December is going to be a leaner than usual month because I'm losing some hours at work, but honestly, I could use a bit of a reprieve, so I'm not too upset about it. What that does mean, is that I actually need to stick to the previous month's goal and stop buying so many clothes! I don't know what's up with me, but I continue to struggle with this whole "work wardrobe" and that's costing me money. I wish I could just wear jeans, especially since I'm sitting at a desk and no one really sees my legs, but that's no allowed--sigh.

December goals:

  1. Stay on track, even though I'll have extra time on my hands. Extra time often equals extra temptation, but I want to end this year on a high note, damnit.
  2. Continue to save even though the savings will be significantly less. There's no reason to give up completely.
  3. Do yearly totals for 2010 and tweak 2011 budget. I have a better idea how much I'll be making per month in the coming year, so that should help me set reasonable goals for spending and saving based on previous years' spending and projected earnings. Doesn't it sound smart when I phrase it like that?
  4. Try some new recipes. My cooking has gotten a bit stale lately, mostly due to working all these nights and not feeling like making elaborate meals to eat at 3pm, but I need to add a few things to my repertoire. First off, I have a lot of barley, and I would like to use it. Cooking Goal 1, find something to do with the barley. If anyone has suggestions, I'd love to hear them (remember, I don't eat meat). Cooking Goal 2, find some other healthy, delicious recipes that freeze well.
  5. I also need to keep my protege on task, but that shouldn't be too hard. I have every confidence that she'll do just fine.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Weekend Reading: In Cheap We Trust


In Cheap We Trust: The story of a Misunderstood American Virtue by Lauren Weber. Back Bay Books, October 2010.

I've already mentioned this book once, but I could write an entire series dissecting why this is a fantastic analysis of the American character in relation to money. I realize that that sentence doesn't make it sound very appealing, but it's seriously fascinating. Just taking a cursory view of American history, we shifted from Puritain values of thrift to wartime rationing, to the roaring twenties to the great depression. We always seem to know that we're supposed to be saving, but easy credit gets the best of us each time. When it's all written down like this, it's both horrifying a fascinating how we as a nation keep making the same mistakes in a slightly new way. It certainly re-validates my personal desire to be thrifty and remain that way, but even I have only come to this conclusion after falling victim to the same ideas that always bring us down.

Best Takeaways:

A new appreciation for Home Economics class
Actually, I should amend that to an appreciation for Home Economics class, because it was a joke to me before. In my school, Home Ec was for the lazy, for the kids that were scared of the shop teacher and for the kids that knew taking shop meant doing a little bit of math. We did the lessons in cooking and sewing, but we also had a Mary Kay beauty consultant come in twice, which seriously undermined any actual lessons we were supposed to be learning. Prior to reading this book, I had never even really considered the name Home Economics and what it actually means. Basically, the men went off to earn the money, and it fell to the women to run the home as efficiently as possible. This means knowing how to get a good price on food, how to prepare it, how to sew and mend clothes--basically all of the things that I'm trying to reach myself at age 31 and lamenting that I didn't know before.

My Home Ec class has changed its name to Family and Consumer Sciences, but still didn't really tell the students that even if you're not going to be a housewife, you will still run a house someday. There is a huge opportunity to teach high school students practical skills that they will actually need someday, but that message doesn't seem to get through. If anyone else has had a better Home Ec experience, I'd love to hear it, otherwise, I feel like I might end up lobbying my way into local schools to save today's youth from themselves!

The notion of the good life has been pervasive in our history.
We have always had the ideal of The American Dream, but we've always let the haves dictate history more than the have nots. "Despite the flashy 1920s images of Gatsby et al., many Americans still lived in poverty having missed out of the decade's gains. In 1929 The Brookings Institution reported that 60 percent of Americans lived on less than $2000 per year, barely able to provide for basic necessities, yet they were inundated with images of the good life." (148). Sure history is written by the victors, but why do we always celebrate extravagance and waste more than we do hard work and practicality. It's sexier, I suppose, but again, it's this whole cyclical notion of thinking that becomes really apparent when you just focus on our nation's history with money.

The Tightwad-Spendthrift scale.
Carnegie Mellon did a survey of consumer behavior (which you can take, if you like) that indicated that people who fall into the category of tightwad actually have a physical reaction to spending money i.e. it's not always just cheapness, for these people, it's actually difficult to spend. Likewise, the spendthrifts have a hard time not spending money, even if it's money they don't have. Personally, I've gone through phases of both, and it depends on what I'm buying. Sometimes I wake up knowing I need to buy milk, but just not wanting to. Sometimes I wake up knowing that I don't need a new black cardigan, but it's all I can think about. I go back and forth and I think I fall more into the middle area of unconflicted consumer.

I'm sure we've all seen, just in observing human behavior, that all of us spend in different ways, but it's interesting to learn the though process (or automatic attitude) that goes into buying things.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Protege!

Like the financial guru that I long to be, I have taken a friend under my wing for money/budget advice and to act as a financial AA sponsor. She's going to be good enough to keep track of her progress, which I will then anonymize for you, my twelve readers, to read and share tips, tricks and encouragement.

A little background:

Protege has a full-time, benefitted position that she actually enjoys--living the dream! What she also has is student loan debt, credit card debt and an expensive apartment that she's lease-locked into until at least June. So we're working with what we have, and making the best, because that's what grownups do.

Major expenses: Rent, gas, utilities--not much can be done about these, especially this time of year.


