Friday, October 31, 2008

Keep an Eye on College Campuses for Free or Frugal Fall Entertainment

This week I am going to be enjoying two nights of fall entertainment, courtesy of our local colleges. If you are looking for fun things to do that are inexpensive and are a little different, I really recommend looking at the programming of your local colleges, especially this time of year - many of them get into full swing with a variety of different events on campus.

A few years back one of our schools offered a Western movie night for six weeks. Each week they showed a different classic western on the big screen in their audio visual center and then afterward had an question and answer time with an expert in the field about that particular film. It was a wonderful program and every night the seats were packed - and not just with college students, with people of all ages. The evening was free, but even if they had charged a little I wouldn't have minded. I loved it - and I got to see "Stagecoach" for the first time!

Last year about this time a friend and I attended an annual poetry reading, also on a college campus. They had two world renowned poets in to read. Again, it was a big auditorium and almost nearly filled with not only students but also adults who were interested in poetry. I'll be honest, I am not a big poetry fan as far as reading it, but I love to have it read to me. And there is something especially wonderful about hearing the author themselves read their own works. This year my friend couldn't come with me so I went solo. It was a great event and a fun night out. After the reading there was an interesting Q&A session and then a lovely reception with dessert, cheese, fruit, wine - the works. It was really rather dazzling. On top of all that, as I was leaving I got a fabulous caramel apple from one of our famous nut and chocolate companies - and the cost? $0.

Keeping with my on campus theme, tonight I am going to the theatre.

This is at yet a different campus (all three of these events were at different schools.) The tickets for tonight's performances are only $8 - $3 if you are a student, which I am!

Typically I find college campuses work hard to keep their prices down because they know that the average students is broke. You can find out about their college events in the newspaper, on their websites or, if you are lucky enough to to have a student run radio station, that's a great place to find out about events.

Just because we are bring frugal, doesn't mean we shouldn't enjoy ourselves - and I am going to go one further. Because we are being frugal this should be an opportunity to explore what other options our community has for us. I'll tell you, I am going to get a lot more out of seeing the play tonight than if I were going to the movie theatre (and paying three times the amount.)

What are other frugal ideas you have found for fall entertainment?

Photo by: webgirlpip

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Worrying About Your Financial Past, Won't Help Your Financial Future

Do you have any idea how often I think, "If only I would have xxxx"? It is hard not to. I am where I am because of certain decisions I made. If only I wouldn't have married my ex, if only I would have gotten a lawyer sooner, if only we hadn't bought this house... if only. There are times when I get incredibly frustrated, when I think if only I could go back in the past and change things - whisper in my own ear and tell my younger self what to do. I am guessing that many of us who are struggling financially feel the same way - if only we hadn't made this purchase or that, if only we were a little more frugal in our youth... all of those kinds of things. You know what I have learned though? "If only" is a big old fat waste of energy.

The truth of the matter is that we are only as good as we are in any given moment of time. Sure, hindsight is 20/20, but who has hindsight? No one - even psychics make mistakes. We make decisions based on the information we have at the time - we go on what seems like the best choice. Take my marriage - if you were to look into my diary you would see serious doubts right up until a few weeks before the wedding. However, I can't waste my time beating myself up as to why I didn't listen to that nagging voice. The truth is, I went ahead because it seemed like the right choice at the time. That goes for all things financial too - maybe we have doubts at the time, but we go ahead because there is a part of us that thinks it is the best choice.

I recently read a post over at MySuperChargedLife called: Hard Times: How to Survive When the Going Gets Tough. The whole thing is well worth a read, but here is the part that particularly caught my eye:

Hanging on to the sins of the past keeps you from moving forward in life. It takes your eye off the ball which prevents you from hitting the next pitch out of the park. Forget about what happened yesterday. Concentrate instead on what needs to be done today to get things headed the direction you desire.
And that really is the crux of it, isn't it?

What is really important is moving ahead. Learning from the past is essential, but the real key is to keep moving forward. I could spend all my time beating my head against the wall for poor decisions I've made, and all that would accomplish is a dent in the wall - and in my head!

The truth is, I didn't make "bad" decisions. I made good decisions that just didn't turn out the way that I had planned. Very few people go out of their way to make bad choices. Sometimes it looks that way from the outside, but if you were to ask folks, most of them will tell you that they thought they were doing the right thing - in that very moment.

One of the things that happened to me when my life went through this monumental change was that I started questioning my own ability to make good choices. That, my friends, was just a recipe for disaster. We make choices every moment of every day - which blog to read, whether to have water, tea or ginger ale, what to wear, who to call, how to live our lives. I don't worry about that anymore, I trust my "gut." I believe in myself and I believe that whatever may have happened, I can learn from it and move on.

Regrets? I have a few.* But I have to say, I like the person that I am becoming - this stronger, wiser, more frugal woman. As you look at making your budgets and net worth statements remember that even though we might wish our younger selves had been a touch wiser and less ready to haul out the wallet, what we've been through only makes better and better.

Somewhat related, I saw this article and wanted to pass it along:

Wisebread - Post Divorce Finances: 7 Steps to Rebuilding Your Financial House

Photo by: A. Curell

* Thanks, Frank.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What If You Had All The Money You Needed, Would You Still Be Frugal?

I know most of you folks are a lot like me, trying to get your finances all settled and in a row. Maybe you are trying to get rid of debt, or trying to live within your means, or maybe you are really like me and trying to find ways to earn extra money each month. So, let me ask you a question - what would you do if you didn't have to worry about money anymore? That was the subject of an interesting post I read over as BeingFrugal: Would You Stay Frugal if You Won the Lottery? And I read a similar idea, abet on a smaller scale, on FinanceYourLife: Gas Prices Are Going Down, Are You Driving More?

They are interesting things to think about, aren't they? For me, the gas question is easy. My answer: Nope. Yes, gas prices are going down, but I am not driving any more because of it. In fact, I still like sticking to my back roads roundabout way to work and I am still making a very concerted effort to drive slow. Why? Because $2.49, while certainly a relief, is not "cheap" to me. Call me old fashioned, but I am not going to think "cheap gas" until it gets under $2.00. Even then, I am not likely to sign up for a cross country road rally! Truthfully, I don't think this price dip is going to last very long anyway. My guess is that within a month it is going to be back up there. So, no - I won't be changing my driving habits any time soon, no matter what the cost of gas is.

But what about if I won the lotto? I would have to find a winning ticket laying on the ground, because I certainly don't buy them. Let's say I did that - I found a ticket in parking lot and it turned out to be the winner. Would I change my frugal ways? Maybe.

I'm going to be completely honest here. While I am enjoying being frugal and part of me thinks of it as a game (just how low can I get my electric bill anyway??) at the same time, I am a woman who knows how to shop. There are certain things I am doing now that I would be quick to change. For one thing, I haven't bought new clothes in ages. It's okay, I tend to buy classic pieces that will last me a long time, but I admit, I am getting a bit tired of my wardrobe. I would also throw my dining out budget right out the window - along with my grocery budget. In fact, as someone who loves to cook and love to eat, those would probably be the first things to go - even before clothes. I really miss being able to stop at a favorite restaurant on a whim. Sure, I have a dining out budget but I only like to use that with friends now. That is one of the few flexible areas of my budget so currently I hesitate to use it unless it is for a "good" reason. In the "good old days" I would eat out whenever I felt the craving, now I pretty much save it for a special night out. Same thing with cooking - I used to plan my menu around what I wanted to make, now I plan it on what I already have in the house and what is on sale. I'm still eating really well, but I don't have the freedom I once did.

Of course those are relatively small expenditures. I would also love to give to some friends and non-profit organizations that I feel strongly about. And naturally, I would love to travel!

However, I would like to think that some of frugal plans would stay in place. I would fund my emergency fund and invest the greater portion of the money. I would keep looking for good deals and using coupons, that stuff is just in my blood. I would like to think that the lessons I have learned as I have struggled financially would not completely fly out the window, that even if the money was there, I still keep buying cfls!

