Friday, November 28, 2008

Tips for Purchasing a Supplemental Heater

So, Tuesday night I went shopping for a heater for the tenant. I was trying to decide what would be the best solution for her problem. She tells me her apartment is about 65 degrees, but she would prefer it to be 70. So, what I needed to do was find something that would give her those extra few degrees and put it in her control.

I had originally planned on installing a baseboard unit, but you know, most of those have to be hard wired in and I am not exactly up to date on my electrician's license. I decided to see if there was an appropriate plug in unit instead. My friend Catie had spotted a number of different units at Menard's, so I went out to check them out. (In addition to plug in units they also had oil filled heaters, but do I want my tenant dealing with that? No, I do not - especially not in a house built in 1847.) So, there I was, standing staring at all the different plug in models, trying to determine what made one better from another. A yard or two down from me was a guy who looked like he was doing the same thing. In frustration I asked him, "So, how do you pick out a good supplemental heater, anyway? What is the difference between all of these?"

And he told me.

Apparently he had just been doing a whole lot of research online and this is what he learned:

- You want ceramic for safety, especially if there are children in the home. There aren't children in the home, but as a landlord I liked the idea of extra safety.

- Speaking of safety, having a feature that it automatically shuts off when tipped over is a very good thing. This was another thing that I liked as a landlord.

- Most of the high end heaters have two settings: 900 btu and 1500 btu, so they are all pretty much the same there.

- A timer is a nice feature, then you can set it to automatically go off a hour after you go to bed, for example.

- Another good feature is a thermostat on the heater so you can set it to whatever temperature you want.

- He recommended one with a fan, so it could be used for more than just a heater and be dual purpose.

- We talked "low profile" (baseboard style) vs "tower" heaters. He liked the tower heaters because they were designed to move from room to room better. The low profile heaters are more difficult to move. However, one of the tower ones that we looked at was distinctly tippy, so I looked instead for one with a solid base.

My choice? The Lasko 5511. It didn't have the fan or ionizing filter like the one he picked out for himself, but it had all the other features and was about $20 less. Not only did it have all these features - it even comes with a remote. Hopefully this will work well for the tenant and this heat issue will be resolved. it came to $53.

But I can't help wondering about that guy in Menards... perhaps a guardian angle disguise?

Yet another photo by: JudeanPeople'sFront. I'm really into this person's photos.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thinking About Tax Time... Already

Catie commented in yesterday's post on being a landlord, "...I think when tax time comes along you will be happy to see a lot of your investment coming back to you!" I hope she is right! As I said to her, I almost don't dare think about it. I certainly don't want to plan on some kind of windfall in April, just to be disappointed. Best to just keep plugging ahead and let the tax refund fall where it may.

However, write-offs are something I need to keep in mind. I've been busy saving all my receipts and statements since I realized that I should, but it is a strange process for me. In the past I always aimed at getting $0 at tax time - I didn't want to pay anything, and I certainly didn't want Uncle Sam holding onto my money for a year when I could be getting interest on it instead. I've never understood using your tax refund for a savings account - that's what online accounts are for!

It was easy for me to estimate my taxes back in the old days when I was single, had one job and lived in an apartment. Before there was online tax preparation, I would pick an evening and sit down with a cup of tea, my pencils and calculator and do them myself. But by the time I met my ex I was working two jobs (one of them 1099 income) and shortly thereafter I bought the cottage. So, I was living in one county, working in two others and owned property in a third. It got confusing. I then hired the same accountant he used to do my taxes to save me the trouble. Once we were married, that same accountant did our taxes every year thereafter, which brings me to today...

I was divorced midyear, in the first part of June so now I have that plus two houses (one of them rental income) plus at least two jobs that will be sending me W4s, college tuition expenses and so on... There is just way more than I want to tackle. Today I called up the accountant my ex and I had used and asked them to put me on their list for sending out their year end packets. (They have a nice series of forms that you go through and fill out to help them see what has been happening over the last year.) I explained to their receptionist my situation and she said she would make notes in the computer. I figure it will be easier for everyone involved (especially me) if I use the same accountant as my ex. I know this accountant will have our past returns on file so will already have all the information on the rental property, and having both my ex's and my financial information should make it easier to handle the divorce situation. I've met with this accountant before and he and his staff are really great so even if it wasn't for the fact my taxes are going to be a confusing snarl this year, I would still use him.

