Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The End!

It is the last day of the blogathon and I have nothing to say--isn't that just the way it goes?  I just got back from a rather frugal trip to Cape Cod, which I will fill you all in on later, and I'm currently basking in the frugal breeze created by a window fan drinking frugal home-made coffee.

Le sigh.

So instead of scratching my head and trying to come up with just one more thing, I decided to make a wordle of all of the titles I used the past month:

I've got a bigger version of this saved on my facebook page
There it is--one whole month of blogging condensed into a pretty word picture.

Of course, since it is the last day of the month, we should look back on my May goals and see how I did.  To be perfectly honest, I usually write out my monthly goals and forget about them, so let's see if I succeeded despite that.

Goal 1 was to do more writing--freelance and overall.  I've certainly done more blogging, as evidenced by the blogathon, but alas, I did no freelance writing.  The system at the company I work for is such that you login and pick from a huge list of titles.  Lately, there hasn't been much that I could write about in that list.  I did login and look, but I probably wasn't as tenacious as I could have been.

Goal 2 was to stay on budget.  Except for clothes (again) and gas (not my fault) I've done well this month.  My income has dipped slightly, so I need to remain vigilant!

Goal 3 was to shift my focus to my new retirement account.  I've done pretty well in that regard.  I've saved nearly $300 so far, and I adjusted my direct deposit to automatically put 15% in that account.  I'm nowhere near reaching the $5000/year max out, but I really don't have a spare $5000 lying around, so I'm just going to do my best. Slow and steady...

How did everyone else do on their goals for the month of May?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Moneywise Monday!

It's time for the first installment of Moneywise Monday!  What I hope to achieve with this new feature is to create a dialogue among all readers and set us up for a successful week of spending/saving.  I'm going to share my successes (or failures) from the past week, and I hope that you will as well.

Looking back over last's week budget, I had five days out of seven where I didn't spend any money at all, and one day where I made some big purchases, but those were almost all necessities.  I'm actively trying to pinch pennies in anticipation of my upcoming conference trip (read: mini vacation with a bit of networking thrown in).


I got my oil changed and tires inflated so that should save me some money on gas this week, and I managed to go to Target and not go completely mental buying things. I stuck to my list, used coupons and came out feeling rather pleased with myself.

For next week, I need to renegotiate my car insurance.  I've been putting it off because I hate making phone calls and I hate haggling, but time is running out.  Wish me luck!

If anyone wants to send in their moneywise successes ahead of time--send them to findmefrugal [at] gmail.com.  How did everyone else do this past week?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Home-made Frozen Novelties!

I don't know where you live, gentle reader, but in my hood, this summer has not been very summery.  As a runner who loathes running outside in 90 degree temps and 70 percent humidity, I've been as happy as can be; but as a person who needs vitamin D and sunlight... well, let's just say I've been feeling quite sluggish, and it's bringing me down.

Technically, it is summer, and what is more summery than a frozen novelty?!?!  Nothing I can think of unless you pair the joy of frozen novelties with the joy of saving money and creating less waste!  To that end, I've been concocting recipes and creating frozen treats that have helped significantly in brightening my day.

I got a recommendation from a co-worker that Tuvolo popsicle molds are where it's at--so I bought these.  Inexpensive, comes with a nice little tray--good times.  Only problem with this variety is that it's a bit wide for my delicate mouth, and it creates a treat that's overwhelming.  Perhaps I'll feel differently when it's super hot and I'm subsisting exclusively on frozen things, but right now, I need something smaller.

You'll notice that the bottom of the mold creates a mini drip tray as well, that's an excellent feature.  This isn't a commercial for popsicle molds, however, this is a chance for me to tell you the wonderful things I've frozen thus far, and which of those things made me the happiest. And for my next trick, I'm going to try a child-sized mold, which promises to create a treat that is more of a snack and less of a meal. I've ordered a set from amazon, but they haven't arrived yet.

* The first thing I did, was buy a couple boxes of instant pudding.  Delicious, easy to prepare, low-fat.  I whipped up a batch and froze it, which netted me six large frozen treats for about $1.50 or $.20 each--not too shabby.

* Next up, I mixed POM Blueberry Pomegranate juice with vanilla yogurt.  I know that POM is supposed to be good for you, at least that's what their advertising tells me, but it's far too sweet.  I'm just not a juice drinker, but mixed with yogurt= good stuff.  For this I bought a quart of Stoneyfield Farms fat-free vanilla for $3.49, and a bottle of POM for $3.99 (another reason I don't drink the stuff--oof), I used 3/4 of the yogurt to 1/4 of the POM, but honestly, adjust to your own tastes, and try a different juice as well. Whisk the two together and voila --fab and healthy!   Four treats at approximately $.75 each.  More expensive, yes, but still cheaper than the store.

* When I was fifteen, I got my first job, which was at a Dairy Queen.  This particular Dairy Queen made their own Dilly Bars and Buster Bars on site, so I spent that summer making ice cream treats.  I'm probably violating some copyright, but I never signed anything, so here's how to make your own Buster Bars.

Buy some of the small, wax-coated paper cups like the one pictured (doesn't have to be that exact one). You will also need: Fudge or chocolatey ice cream topping, vanilla ice cream, spanish peanuts, popsicle sticks and some kind of oil.  At the DQ, we used mineral oil, but you can probably use vegetable oil.  You just need to lightly coat the inside of the cup to keep the treat from sticking and getting pulled apart when you try to free it.

  1. Layer on enough spanish peanuts to cover the bottom of the cup, then layer fudge on top of that--not too too much, just a thin layer. 
  2. Let your ice cream soften a bit and whip it in a dish to make it smooth and malleable.  Scoop a healthy amount into the cup, so it's about halfway full
  3. Add another layer of peanuts and fudge
  4. Fill the cup with ice cream
  5. Freeze overnight and enjoy delicious treats for lunch!
I haven't done the math on this one yet, but it's certainly going to be cheaper than going to the store. 
Huzzah for frozen treats!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Moneywise Monday

I invented a new regular feature!  Except I'm not quite sure how it should work, so I'm putting it to the readership.

For Moneywise Monday would you like to see:
  1. A story of my biggest money success from the past week, and then people can share their own successes and set us up with a positive attitude for the coming week?
  2. A rundown of upcoming weekly expenses and how to potentially make them less expensive?
  3. Something to do with frugal recipes?
  4. Something else?
  5. None of the above?
  6. Scrap the whole thing, it's far too cute-sounding?
It would be fun to come up with something a bit interactive, like Food Waste Friday, but I'm scratching my head a bit right now.  I mean, I came up with the name (based on help from commenters) I can't do everything!  I'm only so creative!

What say you, readers?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Food Waste Friday: I do not like Parsnips

This is a Food Waste Friday late edition. I thought I could make it through the week, but it turns out that I cannot.

A co-worker and I were talking the other day about roasted vegetables (it was awesome, you wish you were there).  Anyway, I was telling him that all I want to eat now that the weather is nice is vegetables: roasted, in a salad, anything, if it came from the ground, I want to sink my teeth into it.  I was particularly enraptured about some ratatouille I had made the other day.  He then started talking up the parsnip, which I had never tried before.

"They're amazing." he assured me, and then said that you can pan roast them just like any other root vegetable. Since I am such a huge fan of root vegetables, I decided to take them for a test drive.  I purchased a bag of parsnips, and added them to my next batch of ratatouille.

