Saturday, December 31, 2011

2012: The Plan

Generic image, couldn't think of anything clever--sorry.
As I mentioned before, with new job starting, I have no idea how much my take-home pay is going to be.  I claimed zero dependents on my tax form, which means that the maximum amount of taxes are going to be taken out of my check, and I also have health, dental, union dues and 401k.  Wow, that's a lot of deductions when you write it all down.  In an effort to not lose my mind in the coming months, I'm going to just live as frugally as I can, and start re-tracking expenses and income to come up with a whole new budget.  Obviously, since I went over in all categories last year, I need to make a change.

Also, I'm going to do something a little fun (nerdy fun).  My car is almost at the 100,000 mile mark.  When I was commuting 28 days a month, I was also putting on about 3000 miles every three months--I know this because of that little oil change sticker on my car window--MATH!  So now that I'm going to be commuting by bike or foot (I walked to new job yesterday and it was lovely!!), I'm going to see how many miles I put on that car each month.  I'm going to take it in for repairs, which I've been putting off for a year and a half, and then hopefully it will spend most of its time in the driveway.

Also, obviously, I would like to reign in my clothes spending, which I hope having a normal schedule will help me do.  Presently, I'm in the mindset that my new job will right all the wrongs in my life and turn me into one of those shiny happy people who eat right, dress well, get an appropriate amount of exercise and never complain about anything. I anticipate that this feeling will last about two months.  But seriously, folks, this is a truly fresh start, which is pretty awesome.  So instead of trying to plan EVERYTHING, I'm going to try to take it as it comes.

The plan--minimal plan:
  1. Track spending and expenses to come up with a new budget.
  2. Drive as little as possible.
  3. Take car in for repair.
  4. Take new bike in for repair and learn how to ride it.
  5. Do more cooking at home.
  6. Spend more time with friends doing fun things.
  7. Take in some culture--man, I miss culture.
  8. Do fun things on the weekend.  I've heard of these "weekends" that people are always excited about, perhaps if I manage to stay on top of household tasks during the week, I can spend these weekends doing fun things?  Is that how it works?
  9. Explore hobbies--I should have hobbies, but not expensive ones like big game hunting or sailing, except I do plan to take sailing lessons...
  10. Write more!  More blogging, and for god's sake get to work on that damn novel!
So, my minimal plans resulted in a list of ten items, which is not minimal.  BUT, I have some fun thrown in there too.  It's a mix, a healthy mix.  I feel good.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

It's time to start my new budget for 2012, which is surreal, to say the least.  I'm still not sure how much I'm actually going to be making at my new job though, so I can't really set up my monthly goals, and (nerdy confession time) it's bothering me more than I thought it would.  Since new job comes with health and dental plans as well as union dues, I'm not sure how much I'm going to actually be taking home.  Plus, my expenses will be changing based on re-upping my social life and driving less.  CHANGES!!!  ACK!

Couldn't resist
It's all good.

Rather than get hung up on the future, let's take a look back at the financial year that was--2011.

The Good:
--I saved a lot this year.  My savings account was very depleted from three months of unemployment in 2009 and from one year of only working 19 hours a week.  Once I got the second job, I became a mad saver.  *pat on back for that*

--I started my Roth IRA and contributed $2750.00, which is pretty alright for having it for only like seven months.  Naturally, the market took a dump as soon as I opened this account, so I'm actually down right now, but I have faith in capitalism!!  My retirement is going to be so sexy.

--We didn't turn the heat on until mid-December!  I have no idea how much that saves, but it's still awesome.

--I managed to still have a few mini-vacations this year, despite my ridiculous schedule--New Orleans, New Brunswick, Philadelphia. Plus, that conference I went to in New Orleans included tons of free food and drink, which I like very much.

--As far as personal, non-financial goals this year, I made goals to run 750 miles and read 150 books.  As of today, I've read 154 books (and I still have two days left!), and run 918 miles.  Not to bad for a girl with only two days off a month.