Areas that need cutting: Eating out and food in general. Socializing may have to take a hit, and grocery spending could be reigned in.

Major goals: Pay off credit cards and start saving.

It's going to be tricky, but between protege's gung-ho attitude and my incessant nagging, we should do just fine. Thank you, internet, for providing accountability.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Lean times ahead

In my frenzy to adjust to my new work schedule and learn how to do my new job, I completely forgot one major thing: I'm on an academic schedule now. What this means is that with the looming winter intercession, comes a severe dropoff in hours. In fact, between December 21 and at least January 2nd, I have no hours at all. At first I thought yay! I'll finally have some nights off! Then I realized, oh yeah, I can't really be out cavorting if my income is cut in half.

Pair this serious downshift in work with the fact that I'm committed to go to a library conference in January, and I'm forced to admit that I may be a bit of a dumbass.

Like all setbacks, I'm determined to take this one in stride. Afterall, it's only temporary, and it will actually be nice to have a few nights off during the most depressing part of the year to eat some comfort foods and curl up in my reading chair. I do need to keep myself in check, however, spendingwise, as I have gotten a bit freer with the clothes-buying.

I'm lucky in that no one really expects x-mas gifts from me, so I save money there, and knowing I have this expensive (but warm!) trip coming will give me something to focus on. I'll have to dial back the saving (damnit), but if I keep spending like I have been, I should still be able to sock a little away.

Time to give myself some frugal assignments to pass the time productively...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Separate Accounts

I love my bank. That may sound as strange as saying I love going to the dentist (which I used to also), but it's actually true. What made me love my bank even more was moving and opening a new checking account at a local bank, and then realizing what jerks that local bank are (I have since closed my account). So technically, my bricks and mortar bank is 1,300 miles away from me, but with direct deposit and online banking, it rarely makes a difference.

One thing that was handy about having two separate banks was that I had my designated travel fund in my least-used bank, which made it easier to slot away funds and not be tempted to spend them--out if sight, out of mind, and moving money between the two banks involved writing and mailing a check, which I could easily talk myself out of. Then I got a notice that my local bank is instituting a $5 monthly surcharge on checking accounts unless you maintain a balance of something like $2500. I don't remember the exact amount, but it was high enough that I would never keep that kind of money in an account that earns .000000004% interest. So I started shopping for a new bank.

I could have just kept all my money in my beloved bank, but I really like having a separate hidden account, plus, as great as my bank is, my money market savings interest rate has dive-bombed in recent years meaning I might do better shopping around a little bit.


This is almost spooky, but the same week that I got that letter about the $5 surcharge and was inwardly grumbling about finding a new bank, Frugal Girl linked back to a post of hers from a while ago talking about her multiple online accounts with ING. I have never met Frugal Girl, but I trust her, and she's never steered me wrong before. Plus, I've had many friends who have used ING, the city I used to work for used ING for retirement accounts--in short, it's a name I know and have heard good things about.

They have free, high(er) interest rate savings accounts, and they allow you to have more than one. It's tied to your regular bank account, so can move money between the two easily, and the interest rate is about double what my MMA is yielding right now. Huzzah!

The point of all this rambling is that having a separate account, for anything (doesn't have to be travel), is really the handiest, easiest way to accrue money. If you're someone who buys a lot of Christmas gifts, set up a free, interest-earning savings account and sock away a little bit all year long. Then when it comes time to buy things, you don't have to freak out wondering where the money is. People love to invoke the notion that if you just skip your weekly coffee, you'll save something like $300/year. How about you just stick a painless $10-$20 a week into your secret savings account. It adds up. Whenever I start shopping for a vacation, I know that a jarring as it is to charge a $300 plane ticket, I just have to move that money from my travel fund and send it off to Amex.

You can keep accounts anywhere, doesn't have to be ING, but I've found in my sleuthing, that online banks like ING have better rates for savings accounts. If the notion of online banking seems scary (and I understand why it would), shop around for a bricks and mortar bank that doesn't hose you with fees. One thing that I liked about my local bank was that there was always a branch in the grocery store I frequent, and my savings account was tied in with my store savings card meaning I got a tiny percentage back on my purchases (gas and groceries). That amount was not going to total the $5 a month they want to charge in fees, however, so that's why I've jettisoned them (jerks).

It's the banking equivalent of hiding cash in your sock drawer.

*Plus, if you open an account and let me refer you, you get $25 and I get $10. If you want in, email me at findmefrugal@gmail.com

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Shepherd's Pie

Holy crap is this delicious. I was optimistic, but not prepared for how awesomely delightful this turned out to be, although, honestly, if you put mashed potatoes on a shingle I'd probably be thrilled, so there's my bias. I've never had real (beefy) Shepherd's Pie, but it can't possibly be as good as this delightful vegetarian version I found on Vegetarian Chic and then changed slightly to match my own tastes (of course).

It's a bit labor intensive as it requires you to make mashed potatoes as well as lentils and saute some stuff, so next time, I'm going to double the recipe--plus, there just wasn't enough!