I admit, it was foolish to add this untried vegetable into the mix without tasting it on its own first, but my co-worker has never led me astray before!  The ratatouille was a bust, but I managed to save some of it by baking it in a frittata.  Now I just had a wrap of it for dinner (yeah, I made a lot of ratatouille), but every bite was filled with trepidation because I didn't know when I was going to bite into a hateful parsnip.  I threw away 1/2 cup of the ratatouille, and the rest of the parsnips but I will finish the frittata!

I suspect bf doesn't like parsnips either because he sampled the ratatouille, didn't say anything and then made something else for dinner.  I'm never making this mistake again.

Does that make me a Sucker, or a Helper?

I've been reading the New York Times for years.  I started with the paper version (read at work (bookstore) and then gently re-folded for sale), moved to the email version and most recently am loving the google reader version.  When they stated that they were going to start charging for access after 20 articles per month, I panicked a bit, and then started reading The Guardian as a form of protest.  As much as I do like The Guardian, it's just not the same, and I've been trying to find ways to sneak extra Times articles.

As I was blocked from looking at an article the other day, and I schemed to try to figure out how to get around it, (which really isn't that hard) I realized that I was basically wandering into that "cheap" territory that I despise so much.  I love The New York Times, and I don't want them to go under, so I should probably give them some cash. After all, I can cancel at any time.

But then, there's the other side of the argument.  Yes, the newspaper industry is in trouble, but is my $15 a month really going to make that much of a difference?  Is my $15 even going to support the newspaper, or is it just going to go to a greedy shareholder?  Does saying things like greedy shareholder make me sound totally paranoid?

It's tricky because I like to spend my money well and on things that make me truly happy, and not be a tightwad, but I also don't want to spend $195/year reading articles I can get for free with a little side-stepping.  Maybe I just need to suck it up, read my 20 articles, and stick with The Guardian for the rest though I feel like that's bound to effect my spelling at some point...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

It's a Swap

Bitch 'n' Swap is not a new idea, but it's still a great one and is something that I tend to forget about from time-to-time.  In keeping with the semi-regular notion of spring cleaning (which is ongoing in my house), here's a friendly reminder of yet another way you can unload some of the clothes you don't want.  For anyone who doesn't know what a bitch 'n' swap is, here's what you do:

  • You get together with a few girlfriends at someone's house
  • Bring clothes that are in good shape but that don't work for you for whatever reason
  • Spread the clothes out around the hostesses place
  • And grab!
Everyone gets rid of clothes that were just taking up space, and everyone (hopefully) leaves with new-to-them duds.  It doesn't have to be just clothes, you can swap jewelry, make-up, everything.  It's first grab first get, so people may end up fighting over your clothes!  How's that for creating a feeling of specialness!?!? The only downside to this, that I've found, is that no one has my same size clown feet, so I always strike out in the awesome free shoes department.  Even if you don't nab any awesome free clothes, the conversation and girl time (usually with wine and snacks) is pretty awesome all on its own.

Fellow frugalista Annabelle recently nabbed some swell stuff at a bitch 'n' swap, if you need further convincing.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Not Frugal, Moronic

Hateful capris from Old Navy
This summer, I've been on a quest for a pair of khaki capri pants.  These will be an excellent addition to my wardrobe because:

  1. They go with pretty much everything
  2. They travel well
  3. I can wear them to work
Two bases covered--work and leisure, which means if I can find a decent pair of khaki capris, those who spend a lot of time with me are bound to get very sick of looking at them.  Problem is, I can't find any.

To be fair, I haven't looked super, super hard, but I have sought out all the usual (for me) suspects: Gap, Old Navy, New York & Company, and I looked at H&M and Forever 21.  I've had no luck at all.  The only store that even had khaki capris was Old Navy, and both styles were so terrible I wrote a strongly-worded letter of complaint.  To sum up: they created a muffin top where there had been no muffin top before, and were so low-rise that I could not wear them for fear of booty-flashing.  I am not a large woman, there is no reason to spend money on capris that make me look lumpy and horrible, so I returned them and attacked with my words.

Since that unfortunate incident, I haven't even seen khaki capris pants in stores.  Apparently this year it's all about the walking short.  I already have a pair of those and I can't wear them to work!  I may have to give up the dream.

Then, in one of the frugality blogs I read, someone posted that you can get the above Old Navy khaki capris for a mere $8 instead of $29.99!  I immediately went to the site to figure out how to get these savings.  Then I stopped myself and remembered that these are the worst pants I've ever encountered, and even at $8, they will ruin my life.

Crisis averted, but I certainly feel alarmed.

Is my love of savings so significant that I frequently buy things just for the discount?  Is that why I'm bringing four+ bags of clothes to The Salvation Army this summer?

I'm glad I caught myself, but I wonder if my focused approach to shopping could be fine-tuned even further.  I hate going to stores, but often fall into the online trap.  Anyone have any strategies for how to better deal with these temptations?


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Money-Free Mondays?

This phrase popped into my head the other day--probably as a result of misreading something, but it got me thinking.  Is this something that anyone has ever attempted?  I've heard of meat-free Mondays, which I think is pretty excellent, but Money-Free seems a bit trickier.  I mean, what if you're running out of gas?  I'd probably skip spending on Monday and then overspend on Tuesday, but that's just me.

Anyone try this?  I think I'm just hung up on alliteration, but maybe this is a real thing?

Monday, May 23, 2011

I want to live in The Cube!

My father's father was a "collector."  That's the nice way to put it.  The other way is pack rat--not quite a hoarder, but maybe that's just because they had a lot of space.  When I was a kid, I loved going to his farm because there were buildings and buildings full of treasures; but I always wondered why we could never spend the night there, or why we could never go upstairs in their house (it was full).

I can see traces of the collector in myself at times, but as I get older, I want to live more and more unfettered.  When I moved east to Rhode Island, 1,800 miles, I sold or donated pretty much everything I owned, and brought with me only what fit in my Chevy Malibu.  At first, the purging was incredibly difficult and I do still miss some items that I had had for a long time, but now I don't regret it at all.  It was incredibly freeing to leave my trappings behind and set out on a new life in a new place with new people.

Perhaps that's the reason I'm having such a reaction to The Cube Project: "The Cube Project is an initiative of Dr Mike Page at the University of Hertfordshire who set out to build a compact home, no bigger than 3x3x3 metres on the inside, in which one person could live a comfortable, modern existence with a minimum impact on the environment."
It's a whole house that is not only carbon neutral, but over the course of a year, it makes you money!  "The Cube is designed to generate at least as much energy as it uses, averaged over the year. It does this by using solar photovoltaic panels that are integral to the building itself. If registered with the UK Government’s Feed-In Tariff (FiT – an incentive for producing energy from renewable sources), the Cube will raise around £1000 per year in FiT income."  Maybe that's why I'm so excited.  I think what I like about this house is the fact that everything in it is so deliberately designed to maximize the limited space and make it its most efficient.  I love it when things just work, and I love anything that does double-duty, so I find this small space just fascinating.

There's also a video tour which explains how it all works and gives you the layout: http://vimeo.com/22832755

I love my current apartment, but my building is circa 1750 and was designed to be something rather different--we think it was a boarding house.  It's beautiful and spacious, but what we've done with that space is fill it with stuff, and a lot of the space seems to have been retrofitted somewhere along the line, and doesn't quite work as well as it could--like my narrow but deep closet..  Likewise my last apartment, the one I moved to with only a carload of stuff, was 1100 square feet and it only took me a year after my wonderful purge to fill up that space.  I really, really wonder what would happen to your buying habits if you just knew that you didn't have room for anything else in your house; or if to bring in something new, you had to get rid of something.