The receptionist congratulated me on getting on top of this so early - they don't even send out their packets until after the first of the year (which makes sense, you never know what might happen in December.) All I am trying to do is get my ducks in a row so I will be ready next year, but it felt good to get that one item crossed off my list. The call took less than a minute, but already I feel better about it.

Photo by: *Karen

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Why Being a Landlord isn't all it is Cracked Up to Be.

Do you remember about 4-5 years back when there was a lot of hype about becoming rich through being a landlord? There were a ton of books about it and everyone was getting into rental properties. That may be fine for some folks, but as far as I am concerned - it is a whole lot of work and certainly not the best source of income for everyone. Passive it ain't.

The concept sounds great - you buy a house, perhaps one with more than one unit in it, then rent them out. The tenants pay the rent which pays the mortgage and you get a piece of real estate for "free" - and maybe even make a little something off the top. Get that place paid off and it is nothing but sweet, sweet profit. It all sounds good, except like a lot of income earning ideas that sound really good, there is quite a bit more to the story.

One of the things the books didn't talk about is that as soon as you start renting you are dealing with people, and let's face it, people are quirky. There are things you can try to do to minimize the wackiness of your tenants (credit reports help), but you can't ever really know who you are going to get. I know a number of people who are landlords and every one of them has a few "wacky tenant" stories. Rent to college students? Think parties and property destruction. Rent to families? Think children and property destruction. And let's not even get into the danger of pets!

Then, even if you find a great tenant and get them to sign a lease, you never know when you are going to have to be putting out that old "For Rent" sign again. After all, leases can be broken... and if it takes a few months to find a good tenant, guess who has to come up with the rent? You. My house has a one bedroom apartment in it that I rent out. Since taking over the house, I am officially the landlord. (sigh)

I'm blessed, I don't have a wacky tenant. I have a nice gal who is quiet and pays her rent on time. She keeps her apartment immaculate and takes good care of my property. However, in the last five months it seems something is always going wrong:

1. There was her toilet. I ended up spending somewhere around $30 rebuilding it from the ground up so it would stop randomly flushing.

2. There was her freezer seal. I spent $90 replacing that baby. Cheaper than a new refrigerator, I'll grant you, but still fairly costly for a woman on a budget.

3. There has been her heat. She claims her apartment is constantly cold. I asked her to remove her window a/c unit (which she did) and gave her window seal kits to install (another $30.) All to no avail. So, tonight I am going out to Menards to pick up a supplemental heating unit, approximate cost $45.*

These are just the expenses of broken items, there are also other added expenses:

1. We are on the same water bill, so that is higher.

2. Same thing with natural gas, my furnace heats the whole house. (If you remember, she also complained that the a/c wasn't cold enough in her unit.) So, I keep the house warmer in the winter than I would if it were just me, and colder in the summer.

3. Trash. She uses my trash. Because of this, I have a larger cart than I would if it were just me.

4. Snow removal. Though she doesn't park in my driveway, I have to make sure that sidewalks and steps are clear and free of ice and snow. I would probably do this anyway, but I make doubly sure for her. I bought extra salt this year.

Now granted, I could be a "slum lord" and not worry about a lot of these things, but that just isn't my style. Plus, I've been a renter myself and I know what it means to have both good landlords and bad ones. The better landlord you are, the better tenants you get. Personally, I need to have good tenants since that income is very important to me. (It isn't even counted in the $900 I need each month. She pays $550, so I would then need $1,450. Yikes!) I also get to write off a portion of these expenses, which believe me, is important, but still, for now this is all out of pocket.

So what does this all mean? First of all, I would not recommend being a landlord unless you either 1) know how to repair things or 2) have the money to hire someone who does. Keep in mind, being a landlord means you are going to be doing maintenance not only on your own home but also the home of every person you rent to. Also, be sure you know what you are getting into. Talk to some people who are landlords, ask them about their success stories and their horror stories, find out what types of situations they have had to handle. Finally, remember that while there are some months where the income will come rolling in with no work on your part, there will be plenty more requiring a lot of effort and money. Try to be prepared for that.

If you do decide to do it - I wish you good luck and many happy tenants!

*Thanks to Catie who is doing her own home improvement projects and did some window shopping for me on heating units!!