The Bad:
--I went over in most budget categories.  I was going over when I was doing most of the grocery shopping, and now that we've got the shared household card, we're still over.  Obviously, I need to reassess where the money is going, and hopefully, do more cooking for both of us in the new year, which should be easier since we'll both be home at the same time.

--I spent a LOT of money on running gear and races.  The good news about that is that now I have all this running gear, I should be set.  The bad news is that I ran 10 races this past year, and that is not cheap.  I have a plan for the coming year, and I'm sticking to it.

The Ugly:
--I spent so much money on clothes this past year.  I've been like a crazy person and even though I keep saying I'll stop, I do not stop!

--This past year, I have spent $1477 on gas.  That figure makes me physically ill, but it's actually less than I had budgeted for since gas prices have gone down.

Now I need to make a plan for 2012, or at least as much of a plan as I can.  Stay tuned!!

How did you do this past year, financewise?

Monday, December 19, 2011

2012 a.k.a. The Year Everything Changes

Those loyal, longtime readers will (hopefully) realize that I am not often given to grand pronouncements like the one above, that's why, after officially signing the paperwork today, I get to say that I start 2012 with.....


That's right, gentle reader.  At the tender age of 32, I have finally acquired my first full-time job.  Along with the professional satisfaction of advancing in my chosen career, this job also brings:
  • A liveable wage 
  • Health Insurance for the first time in nearly three years
  • A retirement plan with employer matching
  • A civilized schedule of 37.5 hours per week and TWO WHOLE DAYS OFF EVERY WEEK!!  What the hell am I going to do with all that downtime?  I need some hobbies...
  • Dental insurance
  • Vacation Days
  • Sick pay
  • No more commuting!!
New job, which will henceforth referred to as Perfect Library Job (PLJ) is two miles from my house.  It's actually my turnaround point when I run my four mile loop, so not only can I walk to work, I can also bike to work on my swanky new bike!

Bike is currently nameless, suggestions welcome
I bought my new-to-me bike yesterday from a very nice girl who is moving to Oregon, and who threw in two bike locks at no extra cost!  I found out very quickly, however, that while one never forgets how to ride a bike, one's skills do atrophy.  I haven't ridden a bike since high school, and I was a bit shaky, but with a few practice rides, I should be just fine.  I'm a little scared, but I'll persevere!

Fear not, those who were fearful, now that I have gainful employment I promise I won't go all Hollywood and forget my frugal roots.  Even though I'm making a little more money, and saving a TON on gas, I still have student loans to pay, and have no excuse to go nuts and become an extravagant person.  I now have the privilege of saving more, is how I'm looking at it.

Posting may be a bit spotty in the coming week since I'll have company, but I'll certainly be back with a year end post, and probably some other bits and bobs too--who knows!!  Frugality is everywhere!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Blinky Link Love

This will certainly speak to many of the bloggers out there: Why your readers hate it when you make money.  I've been on both sides of this--hell I am currently on both sides of this, but as a wise person once said If you think you're going to make a living blogging, you need to think again.  Unless you live in a cardboard box completely off the grid and grow all your own food, it's just not going to happen.  Plus, if you're living off the grid, how are you blogging?

This is fascinating--there was almost a second, fake Paris.  "Located just a few miles north of the actual city, the twin was being built as a decoy. Fear of German bombers destroying the city prompted a massive-scale replica to fool the enemy into destroying the wrong Paris."

Another adorable dessert I will never make!  Gentle reader, if you live locally, please consider us non-bakers in your charitable acts this year.
Santa Hat Brownies!!
This musical number totally makes me want to sit on Santa's lap.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Food Waste Friday: A Horrifying Cucumber

I've had a little half cucumber knocking around in my crisper.  Every time I moved the salad, I'd see it and think I wonder if that cucumber is still good?  Wednesday morning, I discovered that it was decidedly not good as it was displaying white spots and squishing in the middle.  I didn't even want to grab it for fear that it would rupture when touched, but I got a paper towel and tossed it.