I've always said that living in a city like New York would be wasted on me because I really, really like being at home and there you have to pay so much money for such a small space, that you go out for everything.  I like going out occasionally, but don't do it regularly and sometimes find it exhausting, especially since my job requires me to be around people all day, and many of those people are crazy.  The Cube has everything you need so you could stay in, but would it make you want to go out just to get out?  I'm picturing myself planting a garden, having meals outside, getting a long leash for the cat so he could get out too (he'd love it--maybe).

Now I'm obsessed with living in The Cube.  If anyone associated with The Cube would like me to live there for a year and write a book about it--let me know: findmefrugal [at] gmail.com.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Decisions, Decisions

I postulated a while ago that, sometimes, it seems easier to be broke than to have money coming in on a regular basis.  When you don't have money, you know you can't spend; when you do have money, you have to decide the right way to spend/save.  If you're a committed frugalista with student loan debt, you also know that you should have emergency savings in case anything goes wrong.  But it feels weird to be slotting away money in a savings account when there's that big scary number out there that you OWE.

In my mind, my student loan number is like a flashing neon sign circa 1985.  It makes that buzzing sound, and sometimes a few of the numbers go dark, but I know they're going to flash back on the second I let my guard down.  Problem is, I will most likely never be able to pay all that money back--it's just too much money.  I've done the math, and even if I paid twice what I'm sending in now, it would take about fifteen years to pay off.  If I sent in twice what I'm sending now (this is all theoretical cause I don't actually have the extra money), I wouldn't be able to save anything for retirement, emergencies, or buy a house.  That doesn't seem like a very smart trade-off.

Now I'm re-training myself to realize two things:

  1. If I get a full-time position, it will be at a qualified non-profit that would allow me to have my loans forgiven after 120 payments.  It makes no sense to send in all my money if the bulk of the loans are going to be forgiven.  Yes, that feels like reneging on paying back money I borrowed in good faith, but it's a program designed to help people like me.  I help the economy more overall by having some disposable income, and by potentially buying property someday.
  2. It makes more sense to take care of myself in the long term.  If I'm making the minimum payments required by my lender, my credit score is still good, which should help me out if I ever want to buy property, and this way I have a retirement nest egg and won't have to spend my twilight years living in a cardboard box.
It's really, really hard to retrain myself to look at that number as something that will just always be with me.  It's a situation I've never been in before.  Even when I had a significant amount of credit card debt, I paid it all off.  It seemed insurmountable, but I did it. Now having this other massive amount of debt that I won't pay off feels a bit like failure, but I would be in a much worse situation if I didn't plan for the future in other ways.

I need to keep remembering that.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Food Waste Friday: A Sad Mango

I do not know how to cut a mango.  Sure this is something I could probably learn if I went online and read up on it, but I haven't ever done that because my bf knows how to cut mangoes and I'd rather let him do it.  Trouble is, he doesn't take the initiative, but rather, waits for me to tell him to cut the mango, and then says something like "I don't think it's good anymore."

I also don't know when mangoes are officially spoiled.  Do they get soft? They don't seem to change colors...

I'm rather upset about this food waste, not just because I wasted food, but because I wanted to eat a delicious mango!

Bah!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Women and Work

One of my best friends from grad school graduated a semester before me, and spent six months flying around the country for job interviews.  Finally, she accepted a position a cummutable distance from home and I was just thrilled that she didn't have to move. Then she said something that I found very strange, "They offered me $xx, so I'm going to call them back within a week and ask for about $xx more plus train fare."

"You can do that?" I asked.

"The amount of money I make it this job will determine my salary for the rest of my career," she told me, "Every job I have after this one will look at how much I was paid here as a starting off point.  I have to negotiate.  Of course they're going to start out with a lower figure, but I'm worth more."

This completely threw me for a loop, and I chalked it up to the fact that she's a law librarian and lawyers are used to negotiating.  I honestly felt like the whole negotiating for a salary thing was a bit rude.  You should be thrilled that such a good job wants you and take what they offer or they might rescind the offer, was my thinking.  Certainly other people don't have the option of negotiating salary.  That's something that people on Wall Street do, or people who have an impressive resume that are being wooed by a competitor.

I work in a profession that is about 90% women, but probably 70% of the people in positions of power are men (rough estimates based on observation).  My friends and I complain about male librarians and how pushy and self-promoting they are, but maybe that's why they always seem to get ahead.  On the other side of that argument, most of the female librarians I've spoken to don't want to be library directors, and the men do.  So can we really get indignant that the men are taking jobs we'd rather not have?

I was reading an article the other day about Mika Brzezinski, who was a co-host on MSNBC's Morning Joe.  She recounted that when she started working at that show, she had been hired as a contract worker making a menial salary and paying for her own hair, make-up and wardrobe.  Her salary was also only seven percent of what her co-host was making, and she just accepted it for years.  Finally, when it came time to actually negotiate, she alternated between playing the victim, and playing hardball by swearing and acting macho.  Neither worked, people thought she was crazy, and she finally threatened to quit and got a contract negotiation.

It really shouldn't be like that, but the only times I've ever negotiated for raises, I've had to threaten to quit as well.  In high school I worked at a gas station, and started a rumor that I was unhappy and looking for a new job.  When my boss approached me about it, I told him that I was looking around, and he offered me $.85 more per hour.  When I quit working at the television station, I was first offered a raise, which I refused (they gave it to me anyway), then offered a producer position.  I had been there five years, and it wasn't until I threatened to leave that they realized my value.

This is a dangerous game though.  I actually did leave my television job because I was moving across country for grad school, but if I had had a clue that they would move me into the newsroom if I threatened to quit, I would have done it two years earlier.  But maybe two years earlier I wouldn't have been as valuable, and threatening to quit would have left me either looking like an alarmist flake, or out of a job.  I really don't know how to play the game, but I think it's something that we all need to start thinking about.

Not to sound like a commercial, but the reason I read the article about Mika (not typing out her last name again) is because she wrote a book about negotiating, which I'm certainly going to read.  This is something that I truly never really thought about.  The times I actually did negotiate successfully, were times I really did plan to quit, not because I'm particularly savvy.  In this economy, where those of us with jobs should be glad to have them, is there room for negotiation?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Healthy or Unhealthy?

I've mentioned before that despite working steadily since age 15, I've never actually had a full-time job.  After finishing with my second masters, and with the economy squarely in the toilet, one of my friends was panicking and applying for ten jobs a day while working temporarily in an office.  I was sitting at home, wallowing, clipping coupons and looking for the job that I really wanted.  Eventually, she landed a full-time job, and I got a part-time one.

A year and a half later, she hates her job, and I'm pretty content with mine, which brings me to my point.  When the two of us were looking for work, she only wanted full time, she applied for everything that she was remotely qualified for, while I was a bit pickier in that I was looking for the right job--full-time or part-time.  I honestly can't decide if that makes me smart or dumb when it comes to job hunting.  Since I've never had a full-time job, I'm a bit intimidated at the notion.  I'm afraid to put all my eggs in one basket, to commit to 40 hours a week somewhere without really knowing what I'm getting into, especially if taking a full-time job means settling for something I'm less enthusiastic about.  