What about you? What would you do?

Photo by: Rockers Generation

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Musings on a Cookbook

Do you know what that is in the photo there? It was, at one time, a book - but not just any book, that there is a piece of my family history. This cookbook belonged to my father, who referred to it as his "cooking Bible." My father loved to cook, but he was fairly specific about it. He didn't like to make a recipe too many times - the fun for him was in trying something new, and he didn't want to do everyday cooking, my father pretty much only cooked on Sundays or when one of us was sick and needed a treat. This was his "go-to" book whenever he wanted to try something really different. As you can see, it has seen a fair amount of wear. It isn't actually a book anymore. It was used so much that it became stack of recipes, held together by a piece of gold elastic Christmas ribbon. That colored piece off to the left? That's the "cover."

One the best Christmas gifts I ever gave was the year I discovered that out of print books could be bought online. I found my father a brand new copy - hardcover. He would hardly let anyone touch it! And I ended up with the original, in all its glory.

I pulled it off the shelf recently because friend of mine had a couple extra cans of crab meat she wasn't sure what to do with and asked if I wanted it. I gladly accepted, but wasn't quite sure what I was going to make with it either. That's when I thought of my dad. He used to make the Deviled Crab recipe that you can just barely make out in the photo. For some reason, we all called it "Crab Imperial," which was a completely different recipe in the book, but it was "Deviled Crab" we all liked. Surprisingly enough, I had all the ingredients on hand, so I whipped up a batch last night. Man, that is good stuff! However, the reason I bring all this up isn't just so I can take a trip down memory lane and have a fabulous dinner, all which are worthwhile in themselves, but because this book symbolizes a little more to me.

Look at this book - it is in crazy, ridiculous shape. But you know what? It still works. The recipes are still readable and just as good as they were when I was a kid. Okay, you have to take a little more care when opening up the pages, but that has become part of the tradition for me. It makes me go a little slower, and as I am carefully laying the pages open, I am thinking about my dad.

I love getting new cookbooks, but not one of them can compare with the feelings I have when using this one. Truth be told, I am sure that there are still copies of this floating around, I could buy myself a "new" one, or at least one with a proper binding, but instead I am going to hang on to this one. Not only because of its special meaning to me, but also as a reminder to thoroughly use things to their limit - not to be wasteful - to value well loved antiques with all their flaws and "character."

Once upon a time people used things until they were completely worn out. Now everything is so disposable, poorly made and easily discarded. Something gets a little dirty, has a tear, and we throw it out, get a new one. Then you look at all the landfills which are overfull and our planet warming up and how all of us are in debt and I just have to think - why? Why are we doing this to ourselves?

There has to be a better way.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Frugal Ideas for Brewing Coffee and Tea

The Simple Dollar had a reader ask a question on whether electric tea kettles and ovens use a lot of electricity. In answering, he provided a link to Mr. Electricity, a website I've been having a lot of fun with today. This site helped me prove something I had long suspected, but wasn't 100% sure about -

My French press coffee pot does use less electricity than my coffee maker.

My instinct had told me that that the French press would be the more frugal choice, but it was fun figuring out that I was right. I had to take into consideration the whole process - I have an electrical coffee grinder, but the electrical use for that is the same whether I brew in the French Press or my coffee maker. In fact, I grind the coffee a little less for the French Press, so there is a little more in its favor. So the real question was - which sucks up more energy: the 10 minutes or so it takes to bring the kettle to a boil or the coffee maker brewing up my java?

The winner for me was clearly the french press! What's more, I know that when I make a pot of coffee in my coffeemaker, I have a tendency to make several cups worth and then leave it on as I drink it throughout the day. With my french press I can make no more than 2 cups of coffee at a time, and once it is made, no additional electricity is used. Truth is, the french press coffee tastes better anyway - so I win all the way around!

Not only do I like my occasional good cup of joe, I also love tea - green, black, herbal - you name it, I like it. And that is where the photo at the top of this post comes from, my frugal tip for inexpensive and tasty herbal teas.

What you see photographed there is my well loved and worn tea strainer with a packet of peppermint leaves from one of my favorite purveyors of spices. One day while I was happily picking up ingredients to restock my spice cabinet, I came across this lovely bag of peppermint leaves for $2.49. Herbal teas, which aren't really "tea" at all, but are actually infusions, are just the leaves, bark or flowers of the plant. I have found it is far, far less expensive to buy my own and put them in a tea ball, than to buy them in bag form.

Not to mention you can mix and match your own - chamomile and lavender are nice together for example. All of these can be bought by the ounce, and while Penzy's doesn't carry lavender, two of my local tea and spice shops do. Heck, I have even been known to grow and dry my own chamomile.

As a kid I never liked mint teas of any kind, but I have sort of grown fond of them as an adult. I particularly like them with just a touch of honey and milk after dinner as a digestif. I have no idea how long this bag will last me, but I am guessing I have enough here to get me through the cold Michigan winter!

Photo by: me!

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Dimmable CFLS - Do They Work?

Awhile back I wrote that one of the problems in switching my home over to cfl light bulbs is that many of my switches are dimmers - and cfls and dimmers don't get along. When I first decided to undertake this project I had one light fixture in particular I couldn't wait to get my hands on - the ceiling fan in the spare bedroom. This is the room where I also have my office. It has a very nice, high quality ceiling fan, and my ex had installed a switch that allowed someone to control the fan and the light from the doorway - rather than using the pull switches. The problem was that this fixture had a milky white cover over a very low wattage incandescent bulb, which meant that this room was perpetually in a gloom. I know that my ex used this room as his bedroom after we separated, so maybe he liked the semi-darkness, but for me it was just too dim - especially as I was trying to use this area for office functions, which involved reading. Knowing that cfls appear brighter than their incandescent counterparts, I couldn't wait to pop in a 60 watt equivilant cfl and make this room a little more functional.

The first night I purchased a cfl, the very first thing I did was get out the step ladder to replace that pesky dim bulb, which turned out to be a 40 watt incandescent. That's when I discovered that cfls and certain light switches don't mix. The bulb perpetually flickered! It wouldn't completely turn off. This light switch isn't technically a dimmer, but it must run on similar technology. The trickle of a current still reaching the bulb was making it flicker. So much for saving electricity! Reluctantly I replaced the 40 watt bulb, but I didn't put the cover back on the fixture. I knew there must be dimmable bulbs out there somewhere....

Well, that was about 4 months ago. All this time that fixture has been open - the globe has been laying on a dresser, waiting to be replaced. Finally Saturday I was doing home projects and had the step ladder out and decided to put the globe back on. ...and wouldn't you know that it would be later that same day that I would find dimmable cfls??

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I spent some time at the home improvement stores this weekend. I had a couple of coupons and wanted to do some prep for the cold months ahead. While meandering through Home Depot, I swung by the light bulb aisle... where I seem to spend a lot of my time these days. There, on the shelves, calling me seductively, were dimmable cfls.

I had found dimmable cfls before online, but I have to be honest, the ones I found were by some no name company and looked a little fly-by-night or were so expensive I couldn't dream of buying them. These were among the regular cfl stock and clearly had DIMMABLE written across the front. They weren't cheap - while you could get a rebate on the regular 14 watt / 60 watt equivilent bulbs and get them for a $1, the dimmable ones were closer to $8. Not exactly giving them away, but not breaking my bank either. (Although I was trying to look them up for this post and found them on their website for $17.99!! Ouch!!)

I have had so much success with dropping my energy bills, I decided to give them a try. I brought one home and carefully removed it from the packaging. Not only do you not want these little guys to break, but if it didn't work, you can bet I was going to return it! I didn't have to worry about it though, it worked like a charm.