Photo by: judeanpeoplesfront

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Real Estate and Real Answers

Have you all been to It is a site which can give you a rough estimate of your home's worth based on homes that are selling around it. It isn't terribly accurate for my situation, but it is incredibly interesting. The reason it doesn't work so well for me is that my home is being compared to homes that are selling for over $500,000 and ones that are selling for about $50,000. Obviously, I live in an area with wildly different types of homes.My neighborhood is on the edge of lower income homes, but also just a few blocks away from some of the more expensive homes in my city's limits. Plus, my area has many rentals which are kind of a whole different ballpark when it comes to valuing the property. Still, I like the site. I think it would be a lot more accurate for people with homes in fairly homogeneous areas, but in any case, it provides a lot of very interesting information. For example, according to Zillow, home values nationwide decreased 9.7%, but the percent in my home town was quite a bit less.

Recently Zillow had both bad and good news for me - my home value had a zestimate (Zillow+estimate) that put it way below what I paid for it. On the other hand, my cabin in the woods has gone up in their value - so it almost (but not quite) evens out. When I first saw their stats and that my home's zestimate was about $30K less that I had paid for it, I had a mini heart attack, but then I took a second look. The first thing I noticed is what I said, the comps are based almost entirely on location, not necessarily on homes that are the same square footage or have the same number of bedrooms. Then something else hit me - even if those numbers were perfectly accurate, it really doesn't matter because I'm not selling my home right now. It is kind of like what people were saying about 401K plans, unless you plan on retiring in the next 5 years, don't let those low numbers depress you - just solider on. Value is only important when you need to ask someone to give you money for it. So, like my 401K I will watch the Zillow numbers just to keep an eye on what is happening, but I have no plans to let it effect how I live.

In other news not at all related to my house, Frugal Chick tagged me to tell 6 interesting things about myself. So, here you go:

  1. I am an avid birdwatcher and try to landscape to make my yard a sanctuary for birds, but I hate sea gulls and Canadian geese with a passion.
  2. I have never broken a bone and up until a couple of years ago had never had a cavity.
  3. I love what I call "grandma blankets." Grandma blankets are those afghans that look like they were probably knitted or crocheted by little old ladies - they are usually a blend of inexpensive yarn in eye searing 1960's colors. (I have a fabulous one in 60s brown, cream, and harvest orange.) I have a modest collection of them that I have picked up at Salvation Armies and other thrift stores. They are my favorite thing for snuggling up in with a cup of tea and a good book (after they have been given a good wash, of course. Somehow they always seem to smell like "basement.")
  4. I love my Honda Civic SI, but I seriously miss driving a pickup truck. Especially in Michigan in the winter. I have driven three pickups plus a wide variety of other vehicles in my life. (My dad sold used cars.)
  5. One of my life goals is to learn a foreign language. Preferably Arabic.
  6. I am a hermit at heart and sometimes think I could go a long, long time without human interaction, but I am simultaneously blessed with some of the best friends and family a girl could want and I love spending time with them.
According to the game, I am supposed to tag six other bloggers to tell me six facts about them. Instead, I tag you next - tell me something interesting about you!

Photo by: A Shadow of my Future Self.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Home Improvement Projects with Friends

I spent this weekend helping my sister out with a bathroom remodel project. She and her husband had already bought and installed a new sink, faucet and vanity - the sink and faucet she got in the discount clearance room of a bathroom fixture supplier and the vanity she got at a great deal at Lowe's. She had a friend of theirs install it and it is gorgeous! She and I installed the vinyl flooring and painted walls, ceiling and wainscoting.

I'll give it to my sister - she has incredible taste. She found the sink that she loved and then built the rest of the bathroom around it, and so it should be, this was a gorgeous sink - a real centerpiece. The vanity, flooring and paint all went together beautifully and when we were done looked like a million bucks. I don't know how much she spent in totally, but to me it looked like a $5,000 remodel job. Seeing how all the labor was done by friends and family, I don't think she came anywhere near that!

She and I had a lot of fun together. It was great to spend time working together like that. I felt like we got the chance to hang out more and talk more than we do when we try to squeeze everything we've been doing in our lives in quick emails or over lunch hours. She felt the same way so, she and I have made a pact...

to help each other on various projects. I have carpet I want to rip out of a storage space, she has more rooms she wants to paint, we both have things we would like to do. We have decided to help each other out and whoever's project is being worked on provides the meals for lunches and snack breaks. I think it is going to work out great! Add that to the fact that my friends Catie and David have offered to help with projects on the same sort of deal - I have a whole crew I can call on!