What if I hate it?  What if my co-workers are deranged?  What if it's just a miserable place to work?  At least if I have two part-time jobs, I can leave one and still have some income.  Of course, my friend has been making more money than me all along, so she could leave her job and have a healthier savings account than me.  And she has health insurance, so she's not running the risk of some kind of medical emergency that wipes out her savings.

I honestly go back and forth about this and whether my attitude of wanting to find a job where I first like the people that I work with is more important than the actual job is a healthy one or not.  The problem with my profession, librarianship, is that some libraries are just miserable places to work.  Librarians can be catty, deceptive, lazy, miserable and mean and I would rather not get stuck with a situation like that.  On the flip side, librarians can also be hilarious, brilliant, generous and just wonderful overall--clearly those are the people I'd like to work with.

So which comes first, the good job, or the benefits?  What makes a job good in the first place?  Maybe working full-time at a job that's only ok is just part of being a grownup--the part that escapes me so far.  I honestly don't know, but I would love some feedback on this.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Student Loans: Repayment Options

Even if you've examined your student loan repayment options in the past, it's a good idea to take another look because things have changed.  Recently, in order to encourage people to go into lower-paying jobs and work for non-profits, the Obama administration rolled out a new repayment option and a loan forgiveness program.  There's also a new repayment option that I've mentioned before, because it's the option I'm taking, but the loan forgiveness program is certainly worth looking into.

Because of the tremendous amount of debt that students take on, nevermind the extra money for grad school, many graduates were opting for the highest-paying job they could find, regardless of whether or not it was fulfilling in any way or what they actually wanted to do.  The problem is, we still need teachers and non-profit workers and people who will never make the tons of money necessary to eradicate their debt--hence the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.  There are a lot of ins and outs to this program, so go to the link and read through the pdf that explains it, but the gist is that if you work in a public service profession, your student loans are not in default, and you make 120 payments while employed full time by a public service organization, you may qualify to have the rest of your loans forgiven after the 120 payments are made.

There are numerous other loan forgiveness programs as well like Peace Corps and Americorps, military service, forgiveness for law school loans, etc.

For those who do not qualify for loan forgiveness, or even for those who do but need to make the payments until the time when the loan can be forgiven, there are a number of different options to choose from.

Standard Repayment Plan--This is what happens to your loans unless you call your lender and ask for a different repayment plan.   Your lender calculates how much you would have to pay on a monthly basis to pay off your loan in full in ten years.  If your loan debt is low, then this plan will work for you, but I've never met anyone who has stuck with standard repayment.

Extended Repayment Plan-- This extends the period of repayment from ten years to 25.  It's good in that in that it reduces your monthly payment amount; it's bad in that it the longer it takes to pay your loans, the more you pay in interest.

Graduated Repayment Plan-- The graduated plan assumes that you'll start out poor right after graduation and then earn more money over time.  This one starts with a low payment, and then that amount gradually increases.

Income Contingent Repayment-- Income contingent is designed to make repayment easier as well, and works for people with variable income. Each year, this repayment plan looks at the previous years' income, and recalculates your amount owed.  This could work out very well if you have a lean year and then a good year, but be a bit brutal if it's the other way around.  If that's the case, consider switching to...

Income-Based Repayment-- This is another new repayment option, and one that I'm currently taking advantage ofIncome-Based Repayment (IBR) is a repayment plan for the major types of federal student loans that caps your required monthly payment at an amount intended to be affordable based on your income and family size.  Rather than basing your monthly payment on the amount you owe, IBR bases it on the amount you make, which makes a hell of a lot more sense to me.

You can take advantage of IBR for three years, and then you have to call and renegotiate with the lender.  Under IBR, the government also helps you with your interest payments on your subsidized loans meaning that if you take advantage of this program and pay more than then minimum, you can significantly reduce the principle balance on your loans.  There's a handy calculator online that will tell you if you qualify.

Again, and I sound like a broken record, but the most important thing when dealing with you student loans is that you actually deal with them.  You borrowed the money, you're responsible, so you have to step up.  They make it as easy as possible (still sucks, I know) for you to repay your loans and try to maintain a quality of life.  You are not locked into a repayment plan, either, if you run into a situation where you encounter a financial hardship, you can certainly change plans, or defer or forbear your loans.  Whatever you do, do not stop making payments without making arrangements with you lender.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Student Loans: The Basics

I get asked a tons of questions about student loans, and it has started to occur to me that a lot of people who are swimming in student loan debt just get their monthly bill and pay it without really thinking about their other options.  Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for you, gentle reader, I've had to learn all the ins and outs of student loan management.  It's confusing stuff, but I think I can break it down into manageable chunks.  I do want to stress though that you shouldn't take anything I say as law, call your student loan servicing company and talk to them. I've called half a dozen times, and these people are really nice and want to figure out the best solution for your specific situation.  Also, I'm talking about student loans through the federal government, or Direct Loans.  If you loan has been sold to a company like Sallie Mae, your circumstances will be different.  To find out what's going on with your loans, go to the National Student Loan Data System.

The most important thing to remember, and I can't stress this enough, is that you cannot ignore your student loans. I don't want to repay mine either, but if you ignore them, you will ruin your credit score and your life.  By defaulting on student loans, you will end up paying more for every dollar you want to borrow in the future--house, car, whatever.  And whoever owns your loans will come after you to the point of garnishing your wages if necessary.  Student loans are the only debt that cannot be discharged by filing bankruptcy, so as distasteful and daunting as it is to look at that giant number, you have got to deal with it.

Consolidation--Consolidation is something that a lot of people do after graduation to make repaying their loans more manageable.  Basically, what happens for many people is that over the course of their college career, they end up taking out more than one loan.  If you are ever out of school for at least six months, you get a new loan when you re-enroll.  By consolidating those loans, you're telling your borrower that you want to merge them together into one loan with one interest rate.  This may make it easier in that you won't have to make more than one payment per month, but it could lock you into an interest rate that isn't very good. If you consolidate with only one loan, it's usually to secure an unchangeable interest rate for the duration of your repayment.

I haven't consolidated my loans because when I spoke to a loan counselor, she told me that I would be locked into a higher interest rate that would most likely go down.  My interest rate is variable, and I may consolidate in the future if interest rates go way down, but be cautious because you can only consolidate once. Interest loan rates are re-evaluated every year in July, but do talk to a loan counselor and see what he/she recommends before making your decision.

Deferment-- Deferment is a way of postponing making payments on your loans.  If you need to postpone payment, deferment is the most attractive option since your subsidized loans will not accrue interest while you are in deferment--typically, when you take out a loan, half the money you get is subsidized, the other half is unsubsidized.  As deferment is a rather attractive option, you need to qualify to get it.  Typically people qualify for deferment based on unemployment, disability or military service, but there is a big list of who is eligible.

Forbearance-- Forbearance is similar to deferment in that it's a request to stop making loan payments temporarily, but when you put your loans in forbearance, you are responsible for all the interest that accrues.  You can opt for forbearance at any time, and typically extend it as well, but while you are in forbearance your loan debt keeps building on itself and growing, so this should be only a last resort.  I've used forbearance in the past when I needed to save money for moving, but please be sensible about it if you take this option.

Default-- Default is when you stop paying your loans without arranging for a deferment or forbearance.  Letting your loans go into default disqualifies you for any type of loan forgiveness option that may present itself, and ruins your credit.  Considering that all you need to do to arrange a forbearance is to make a phone call and fill out a form, there is absolutely no excuse for going into default.  If you can't make payments for any reason, you have to be up front with your lender, and it will work out.  Going into default is not an option.