This will be a great room for making a difference on my electric bill. I am in there a lot, doing homework, bills, and writing these entries! Now what I will be interested in seening is how one will work on a traditional dimmer. You see, I didn't just buy one, I bought two. I have a second ceiling fan in my main bedroom - and this one has a standard slide dimmer. I'll be installing it this weekend and I will let you know how it goes!

Great photo by: even_steven

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Speaking of Electric Bills - Now I Need to Tackle the Gas Bill

This weekend I went out and picked up some things to help save on electricity and gas bills. I had some of the plastic sheeting that you put on windows to cut down on leaks from last year, but was out of the tape that holds it on. So, I picked up some tape and some weather stripping for a few of my windows. I also grabbed some caulk since I noticed that some of the old caulk is crumbling. Many of the windows in my home have been replaced, but there are still a few of the originals (from 1847) floating around. The majority of them are on the front of the house, so I have decided to completely close that room off. It's sort of the formal living room, so I don't use it all that much any way. (Though it is the only room with a couch, so there won't be a lot of couch potato-ing this winter!) I closed the register in that room already and I have one of those door cozy thingies tucked up against the door so the cold air doesn't leach into the rest of the house.

I also picked up one of the hot water blankets that everyone blogs about. The only interesting thing was as I was muscling it into my cart a guy walking buy said - "Good luck getting that on. They are a pain. Oh, and use really good duct tape or it will just come off again." Good advice, I suppose but not much encouragement!

Anyway, so here I am making all these changes and trying to conserve energy... and then I get an email from my tenant, wanting me to crank up the heat!

Grrr.... she told me that she has never lived downtown before, only in complexes. Well, that is readily apparent! Most of us folks used to living in converted Victorian houses know that erratic heat is part of the package. It is kind of part of the charm, if you will. (If you'll remember, she made sure and mention that she wanted colder a/c in the summer too - the day after I adjusted the thermostat to provide a few degrees less a/c.) This is a bit of a tricky thing for me, since my ex promised her that the apartment would be "comfortable," something which is obviously different according to everyone's taste. I feel he set a contract of sorts with her, and I need to honor it. The problem is the definition of "comfortable." I would prefer it to be a little cooler in the winter and hotter in the summer, but then again, I am the one paying the bills! The one good side to all this is that I can write off a portion of my utility bills on my taxes.

Fortunately, I already have a programmable thermostat so I can set it to only be on when people are most likely to be home, plus I can drop the heat at night. I can also continue to make changes to my portion of the house to keep heat bills down. The question is, what do I do about hers?

Well, I noticed this morning that she still has her window a/c unit in. (She uses it in the bedroom to supliment the a/c I provide.) I am going to tell her that I will not increase the heat until she removes that unit. If her apartment feels cold it may just be because cold air is coming through there! Also, she requested that it be 70 degrees. There is no way I am doing that. She is on the second floor, once she removes the window unit the residual heat should keep that apartment pleanty warm.

I am also going to keep this in mind for the next tenant. I think I will install some electric baseboard heaters in that unit for supplemental heat for the next person. They pay for their own electricity, so if they want to walk around in their tank top, they can pay for it.

Hmm... does that make me coldhearted?

Photo by: zonepress.

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My Electric Bills Are Going Even Lower, Thanks to CFLs

Last month I wrote about CFLs making a huge difference in my electric bill. Back when the house was up for sale and my ex lived in the house, he put together a list of estimated costs for utilities. He estimated the electric to be $52.40 based on a 10 month average. Here's a breakdown of my electrical bills:

  • July - $47.22
  • August - $42.81
  • September - $31.16
  • October - $24.92
My October bill is less than half of what my ex was paying! Now, I can guarantee he uses a bit more electricity than me, and that would account for the $52.40 - $47.22 difference, but the big reason my bill is dropping like a (lovely, gorgeous) stone, is due to CFLs.

Here's another thing to keep in mind - as these months have progressed, it has gotten darker and darker. In July it is light when I get up until 9:00 at night. Now it is dark when I rise and dark when I go home. If anything, I am having the lights on longer than I did in July!

To me, this just means cash in the bank. I budgeted this year for the electric bill to be at $52.40 - which means, I saved $27.48. I don't have a good way to post that - I can't really add it to my sidebar there, but it does mean that I have that much less I need to raise. Savings is just as good to me if not better, in some ways than earning more income. After all, I never get taxed on money I save by spending less!

You know, when I first saw the chart on Milk Your Money's Tools I assumed there was no way I could have that significant of an impact on my own usage. His chart has 30 light bulbs on for 5 hours a day. That might be accurate for a family of four, but I don't use anywhere near that much. I am a big believer in turning off lights when you leave a room. What's more, now If I do leave a light on, say leaving the kitchen light on when I bring out the garbage, I make sure it is always the cfl light that is left on. I still have a few incandescent lights in each room and I like those a lot. But, I use them springily like I would an expensive bottle of truffle oil. My incandescents are used when I am sitting next to them reading, or sitting with a friend over a cup of tea, but for general purpose lights, the cfls are just fine. And, here I am with a huge savings. It has been absolutely worth it!

I'm not done yet, though! I added more CFLs this past weekend - put that's a story for another post.

Learn more about my CLF experiences:

Comparing CFL Light Bulbs to Incandescents

Systematically Replacing Light Bulbs with CFLs

Bright Effect CFL Bulbs for Vanities

CFLs Making a Huge Difference in My Electrical Bill

Light bulb photo by: km6xo

And here is the rest of it.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Becoming Decisive - Learning to Make the Hard Decisions

Whenever I read a post on a blog that really inspires me, I bookmark the page in a special folder I have for just such occasions. I like to go back through them sometimes to re-read and become re-inspired.

One of the ones I liked last month was from the Wisdom Journal called Steps to Develop Decisiveness. I don't actually remember how I even stumbled across this one, all I know is I made sure to store it away for later.

In some ways I am a very decisive person. I tend to go with gut instinct, (tempered with a bit of past experience, of course.) I will think things through, weigh all my options, but then once I make a decision I move on it right away - 100% confident in my choice. I'm not always right, naturally, but I always think I am! There are times though when it is really hard for me to make decisions, and that is why this article got me to thinking.

The Wisdom Journal post suggests(it is really good, but not very long - go read it.) that you take a moment and ask yourself what prevents you from making decisions. My two stumbling blocks are:

  • I don't have enough information
  • The decision seems too big
I wrote, not long ago, about tackling projects I hate. This lack of info and enormous size problem are pretty much the same two things that prevent me from wanting to do certain things around the house too. Of the two, the worse one is lack of information. How can I make a decision about something if I don't feel like I have all the information? That's why I am such a big fan of experiments - trying something out so it gives you the information you need. (I've been like this with my CFL experiment - I tried a few, had success, tried a few more.) When it comes to this, I have to learn to be more comfortable seeking information out - just by doing some research online, reading a book, calling a family member or a friend. I know these techniques, but occasionally I get so wound up in a problem I forget that there are simple solutions to get me out of it.

Other times problems seem insurmountable. I remember when I first realized that I would end up having to take the mortgage and that I was going to be $900 short a month. My stomach just dropped. For several weeks I put off making any decisions because the whole thing seemed just too big. However, once I was able to break the problem down into smaller pieces by generating The List (my plan for how to raise income and cut costs,) suddenly the decisions weren't so hard - I could see the whole scope of the problem.

Though I certainly don't miss my ex, I occasionally miss having someone to talk about decisions with. (Friends aren't quite the same because they aren't invested in the same way.) On the other hand, there is also a wonderful liberating feeling knowing it is all up to me. And what's more - I can do this!

Photo by: Water Lemon

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Re-Building My Emergency Fund for Financial Security

The month is far from over, but so far I am very pleased with where I am at the moment. And my totals to the right do not even include a check I am waiting for from one of my part time jobs. (I never like to include them until the cash is in hand.) Once that comes in, it will certainly help boost me along even further. Considering I was also able to save some money out of my budget, this month looks like it is going to be okay.