I have a few things I want to work on too. I don't have a lot of money to spend of course, but I can do some of my projects a bit at a time. Take the attic storage space, I am hoping to pull up the carpet, clean out the area, pull down the border and spackle and paint the walls. That will require very little money, since I already have the spackle and the primer and the paint. These kinds of things will all help in the resale value when it is time to put the house back on the market.

I love the idea of bartering services - helping someone out and then, in return, them helping you. I think this is a great way to get things done, not just home improvement projects, but car repairs, snow removal, gardening... really any sort of skill or work can be traded. Not only do you get work done at a low cost, working with friends can be just plain fun!

Photo by: tienvijftien

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Makin' a List, Checking it Twice

So, how do you feel about Christmas lists? Are they helpful for shopping or a desperate beg for loot? Some people seem to like getting lists and others don't. I know some people who think wish lists are crass and buying gifts off them isn't very personal. On the other hand, I know some people who wouldn't leave the house to go shopping without one. I'm wondering about your opinion. What do you think?

Me, I like Christmas lists. I like getting some hints on what my family wants or needs. I often shop off the list, but it can serve as a jumping off point for when I am really stuck. Then again, I like how we do our lists. They tend to be fairly generic, which means the shopper still has a part in picking out the gift. For example, we'll ask for things like sweaters or earrings. So, I may get my mom a pair of earrings, but I get to pick out which ones, how much to spend, etc. Very rarely do we have really specific items, unless it is a CD, DVD or book. There are a few occasions where we pick out very specific items, but that tends to be a very small part of the wish list. Truthfully, I also like giving my family ideas. Almost always there are things I need that they wouldn't know about unless I told them, so it works out well.

You know what I don't like, though? Amazon wish lists - or any kind of incredibly specific gift list that has the brand, make, color, size and price all pre-determined of each and every gift. That doesn't feel like a list of shopping ideas to me - it's more like a bridal registry. I can understand how some people would love those though. Back in the days when I was in college I worked in the lingerie department of a large upscale department store. Every Christmas husbands and boyfriends would come in, looking a little confused and lost among the slips and racks of pantyhose. They would want help picking out nightgowns or robes, or worst yet, there were always a few men who wanted to buy bra and panty sets and had no idea what size their ladies were! "Ummm.... she's kind of that girl's size but a little smaller on top, and maybe a little bigger on bottom" were fairly common comments. Women, as you know, this is hardly a good method for accurate bra size! It got pretty silly and was a source of amusement to all of us salespeople, well it was right up until the day after Christmas and all the returns started piling in! I bet those guys would have loved a really detailed list!

This year I spent some time making the list I gave my family. I tried to make an even mix of things that I need and can't afford right now, and luxury items that I love, and can't afford right now. My family does Christmas pretty big - but that doesn't mean we aren't frugal. I bet there are very few cases of anything under the tree that was bought at full price! My mom, sister and I are all bargain hunters!

So what about you? How do you do your Christmas shopping?

Photo of his nephew and Santa by: Radio Rover

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Friends and Family

I need to start this post off my saying that I have the absolute best friends and family ever. Yesterday was absolutely amazing! Do you remember my recent post about grocery store shopping? I talked about how the two things I hate buying are toilet paper and laundry soap. (See, here's the thing - when your grocery budget is $125 a month, $6 for TP and another $8 for laundry soap really cuts into the budget!) Well... last night I pulled into the driveway and there on my porch was an industrial sized package of toilet paper and a mammoth jug of laundry soap!! Someone had come over to my house and left them for me!! No note, no card, so I don't know who they are from (though I have my suspicions.) Obviously they were from someone who reads my blog and was thinking of me. Whoever you are - thank you!!!! When I saw them sitting there by my backdoor I just started cracking up. It was the best!!

