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.

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!

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.