I'll write my full review of the month next week when I have all the numbers, but as I say, so far - so good. November has some good things lined up as well. I have more part time job work coming up (from two different jobs) and I am already scheduled for another mystery shopping trip, plus, I should get paid in November for all the mystery shopping I did this month. Of course this doesn't mean that I won't have hustling to do! That, I am afraid, isn't going to stop for awhile, but it is really nice to have a few things already in the works for the month ahead.

As I wrote about earlier in the month, one of my other financial goals is to re-build my emergency funds. It is great to see some of my plans working, but I am still so afraid of something going wrong - some cog in the works going sproing! I have friends that were laid off who had no idea it was coming - what if that happened to me? So, one of the things I did recently was sit down with pencil, pad and calculator and figure out exact what it is going to take to make me feel safe and secure.

The answer was over $10,000, which frankly, seems a bit daunting when I am $900 in the hole each month! (Although imagine if I could live within my means and didn't have the financial burden of this house - I could get that fairly quickly!) It really helped me to figure out roughly how much I would need in each savings account so I could stop worrying about when the other shoe would drop. It was like turning the light on the bogeyman in the closet - suddenly I could see, and although it is still big, it isn't as scary as it once was.

I decided to try having two goals: 1) first and most importantly, get the nine hundred dollars a month I need and 2) try to snowball some small payments into that emergency fund. To that end I directed two payments into the fund this month - one for $20.31, which was a payment I got from Amazon, and the other for $15.44, which was money I was repaid on my Prosper loans. Since Prosper is currently not accepting new loans, I withdrew the money so I can get it working for me somewhere else.

It would be nice to think that every month I could snowball a couple of payments away and slowly rebuild my account to what they once were - and then build them beyond that, to what I want them to be. It might not be possible every month, I know that. However, my car will be paid off in June which will allow me to make massive payments on my remaining credit card debt. Once that is done my only debt will be mortgage, which means I will be able to use those funds for making my monthly goals and towards savings.

I suppose I could take that $35.45 and put it towards that credit card debt I mentioned. I was tempted to do that, but, I am already paying about 5X the minimum payment on that, but what I don't have is emergency cash. I know paying off debt should come first, but I would like to have at least $200 in readily available cash - just in case I hit another deer!

A consideration that has to be taken - what is it going to take to help me sleep easy at night?

Wonderful photo by: Nicholas Gray

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More Thoughts on Accepting Charity From Friends and Family

I keep thinking about my post from the other day about accepting charity from friends and family. I am just as stubborn as the next person when it comes to accepting "charity." I have no problem extending charity, but I have a hard time taking it ...or at least that is what I always thought. Lately, however, I've come to realize that isn't exactly true. I do have a hard time accepting money, but I have become okay with accepting other kinds of charity. Wow, isn't it interesting that I feel sort of slimy admitting that? Isn't it American tradition that tells us to be good people we need to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps? Aren't we supposed to be strong individuals needing no one but ourselves? Yet, I am finding that I am doing just that, the American Ideal: fighting hard to keep out of foreclosure - it just also happens to be that I'm getting help from friends and family to do it.

Okay, this is getting a little cerebral, let's pull it down to real life examples. As I mentioned, my mom and my sister have both offered me money. I've chosen not accept to it yet, but instead keep them as my "ace in the hole" and use them only if I really need to. However, both my mother and my sister have given me numerous things to sell on eBay. This isn't a profit split situation - they have just donated to my cause. My sister gave me nine boxes of things to either sell in the garage sale I had in July or sell on eBay. My mother constantly checks in with me to see if I need a few more things to sell - she's got a basement full of stuff! It isn't just my family - I have four friends who have all given me items I can sell either on Amazon, Half or eBay. Notice that my ticker on the sidebar there just took a leap recently? That's because one friend gave me a pair of designer eyeglass frames to sell - and they went for $149.99. I offered to give him back the purchase price he paid for them, but he refused.

I guess I feel like I can take this kind of charity because I am still working for it. Listing things online takes time and effort - both to get them up and get them shipped out. It takes work on my part. What they sell for is also up to me since I'm setting the prices, which is somehow more acceptable than asking people for checks. Does that make sense? I mean, take this pair of glasses - if my friend gave them to me and I didn't do anything with them, then that is all they would be - a pair of frames I don't need and he didn't like the color of. But, by taking this gift and doing a bit of research and finding that these same frames were selling for over $500, then taking the time to write up a really good listing on eBay, taking multiple photos and including links to the site selling them at full retail - I was able to make a nice little windfall. On the other hand, had he offered to write me a check for $150 I would have refused it outright.

Here's another example that cuts a little closer to home. In the MasterYourCard post that inspired me to write about charity, the author wrote about a woman who was going through hard times who would rather take out a loan than accept monetary gifts from family. One of the many things that happened to this poor lady was that she had a severe illness and lost a lot of weight, because of that and her position at her company, she had to purchase a new wardrobe. That combined with other problems had depleted her emergency savings. Here's the thing I keep thinking about - I can understand not wanting to take those financial gifts, I really can. However, I would have been tempted to ask my family for gifts of clothing as an early Christmas or birthday present. Maybe ask a parent to buy me a new suit or two or even send a gift card - as a present. That way they get to help you but you don't have all the guilt. Recently I did that.

My hair was getting ridiculously long and I knew I needed it trimmed, but hair care is not in the budget right now. So, I asked my sister for a gift certificate to see her friend the hairstylist for my birthday. It turned out to be the perfect gift! My hair looks fabulous (my mother says this is her favorite cut and color ever), my sister's friend got some business, and my sister got to give me a gift that I really needed.

I don't know... I don't want to be a sponge off my friends and family, but at the same time, it seems insulting for me not to accept their help. I was willing to help them when they needed it (and still will if it is within my powers) so to say that I am too good too accept their help seems pretty rotten, frankly. I guess what it is all about is figuring out what you can live with and accept that fits your own personal morals.

Beautiful photo by: autumn_leaf

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Compact Flourescent Light Bulbs (CFLs) from Meijer

So, recently I wrote about hearing on NPR that certain stores in Michigan were going to be offering CFL bulbs at a discount due to an energy initiative sponsored by the state. A friend of mine had told me about having problems with quality when it came to the Meijer brand bulbs so I was wary of trying them out - especially since I just had another recently purchased CFL go. However, last week I received a coupon for Meijer for $1.00 off my next purchase, and I didn't see anything on it about an exclusion so, I thought I would combine it with the sale price and score some CFLs cheap!

If you've been following along in my blog, one of my goals each month is to change over as many fixtures as I can to CFLs. The trick is, I don't like the color or quality of the CFL light. I love the way an incandescent bulb looks - and suspect that I always will. However, I have had too much success with dropping my energy bills not to want to keep going!

They had 6 packs of CFLs for $5.99. With my $1.00 coupon, I paid $.83 for each. That is a bargain since frequently I see bulbs running $2 - $3 a piece! Tonight I'll see how many I can install. As always, I'll be sure and let you know what I think of them.

One problem with this fabulous plan is that many of my fixtures are on dimmers and for right now CFLs will not work properly on dimmers. It is really annoying! However, I am planning on replacing not only some bulbs at the homestead but also taking some up with me when I head up north. I have several lamps that could use these types of bulbs - in fact, most of them could. I don't think I have one dimmer up north!

Unfortunately my little bargain will come in too late this month to make a big difference on my bill. It's a shame, but so be it. I know it can only help for November!

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Target Coupons! The Power of Coupons Returns

Do you know what I hate buying? Laundry soap and toilet paper. Okay, you have to have them. While it is true, you can make your own laundry soap and umm... dig an outhouse and use pages from the Sears Roebuck to wipe your bum, the truth of the matter is that these are fairly standard household items. I've managed to cut down my use of paper towels by using kitchen rags, eliminated paper napkins by picking up some cool cloth ones at antique and thrift shops, cut down my use of store bought cleaners by embracing the mighty powers of baking soda for scrubbing and vinegar for general disinfecting, but TP and laundry detergent still end up on my grocery list occasionally.