Though certainly the most dramatic and hilarious, it wasn't the only great thing that happened to me yesterday! First, I met my mom for lunch. After lunch she loaded down my car with items she had, along with some things from my sister, that can be put up on eBay. Also in the bag of eBay goodies was some candles (and I had just written about how I love candles here), a plate stand to display a special book of mine, and a ladle. Those last two items may seem particularly random, but they were things I had asked for for Christmas.*

But wait! There is more -

After work I went over to my friend Tracey's house. She and her guy moved into a new place not that long ago and bought some new furniture in the process. I've mentioned before that they have offered to let me sell their pieces on commission. Before I started posting them on Craig's List, I wanted to makes sure that I could easily get into the building and the storage area. It turned out to be no problem - but it never hurts to check this stuff out before you have a potential customer waiting, you know? Anyway, afterward Tracey invited me over for a glass of wine and that is when she told me yet another blog related story:

Tracey is a teacher in a health related field and her last class bought her a Starbucks set as a gift - coffeemaker, mugs, coffee, etc. Because it is in her office her other students tend to think she is a Starbucks junkie, which she isn't. Anyway.... so the other day her students were taking a test and Tracey was reading my blog waiting for them to finish. It happened to be the post on the peppermint mocha. You kind of see where this is going, right? So, she closes the blog window, gets up to do something, and when she returns there is a $5 Starbucks gift card on her desk. It turns out it was given to one of her students, who isn't a coffee fan, and who thought that Tracey loves Starbucks, gave it to her. Tracey then gave it to me! I'm going to save it for a cold snowy day when I am out Christmas shopping and want a holiday treat! I can't wait!

You know, here is the thing - when I got divorced I felt incredibly alone. The process of breaking up a marriage is so isolating. Even me, who likes being alone, felt separated; different, like I was apart from everyone I knew. Yet at the same time over the last few years of my life from marriage struggles, to separation, to divorce, to being on my own and trying to gain financial independence, I have felt the support and caring of my friends and family more than I ever have in my life. I have never felt so loved.
When I think about the people that are in my life now, I am so very fortunate and grateful.

You know that old saw your mother told you about how it isn't the gift, it is the thought that counts? It's true. If you had told me five years ago that the gift of toilet paper would bring tears to my eyes, that my family's extra "stuff" would give me security, or that a $5 gift card would make me feel special, I wouldn't have believed you.

Yet these are things I will never forget.

*Yes, I realize a ladle sounds like a lame Christmas gift, but my mom still does stockings, and one would fit perfectly in the leg! The same thing with the plate stand - I had asked for one as a stocking stuffer.

Photo by: Walsh

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

10 Cheap and Free Redecorating Tips for the Recently Divorced

This is a post I've been thinking about writing for awhile and something I am constantly working on in my life - a project in process. Most of you that read my blog know my story: while I was married my husband and I bought a big Victorian home in a neighborhood I had always wanted to live in. When the marriage went bad, I moved out to a tiny 400 sq. foot apartment. When the dust settled and the divorce was final I ended up with the "marital home" (as it says on the divorce paperwork.) It is trying to pay this mortgage on my own, (along with my other bills,) that inspired this blog, and as you all know, I am $900 greenbacks in the hole each month. Things have been going fairly well so far, with some ups and some downs, yet overall moving in the right direction. But there is one thing - I am still living in this house my ex and I bought.

It is hard after a divorce. So many objects inspire memories. I look at the plates I use and remember that they were wedding gifts, I look at the garden and think about what we always planned on doing with it, and so on. With time it has gotten easier though and as the months have passed and the hurt faded, I've gotten more comfortable with the house. I don't think about the bad stuff much anymore. One of the things that has helped me has been redecorating the rooms to fit my taste, but let's face it, I have no money to spend on "frivolous" things.*

So, here are some free or practically free tips for redecorating your home after the divorce:

1. Move some furniture pieces around to change the "attitude" of the room - This is all about changing the way a room feels. Every room has a flow - a way people walk through it and move through the space, after a divorce there are some rooms that you may want to change in order to give them a different feeling.

For example, the way my bedroom is designed with the location of the windows, closet doors and so forth, there is only one place you can put the bed; but as I was moving back in, the thought of putting my bed where the "marital bed" had been made me really uncomfortable. Beds are so hugely symbolic. Well, instead of putting my bed in the obvious place, I stuck it smack dab in the center of the room. Did it look a bit silly? You betcha! But it achieved the goal of changing the flow of the room. By putting the bed in the middle I wasn't thinking about my side/his side or laying there with bad memories running around in my head. The odd positioning completely changed the space and as a bonus it also hid the fact that I had practically no furniture in there! If you have a big meaningful piece like a bed, couch or dining room table, that has "always" been in the same space consider moving it around - even if it means putting it where you have no intention of keeping it. I had my bed in the center of the room for four months before I decided I had swept out the old vibes and could put it in the obvious place.