Ingredients:
1/2 cup lentils (green or brown)
2 large russet or three medium red potatoes
1/2 cup spinach (frozen works)
1/4 cup shredded carrot
2 cloves garlic
milk
cream cheese
basil, cumin, parsley, salt to taste
soy sauce

  • Place lentils and about 2 cups water in sauce pan, and bring water to a boil. After boiling, let simmer at medium until lentils are tender (this may require periodically adding more water, but don't over add). Once lentils are nearly done, add a few spices and a few splashes of soy sauce. Cook until all liquid is absorbed.
  • Transfer lentils to another dish and rinse pot for potatoes.
  • Peel and dice 2 large russet or 3 medium red potatoes and place in sauce pan with water enough to cover and float them. Boil until fork tender, then mash with potato masher. Once the potatoes are slightly broken down, add about 1/3 cup of milk, 2 tbsp cream cheese, and a few dashes of salt. Re-mash until potatoes are smooth, and stir with a wooden spoon to mix in all ingredients. Potatoes should be thick consistency, but not too thick to spread.
  • In frying pan, add three glugs olive oil and two cloves garlic diced. Saute garlic until slightly golden brown. Add spinach. If using frozen spinach, be prepared for a reaction from the oil. Saute spinach for about five minutes, then add shredded carrot. Saute, then add lentils. Saute all vegetables, add more basil, parsley and cumin to taste, then spread mixture on the bottom of a casserole dish (note, I used a full-sized casserole dish, and had a very thin pie, hence the doubling next time.) Use a smaller one if you don't want to double.
  • Spread mixture evenly to all edges. Then plop mashed potatoes on top and spread as neatly as possible to the edges.
  • Bake at 325 for 20 minutes!

Monday, November 15, 2010

It gets awkward

One of the big drawbacks to living a frugal life is the near-constant thought of money. I'm getting used to that, it's becoming routine, but tied in with that is the near constant appraisal of other's money--does anyone else do that? I'm not saying that I do it in a malicious or envious way, but when I know approximately how much people make, I find myself wondering how do they afford this?

I don't know if this is something I just started doing on my own, or if it's a reaction to things people have said to me, but it's there. I used to work with a kid who was an avid video gamer. I have nothing against people who play a lot of video games, but it's not something I really choose to do with my time. What bothered me, was when he started making snarky comments about my travels and how lucky I was that my parents paid for all these life experiences for me.

In the interest of full disclosure, yes, my parents did pay my college tuition for four years and that four years included a semester abroad and a grand tour of Europe, but by the time video gamer and I were having this conversation, I was completely cut off from all parental financial support. I was paying all my own bills, taking out loans for grad school and funding all travel adventures myself. When I was in High School, I traveled as much as I could and paid for all of it with money I earned myself. I don't think my parents even gave me spending money. I've been working since age fifteen, buying all my own clothes and extras but I was lucky enough that my parents were willing to pay for college (then I went to grad school twice and took out an obscene amount of loans).

When he made that remark, I looked him square in the eye and said, "You just bought three DVD sets from me for $60 and barely blinked. How much do you spend on DVDs and video games per week?"

He thought for a moment and shrugged, "I don't know, maybe $100? depends on the week."

If he would stop buying video games for six weeks, that would save him more than enough for my most recent trip to Vegas. If he quit buying video games for three months, that's a trip to England.

I've had a lot of people look at the way I live my life, and assume that I'm heavily subsidized by my parents, which is something that I really don't appreciate, but I guess if I'm taking a positive approach to veiled insults, it means that it looks like I'm doing a lot with very little. Of course, if these people knew me better, they would have seen my coupon organizer and heard me rave about the great deal I just got on yogurt, so it's not like I'm masquerading as a fancy person.

I save, and splash out on the things I really enjoy. I'm lucky now that I'm finally making enough money to bolster my savings account more than before, but just because my income has gone up, doesn't mean I'm really doing anything else differently. There will always be something to save for, and there will always be a reason to keep myself in check and not get carried away at Target (which I did a little today, but I got a great deal on socks). The more you own, the more your stuff owns you, and I just don't want that kind of burden. Save your money, and buy independence.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Because it's free, of course

A friend sent me an article the other day, which surprised me at first, but then really makes sense when you think about it. According to a study by OCLC, a nonprofit library co-operative and research organization, Public Libraries circulate more movies than Netflix, Redbox and bricks and mortar video stores.

Since I'm a librarian, and I know that we have an exceptional collection of DVDs that circulate like crazy, I wasn't shocked by this, but I still thought Netflix would be the clear winner. Thinking back to my own video needs though, I have Netflix, which I've dropped down from the 3-at-a-time plan to 2-at-a-time to save $5 a month, but I still borrow heavily from the library. Between the two, my needs are more than met.

It's just so basic, if you can get something for free--legally, why wouldn't you? Frugal Rule #1 Get Thee to the Library!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Getting a bit too caught up

I'm reading a great new book called In Cheap we Trust by Lauren Weber. It's an examination of Americans' love/hate on-again/ off-again relationship with thrift, and the differences between cheap behavior and thrifty behavior. It's incredibly interesting, and I'll be writing a proper review once I'm finished, but there is one idea that is just lodged in my mind that I can't stop thinking about.

A bit of context: The author talks briefly about her upbringing in the introduction, explaining how her father was a man who liked to make his pennies stretch as far as he could. He would keep the house so cold that you could see your breath and wash the dishes in cold water (which she notes was not very effective). He was also a man who was generous when it counted, and sent each of his kids to the college of their choice to study what they wanted to study with no cost to the kids at all. He paid for everything.

As was reading this, I was thinking--yes! that's exactly the kind of thrift I aim to employ in my life (except I will always wash my dishes in hot water). I never want to be cheap. To me, cheap is mean, penny-pinching behavior; cheap is saving for the sake of saving and just admiring your pile of money; thrifty is not buying more than you need, knowing the difference, and having the ability to spend your money on things that are important.

Then the author mentioned the tea bags.