You know why I hate them? They are such big purchases - relatively speaking. My grocery budget for the month is only $125, so when you throw in those guys, that's a pretty big chunk out of my budget. The worst part is, it doesn't even go into anything fun - like food. I love being creative in the grocery store with my budget and seeing just how much great stuff I can squeak out of my plan - it's like a game. And these two are the ghosts to my pacman.

So, naturally, I am running low on both... at the same time.

It hurts just a little bit more because my sister loaded me up with laundry soap awhile back so I have been stocked! But all good things must come to an end, and so, I must shop -

Fortunately a friend gave me a partially used Target gift card. He had a return, didn't have the receipt, and got store credit. Since it isn't a place he shops, he gave what he didn't need to me. I have somewhere in the neighborhood of $17. (I did offer to buy it off him, or even give him some cash and get it at a reduced rate if he wanted to be charitable - nope. He just gave me the whole thing. Didn't I tell you I have the most amazing friends??) Despite, or perhaps because of, my last experience with coupons at the oil change I decided to see just how far I can stretch the gift card. Much to my surprise, has coupons for both laundry soap and TP. (And only those two items - now what was the likelihood of that?!?*) I am also looking to download a few other coupons so I have some alternatives when I go and can really get the best deal.

Speaking of ordinary expenses that I hate paying for, Passive Family Income has done quite well working the deals at CVS. I haven't been a CVS shopper in the past, but I just applied for their card, so we'll see how that all works out. My coupon prowess took a blow yesterday - time to get it back!

*This is not a sponsored post - when I did Google searches for coupons Target showed up both times. Who would have thought?

Photo by: julep67

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Getting Ripped Off at the Oil Change - When Coupons Don't Pay

I am a devoted lover of coupons. I come from good Michigan Dutch stock, and we are firm believers in the power of the coupon. I have taken my share of ribbing about it over the years, but rarely has anyone complained when I saved them the cost of a meal with my BOGO coupon prowess. However, there is one time when coupons don't pay... when you don't know the original price to begin with.

My car was needing an oil change, so I was rather pleased to see a coupon on the back of one of my grocery receipts for a local oil change place. Normally I go to the dealership. They treat me well, I don't need and appointment and they are usually done in 20 minutes or so. The other thing is, I have a kind of quirky car - a Honda Civic SI. Now, Honda Civics are a dime a dozen, but the SI is a stranger beastie. In the four years I have had it, I have seen fewer on the roads than I can count on two hands. They just aren't well known here, and the fact they only come in manual transmission doesn't help their popularity, despite the fact that most "car guys" love 'em. Anyway, because of this quirkiness I have had oil change places fill the tires to the incorrect pressure and things like that, so I usually rely on the dealership. I decided this time, however, that I would head to this coupon giving company - they are well known, always seem to have a lot of traffic, located close to work, and let us not forget, and I had a coupon for $5.00 off. Why not give them a try?

Yeah, big mistake.

My normal oil change runs me about $26. This one was $49.99. Yikes! My little $5.00 coupon didn't make much of a dent in that!

It is my fault really, I should have asked about the cost of the oil change before they did the work rather than assume that it would be "around $30." In fact, the change was $35.99 - but that doesn't include the $14.00 they charged me for oil! Now, I will say that they also changed out a small bulb that was dead in one of my side lights for $8.99. That was rather nice and I didn't find that too high at all - though I probably could have done the work myself for $1.25. Still, I had a bit of a heart attack when they read me the total - $56.04... with coupon.

I told the guy straight out that I thought they were way too high and from now on I will be bringing my business back to the dealership. He tried to change my mind saying the dealership won't check everything (I don't know about that, they seem to keep me pretty informed. The last time I was in they said I should keep an eye on my brakes, though they didn't need changing yet,) he tried telling me I had to make an appointment or drop my car off ("Not true!" says I,) and he tried telling me that they take forever if I do drop it off (I told him that not only was it not that long of a wait - they even have warm chocolate chip cookies. No lie.)

The only good thing about the whole deal was I got a "free" car wash. Which was nice... though frankly I would rather save the cash and have my slightly grimy car.

As I say - it isn't their fault, it is mine. I should have asked before okaying the work. I made an assumption and it came back to bite me. I will remember that in the future... and take my buggy back to the dealership next time.

Photo of the oil change by: Kambiz Kamrani

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Accepting GIfts of Charity

MasterYourCard had a great post on Friday on Gifts vs. Charity: The Fine Line. Boy, do I understand where the woman in her article is coming from! Financially hurt by divorce and dealing with life's emergencies - and not wanting to borrow from mom. Both my mother and my sister have offered me financial assistance if I should need it. I haven't taken it, and I hope I never have to. Part of it, of course, is the unwillingness to take charity, but the other part is simply that I see them as my safety net.

As I have talked about in this blog before, when I realized the situation I was in, one of the first things I did was sit down and make a big list of things I could do to raise money. Then I went through that list and ranked them from easiest "no-brainers" to "ugh! I don't wanna." Borrowing from mom and sis is definitely on the "ugh! I don't wanna" list. But here's the thing, I always know I can, and that's important. It means that if all else fails, no matter what, I always have a fallback plan. I can't tell you how much that helps - just that knowledge alone helps me sleep better. And even though "I don't wanna" you can bet if the times comes, I will.

You know, in the past four months or so I've been on this journey, I have changed my mind about a lot of charity. There was a time when I wouldn't take anything, even advice, from anyone. I've gotten over that. My friends and family have been so unbelievably generous in so, so many ways.

Even people I wouldn't expect have helped me - friends' parents and family I haven't talked in years. It isn't so much money, but other things - I've talked here about free plants, food and other things I've been given. Others have offered me items to sell on eBay, Amazon and Half. Here's a fun example - my aunt was at a dollar store and found padded envelopes, the nice big ones I use for shipping books - at 6 for $1. She bought $42 worth! Which turned out to be four huge garbage bag sized bags full of envelopes! I can just imagine her trying to get them in the back of her car. How wonderful is that?

On top of all that, I have also been sent cards and emails, and gotten phone calls of support. People send me articles they have read that might help me, other friends have taken me out or invite me to their homes for wine and conversation. Every friend I have has helped me in one way or another, and you know what? I don't feel bad about accepting their charity - not at all. Instead I feel like one of the most loved people on planet earth. I thank the stars every day that I am so fortunate to have such good people in my life.

Read More:

My How to Save and Earn More Money List

8 Tips to Help You Fight Foreclosure (where I talk about how I made my list.)

Sometimes You Just Have to Say "Yes."

Frugal Landscaping - Free Plants!

This incredibly appropriate photo is by: Marquette La

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Tackling Things You Hate

One of the hard things about being divorced is tackling problems that were always something that were part of the spouse's expertise. It isn't really that the job itself is that hard or complicated (if my ex can do something, I can do it) but it is the sheer lack of knowledge that makes it daunting. Not knowing how to do something or having any sort of experience with it makes me freeze up sometimes. Occasionally I just feel so frustrated because I don't know what to do - and on top of that it makes me mad because it brings up thoughts of my divorce, something I don't like to spend any time thinking about. Usually it is just a matter of accepting that if something is going to get done, I need to do it - and almost inevitably the job is far, far easier than I would have guessed.

Here's an easy example - I wanted to change the furnace filter. I had no idea when the last time it was changed and wanted to get on a regular fall-winter schedule for it. I had a new one downstairs, but I had never dealt with the furnace before. It just hadn't been my job - and remember, before this I lived in apartments where it was also not my job. So, I put it off and put it off. I knew it couldn't be hard, but I just didn't know where to start. Then one day a friend of mine was coming over later, and I thought "Okay, I will check it out myself. If I can't get it, I will ask for help." So I went down there and looked.... and realized that changing the filter was about as hard as taking a book off a shelf and putting another one in its place. All that procrastination - for nothing!