Instead of a picture of the icky cucumber in my crisper, I give you a picture of a sea cucumber that is (probably) perfectly healthy--I mean, I hope it is, but how do you really tell?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What Angry Birds Can Teach Us About Personal Finance

I'm sure that most people, even if they haven't personally played Angry Birds, at least have heard of it.  I learned about it watching an interview with Jon Hamm on Conan.  A quick rundown for those who may not be familiar: The pigs have stolen the birds' eggs.  The birds are angry.  The pigs create various fortresses to protect themselves, and the angry birds launch themselves at those fortresses to destroy the pigs and reclaim their eggs.

It's a total time suck, and I'm really, really good at it.

As I was wasting away an evening recently, I realized that these angry birds actually do have a lot going for them that can actually be applied to the world of personal finance. Skeptical? Read on!

Be persistent:
The birds do not quit, and likewise, when I'm playing Angry Birds, I keep saying "just one more game..."  Persistence is obviously key in the world of personal finance because oftentimes paying off debt or saving for retirement seems like an insurmountable goal.  But once you start chipping away at the goal ever so slightly, you start noticing progress--debt is shrinking, balance is growing, and then it finally sinks in that what you're doing is paying off!
That little yellow bird is determined!
Know your strengths:
Each of the birds in Angry Birds has a unique talent.  Once you figure out what that talent is, you do better at the game.  Everyone has different talents that can be applied to personal finance as well.  If you're really organized, you can create and maintain a rock-solid budget; creative types have a knack for investing (I have found this to be true).  You may figure out that you're really good and cooking and re-purposing leftovers.  There are really any number of ways that we can each tap into our strengths to save and grow money, but we just have to figure it out.

I like the yellow and blue birds best, but sometimes you need the others!
If one strategy doesn't work, find one that does:
Maybe you make out your budget and think I'm only going to spend $100 a month on food!  Then you go to the grocery store and find that it's impossible to spend that little and not wind up with scurvy or some other 18th century malnutrition disease.  Always re-evaluate.  That's why monthly roundups are so important.  Take a look at your spending for the month, examine where the money went and determine whether it was just an expensive month for a particular need, or if you need to change some numbers around.

Get help from your friends:
The Angry Birds don't work alone and neither should anyone else!  That's why I love the blogosphere so much.  Maybe I haven't met a lot of the people who read my blog or whose blogs I read, but I feel like I know them, and I've learned so much over the years.  Sometimes all it takes to figure something out is just asking the right person, or having a conversation.

Examine the angles:
In order to beat most of the levels of Angry Birds, you have to hit your target just so.  We've all seen financial advisors who advise people to start saving even while they're paying down debt.  At first that seems crazy and counterproductive, but when you think about it from another perspective, you realize that if you focus solely on paying down your debt and then have a crisis of some kind--medical, car accident, house fire etc., you're completely wiped out again and all your hard work was for nothing.

Don't be afraid to try new things:
I certainly never thought I'd be eating as much barley as I have in the last year, but I tried it, I like it, and it's totally frugal!  Experiment with new foods, new budgeting tools, new ways to get around.  Just be open and look at personal finance as an adventure!
I'm not advocating you try to make an Angry Birds dress, like
the wife of a Rovio executive did, but it is a little awesome...
The Angry Birds know that it usually takes a number of them to take down a piggies' fortress, likewise, it takes a number of people working together to understand the ins and outs of personal finance.  For instance, your financial view of the world is significantly different when you are a 19-year-old vs. after age 30.  What you need to know changes.  As I advance in levels in Angry Birds, I often get stuck and can't figure out the trick to beat the level and move forward.  I know that nerdier people than me have created youtube videos explaining every way to beat every level.  As an individual forging your way through the world of personal finance, it helps to remember that there are nerdier people than you out there who know exactly what you need to know--find them.
The little blue birds break glass and ice!
If you decide that you want to waste hours and hours or your life playing Angry Birds, you can do it for free through google chrome.  But you've been warned.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Trader Joe's vs. The Grocery Store

I went to Trader Joe's the other day for a quick trip, and once again was amazed at how cheap it is.  You would think, since I go to Trader Joe's quite regularly, I would actually remember that, but since it's a bit out of my way, I go there infrequently on stock up trips. That results in me spending a lot of money (usually on five months worth of coffee), and thinking that it's a really expensive place to shop.