Apparently, as a further cost-cutting measure, her father would re-use his teabags up to twelve times. He would dunk once, "just enough to color the water" then clip the bag on a makeshift clothesline to dry. This is appalling to me, and I have to wonder, why drink tea at all? Why not just drink hot water?

I like a strong cup of tea. I've been known to use two tea bags sometimes, so this kind of behavior steps foot squarely into cheap territory and infringes on your quality of life. Unless your tea is made of the rarest flower that can only be harvested by blind nuns in Tibet, there is no reason to live like this.

Out of curiosity, I decided to examine my own tea consumption and the possibility of saving money. My preferred brand is PG Tips, which I can usually get at The Ocean State Job Lot (weird, discount remaindered store) for $3.45 for 40 teabags-- about $.09 per bag. Not great, but not bad either. My local grocery store sells that brand for $8.99 for 80 teabags--$.11 per bag, so I'm already seeking out a bargain.
But wait, I can also get Tetley tea for sometimes as low as $2.65 for an 80 count box--a mere $.03 per teabag. Tetley's is nice and strong, but I don't like the flavor as much. However, it is $.06 cheaper per bag to go with the Tetley's.

Considering I drink at least one cup of tea per day in the summer, and at least two cups per day in the winter, that could be significant savings. If we average that I drink 650 cups of tea per year, that's $58.50 spent on PG and $19.50 on Tetley's--pretty significant difference, but do I really want to live my life drinking sub-par tea just to save $39? Then again, it is $39, that's walking-around money.

This is possibly the lamest blog I've ever written, but it's a good illustration of how significant savings can be just from switching brands! It has merit! Even though I've devolved into strange nickle-and-diming territory. I've just done a big tea buy, so I'll drink that up, but I have a box of Tetley's waiting in the wings--perhaps I'll grow to appreciate it?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

What I used to spend my money on

I read a lot of frugality blogs, many of which are kind of half frugality blog and half "here's a great deal!" blogs, which can be a bit difficult for me at times. I love a good deal--who doesn't, but as I've mentioned before, when I began couponing and reading these blogs, I spent more on food and stuff than I had in years. A lot of it was boredom; a lot of it was a need to feel in control of something while my professional prospects seemed hopeless; and a lot if it was just glee at getting good deals (that weren't even that good, just slightly less than I might have previously paid).

One thing that always surprises me when reading these other blogs, is what people want to spend their money on. In my mind, and this may just be where I'm at in my life right now, but I spend money on necessities and save the rest. I may be saving the rest for travel (I consider that a necessity), but I don't buy things for the home, jewelry, beauty treatments etc.

So many of these blogs are concerned with creating inexpensive centerpieces and finding discounts on scrapbooking materials, which I guess if that's what you like, good for you, but for me it just seems extravagant. I'm glad that I see how other people spend their money, though, because it gives me a bit perspective. I'm certainly not making a Thanksgiving centerpiece using remaindered silk flowers and ribbon ends (just sounds like something to dust to me), but if it makes people happy--good for them!

It did get me thinking about what I used to care about--the things that I used to spend all my money on. I started working at age fifteen, and had two jobs by age sixteen. Since I lived with my parents and didn't have to pay for any necessities, it was all just spending money. I saved plenty, sure, but the rest, I just spent on anything and everything that I felt I needed at the time. I get a little sick thinking about all the crap I frittered away money on, and I understand why it was so hard to adjust to a real world where all of my money goes toward necessities and not tacky room decorations.

Books: The biggest thing I used to spend money on was books. I was an avid library user when I was younger--I was there every day--but we moved to a different town when I was twelve, and I kind of forgot about the library. Plus, this library was in a small town, and just didn't have a lot of the books I wanted, so I bought them instead (and borrowed many from friends). As I'm a fast reader--usually at least one book a day, despite working two jobs and having an active social life--you can see how this got expensive.

CDs: By the time I finally bought an iPod, I had 500+ CDs. I actually had enough that I could sell them all to the CD resale place for $1 each, and have enough money to buy the largest iPod on the market at the time. So, that was kind of cool, but still, a lot of money spent.

Tacky Crap from catalogs: I grew up in a very small town, 1500 people, so we had one store. Around age 13, I discovered catalogs, and that was the beginning of the end. I had to order all those CDs because the nearby Pamida didn't stock much that wasn't country, and Columbia House Music Club (my music delivery system of choice) often sent along a catalog of tacky plastic wall decorations that were decidedly rock and roll. I bought a lot of them.

It's funny, looking back, because the things that I used to spend all my money on, I never buy anymore. I don't want to have books in my house anymore because they take up too much space and get so dusty (though I do have a few that I read over and over again, and some collectible ones), I get all my music and books from the library now. I do still buy stuff from catalogs, but now it's about four times a year rather than weekly, and is usually clothes, not wall decorations.

I guess it's all indicative of growing up and priorities changing, but it's also weird to look back on your own life and think that the things that were most important are now least important. I'm not talking reading (I still do that), but buying books. I used to have a big thing about liking owning books, and now I could really care less. I wonder if I'll ever start caring about centerpieces.

What was your big thing back in the day?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Monthly Goals--November

It seems a bit like cheating to post about monthly goals on a blog that has been sorely neglected for almost all of October, but it is what it is. I'm adjusting better to my new work schedule and working only nights; I'm getting better at using my days productively. Unfortunately, as happens every time the seasons change, I've been buying clothes and blowing my budget (only in that column).