2. Remember lessons learned in college - get free furniture to fill gaps. Divorce usually means splitting up assets, so you may have some big holes where the pieces your ex took used to be. It may be tempting to run out to your local furniture-mart and "treat" yourself to a brand new leather couch or that glass dining room table you always wanted but your ex hated. Bad idea! Look, you probably didn't get some huge million dollar settlement, or you wouldn't be reading this blog - but even if you do have extra cash in the bank, now is a bad time to spend huge amounts of cash. Going through a divorce sucks and it is easy to want to spend money on yourself to make yourself feel better, but this is a huge life change. It will change who you are. What you need to do now is spend some time figuring out exactly who you want to become, what you want your life to be like post divorce. That faux leopard skin sectional couch might seem like a good idea now, but not in six months when you've decided get rid of all your possessions to follow your calling to the Peace Corps.

Which doesn't change the fact you don't have a place to sit anymore, so what I suggest is doing exactly what we did when we were in college, broke and needing furniture - get "hand me downs." Ask friends and relatives, search the thrift stores and garage sales. Or think about reusing what you already have with a slipcover. It doesn't have to be pretty, it just has to be functional. My mother had a friend who had an extra dining room table and chairs which she gave to me for free. I am not kidding when I say it is one of the ugliest sets of all time, but you know what? The table holds my plates and the chairs hold my tush. I am planning on buying a red tablecloth (after Christmas so I can score a deal) for the table and eventually replacing the chairs.... someday... maybe. Or I may just pass them on to someone else who needs them when the time comes.

3. Cleanse the house of your ex's stuff. I think my ex thought he took everything that was his, but he didn't - not completely. There are weird little things in the back of drawers and hidden on shelves that are his. It is up to you on what you want to do with it - box it up, give it back, burn it in a ritual fire, the important thing is removing things that you don't want to see anymore. Spend a couple hours, put on some great tunes (and maybe have a glass of wine) and grab some trash bags and go through your house from top to bottom. Open every cupboard, look in every closet. It isn't fun, but it will prevent surprises from "popping" up when you least expect it.

4. Candles make a room better. One way you can clear out the funk is with candles. Candles are an inexpensive redecorating fix and help cleanse the air. They also bring provide a peaceful light, and peace is something you might need right now. I love having a few candles lit at home.

5. Paint is your friend. One of the first things I am going to do when I have a little extra cash is paint the bedroom. Right when I moved in I went to Home Depot and got a whole bunch of color samples to hang on the wall. Paint is fairly cheap and nothing changes a room like new color. I have found that even the intention of painting helps - just knowing I am going to give it a whole new look is enough to keep me going. It may be a few months before I have the time and spare dollars to pick up paint and brushes, but the plan is enough to make things better. Another option is to keep an eagle eye on the mismatched paint colors. Frequently you can score paint super cheap that way if you aren't too particular about the color.

6. Re-purpose a room. Home selling tips often warn against this, so if you are looking to sell your home, you just might want to skip this one on by, however, if you are staying put for awhile think about changing the use of a room. Can your bedroom be made the den? Can the dining room be an office? If the house is big, maybe you can even close rooms off and not use them, or if you are like me and used to a tiny space, you might want to stretch out and use the whole thing. The point is make the house work for you and your new life.

7. Look for new wall art. You might have guessed I'm not talking about expensive art here, what I suggest is finding things to put up that make you happy. It doesn't have to cost much, frames are almost always on sale at craft stores, but even poster putty or thumbtacks work in a pinch. The goal is to look at something everyday that makes you smile.

When I first moved out it was really important to me to have photos of family and friends around me. I took a bunch of unframed photos and found some frames in various places (dollar stores, garage sales and my own attic) and these made up most of my living room decor. They meant a lot to me, but cost me very little to put up. There are other places for cheap art too - recently a friend of mine brought me a beautiful piece of paper from a nice paper store. Technically it is wrapping paper, but I like it so much I am going to frame it. Another great place for art? I found a photo I loved on iStockphoto and asked my sister for a print for my birthday. If you have kids or are an aunt, uncle or grandparent, ask them for artwork - they will be happy to oblige! Or make your own - unleash your own creativity with brushes and paint.

8. Add some greenery. Right after I moved into my house my mother gave me a pot of clearance petunias. I was glad she did - I planted them and loved the bit of color they added to my yard. Another friend of mine gave me a planter right after the divorce, and recently I divided it up and put the smaller plants in their own pots. Even if you don't have friends and moms to give you plants you can still get some greenery for cheap. Look around your office - does someone have a spider plant or a pothos they'd be willing to give you a cutting of? Know any amateur gardeners? Many have plants you can split, provided you bring your own shovel! Even a packet of seed costs only a few cents.