Not so.

Today, I'm going to do an item by item comparison between things purchased on my recent trip to the regular grocery store--Stop & Shop, and my even more recent trip to Trader Joe's.

Exhibit A:  Hummus

I bought hummus on both of my trips to the grocery store, and do you want to know why?  Because I love hummus, that's why.  Despite frugal attempts to make my own, I've stopped wasting my time and just get store bought.  I don't know how they do it, but my homemade version just sucks, and even the generic brand at the store is delicious.

This most recent trip, I bought Sabra Hummus, which is my hummus of choice, but I only bought it because it was on sale--naturally my favorite is the most expensive, sigh.  I got 17 oz for $5.99.  Trader Joe's, I got 16oz of hummus for $3.99

Current Standings: Grocery store trip $5.99, Trader Joe's $3.99

Exhibit B: Pita Bread

The pita bread is to enjoy with my hummus, of course.  Grocery Store pita bread retails for $2.79, Trader Joe's $1.29.

That brings our standings to Grocery Store:  $8.78, Trader Joe's $5.28

Exhibit C: Tempeh

The Trader Joe's tempeh is both delicious and dirt cheap.  Whole Foods also has a store brand of tempeh, which is really affordable, but I think it's icky.  The Trader Joe's stuff compares to the high end stuff, but is about half the price.

Grocery Store Lightlife Three Grain Organic Tempeh: $3.29, Trader Joe's Organic Three Grain Tempeh: $1.69.

Current Standings:  Grocery Store: $12.07,  Trader Joe's $6.97

Exhibit D: Snacky Popcorn

The Grocery Store retails Smart Food Popcorn for $3.99 for a 9 oz bag, Trader Joe's retails their popcorn for $1.59 for a 7oz bag, but the Trader Joe's stuff is low sodium and low fat and it is incredibly bland.  I'll tack on an extra $1 penalty since I'll have to add my own flavor agents, so that brings the Trader Joe's total to $2.59 for 7 oz.

Final Standings: Grocery Store: $16.06, Trader Joe's $9.56  

Overall, I got the same food, albeit slightly fewer ounces, for significant savings at Trader Joe's, which makes it totally worth driving a little further.  If there's one that's a lot further from where you live--get a carpool together!  Make a day of it!  It was just so nice to leave the grocery with two full bags of groceries and not feel like I'd been robbed in an alleyway.  I've started to loathe grocery shopping, but this perked me right up.    Also, I got four of these:
Best. Candy Bar. Ever.
For the low/low price of $1.99 apiece.  Then I hid the in the back of the cupboard.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Food Waste Friday: Too Much Comfort Food

I made this recipe last week: Gnocchi Mac and Cheese, which sounds phenomenal.  I'm all about any excuse to eat cheese as a main component of my meal, and over the years I've perfected my baked mac and cheese recipe, so I figured this one would come our amazing as well.  In the interest of not having a super-heavy meal, I added some baked broccoli, and kind of made it up as I went along.

It was good, but very, very heavy.  BF and I each ate some (I had two servings), but then it languished in the fridge for more than a week.  I wanted to want to eat it, but then the weather got really warm, and the thought of that much heavy food was just not appealing.

So, I trashed my creation, but I can't say that I wouldn't ever not make it again.  I think next time, I'd add some squash to the cheese sauce, and think of some other way to lighten it up a little.  That gnocchi was heavy!

Thursday, December 8, 2011


I know it may seem like an odd time of the year to talk about taxes since April is five months away, but the end of December is the end of the 2011 tax season, and I'm thinking a lot these days about what loose ends I need to tie up before the 31st.