Last month's goals were to pay back savings account to the point where I have 8 months worth of living expenses tucked away; start paying back student loans (only slightly), and be a little less rigid with my money and enjoy life a bit more.

I'm proud to report I've pretty much succeeded in all those. I socked away a whopping $1000 in savings while still throwing $100 at the student loan folks. I'm well on track to my savings goal, and am feeling quite smug for giving money to student loan people. I have no idea why that makes me feel smug, honestly, because I knew I had to pay it back when I borrowed it, and I certainly intend to... How about, instead of smug, we'll say I felt smart.

As to the goal of enjoying myself more. I went out for dinner/drinks with friends a couple nights, and had a lovely time. I've been treating myself to a coffee before work occasionally, which I would have talked myself out of before, and I'm going to take my stylist's advice and get my haircut more than three times a year. Getting a haircut isn't terribly enjoyable, though my stylist is a fascinating and lovely person, but looking good appeals to me much more than looking stringy and bedraggled (as I have been) so there you go.

Goals for November are as follows:
  1. I'm stocked up on winter clothes, I re-inventoried my closet the other day to remind myself what I already have, so I need to take a huge step back from all these clothes purchases. I would like a pair of black shoes, so I'm going to keep on the hunt for those, but I don't need scarves, jackets, sweaters or any of the other things I really want to buy.
  2. Continue replenishing savings account while paying a bit toward the student loans. I've decided to go to a library conference on January, so I need to start feeding the travel fund as well. I've asked for scholarship money, but I'm certainly not going to get enough to cover all my expenses and money I lose by missing work, so need to save.
  3. Try baking bread again. After getting some sage advice from actual bread-bakers, I think I'm better prepared to have another go. Plus, I've got those four packets of yeast--can't waste them.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I made bread!

I made my first two loaves of bread the other day, and they turned out ok--not great, but ok. I purposely bought too much yeast (also, I had two coupons) so I'd be forced to try again. Also, I forgot to add salt, but it still tastes ok.

I used the potato bread recipe from The Frugal Girl because one of my biggest hangups when it comes to bread baking is the fact that fresh bread just goes stale so quickly. She said that potato bread seems to stay good longer, so I thought that that would be a good kind of loaf to start with. I may have done something else wrong besides not adding salt, because it just didn't ever really taste that fresh. It was crumbly from the start, but I guess in a good way.

Two issues that I'm having right now:
  1. My loaves were short and wide rather than tall and loaf-like. I have one loaf pan that is metal, and the other is silicon. What I've notices with the silicon one, even when making lentil loaf, is that everything just comes out wide. You heap in more ingredients trying to get a nice tall loaf, and the pan itself just expands until you're stuck with wide bread/lentil loaf. That works ok for the lentil loaf, but not very good if I want to eventually make sandwiches.
  2. I mixed the yeast with the warm water and let it sit, then started stirring in flour. do I just heap in five cups of flour, and then mix it around, or do I stir and add? I feel like I got my hands in the mess too quickly because it was really sticky, but as I don't know any better, that may have been exactly right.
My loaves certainly didn't look like Frugal Girl's--she clearly has magic baking powers.
So, one point for finally ripping that band-aid off and making the attempt, but zero points for the bread itself. I'm ready to accept that the silicon loaf pan is crap and perhaps buy another metal one, but I feel like that's a waste if I don't totally love the bread I'm making. How many tries does it take to get it right?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ebates, you are my favorite friend

I discovered Ebates a while ago, and can honestly say that it's the greatest thing since online shopping was invented. How it works:
  1. Register for free with Ebates.com
  2. When you online shop at certain stores, log into Ebates first so they can track your purchases
  3. Buy stuff you would anyway, and get a percentage of that money back from Ebates
That's it. Take your money to the bank and feel like you got away with something.

I haven't used Ebates a ton, because I don't buy a ton of stuff, but I recently replaced my cell phone, and it was pretty awesome.

I hate cell phone salesmen--they seem to be the last holdout of the "aggressive salesman" model, at least among people that I have to deal with semi-regularly. Two years ago, when my previous cell phone died, I went to the kiosk in the mall to buy a replacement battery, and got sold a whole new phone. The new phone was a total lemon and for two years I hated it and the man who sold it to me. He also failed to mention that there would be all kinds of fees for changing phones, that the service provider I have basically doesn't stand behind their products and won't help you out if you get sold a lemon of a phone and generally made me feel very uncomfortable.

This time around, I did lots of web-based research, and found the phone I wanted. Because My contract was up, the phone was free, and because I bought it through Ebates, I got back $15. The money was delivered right into my paypal, no muss no fuss, and all for something I had to buy anyway.

I also recently found out that you can purchase Groupons through Ebates-- so you're basically getting cash back for buying a pre-paid great deal on something. Does that even make sense? For example: This past weekend's Groupon in my area is for a 51% discount on the Amica Marathon, Half-Marathon and 5k. This fills me with rage because I've already registered for that race and not gotten 51% off, but no matter. If I were registering for the 1/2 marathon using a Groupon, I would already be paying only $30 instead of $60, but if I did it through Ebates, I'd save another 6%, or in this case $1.80. That's not a ton of money, but it's savings, and takes very little time to get.

I love Ebates.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Quest for the Free Flu Shot

I don't have health insurance, and I work with the public, so every fall I'm bombarded with reminders to get a flu shot. Problem is, that most of the time the flu shot for people without insurance costs $20, or you have to go somewhere that's doing a free clinic, stand in a long line and hope that they don't run out of vaccine. Last year was a year that I was unable to get a free shot, and it was probably the worst year to not get vaccinated considering I had two other friends who got swine flu.