Up next: Repayment Options

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Retirement

Should I really be thinking about retirement even though I've yet to actually get a full-time job? Yup. I finally realized that if I wait until someone actually gives me a full-time job to start saving for retirement, I may never actually be able to retire. Plus, when (if) I ever retire, I'd rather not spend my every day pinching pennies and hoping I die before the cash runs out.

I read The Money Book for the Young Fabulous and Broke by Suze Orman a couple years ago, and actually really enjoyed it. Most of her books kind of bug me because they're a bit obvious: "If you stop buying your daily latte, you'll save money!" but this one had some truly practical advice and I would recommend it to anyone of any age. I noticed that the audio book was on the shelf at work (library) the other day, and decided to give it a listen on my commute.

That's another tip (from me), listening to books about personal finance while driving makes me spend less. Think about it, when you leave the house to go to work or whatever, it's awfully easy to just pop by Target and pick up one (twelve) thing(s), if you're thinking about money issues and how you should be saving for retirement, it makes it easier to skip that trip and go back to Target with a list of practical items. Likewise, when I was listening to the Confessions of a Shopaholic series in the car, I spent like a maniac. Perhaps my readers have more self-control, but it's worth trying anyway.

Suze stresses the importance of starting saving for retirement early even though you feel like you have no money and can't possibly sock any away. The logic is, the longer your money sits and earns interest, the less you actually need to invest. For example: if you invest $300 per month from age 25 to 40, you will have invested $54,000 of your money, but your total investment will be worth $104,504... by the time you turn 70, that investment is worth $1.05 million even if you stop adding to the investment at age 40.  If you start investing at age 30, at the same rate, and keep investing for more than the 15 years previously mentioned, your investment is only worth $450, 089 even if you have the same interest rate (YF&B 180).  Man, that's depressing.

Of course before I decided to start saving for retirement, I read up a bit about the different types of retirement accounts.

401(k):  This is typically set up through your employer.  How the 401(k) works is that you select a plan and have the money that you contribute to the plan deducted from your paycheck.  Often your employer will also offer to match the amount of money you elect to invest.  Basically, that's free money so you should always take it.  The important thing to know is that 401(k) money is taken out pre-tax, so before you can spend it, you will have to pay taxes on it.  Never withdraw early from a 401(k) because you can either end up paying tax on the money that you take out more than once.

IRA: Stands for Individual Retirement Account--can also be called Traditional IRA, and that's exactly what this is.  It's an account that you start as an individual, and contribute to on your own.  This is also typically the account that you cal roll your 401(k) into if you leave one job for another.  The upside of the IRA is that you can contribute up to $4000 per year if you are an individual under age 50.  The downside of the Traditional IRA is that when you withdraw your money from the fund, you have to pay tax on it.

Roth IRA:  The Roth IRA is similar to the Traditional IRA except for one huge difference.  With a Roth, you pay taxes on the money before it's invested, so when you withdraw it 40 years later--it's kind of like free money.  You may invest up to $5000 per year in a Roth IRA (if you're below age 49), and you're eligible to withdraw that money at age 59 1/2.

I started a Roth IRA a little while ago, but to be honest, I'm still figuring out how it works--stay tuned!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Technical Difficulties

Yesterday, blogger was down all day--damn you, Friday the 13th!  I assure you, I was mentally writing blogs all day long (I'm not kidding!), but I'm just going to call the day a wash, and make up for it later.

In place of a regular post, here's a list of my favorites from the past week:

Kitchen Porn
Freebie Friday
The Year of Shopping Detox teaches me that I kind of love Lauren Conrad.

And a brief note on the Food Waste Friday front--spinach, 1/2 a bag, it smelled funny.  It's buried in the trash, so no picture (even I'm not to shameless as to take a picture of my garbage and post it online).  Blech.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Maybe the Answer is Consignment

This is not the consignment store I was in, just a handy visual
A friend texted me the other day to ask if I wanted to go thrift store shopping with her.  As much as I love a bargain, I really, really hate thrift store shopping.  I envy The Frugal Girl, when she shows off the great deals she found at the thrift store, but for me, it just has never worked.
  1. I hate shopping.  Mostly I hate the work of shopping: the deciding the hemming and hawing.  I often get a bit knee-jerk in a crowded store and just want to get out so I don't think through my purchases like I should.
  2. I often feel weird leaving a store without buying something.  This is something I'm working on and getting over, but when I start getting the shopping headache, I think If I just grab this, I can go.
  3. Less than perfect.  Notice how the second in my series on mending hasn't happened yet?  Yeah, I've been planning to write it for about a week now, that's how much I dread mending.  Likewise, when I find something at a thrift store that needs a minor bit of work, I often don't actually ever wear it because I don't get around to fixing it.
  4. Paranoia.  I have this fear that I will buy back things I donated to the thrift store because I will convince myself that it's a slightly better version of what I gave away.  I mean, it's logical, right?  I donated stuff I liked, so naturally my eye will be drawn back to the familiar...
But I decided to go with my friend to keep her company, and quickly found out that she was even more interested in going to consignment stores than she was thrift stores.  Again, because of my shopping malaise, I've barely been to any consignment stores even though I have very well-dressed friends who swear by them. I have been a fool--it was lovely!  I got two really cute dresses and a belt, and my friend got three dresses for about $45.  Three dresses for $45!  That's just a ridiculously good deal, and we didn't have to go rooting through piles and piles of stuff to find the gems, everything looked like a real store!

One of my purchases may need a new zipper, but it is one-of-a-kind cute and I'm itching to wear it, so hopefully that will motivate me.  Triumph!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Quick and Easy

Normally I don't post things sent to me via email from random folk, but this chart is actually rather interesting.  Plus, let's face it, I have to write 31 blog posts in 31 days, there was bound to be some filler :)

Deals, Deals, Deals... and More Deals
Via: OnlineMBA.com

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Blogathon Haiku

One thing that goes along with those whole blogathon is that there are a couple theme days.  I skipped the first one--it was waaaaaaaaaay off topic, and I promised you guys that I would stick to my topic (see the About page).  The second prompt is to write a haiku, which I haven't done since high school.  I can write a haiku on the topic of frugality, right?

For those who can't remember the rules off the top of their heads a haiku is three lines, seventeen syllables, usually 5/7/5 (mine are not) and as I was taught, it's usually about nature (mine will not be about nature).

saving is key
spend less than you make
you don't need that extra latte

Student Loans suck
but I'll do my best
the education was worth it

I spend too much on clothes
this I know
but dresses make me so happy!

I love my savings account
compound interest is fab
watch it grow

So I'm not going to win any awards, but this was a rather fun exercise.  Anyone else want to take it on?  Leave me some haiku in the comments!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Basic Mending

I'm not going to lie, mending is tedious and I kind of hate it BUT mending is a great way to extend the life of your clothes, keep them looking good, and avoid paying other people to do what you can with just a bit of patience. Also, you can do your mending in front of the tv, or while listening to music, audio books, podcasts, etc., and I suggest you do.

I love sewing, I honestly do. I'm not very good at it, but I can whip out a wrap skirt or a pillow in no time flat. I'm not talking about learning a while new skill or creating something from scratch when I say mending, which is exactly why anyone can do this. It's easy, you usually don't need a sewing machine, and like I said, you won't have to pay someone else to do it or replace your clothes.