  1. Maximize Deductions.  I want to make a big push at the end of the year to send a large payment to my student loans.  Why?  Because I owe them so much money that every payment I make goes solely toward interest, which is tax-deductible up to $2,500.  So basically, the more I pay in student loan interest this year (which I'm paying anyway somehow or another), goes toward reducing the amount of income I'm taxed on this year.  I've had an increase in pay since getting my second job, so I'm not sure if that will bump me up into a higher income tax bracket--I'll take any deductions I can get.
  2. Charitable Deductions.  Even when I moved cross-country and donated most of my furniture to the Salvation Army, I still couldn't get to the $250 threshold where I could start writing off charitable contributions. But if you're some one who regularly donates goods or money over the course of the year, or someone who donates a lot during the holiday season (make sure it's to a qualified organization)--save your records!  In order to deduct charitable contributions, you need to itemize your tax return using form 1040 Schedule A, and you need to send in your charitable contribution records for verification.  Charitable tax deductions may be going away in the future (though I really, really hope not). If you have some time post-holiday or post-holiday shopping, get your records in order so you can file and get your return that much faster.
  3. Roth IRA Contributions.  A Roth IRA only allows a person to contribute $5000 per year, so in addition to trying to send a lot of money this month to the student loan people, I'm also going to try to sock a large amount in my IRA.  I'm nowhere near $5000 and won't be by the end of the year (since I started my IRA only six months ago), but I would like to get as close as I can to maximize that lovely compound interest (my retirement is going to be so exotic!).  In this case though, I'm determined to earn $100 in savings interest for this year, so I'm going to make a big contribution to my IRA and student loans right at the end of the month so I'll earn the most interest on my savings account.
One thing I remember my accounting professor in high school drilling into our heads is that we should never, ever claim any dependents on our W-2 forms but should instead claim status Exempt.  That way, we wouldn't be taxed over the course of the year (but Social Security would still be taken out), and we would just make a payment in April to the IRS for what we owed.  His logic was that we could invest the money that we would have gotten as a refund, and therefore make more money.  I tried it one year, and found that I absolutely hate owing at the end of the year, and that I wasn't disciplined enough at the time to invest my money into any kind of account that had a decent rate of return--I was only 16 after all.

I'm curious, how do people decide what to claim?  I don't think I'm eligible at this age to claim Exempt even if I wanted to, so I claim 1 dependent at one of my jobs and 0 at the other.  That way, I figure I'll just about break even with state and federal, and if I do have to pay in something, that something will be less.  That way I'm not really losing any potential interest (and hearing Mr. Wicker's voice in my head), but I'm also not stuck with a huge payment that ruins my spring.  

Hopefully, most of my readers don't have more than one job (unless you want more than one), so don't have that option, but I'm curious what the most common choice is.

Monday, December 5, 2011

I Need an Intervention

Just stop shopping, Dumbass
I have let the spirit of gift-buying punch a huge hole in my wallet.  I should have seen this coming, seriously.  Here is one thing I've noticed about my self and the way I relate to money: When my savings account is looking healthy and I'm contributing to it regularly, I start taking the same kind of pleasure in adding to savings that I do buying stuff.  When I have large, necessary (but not fun) purchases, I get pouty, throw up my hands (metaphorically), and say "what's the use!?!"  I've noticed this before, but continue to get blindsided, especially now when stores are tempting me with deals too good to pass up!  But, as I know that I don't need more things, I've been buying things for other people, which is very nice of me, but not nice to my savings plan.

Coming right on the heels of my car insurance payment, I had to get BF an x-mas gift.  After that, I realized that since my brother is coming out to visit, I should get him one too.  Then I found another something awesome for one of my best friends, then because I was being so virtuous and giving, I bought myself a dress.  It's like I need a sponsor to call when I feel like I'm going to spend!  Also, I bought running shoes, but I honestly did need those and saved about 100 dollars.

So that's why things have been a bit quiet on the old blogfront--I've been too busy ordering things.  In the back of my mind, I'm honestly hoping that the dress I ordered doesn't look good so I can return it, so I guess that's positive?