What I wrestle with every year, is whether or not I should just pay $20 and get the shot at a convenient time, or if I should continue to scan ads and announcements trying to find a free flu shot that fits with my work schedule/ isn't 30 miles away. This is the constant battle with the whole frugality lifestyle, it seems. Not flu shots, but the time it takes to get something for free or for cheaper. A lot of people say it's not worth it. They might say that as someone who cannot afford to get sick I should just pay $20, get the shot and be done with it. $20 is a bargain compared to potential lost work time.

The other side of the argument is that most years I don't get a flu shot and I also don't get the flu--why waste the money? I can honestly say that since I started running regularly, I rarely get sick. Considering that people have come into my library and let me help them on the computer for fifteen minutes before announcing "I have pneumonia!" there's something to this whole exercise keeps you healthy theory. Maybe I should just skip the shot and save the money.

I go back and forth, and if this year is like last year, I'll probably go back and forth until it's too late to actually get the shot. Of course now that I've announced that I rarely get sick, who knows what will happen (shake fist at universe).

What would you do?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Student Loans

Now that I'm kind of on track financially (although I'm really starting to notice that with my commute doubling, so is my gas consumption, grrr) I took another look at the student loan tally. This is another big figure that I've been avoiding because when I was just making enough to break even each month, it seems like just torturing myself to look at the big total without being able to do anything about it. I threw a little money at that total, when I had it, but that only paid off a tiny bit of interest, not the principle.

Thankfully, I only have federal loans. Unfortunately, I have two masters degrees and a (still) very small salary. I always knew those were there waiting in the wings, but it seems like whenever I find a new source of income, something else crops up to try to take my money.

I'm not going to feel sorry for myself, I knew what I was doing when I went to grad school...and then went to grad school again.

Plan of attack:
  1. I first need to pay back my savings account from that summer when I was basically not working. I tried to live as frugally as possible, but still ended up spending about half of what I had saved--that is going to be replaced.
  2. Start making more payments on those loans. I still can't afford to make the minimum payment each month, but I'm going to start making regular payments of at least $100/month. It may not be much, but it's something, and it's the best I can do right now.
  3. I'm going to enjoy myself a little more--not to the point of being financially irresponsible, but I'm not going to never eat out. I'm still going to keep my same budget limits, but I don't know, be a little less rigid.
So that's October's goals a little early, but I feel like I'm in a good place. Also, as much as it kind of sucks that I'm working five-six nights a week, that's also going to save me a lot of money in the long run--positivity!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Figuring it out

I did a presentation a few years ago when I was in grad school about personal finance for teens. My group and I tried to tackle as many issues as we could, and I ended up with the topic of "real world expenses." It's interesting because, in a roundabout way, I actually did pick that topic, but as soon as I got home and started thinking about it, I had no idea what to say.

The problem is, despite my parents near constant personal finance counseling--usually in the form of talking about credit score, I was still ill-prepared for the cost of real life. No one really talks about how much the day-to-day is going to cost you. People drop percentages like, "you shouldn't spend more than 60% on housing." That's fair, but then when you're a college student making minor ducats but living in an expensive town, you look at that percentage, say "well that's not anything I can change, best say screw it and just get through this phase of my life. I'll start making money once I graduate."

As more and more people are finding out (myself included), that may not actually be the case.

My high school did something when I was a senior, which I can honestly say was one of the most effective educational experiences of my life. It was called the Real Life Fair, and I don't think they told any of us about it beforehand. Just one day, we seniors showed up, and they hustled us into the gym. We drew a career, education level and income from a bucket, and then learned about all the expenses we would have to cover with that income.

They listed cost of living like rent and utilities and that was non-negotiable; they drove in a variety of vehicles and told us how much insurance would be, and the monthly payment for the vehicles. They talked about insurance and investments, student loans, pretty much everything and it was really effective because they gave us actual numbers.

So what is the point of this long, drawn out story? The point is that I had all the tools at my disposal to be a responsible, financially savvy gal, and I still screwed it up because it was all theoretical and I didn't have any hard numbers. If someone had said to me, "You will be paying $400/month in rent, $200/month for food, $100 a month for utilities, $100/month for beer (this was college) and you'll make $5.75/hour at Barnes & Noble where you'll also probably go a little nuts buying books and CDs--that would have given me a bit of pause.

That means that if I was working 40 hours per week, making $5/hour after taxes, I'm taking home $800/month. That's already spent just looking at the figures above, and I really shouldn't have been working that much because I was a full-time student.

I didn't want to hear it at the time, but no one was telling me either. Because I didn't want to hear it, I certainly didn't seek out this information and make a list like I just did. Instead, I charged everything, and convinced myself that with my BA in English, I'd be raking in a healthy salary soon enough.

This is why I advocate complete honesty when it comes to your personal finances. This is why I write every single number down, no matter how painful. This is why when I'm planning a Real Life Expenses lesson for teens, I tell them to look at Craigslist listings for apartments in their area so they know approximately what their rent is going to be; to go onto the local grocery store's delivery site and fill a cart with what they would probably buy regularly at the store and note how much it costs; try to figure out how much gas they'll use and factor that in, etc.

I need numbers to keep myself on track. Percentages don't cut it. And I need to know how much real life costs.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

An interesting question

I got a suggestion from a friend the other day that I've been mulling over in my head since then: "You should write a Frugal Blog that gives tips on how not to feel sick when you first start tracking/writing down what you spend in each category. Especially if it's a category that can't be helped too much (ex: car gas)."