Everyone, I'm sure, has bought something once upon a time and said "If this just had this, or didn't have that, it would be perfect" "Or, these pants are just a little too long, but I can't pass them up." Then you wear your imperfect garment and realize that it's not as great as you thought, or your too-long pants drag in puddles and look disgusting after a few short months. All of this can be avoided, and it's not even that hard. The fact is that people are shaped drastically differently, and clothing manufacturers cannot design for every body shape/size. If they did, our clothes would cost a lot more. Thankfully, I don't have any crazy unique body issues, just a few quirks, so I've figured out how to fix my own clothes to fit me better.

You do not need a sewing machine to do basic mending, just a few cheap supplies.

Supplies:

Neutral colored thread--I recommend a spool of black, navy, and tan. These are colors that will blend in with most clothes, but if you need different thread, just buy some. A spool of the high-quality stuff only costs $1.50 and it will last forever. I've been sewing since 7th grade and now have a sewing kit I inherited from my grandma, and I've never used up a whole spool of thread.

Good scissors-- If you're just cutting thread, don't buy good scissors; if you want to start hemming clothes, taking things in, etc., buy good scissors. Yes, they can be expensive, but not nearly as expensive as replacing a pair of pants you ruined by hacking at them with your 3-for-$10 scissors from Target. Buy good scissors, and dedicate them to sewing.

Fabric Glue-- Fabric glue is the greatest thing ever. It works perfectly for tiny fixes and tears, you can use it to seal fraying ends, it helps your cuffs sag less--basically it's just the greatest thing ever. Because it's designed for fabric, you can expect it to last through many washings and it's cheap.

Pins--Essential to make your cuffs straight when hemming pants or skirts.

Iron--Essential to make hems look professional and not like something you did while watching Gilmore Girls (even if you totally did). The point of hemming your pants is to tell the world "Hey, my pants/skirt are just the right length for me, I must be magical." Not, "I hemmed my pants--check it out!" I hate ironing too, but you have to do it.

Seam Rippers Rule!
Needles-- Buy a packet of needles, and put them back when you're done using them, or buy a pincushion to keep your needles in. Whatever you do, keep track of those things because you will lose them--I promise, and then you will find them later with either your butt or your foot.

Seam Ripper--This little guy will quickly become your best friend.  Seam rippers cost between $.84 and $2, I suggest you go for the higher end one, but maybe get a little one too.  Seam rippers do exactly what their name says--the rip out seams.  If you try to rip out a seam without a seam ripper, you run the risk of tearing, or of cutting a hole in your own clothes (I've done it).

Up next: Hemming!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Top Ten Reasons Not to Menu Plan

When my friend Elizabeth posted this: Top Ten Reasons you Shouldn't Plan a Weekly Menu, I thought finally, I'm not the only one!  Then I read it, and quickly realized that the writer was not actually on the non-menu planning side.  Grumble, I guess I just have to do it myself. My list is a little repetitive, but so's theirs.

10.  I work nights, therefore, I don't really eat a lot of meals.  There's really nothing worse than tucking into a huge plate of pasta right before you have to be at the top of your game.

9. Since I work nights, I eat alone.  My bf cooks for himself and I cook for myself so there's no need to make scads of food that will go bad before I can consume it all.

8. The grocery store is right next to work--both of my jobs, if I think of something I want to eat afterward, I can swing by and pick it up no problem.

7. I don't really eat that much.  I make one "meal" a week, and then eat it for three days.  I don't really need to write that down.

6. My mood changes.  I may feel like one thing on the day I'm menu planning, but then later want something completely different.  I don't want to be married to a schedule on my downtime, I get enough of that at work. What next?  You have a meal plan, a wardrobe plan, structured leisure time--blech!  Maybe it makes it easier, but it seems a lot less satisfying than seeing what you can come up with.

5. I have a menu plan in that I plan to eat all of my produce and perishables before they go bad.  I don't need to take it any further than that.  You don't need a written down plan to know how much food you will consume in a given week.

4.  Writing a menu plan takes far more time than looking at your pantry and coming up with something to cook.  Also, to me, it sounds like homework and I would not enjoy it.  As much as I love saving money, I refuse to take on money-saving tasks (especially on a weekly basis) that sound so arduous.  If you're always on the lookout for recipes, and you look at the store circular each week for sale items, you can shop and cook far more quickly than if you agonized about which meal to have when.

3. I used to plan a lot more, of everything.  I would wake up in the morning with a rough structured plan for the day and I would not deviate from it.  Problem was, I was in grad school, and things among my peers were a lot more casual.  I turned down a lot of last-minute plans because I didn't want to deviate from my schedule, and then I noticed that everyone else knew each other a lot better than I knew them.  I was constantly playing catch-up because actually making friends with my peers was more important than sticking to my precious schedule, but I didn't realize that until too late.  I still have a rough plan for my days off, but if something that I want to do comes up last-minute, I go for it.

2. Some meals are unexpected. I feel like if you have a menu plan, and then an old friend comes into town and you go out to eat, which results in two days' worth of leftovers, then your whole scheme for the week is thrown into chaos.  See #3, sometimes it's just better to go with the flow.

1. Not having a plan fosters creativity i.e. that pasta sauce I invented.  I would never have planned for that, cause I didn't know about it!  Most of the recipes I post on here are things I've made up that have turned out well.  Sometimes I use a recipe as a guideline and sub in other ingredients, but if I were to menu plan, I'd shop strictly for the ingredients I'd need for the recipes I picked, and miss out on the happy accidents.  I like the happy accident the best.

I get it, you have a family, it probably makes more sense to menu plan, but for me, it just doesn't and I'm tired of feeling bad about it.  For all the singletons out there--don't let them make you feel bad!  Just find a system that works for you, and make sure to eat your leftovers.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Gas: Tank Two

This tank cost $44 as well, at 3.72/gallon.

Tuesday: Bought gas en route to work, drove to work and back home for a total of 20 miles. Average speed, 65 MPH

Wednesday: Drove to work and back 20 miles, average speed 65 MPH. It's hard to remember to slow down sometimes, but I'm doing pretty well.

Thursday: Drove to work and back 20 miles, then bf took the car across town and back 5miles. Average speed 40 MPH--there was a really bad accident on the interstate, so I did a lot of sitting.

Friday: Friday was a bad driving day.  I ended up having to go down south for a library instruction session, which was awesome, but resulted in some road rage-y driving from me as I had to cram in an errand before going to work at the other end of the state (thankfully, it's a small state).  Total miles 88, average speed was 65 MPH on the way there (I set the cruise control!), 75 MPH on the way back.

Saturday: Drove to work and back, 20 miles. Average speed 65 MPH

Sunday: Drove to work and back 30 miles. Average speed 65 MPH--this is getting a bit tedious to record...

Gas Gauge Monday before work
Monday: Drove to work and back 30 miles. Average speed 65 MPH.  Gas is definitely lasting longer, but that may be because I've done less driving.

Tuesday: I stacked all my errands so I could just make one circuit except I failed to print a correct return label and my trip to the UPS store was a waste.  No matter!  I finally dropped off DVD donations at the library, and all those clothes for the Salvation Army that have been in the trunk of my car for about a month.  I felt like such a slacker driving to the library because I run past it almost every day, but I also can't/don't want to carry 20 DVDs while on a run, so I drove.  Total: 7 miles, lots of stops and turns, but I coasted down every hill.