Starting December 20th, I'm off for six weeks from job number 2, so I need to keep that in the back of my mind.  With only one job, that means no extra income, just breaking even. I have a car tax bill looming--mustn't forget.  And I made a decision that will give me a goal to focus on so I (hopefully) won't be distracted by other shiny things in the meantime.

All of the cool runners have started getting these Garmin GPS running watches.  Initially I scoffed because it's clunky and expensive and seems like a laughable luxury item.
It's huge! But friends tell me it's not cumbersome
Now I'm in a position where I painstakingly google map out running routines, but sometimes alter them while I'm out and have no idea how far I've run.  The other day, I set out on my 9 mile loop, but still felt good at the end and took a spin through the park winding up with 9.5 miles for the day.  If I had known I was already at 9.5, I certainly would have pushed for 10.  So you see, the only way I can properly train is by having a giant computer on my wrist that tells me how far I've gone at any given time.

Yeah, that's a stretch, but I'm just going to save up the points I earn on my Amazon Visa card, and also the change that I save to bring to the Coinstar machine, which gives me an Amazon Gift Certificate (or just gives me cash, but then the machine takes a percentage).  Hopefully, this savings goal will occupy my fickle brain enough that I'll stop yearning for other things.  Hopefully.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

December? Really?

That's not me, this guy is crazy
Guys, it's totally December today.  I'm flabbergasted, and I suspect I will be writing November 31st on a lot of things at work today, but that's beside the point.  With a new month, comes new financial goals, and precisely because it is the season of giving, I need to reign in my personal spending more than ever.  My goals for November kind of fell flat--not a total FAIL, but I wasn't as successful as I wanted to be.

Here's what I had planned for November:

1. One in/ One out i.e. getting rid of something when I buy something new.  Ok, I did get rid of some things, but I don't think it's equal to the number of things that I bought--gah!  BUT, one good thing that I did, the other day, I had the morning off, and I spent it hemming and mending whist watching 500 Days of Summer.  So I reclaimed three shirts/dresses that I wasn't wearing before!  Basically, as I've discussed before, dresses from Modcloth tend to be a bit short for my modest self.  So I shortened them further and made them into tunics!  I was wearing pants under them anyway, now I won't look quite so weird.

2. Save up enough for six months of car insurance.  Also, didn't quite make this, but I'm close, so that's something.  I always put my car insurance on my visa cause it nets me some sweet points that I can use for things that are more fun than buying car insurance.  So, to save up, I've been sending payments in to that credit card, even though I don't owe them anything.  So I have a nice credit balance to put toward the stupid car insurance; I'll also get a bit of cash from BF since he does use the car occasionally; and then I'll pay the rest promptly.  It's a plan!

3. Put any and all extra cash toward my student loans and Roth IRA.  I did ok here too.  Sadly, I didn't have a ton of extra cash, but I got a Thanksgiving gift check from my parents (they feel sorry for me, they know I'm broke), and I put that promptly in my IRA.  I also, finally, set up my bank account to debit twice the monthly required payment for those damn student loans.  So now, I won't even have to to think about making payments, and I can kick in a little extra every now and then.

Looking to December:
My brother is coming out for a visit over Christmas, so that will ease up on my spending considerably.  Why, you may ask?  Because my brother makes a ridiculous amount of money and has very few expenses.  The most frugal thing you can do--encourage your only sibling to choose a profession where he makes a lot of money!  Ok, maybe not, but it is nice when he comes to town because I love him, and because we get to have adventures without me worrying about how to pay for them.  With him around, I'll also be distracted from online shopping, like for those boots I've been coveting.

This is that last-minute kick to sock as much away in my IRA as I can--so I'm going to focus on that.  This is also the start of the winter break at my university, which means I finally get some time off, but also don't earn much money--once again, I challenge myself to enjoy my time without breaking the bank.

Wish me luck!!  What are your goals for this month?