Here's another one: in July I received a letter from the City Offices that there was a problem with the deed on my home. When my ex and I were officially divorced, he signed a quit claim deed, assigning all the property over to me. When it was filed, it kicked up an ongoing problem we had been having since shortly after we bought the house. To be perfectly honest I don't understand the problem at all, every time someone tries to explain it to me they start using legal jargon and lose me. From what I can gather there is a "cloudy title" and the property descriptions don't match. My ex had been the one dealing with this while we were still married. I know it came up once or twice and he thought he had it handled - apparently not.

I got a very official looking letter, once again containing a lot of jargon I am unfamiliar with, letting me know I had 30 days to do... something. Again, what I was supposed to do wasn't exactly clear. So, I cut through the chase and just called them. I talked to an incredibly helpful woman who began to work with me, but then wisely decided to put me through to the actual person in her office working on this issue.That person's name was Amy. Small, small world, after she and I started talking it turned out that Amy had been formerly employed at the place I work and we've known each other for years. We aren't friends or anything, but we certainly enjoyed working together. Amy turned out to be a big help and she directed to me to work with my Title company to get this fixed... my Title company that just happened to be out of business.

Fortunately, they were bought out and the new company had the old records. For the last four months I have been working with them to try to get this fixed. My contact there has been helpful and cheerful, but I am "low man" on her priority list. I have a feeling I was forgotten about and filed to the bottom of the to-do list over and over again. I persevered, however. One of the things that really helped me was the fact I am now using* Every few days I would see a note on my to-do list to call and follow up. Eventually she must have gotten sick of my calls and voice mails and decided to move me to the top of her list. (Just as well, I had no intentions of giving up.)

She called me on Friday, said she spoke with Amy and the quickest and easiest way to deal with the problem would be if she had the original warranty deed. I faxed her a copy this morning to verify I had the right document, then put it in the mail today. Hopefully I can get this straightened out so it doesn't happen again - say when I go to sell the house.

Again, this wasn't hard to do. It had much more to do with being persistent and not giving up. I've been like a bulldog with this. I still don't know why the problem exists, but I have the names and numbers of the people that do and I plan on working with them until this whole thing is set right.

For me, the best way to handle these problems that come up is to give myself a small starting to-do and stick with it. I try not to do the whole thing at once, no "Fix the problem with your title" to-dos, that is far too intimidating! Instead I try to break it into smaller pieces - just go look at the furnace, make one call to the City - that kind of thing. Then I don't let up. I keep assigning myself small manageable tasks until the thing is completed. Just because I sent off the deed to the Title company, I am not done yet. I have a to-do set for next week to make sure it was received and get an estimated time for a solution.

The good thing about all of this is that I am constantly learning. Never again will changing the filter be an issue. If I have to call the City again, I know where to call. Each step that I do makes me a little more wise and little stronger. I'm a better person for it.

(Although I still wish someone else would snow blow the driveway this winter!!)

Beautiful photo by: Madasor

*This is not a sponsored post. I just like the website.

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Sometimes Being Frugal Means Saying No

The last week I have been thinking about my online classes at the community college. Registration is open for next semester, and if I want to take a class I need to do it soon. I would like to, but... I just can't afford it right now.

The fact of the matter is, not making my $900 goal the last couple of months has put some strain on my bank account. It was expected, but nonetheless, it hurts a bit. Tuition for another class would be about $350 or so, and I just don't think it is money I can afford to spend right now. However on the bright side, my meeting at the Torch Club really fired me up more than ever about my chosen career. I met so many great people there. So... instead of formal classes, I think this winter I will concentrate on building those relationships and perhaps working on an archival project for myself - and doing some self education in the process. When I was at the meeting I talked with someone about doing an archival essay project about a famous city landmark. She was incredibly encouraging (and anyone can do these) so it would be a perfect project for me and at the same time will be yet another step in building that application resume' for when I am ready to tackle that Masters.

This doesn't mean I am giving up on school all together, however. I will reevaluate in the summer and see where I am then. If community college classes seem more feasible then I will sign up. If not, I'll put it off until next fall. Either way, I am confident this is the best decision for me at this time.

There was another opportunity that came up recently that I also had to turn down. I am on a nonprofit board and I was asked if I would be open to picking up a couple new responsibilities. It wasn't an official offer - more of a inquiry if it would be something I would be open to. I should say that this is all volunteer work, but it is for an organization that I love and support. I would love to help out any way I could, but... this time I had to say no. I am so, so busy right now just trying to keep afloat. I realized that I needed to be frugal with not only my money, but also my time. Part of the mission of this blog was to "keep from going insane" and to do that I need time. I need time to work on getting that $900 and I need time to myself to regroup and focus my energy. I knew turning them down was the right thing, not only for myself - but for them, for the same reason I don't want to tackle my master's degree right now - because I wouldn't be able to give it the full attention it deserves.

We'll see where I am in a few years...

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Getting Rid of My Asurion Cell Phone Warranty Through TMobile

I was looking at my cell phone bill when I noticed something a little odd - instead of the $3.99 extended warranty charge I expected, there were two charges, one for $2.13 and one for $2.80, for a total of $4.98. That just didn't make sense, so I called customer service.

After a lot of going round and round and the customer service person having to do a lot of checking since he wasn't quite sure what was going on either, it turns out that Asurion had recently had a price increase for some parts of the country. Apparently here in Michigan we destroy a lot of cell phones because it went from $3.99 to $5.99. This change happened in the middle of my billing cycle, hence the two charges.

Now, normally I am not a big fan of extended warranties, but I did the math - $3.99 a month would run me $47.88. My cell phone is more than that and currently my only phone - I gave up my land line. It still probably wasn't my wisest choice, but I was feeling a bit nervous and they got me - score one for them. Anyway, $5.99 is not such an easy pill to swallow. Now we are looking at $71.88 a year. Are you kidding me? You don't think I could replace a cell phone for less than that???

I'm sure they made the change thinking that few people would even notice - I mean what is another $2.00 on their bill, right? And hey - prices go up all the time! But I have to be honest, I hate that kind of thing. I don't often get angry, but this just gets under my skin. While I remained polite to the young man helping me, I was very firm - remove the warranty - NOW. He agreed to do so, so we will see what will happen on my next bill.

I used to work in the insurance biz and while I am not an accountant I understand how it all works. It makes sense to have insurance if you cannot cover the cost yourself. Take life insurance, car or health - no one wants to write those kinds of checks if something happens. To me extended warranties usually are a scam, but occasionally they do make sense. I currently have one on my furnace and hot water heater because as a landlord, I cannot afford to have those go out.

I'll be sure and report next month whether the warranty was actually removed. I don't have a whole lot of faith, to be honest. Maybe I am just jaded because my experience with customer service folks over the phone has been a bit shoddy over the years - however, I have to say that TMobile has always been good to me in the past so I really hope this will be another example of why they were the right company to choose.

Now... just watch my cell phone break tonight....

Poor broken phone photo (Bet he wished he had a warranty) by: shazam791

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

nVision CFLS - Quality Issues?

I have been trying various types of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) to see how I like them, how well they work, and whether they will effect my budget. Overall I have really liked the effect they have had on my bottom line, but I am certainly not happy with the nVision bulb I installed in my kitchen! I put it in August and already it is burned out!

This is not an oddball fixture - it is the hanging light I have over my kitchen sink, and it takes a standard bulb. I have been using it quite a bit lately, since I've been trying to cut down on the amount of electricity that is used by my other can-style kitchen lights. It always gets at least 15 minutes or longer to warm up, so it isn't like that is the problem.