Drove almost to work, and had to fill up the tank--I was at about the same level as last time 1/8 tank. 12 miles total.  252 miles total, where I got 302 miles to the tank while driving like a crazy speeder.  We can say there's about a 20 mile margin of error for the times bf took the car, but even then...  Either I made a mistake somewhere, or this driving slower did me no favors at all.  Gah!  Ok, One more week of driving slowly and I will diligently record every move I make--in the car.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Weekend Reading: Hot (broke) Messes

Hot (broke) Messes: How to Have Your Latte and Drink it too.  By Nancy Trejos. Business Plus, May 2010.

This is more of a tale of financial mishap than a personal finance book, but that's a rather nice change of pace, actually.  Author Nancy Trejos is a personal finance writer at the Washington Post, and is currently crawling her way out of debts racking up by poor decision-making, ignorance and trying to keep up with the Joneses (I hate that expression).  She turns her mistakes into our lessons, and supplements those with accounts of other people's woes and triumphs.

As far as personal finance books go, this one is certainly the most readable.  Trejos is an excellent writer, so I forgave what seemed to be a bit self-indulgent at times.  She also steps a toe into other areas that fall under the umbrella of personal finance, but rarely get mentioned i.e. health insurance.

Best Takeaways:
  • I now have a better understanding of health insurance and what some of the previously daunting terms mean.  I'm not going to have health insurance any time soon, but it's nice to have a bit of information.
  • The importance of honesty.  Since this is more of a narrative than a personal finance book, you actually get to see her character develop as she goes along her personal finance journey.  She includes excerpts from her diary about her financial hits and misses, and you witness a person going from not looking at price tags to buying wheat crackers for $1 less. She comes clean with her friends about her budget and finds that many of them are in the same boat.  It's so important to just be honest with your friends about where you are moneywise, but it's also really hard to do.  In the long run, we all know that saving and paying off debt will serve us better than having friends who spend recklessly, but everyone gets caught up sometimes.
  • An example.  She's very honest and warts-and-all about her personal finance trials and lessons, and that's something you rarely get.  It's really nice to experience a book of this type and not feel a bit like you're being lectured.  Certainly Suze Orman talks about her own financial wobbles, but this is much more confessional, and you can see how you two would get sucked into buying a condo for love or buying a car because you're sick of feeling deprived.  I certainly get petulant when deprived (see clothes shopping), and even though I know I'm not alone in that, it's still nice to have a reminder.
Overall, I highly recommend this book.  Whether you're starting out budgeting or are a seasoned couponer, there's something in here for everyone, and it's entertaining.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Grad School on a Budget Part 2

In part one I covered every conceivable way to get free or cheap food, now in part two, we'll tackle the rest of the grad school equation.

Student Discounts
You're paying damn good money for that ID--use it to get discounts.  You can get student discounts at museums, stores, restaurants, movies and any number of other establishments as well as public transportation.  If you haven't been a student for a while, you've probably forgotten how handy that little card is.  If you don't know if a place offers a discount for students, ask.  When I was a sheepish undergrad trying to be cool, I never asked for discounts.  Once I was a frazzled grad student,  I asked for discounts from every person I gave money to (practically), and found discounts in unexpected places.  The worst that can happen is that they say no.  I found out that my local movie theatre has a student discount as does J. Crew (not that I can afford J. Crew even with a discount, but a friend just bought her first interview suit there and got 15% off). Always always always ask.

If you have a large cultural venue in your town, you may also be able to get last minute student rush tickets. Right before a big concert/performance, you go up to the ticket booth and ask to purchase student rush tickets for half price.  Since it's right before the show, the venue is happy to sell them for less rather than not at all.  The downside is that if the event sells out, you're out of luck.  I saw The Nutcracker two years ago for $12, and it was awesome.  Make sure the venue offers this option before trying it out, and they may not do it for all performances.

It's gotten to the point that now, two years after grad school, I'm still breaking myself of the 'asking for a student discount' habit.  I was at a museum recently, and the man asked if I was a student.  I say "no." and then couldn't think of what a non-student is called, so I finished with "I am a regular."  He gave me a funny look, so I just said, "I'm a grown-up."

Stick with Students
The hardest thing about staying frugal in grad school is when you're socializing with people who have real jobs and incomes.  Some of your friends may not have to budget as strictly as you, and therefore don't understand your financial limitations, or even the demands that grad school makes on your time.  I'm not saying jettison your friends, but it's important to come to terms right away with the fact that some of your relationships may change.  See my earlier post about socializing on the cheap, and keep in mind that it's ok to say no when your fancy friends want to go out for a fancy meal.  To keep the friendships up, make sure to be honest about your circumstances, and suggest other, more frugal social options like pot-lucks, museums, picnics, etc.


Carpooling and Public Transit
College and University campuses are always on a bus line--why not take advantage of that? Your student ID probably gets you cheap or free bus fare and you can study while you ride.  With gas prices these days, it just makes sense to use public transit every chance you get, and I find that the somewhat erratic bus/class scheduling can actually be conducive to getting work done.  Rather than rush home right after class, you can strand yourself in a quiet work space free from distraction.  If public transit doesn't work, try to arrange carpooling with classmates, sharing driving duties will certainly save on gas, and you may also be able to split the cost of a parking permit.

Books
To be honest, I rarely bought books for grad school.  My first masters was a writing program, so we didn't really need books, and my second masters, I learned right quickly that doing the reading was a waste of time.  Everyone already knows to buy used books if possible, check the library for an older edition that may work just as well or share books with a friend.  I'd also advise that you maybe wait a bit to see if you actually need the book at all.  Some professors in some disciplines absolutely require you to get the book, others don't care.  Obviously, doing well in grad school is much more important than saving money, but don't think you're a bad student if you skip spending $50 for something you'll never use.  Of course, if you do buy books, sell them back through Amazon.com or bn.com.

Keep Frugality in Mind
This one sounds like a no-brainer, but it's very, very easy to get caught up in grad school and let your frugal ways slip.  If this happens, don't beat yourself up because academic success is more important than saving a dollar, but just try to keep frugal habits at the back of your mind and keep yourself in check.  Most likely you will be taxing your brain and working harder than you ever thought possible all while seated at a desk, and you will need some kind of release--something to look forward to.  Set up a system of rewards that don't break the bank, and give them to yourself when you feel like you're going to crack, or like you just need a little boost.  My boost was a 32 ounce iced coffee with cream and sugar from Dunkin Donuts that I would drink on my walk to class.  It was a reward for walking instead of driving, and perked me right up so I could learn more.  Plus, it only cost $2.43.

If anyone has any other ideas, tips or tricks, please leave them in the comments--I know I can't possibly have covered everything.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Grad School on a Budget Part 1

A friend who is going to grad school in the fall asked me if I have any tips for living frugally as a grad student.  Since being a grad student was how I spent much of the last few years, all these ideas started percolating to the top of my head.  You can't really control the cost of tuition or books (unless you skip buying books), but there are a few other aspects of your life where you can reign it in.  Here are a few of the most do-able and (hopefully) helpful ideas that I could come up with.


Happy Hours
It's kind of a no-brainer to seek out happy hours whatever age you are, but it's even easier on a student schedule.  Keeping odd hours means that you have more flexibility to attend more happy hours, and it's a good (cheaper) way to keep up with your job-having friends.  Do a bit of sleuthing and see what's out there.  Some places have late-night happy hours as well, if getting blotto at 6pm isn't conducive to studying.  There's no point in paying full price for socializing if you can find a legitimate way to get a discount.  Make and keep a list of your favorite happy hour haunts and float it to your friends.