I don't know if I have all the answers, but I do know exactly what this feels like. When I first started keeping track of expenditures, I was horrified by how much money I spent regularly--especially on food. So I immediately tried to cut my food budget by half, felt guilty all the time and started eating even more boxed pasta. It's easy to see that that wasn't exactly a good move though my intentions were good.

The most important thing to do is to be honest--these are my circumstances, what am I going to do about it? Categories like gas, home heating oil--things that can't really be helped but seem to suck up all your money certainly are the worst, especially for renters. What I've done in the past with gas is to say that I'm allowed to fill my tank once a week--no more unless there are extenuating circumstances. I'd find that that usually worked and by Saturday I'd usually still have enough to get around before buying gas on Sunday. If I didn't make it to the end of the week before needing gas, I just didn't drive. This is something that can't work for everyone, but it kept me in check for a while.

A couple other ways I keep my gas money in check:
Buy gas in the morning.
When you buy gas in the morning, it's at its coolest and therefore densest so you get slightly more gas for your money. It adds up over time.

Pay attention to the gas stations that are cheapest and make a point to go there. I'm not advocating driving across town just to buy cheap gas, but if you pay attention to the stations nearest to your house, or on your way to work you can find the one that is consistently cheapest and go only there. I often stop at the gas station that's owned by my grocery store because I get discounts based on my grocery purchases, and it's on my way to/from work. My old neighborhood had a nearby station that was consistently cheapest, and even though it was the opposite direction to the highway from my house, it was only a couple blocks out of the way, and was $.10 cheaper per gallon than the station right near the on-ramp.

Drive the speed limit.
I do not drive the speed limit, so it's a bit hypocritical for me to write this, but it does make a difference (I've heard).

The other thing to keep in mind is that yes, there are categories in you budget that you can't change much, but others you can. Just like I buy the fancy hummus and the cheap oatmeal and it balances out, you can cut back on food, beer and clothes in favor of heating your house. Certainly it's less fun, but it's part of being a grownup. There is also the option of getting a roommate, or finding a cheaper place (potentially), but that's often easier said than done, and possibly more difficult than is worth it.

Initially, putting a number or a percentage of your income down on paper is a horrifying thing, but it will get easier, and it's so much better to know where your money went than to just sit back and think--I had some money, wonder what happened to it... I don't know if there is a way to do it without feeling sick, but maybe that feeling is a good thing--the final kick that makes you make changes. Despite the fact that I spend 50% of my income on rent, and the rest on food and other necessities, I've stopped feeling sick, and I feel really good when I can put $25 in savings--it's all about perspective.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ratatoille!


Note: this may actually just be roasted vegetables and not actual ratatouille, but I'm going to call it ratatoille anyway. Apparently, some rules state that ratatouille must have green peppers in it, and I do not care for green peppers. Wikipedia says tomatoes are the key ingredient, but that the dish should be sauteed. Whatever this thing is that I made, it's fantastic, cheap and healthy.


Here's my version:
Ingredients:
1 medium eggplant
2 medium yellow squash
2 handfuls cherry tomatoes
olive oil
salt, pepper, oregano, parsley to taste

  • Chop the eggplant first into cubes. throw in colander and salt liberally to soak up some of the juices. Set aside in the sink to drain while you chop the rest of the vegetables.
  • Chop squash and slice tomatoes. My tomatoes were small enough to just cut in half--squash should be in small cubes same size as the eggplant.
  • Once all the vegetables are chopped, put them in a large bowl. Rinse eggplant, pat dry, and add that to the bowl.
  • Pour in a healthy amount of olive oil, add salt, pepper and desired spices then mix gently with your hands until the vegetables look well coated.
  • Spread mixture out onto cookie sheet and bake at 400 degrees for 35-45 minutes.
I first put this over pasta, which was excellent, but then I just ate the rest by itself with a little sprinkle of parmesan, All total, I got four meals out of this--actually five because the bf has some too. Double bonus, this dish seems to get more flavorful as it sits in the fridge. I just had the last of it, and am longing for more.

I forgot to save the receipts, but this cost next to nothing. I got the tomatoes from my gardening co-workers so all I had to buy were eggplant and squash.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Going through changes

I've been conspicuously absent from the blog this week, sorry about that. Last Thursday was the first day of my new job, so I've been frantically memorizing names and policies, trying to figure out where the pens and mini-fridge are, etc. Despite the overwhelming task of learning a new job, I'm not nearly as exhausted as I expected to be, which I think I can take as a sign that I'm pretty damn happy in my new place.

The hardest thing so far has been the thing that's always hardest when encountering a new source of income--not spending money I haven't earned yet. I always get way ahead of myself and start anticipating what I'll earn then spending it before it arrives. Then my new income isn't new anymore, just regular, and I don't feel like I've made any progress at all.

I have gone shopping for new work clothes, but used primarily birthday money, so didn't wreck my budget, but I keep finding myself shopping for new large items that I never would have considered on my previous income. I haven't bought anything, but I keep browsing almost unconsciously. It's bizarre.

The other big adjustment is rearranging my cooking mindset. Since I'm working primarily nights, that means I will be doing my cooking in the afternoon, which just feels weird to me. I'm used to working nights, I did it for years all through college and grad school, but back then my idea of cooking was throwing some boxed or bagged pasta in the microwave. I've been meaning to make ratatouille and blog about it, but I never feel like tackling a big cooking project in the afternoon.