Well, so much for lasting 3-5 years! I guess I am just going to assume that this was a defective bulb and replace it. I haven't been happy with the nVisions anyway, so it will definitely be with a different brand.

For now I am going to carefully pack it away in a small box that I will keep with my other light bulbs near the basement stairs. These bulbs require special recycling, so I will wait until I have a few to deal with. I figure as long as I keep them safe from breakage, I can store up a few before I have to get them to the recycling center.

Fortunately, I just got a coupon for Lowe's and I hear that Menard's has cfls on sale as part of a energy initiative for Michigan, so I have some options on getting a new one. I will replace this bulb and there are a couple of other ones I would like to change the incandescent out on. I am still struggling with the quality of the light, so I am now just trying to make sure that I have one cfl light fixture in each room as a supplement to my incandescents.

More Reading About My CFL Journey:

CFLs Making a Huge Difference in My Electric Bill

Systematically Replacing Light Bulbs with CFLs

Comparing CFL Light Bulbs to Incandescent Bulbs

Photo by another cfl installer: Not Quite a Photographr

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While I am Wating to Have Money for my Masters Degree, pt. 2

I've written about this before, but one of my long term goals (3-5 years) is to go back to school for my masters degree. This isn't something I can tackle right now, however. Financially it would be difficult, but really a bigger barrier is that the school I would like to attend is a couple hours away. If I had the money I could perhaps commute, (I even have a friend nearby that would let me crash there if I needed to,) but honestly, I have enough going on right now in my life that I don't have the energy or time to tackle my masters too! When I begin working on my masters I want to be ready - I want to have my life running a little more automatic so I can really devote myself to it. It needs to be to be my main focus - not an afterthought.

So, what to do with myself in the 3 or so years between now and then? How can I use this time wisely - besides trying to build my passive and non passive income streams to a level where things take care of themselves? Well, one of the things I am doing is taking an online class at my local community college. It isn't for credit towards the masters obviously, it is more towards my own education - it fills in one little piece of the gap between my present degree and the field that I want to enter. (And it is a mighty big gap.) The class has also been good at getting me in that "back in school" mode. You know how people will tell you to constantly be looking at your resume' and how can you build it, even in your present job? Well, I am kind of doing the same thing with an eye towards my application to college for my masters. I want to put together a "resume'" that will show any application board why they should accept me, with a bachelors in marketing and little practical experience in their field, to their school of library science.

To this end, Tuesday night I did the coolest thing ever.

I'm not sure how I got on the Torch Club's email list. It might have been back when I was attending Chamber of Commerce luncheons for my office. Maybe I threw in a business card to win a raffle - who knows? In any case, I have been receiving their monthly emails for a long, long time. Somewhere along the line I sort of stopped paying attention to the emails and deleted them pretty much out of hand, but it just happened to be that I read the one that came last month. It announced the lecture they would be having, "Creating a Virtual Archive." Well, how could I resist that? I want to be an archivist! So right then and there I emailed them back and asked to attend.

I didn't know anything about the Torch Club when I asked to go to their dinner. Apparently they have been active in my community for over 80 years. They are a very old, national organization of professionals that gather each month to hear a member talk about some particular topic. It is just my luck that there happens to be an archivist in the group. Actually... it is more than that. I met librarians and archivists and college professors. There were only 30 people or so there, but almost everyone I met was working in some field that related to the one I wish to enter. On top of it all, they were all so friendly and welcoming. Everyone was just fantastic. I made some wonderful connections with people - the kinds of connections that I think will really help me on my journey. By the time I had left I had a business card of a college professor that asked me to contact her when I go back to school if I am needing an internship and a line on doing an archival project for the city. This would be the kind of thing I could work on for my own pleasure, but also show to that college application board I mentioned! It was an amazing night - by the time I got home, I was flying high with excitement!

The dinner cost $27 - but it included parking and a fantastic meal at an exclusive club. Those two things alone would have made the evening worthwhile, but the people I met and the things I learned made it priceless!

See also:

While I am Waiting to Have Money for my Masters Degree, pt 1

Remarkable photo of New College, Edinburgh by: Hettie McFarlane

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My First Financial Nightmare - Having Bad Dreams About Money

The other night I had my first nightmare about my finances. I had this bad dream that I wasn't able to make my house payment. Ultimately, I ended up scraping together the money but sending it in late. In my dream, I called up the bank to explain. They said they received the payment, but since I now had a late payment on my record, I would not be able to use my checking account again for six weeks! I suddenly saw late payments piling up from all my bills because I wouldn't be allowed to use my checking account! I went into a panic.

The dream went on from there but I won't torture you with it since there are few things more boring than hearing about other people's dreams.

The odd thing about this dream was that it came at a strange time. I actually had a very good weekend - both financially and emotionally. I went up to the cottage where fall colors were in their prime. It was just beautiful. I spent my weekend alternating between kicking back and relaxing and working on landscaping projects - getting many of those free plants in the ground. I couldn't have asked for a better weekend.

Then when I came back, I had over $100 waiting for me!

As I mentioned I rented out my house to a friend of mine for a party she was throwing Friday night, so part of the money came from that. When I came home, the house was spotless and there was a nice note on the counter, some delicious leftovers in the refrigerator, and the rental fee. My house made me money while I was off relaxing in the woods!

Then, sitting in the mailbox was check from my GYN. It was a refund check for the doctor's visit fee. My copay on my old insurance was $30 for a doctor's visit, $45 for a specialist. They considered GYN appointments a specialist, though frankly I find that a bit silly. Nonetheless I got in the habit of giving them $45. Well, on my last visit they asked for $45 and I handed it over without thinking about it, but it turns out that my new insurance considers GYN appointments regular doctor visits (which is how it should be) so my doctor sent me back $15. It was completely unexpected! I love when that happens.

Finally, I checked my email when I got back and I had sold 2 books, 1 dvd and 1 cd! So, all in all it was great weekend. It makes me wonder about why then I am having bad dreams.

My best guess is that my brain is a bit overloaded with all the bad financial news out there. In fact, just recently I was talking to another financial blogger about how I have to cut down on my NPR listening. When we have these big crises I can only listen to so much - it happened during 9/11 and Katrina too. My brain just gets a bit fried listening to all the horrible things out there. I still want to be informed, but I am reminding myself to switch it over to the classical music station on a regular basis too.

Are You Having Bad Dreams Too?

The Simple Dollar - Ten steps for remaining calm in a financially turbulent time.

eHow - How to get rid of bad dreams.

wikihow - How to get rid of bad dreams.

EvenHappier - How to get rid of your bad dreams

Creepy alien nightmare photo by: Hsin Ho

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Monday, October 13, 2008

How to Budget Mystery Shopping Income

I have two mystery shopping assignments this month. One, that I completed on Friday, was for a visit to a bar. I will be reimbursed $15 for the appetizer and two drinks my companion and I had and paid $10. The other one that I have next week will reimburse me for lunch only.

One of the things that I am trying to work out in my budget is how to account for this kind of work. My budget goes month to month from the 1st to the 30th. I get paid from those jobs on the 15th of the following month. This means it doesn't neatly fit into my budget line items, I don't have a "money owed" column. What I have decided to do for the time being is just treat the initial Mystery Shopping costs (the food at the restaurants) as part of my dining out budget. So far on all my mystery shopping trips I have brought a friend who has helped me gather all the information, time servers and get employee's names, but who I also got to spend some time hanging out with. So even though we are working, there is a fair amount of social time. When the check/reimbursement comes in, I'll add those to my budget like income. I can't really think of a better way to do it, can you?

My trip this weekend was pretty fun and I thought the establishment overall did a good job on service. I did have one complaint though, I didn't think the food was very good. This was standard bar, I wasn't expecting haute cuisine, but I was expecting my burgers to taste, well, like a burger.