Scavenging
I'm not talking about dumpster diving, but if you're in a free food situation, find a way to take some of that home with you.  A friend of mine used to carry around tupperware and would load up on any free food she ever came across.  That's the extreme end of the spectrum, but if you are ever in a situation where it's suggested that you take food home--do it.  Just make sure you eat it.  One of my jobs in grad school was at a fancy private library that hosted a lot of functions.  I never had to bring lunch.  Yes, sometimes my lunch would be chips and an ice cream sandwich, but it was free, so who cares.

Snacks
Grad students keep odd hours, and are often traveling from class to work to the library to social events.  I can't even count the number of times when I've realized that I'm going to be out of the house for 12-14 hours and haven't even thought about what/when I'm going to eat.  If you have to eat on the go, you'll probably have to rely on fast or convenience foods which can really get expensive after a while and aren't particularly good for you.  Instead of doing that, spend a little time and effort and plan ahead.

If you have a job stash some healthy snacks there, so you'll always know you have something.  My go-to is instant oatmeal in the single serve packs.  I keep a box at work, and a packet in my purse at all times.  I can't count the number of times I've arrived at work, realized I've forgotten my lunch, and had to rely on that oatmeal.  It's filling, and it's a hell of a lot cheaper than going out to get something.

In your backpack, always keep a variety of snacks.  Buy or make granola bars, carry apples or oranges (handy, portable and healthy), buy dried fruit snacks, buy or make trail mix, carry around goldfish crackers--anything you like.  Then, when you realize that you've been holed up in the library for ten hours and haven't eaten, you don't have to go to the vending machine or cafe.  You have to carry a backpack anyway, might as well put food in it.  A couple I went to grad school with always had a snack bag.  It was just a giant freezer bag with a variety of snacks in it, and they never had to go to the vending machine.

This is just good advice for everyone, not just grad students.  Never get caught without food.  Life is unpredictable, and you never know when you're going to need a snack.  Presently, at Job #1 I have a box of single-serving oatmeal, some figs and an odwalla bar.  At Job #2, I have a bag of trader joes peanut-butter filled pretzels, an apple and some goldfish grahams.  In my car, I have granola bars.  In my purse, I have oatmeal and dried fruit snacks.

Of course, carry a water bottle with you as well.

Food in General
Food is the biggest part of most people's budget, but one that can be greatly reduced with a little pre-planning.  Much like making sure you always have a snack, when you're a grad student, make sure you always have something ready to go.  Pick a day in the week when you can do the bulk of your cooking and have plenty of frozen meals on hand.  Even if you've eaten a couple snacks while in the library, you will most likely come home starving (learning takes a lot of energy), and that is a recipe for pizza ordering.  If you take a little time, say on a Sunday, to figure out how many meals you'll be eating at home, and pre-make whatever you can.  This could be anything from making a pot of soup and freezing individual portions, to pre-cutting veggies to making sure you have bread for sandwiches.

If we're being completely honest, while I was in grad school, I ate a lot of frozen pizza and boxed pastas.  They weren't very good for me, but they were quick and easy, and cheaper than going out.  If you want to be healthy, pre-make yourself some pizza and freeze it; make some pasta sauce ahead of time so you just have to heat it up and cook the noodles.  Your shortcuts will be based on what you eat, but always be thinking in terms of planning ahead.  It's a bit tedious at first, but becomes second nature quickly.  Plus, it's nice to focus on something besides school sometimes.

Stay tuned for Grad School on a Budget Part 2...

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Home-made pasta sauce

This is something I seriously never considered trying to make, and I have to admit, I have Gwenyth Paltrow to thank for it.  People have no doubt heard about her new cook book: My Father's Daughter.  I would never call myself a fan of Gwenyth, but I don't think she's history's greatest monster the way some do.  I tolerate her, find her antics and snobbery mildly amusing, and the only time I'm really aware of her is when she shows up on my favorite gossip blog for doing something completely inane like making this statement: "One evening when I had my wood-burning stove going I realized I hadn't thought of dessert."

Once I realized that she had written a cookbook full of pretentious statements like that, I had to check it out just for the car crash factor alone.  But wouldn't you just know it? Gwenyth taught me some stuff too.  I mentioned the other day about how  I avoided a Food Waste Friday by oven-roasting my sad, going bad grape tomatoes--well, Gwenyth taught me to do that, I am a better person for it.

I've now taken that a step further and created my own pasta sauce by taking those very same roasted tomatoes, pulsing them in the food processor with a bit of olive oil, sat and pepper, and added them to linguine.  I had this for dinner the other night before my first major race of the season.  I not only ate until I was sated without feeling sick, but I slept fantastically well and earned my best time at that distance.
Magic pasta.

Ingredients:
Sliced full-sized tomatoes, or grape tomatoes whole
Olive Oil
Salt
Pepper
Basil
Other spices/ingredients as desired

Lay out tomato slices or grape tomatoes on a cookie sheet, and drizzle with olive oil, then sprinkle with salt.  Roast tomatoes or tomatoes slices on cookie sheet in the oven for 40 minutes at 400 degrees.  While those are cooking, prepare linguine or other pasta according to directions and finely chop fresh basil--set aside.  Once the tomatoes are done, scoop them into the food processor (you could also mash them with a fork or potato masher for a chunkier sauce), add a bit of olive oil and pulse until you reach the desired consistency. Either mix the sauce with the pasta, or dole out the pasta and add sauce and basil to the top--follow your heart.  Add Parmesan if desired, but frankly, I was so happy without it I just forgot.  Why am I neglecting cheese so much lately?

Yummy.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Oh dear, it's a Blogathon

I've done something a bit drastic, but in the spirit of keeping May Goal #1, I've signed on for the 2011 Word Count Blogathon!  What this means, is that I will be blogging ever day for the month of May.  Good thing I have a cache of ideas I haven't acted on, or you might be forced to read a list of my thoughts on breakfast cereal or varieties of hummus.  That sounds so dull, I certainly wouldn't want to write it, much less subject my lovely readers to it, though I can't promise that the month won't end that way...

Challenge (issued to myself) accepted.  And if anyone has anything they're dying for me to tackle--send it along to findmefrugal [at] gmail.com.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May Goals

May is the month of Andria!  I'm determined to shake off the laziness and lameness I've been exhibiting lately and turn things around.

For my April goals, I did ok: I paid state taxes (kind of had to do that) and my emergency fund has now reached the level I wanted!  I haven't called my credit cards to demand they lower my interest rate (I hate making phone calls and am not good at demanding things), and my big spring clean is still a work in progress.

Since one of my jobs is in an academic library, my hours are being reduced a bit in May, but then I shift to summer schedule which means I get a day off each week!  Blessed Freedom! I have no idea what I'll do with all that time, but it should leave me no excuse for not meeting my May goals.

May Goals:
  1.  Do more freelance work and more writing generally.  I've fallen off the blogging wagon and haven't done any freelancing in months.  The goal is now to write one freelance article a week.  It doesn't net me a ton of money, but it's certainly helpful.  I've fallen into a rut lately where I've been watching more and more tv.  I think that's numbing me out and making me dull, so it needs to stop.
  2. Stay on budget.  I'm doing well in some categories, way over in others.
  3. Now that my emergency fund is "full" I need to shift my focus to my new retirement account.  I'll have a full update on that later, but if I'm going to start reaping the benefits of compound interest, I have to start big.
I also need to start going to the farmer's market again, but it's a bit difficult since I work every other Saturday.  There are other outdoor markets around town in the summer, so one of them is bound to work with my goofy schedule.