Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ebates, you are my favorite friend

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

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

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

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

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

I love Ebates.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Quest for the Free Flu Shot

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

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

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

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

What would you do?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Student Loans

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Figuring it out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 16, 2010

An interesting question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Going through changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 3, 2010

Weekend Reading: The Money Book

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

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

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

Best Takeaways:

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Making Lemonade

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

2. When my sunglasses get all scratched up

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

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

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