Here's something I noticed - no matter how good service is, if the food is lousy I am not tempted to return. However, if the food is exceptional, I will put up with a lot of bad service before complaining. For example, this was a standard every day American bar - good waitstaff, clean restaurant, fast and helpful. As far as atmosphere and service I was exceptionally pleased. The burger though - it was so unimpressive. It wasn't like there was anything horribly wrong with it, it was hot and cooked through, but my companion and I both agreed that the buns were stale, the meat was exceptionally dry and the bacon was a cross between cardboard and shoe leather. Everything looked good on the plate - but were lacking in flavor.

Contrast that with a restaurant this same companion and I went to for my birthday - a little Indian restaurant on the other side of the state. The food was amazing - it absolutely blew me away. The minute we got there the the host sat us on benches surrounded by huge invasive fake ficus plants - you couldn't turn your head without a plastic branch getting in your eye. We waited there forever for a table. Then when we were finally seated our server was very inattentive. It was pretty spicy food and we had a hard time getting our water glasses refilled. The place was moderately clean, but not exceptionally so. Much of the decor was faded or a bit old, yet the food was so unbelievably good that I would go back there in a heartbeat - I'm even willing to risk an eye to the fake plants!

In my humble opinion, if you are going to have a restaurant and you have to choose between the quality of your service or the food - make the food stand out.

... your best bet though is to have excellence in both!

Love Mysteries? Here's more:

Mystery Shopping as NonPassive Income

Mystery Shopping Feedback

My Experiences Being a Mystery Shopper, pt 2

This fabulous photo of a mystery pumpkin shopper by: doeth

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Frugal Landscaping - Free Plants!!

Now is the time of year to be checking out the landscaping stores for bargains on perennials and landscaping shrubbery. Yes, the plants look a bit stringy and pot bound, and if you live in the cold northern climes like I do, there is a chance of frost, however, plants put in in the fall frequently do well. They aren't struggling with mid-summer hot sun and dry soil and they still have some time to stretch out their roots before winter hits. It is a bit of a crap shoot, but your investment doesn't have to be much because everything is marked down so much! I was recently bemoaning to a friend the fact that I can't take as much advantage of it as I would like because I don't have much disposable cash, when to my shock the next time I saw him he came bearing gifts - damp, muddy, green gifts that he had bought for $1.99 at Home Depot. Yay! I am bringing several up with me to the cottage this weekend.

The other plants that I am bringing up cost even less - they were completely free! One of my girlfriends works in the trade show industry. If you've ever been a part of a trade show you know how much stuff gets thrown out after the event, simply because it is too expensive to ship. She hates to see any plant mistreated so she rescues them. She has given me grapevines, a lace leaf maple and a magnolia bush. The bush is actually staying at my house, the others went up north.

But wait! There's more...

Someone else I know works in the film and video field. Much like trade shows, tons of things get thrown out when the filming is done. I have gotten a beautiful dogwood tree and I have currently nine big arborvitaes standing like sententials around my birdbath. The only problem with these plants is that they have been a bit abused. The arborvitaes had their tops trimmed off, so they might grow oddly. The dogwood was so dry it was almost dead, the magnolia was half dead. I love bring plants back to life though, so the challenges don't scare me.

Other free plants I have gotten are: pachysandra and ivy from my aunt who had far too much. Sedium and black eyed susans from another aunt. More day lilies than you can shake a stick at from Catie. Peonies from my mother. Bulbs by the bag full from a friend who works at the botanical gardens. (When they change their displays, frequently they throw out the old bulbs.) Coral bells from one friend's mom, Moon lily seeds (which I am going to plant this spring) from another friend's mom.

I love free landscaping! It makes your home look better, increases your property value and frequently keeps plants out of the dumpster. How can you go wrong? If you are looking to add plants to your home, talk to any gardener friend you know. Offer to bring a shovel and buckets and do the digging yourself - they are almost sure to have a few hostas that need splitting.

Pretty photo of a garden from: Allie's.Dad

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Mostly Passive Income - Two New Ways

Back in August I wrote about sending in my cell phone to This is a nifty little site - especially for those of us who are trying to be as environmentally conscious as we can. They will recycle old cell phones, electronics, computers, etc. - and send you money for them! Not everything qualifies and some things pay a lot more than others. You can go to the website, plug in what you have and they will let you know how much they will pay you for it. I had an old cellphone laying around that wasn't doing me any good, so I took a look at the site. They would send me $8 for it - not much, but it was pretty battered and I am 99% sure I got it on one of those free rebate deals the cell phone companies give you when you sign a 2 year contract. Anyway, another nice feature is that the shipping is free - they give you a label you can print from your computer. Slap that on your own packaging and off it goes.

Yesterday I got a Visa check card for $8. I added the money into my sidebar on the right since I will use it towards something that is already on my budget.

The other interesting check I am getting? Tonight I am renting out my house.

A friend of mine is throwing a bachlorette party tonight. She contacted me because she is in need of a place where she can have the girls gather and park their cars that is close to downtown. She wanted somewhere where they could start the night off, then get a taxi-van and hit the downtown bars, then return for some cake and so forth. Her house has some of the worst parking ever, and she has cats and she doesn't know who might be allergic. My place has pretty good street parking and no felines, so she asked if she could rent it for the night. I'm going to be heading up north today, so it should all work out perfectly.

Yes, it is a tiny bit odd to think of people throwing a party in my house while I am gone, but I'm not worried about it all. These are all swell folks and very considerate. Besides, one of the things my house is made for is entertaining people - it is good to see it going to use!

Both these items were "mostly" passive income because they did require a little work - packaging and mailing off my phone, doing some quick cleaning of counters and bathrooms. Still, I'd say combined I spent less than an hour and they will both definately help my bottomline!

Photo of old phones by: Vaguely Artistic

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Keeping All Your Receipts

You know that feeling when you get inspired by a great idea? It doesn't have to be a big idea, it can be a small idea or even something you used to do before, but forgot. Then someone says something about it and you think, "OOH! I need to do that too!"

Then you know that feeling when you don't take the time to do it or just plain forget... and it turns out you should have done it back when you had the chance?


So a few weeks ago Budgets are Sexy put up this post: Tip #318: Keep All Your Receipts for at Least Three Months. I read it and thought to myself - ooohhh, now that's a good idea! Way back when (okay, sometime before online banking) I used to keep all my receipts, by year, in shoe boxes. I'd take a box, write the year on it in Sharpie and keep it on the shelf in my closet. At the same time I'd shove all my receipts into an envelope by my desk where I paid bills. Each month when my bank statement was mailed to me* I would check off the receipts against the statement, then toss all the receipts in my yearly shoe box. It wasn't particularly neat, but it worked, and if I ever needed a receipt I could find it either in the desk envelope or the box.

Then online banking came around...

Once I was able to take the crumpled receipts out of my jeans pocket and almost instantly check them online, I started throwing them away. Later, as I became more environmentally conscious, they went in the shredder then to the recycle bin. Which frankly, makes it even harder to use them if you need to, which is why I thought Budgets are Sexy was right and needed to go back to a shoe box system.

Except.... I didn't.

And you know where this is heading, right? Yep. I need a receipt and don't have it. A week or so ago I bought a rake at Lowes. I used it once and right in the middle of the yard - snap! The handle broke in two! Its a good quality rake, but my guess is there was just a bit of dry rot in the wood and it couldn't the pressure. Now I am wishing I had started that shoe box system back in September.

I can take a hint though. Last night I got out my trusty Sharpie and a cardboard box and put it on the closet shelf.

More Organized Reading:

Thoughts About Trying the Envelope System

Organizing My Life, My Finances and My Basement

Organizational Tools to Keep Me Motivated

Rare photo of a shoe box without a cat in it by: massdistraction
(Seriously 90% of the other photos of shoe boxes had cats in them. What is it with cats and shoe boxes?)

*Remember back when physical paper was actually sent through the mail? Crazy!

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