I'm not afraid of change in any way, but it's always the little things that you couldn't anticipate that end up mattering the most. At least as far as not spending money I haven't earned, I've kept myself in check pretty well by just knowing myself and my spending habits, but it's more challenging than I anticipated.

Does anyone have any other tips for keeping your spending in line in the face of shiny new money?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Weekend Reading: The Money Book

The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-timers, and the Self-Employed
By Joseph D'Agnese and Denise Kiernan
Three Rivers Press, 2010

Basically, according to the title, this is a book for someone exactly like me i.e. a gal who works part-time and freelances. Why is it that I feel like this one didn't really speak to me and mostly made me terrified of the notion of living as a freelancer? I've never been so glad to have some (small) regular income as when I was reading this book. That's not to say that there's not a ton of good advice in here, but it seriously left me spooked. I don't do well with uncertainty.

This book is a very good foundation builder for someone who lives on an unreliable income and/or may have personal debt. The advice is solid, and is the same as advice I've both heard before and given before. It's written in an authoritative yet entertaining way that doesn't take itself too seriously (I do like that...). Because I don't have credit card debt and have heard a lot of this advice before, it didn't pertain to me as much as I hoped, but I certainly did learn some things.

Best Takeaways:

When it comes to money, you have to be brutally honest with yourself.
It's always good to re-remind yourself of this because no matter how saintly you think your spending habits are, there's always a chance that you could opt to ignore the purchase of that item you love the look of and hate the price of. Remember my recent foray into near credit card disaster just because I didn't like the look of my balance and wasn't being as thorough as usual? The authors advocate making a list of all debts and expenses to help you better understand your financial situation and assign some numbers to things. I agree with them.

Spending Identity Statement.
This is interesting. A spending identity statement comes after you've taken a good hard look at your income, assets and expenses, and it functions like a check to keep you in line.

Sample Statement: My name is Jane. As of this date, I have earned $xxxx.xx doing this job. My monthly fixed expenses are $xxx.xx. Based on my income, my monthly discretionary income is $xxx.xx....
Then you assign values to areas where you're likely to do your discretionary spending i.e. eating out, shoes, etc. It's a contract with yourself, and not a bad idea at all.

Debt=Dreams Deferred.
Not really much to add to that statement except a hearty "well said!" Tempting though it may be to keep up with the Joneses, the more things you own, the less freedom you have to do things in the future. Living on credit is far too common and accepted a practice today, and as we've learned over the course of the recent (ongoing) financial crisis, it's not helping anyone. Use money you have to buy things you need.

Change your "I deserve" language.
People say that they deserve things all too frequently these days--in all different ways. "I ran for 30 minutes, so I deserve an ice cream sundae;" I was really good about spending all week so I deserve to go shopping tonight;" "I had a hard week, I deserve a spa treatment." I'm all about rewarding yourself for good behavior, but if you go running for 30 minutes as part of your diet, don't you deserve to lose weight? Or if you're really good about spending, don't you instead deserve a low balance or no balance on your credit card? It's a subtle shift, but it does make a huge difference. Instead of wanting stuff, take pleasure in your savings balance and your zero credit card balance. I think it's even more fun because you don't have to find a place to store new purchases.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Making Lemonade

There are two things that annoy me to no end.
  1. This tank top
It looks like the basic black tank top from the Gap that I thought it was when I bought it,
but this tank top is evil. Over the years, over the course of many washings, it's done the thing where it shrinks up and becomes wider and shorter. As I have a freakishly long torso, this simply does not work for me. It's also irregular in some way where as I move in it, it twists around. Every time I wear this thing, I spend all my time thinking about how uncomfortable I am and adjusting my shirt. I wear this surprisingly often, because to look at it, it's identical to five other black tank tops from the Gap that I own that fit me just fine. I don't find out that this is the bad one until I'm out the door, and then I suffer all day.

2. When my sunglasses get all scratched up

It's hard to see in the picture, but I have a tendency to throw my sunglasses in my purse where they rub on the other contents of my purse and get scratched. Then I can barely see through them because they're just a mess. Since I get most of my sunglasses from the lost and found at work (after waiting the appropriate time for someone to claim them), it's not like I'm wasting any money, but it is a waste to be constantly replacing sunglasses. Not to mention, it's really annoying to put on a pair, realize that you can't see out of them, then remember to look in the lost and found next time I'm at work.

What I have decided to do, is to bring together the two things that bother me, and create a solution that will make me happy i.e. I'm going to make glasses cases out of my crappy tanktop and solve two problems at once.
  1. My glasses will no longer get scratched
  2. That awful tank top will be out of my life forever and I won't accidentally wear it again.
Step one: Make some cuts
Step two: cut fabric scraps to size measuring against sunglasses, and sew a pocket. I used contrast color thread so you can see what I did, but basically just sew two sides together so you have a pouch with a hole in one end. You could hand stitch this easily, but I was feeling lazy.

Pouch!  Now reverse it.
And there you have it.  If you're worried about the glasses falling out, you can make a little indent stitch like this:
Or you can re-use the straps from the tank top to make a tie for closing.
Since this is a rather boring tank top, these are rather boring glasses cases, but who really cares.  They serve a purpose, and the t-shirt material is great for polishing lenses.  I saw the exact same thing, only more stylish for sale in the gift shop at an art museum-- for $14.  These were basically free and took about 15 minutes to make four of them.  If you want something better looking, just recycle a funkier shirt.