9. Scrub it down from top to bottom. One way to change the look of a room or a space is simply to clean it. I'm not talking about a swipe of the dust cloth and a vacuum, but I mean that old fashioned, white glove, grandmother approved top to bottom full on clean. Remove the dust, the hairs under the sink, the gunk on the tiles. Do it one room at a time if you need to - Rome wasn't built in a day after all, but work through and really make your place shine. Not only will this make you feel better, this is also a way to really see your house, maybe help you remember why you fell in love with it the first time. If you aren't living in the house from your marriage, but instead are in a rental, it still applies! Clean your apartment from ceiling to floor and it will feel a lot more like home.

10. Finally, wherever you are living, try to make friends with it. Wherever you are, it needs to me a safe and comforting place. The healing process after divorce is going to take awhile and you need to be somewhere you can do that in. Look around for things that trigger sad thoughts or bad memories and see how you can change them. It doesn't have to cost a fortune, just because you don't have a lot of money, doesn't mean you have to deprive yourself - it just means you have to get creative.

Photo by: jingye

*Truth is, I don't think redecorating is frivolous at all. In fact, I think it is a great way to get good use from your home and increase the property value. However... if you are worried about paying the gas bill, now is not the time to worry about new end tables.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Mystery Shopping and other Income Streams

Last night I went out Mystery Shopping. Or should I say, Mystery "Eating" since my job was to secret shop a restaurant. Mystery shopping is never going to be a huge income stream for me. Most shops pay $10 - $12, or like this one, just reimburse for dining. Still, this is the third one I have done this month and I really enjoy the work. Mystery shopping does take a bit of effort though - they have long, fairly extensive reports that need to be filled out. One company I work for lets you have 24 hours, but the other needs them done in 12. That pretty much means you have to turn around and head straight to your computer after shopping the store.

I noticed from my last couple of sets of instructions that they are really coming down hard on "fluffy" reports too - they don't want a bunch of generic comments. I can certainly understand that! Fortunately, as you all know, I enjoy writing so that is no problem for me - in fact, I find getting all the details "just right" rather fun! Is the money worth the work? Well, it is close. I would say it takes a good hour to do this correctly - figure half hour at the shop and at least another half hour or more writing up the report. That means the hourly wage is low, but on the other hand, I get to set my own schedule and fit these in either after work or on my lunch hour, so that makes it more worth while. I just wish I got to wear cool wigs like these ladies in the photos!

In other income stream news, I have been busily listing books on and Amazon. Last I checked I had over 300 items for sale on Amazon! I'm not quite done yet either. Can you believe it? Most of the items are from the huge book deal I made the garage sale, but others are from friends and family. The items include books, cds, dvds, and toys. I actually have a special place set up in my basement to handle all of it!

Sales have been a little quiet lately, but I did have one of my higher priced books go the other day, and truth be told, I would rather have one $14.00 sell then 10 $1.40 books. Not only is it a lot less work, but Amazon doesn't take quite as big of a chunk out of your sales. Again, holiday shopping will be happening soon so hopefully that will help with the sales.

Speaking of which, I kind of had a bad day today. Not a horrible one, but a few things happened that put me in the dumps - one of my sales went awry and I had a disagreement with someone I care about. In both cases I was able to solve things and put everything to rights, but it kind of spoiled my mood. So what did I do? I went shopping!

However, I did it smart. This is a far cry from my old "shop to cheer me up" habits of old and I have to say, I am really proud of myself on this. Instead of impulse shopping, I did a little pre-Christmas shopping and price comparison online. I spent a little time looking up certain gifts I have in mind for people and jotting down the prices as I found them on various websites. On one favorite discount outlet site I found a bunch of things I wanted for folks. Instead of putting them in my shopping cart, I bookmarked them, while at the same time jotting them down in my Christmas notebook. When I was done I looked the list over and found a few things that I didn't like as well on second thought, so I crossed those off. Then I added up the sum. I am going to still give it a couple of days to place my order, since I really want to be sure I'm happy with these items. In my less frugal days I would have just bought everything!

As I say, the other thing I did was do some heavy price comparisons. That was fun too - first figuring out what I want, then seeing how inexpensive I can find it online. I gave me all the pleasure of shopping - without spending one thin dime. Once again, I bookmarked all the sites and wrote what I needed down in my notebook, so next week (assuming I am not so emotionally fragile) I see if I still like my selections, and if so, purchase them then.

Basically what I was doing is the equivalent of the age old window shopping, except I always found window shopping really frustrating. If I am shopping, I want to buy something you know?!? This was different though - I wasn't walking around admiring beautiful clothing I can't afford to buy, I was researching purchases I actually plan on making. There is a big difference there. Instead of making myself feel deprived, I treated it more like a game: "Find the Best Deal." Also, it was important that I recognized that I was potentially in a place to do impulse shopping. I have fallen victim to emotional shopping before, but my more frugal self recognized the signs and found a way to indulge without hurting my pocketbook. I like that.

Photo by: Robbi Baba

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Christmas Budgeting - Getting Through the Holidays Without Overspending

Once upon a time (in what seems like) a land far, far away, I used to get regular profit sharing checks. Not only did I get regular profit sharing checks, I also got sweet Christmas bonuses. Ah, those were happy days! Anyway... there was only one problem with the Christmas bonuses - they were always paid out the same day we got profit sharing - the 15th of the month. This made Christmas shopping a bit tricky since I couldn't very well wait until 10 days before Christmas to start shopping! So what I would do every year was put everything on my credit card with the full intention of paying it off with my bonus check. Somehow it never worked out that way though. Sometimes I would get that lovely check (which was directly deposited into my checking account) and find myself spending it PLUS putting gifts on the old credit card. Other times I would slip on my budget and spend more than my bonus and not realize it until it was too late. The worst thing that I did though, was occasionally only pay off part of the credit card debt, because I wanted to keep part of the bonus as cash. All the way around, it was a dumb system.

One February a couple of years ago I was sitting head in hand, looking at my credit card statement and feeling rotten. That was when I decided it was time for me to make a change. I couldn't keep going on this way. My banking account lets you create as many little sub savings accounts as you want and you can create auto transfers to regularly divert money into them. That was the year I created my own "Christmas Club." It worked out great! Money went into the account all year long, a little at a time on a regular basis, and because it wasn't in my checking account, I pretty much forgot about it... until November when I had my Christmas money all set aside and ready to go! The plan worked so well, and was so easy, I decided to do it every year.

So, what about this year?

This year, I haven't changed a thing. Okay - I did change one thing, I moved my Christmas dough out of that non-interest earning savings account and into my interest paying online account, but that was it. So, sitting right now in my account is all the Christmas cash I will need, and it really doesn't matter one whit whether I get a Christmas bonus or not this year (though I would really, really like one, Santa.) Now, I realize that instead of putting my funds in my savings account, I could have put them towards my $900 and believe me, if it had come to it, I would have pulled that money if I needed to. I hope, however, to never need to.

A little back story here on how I came up with the $900 a month figure: when the divorce agreement was settled and it became clear that the house wasn't going to sell and I was going to be taking it over, one of the first things I did was create a new budget. On one side I listed my monthly income from my day to day job plus the income I would receive from the tenant. (The house has a one bedroom apartment in it that is rented through April.) One the other side I listed all my current bills as well as money I set aside each month for things like Christmas money and car insurance. I also estimated what bills I would have for the house (electricity, gas, mortgage) based on a 10 month average. When I was done, I totaled it all up, and was $900 smackaroos short - hence the beginning of this blog. Over the past five months I have been able to make it. I am bringing in extra income, making huge strides in savings and just overall being very frugal. Some months have been spectacular, some have sucked, but I have been able to make all my bills on time and still save money.

That doesn't mean I will go wild this year! Already I am planning on making a some gifts (which I wish I could tell you about but some of the people receiving them read this blog*) and my sister gave me her list yesterday which means I have time to score some bargains. I am still going to be a frugal shopper, of course, but I love knowing that I don't have to worry about the holidays this year.

Speaking of frugal shopping, Frugal Chick has a neat post today about inexpensive ways to decorate for the holidays - check it out!

Fabulous photo by: Possum1500

*Yeah, you know who you are!

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Tackling Life's Challenges

Well, I did it. I went out yesterday on my lunch hour and bought two 40lb pounds of sidewalk salt. The guy at Lowe's said, "Wow. You are really getting prepared for winter!" My response: 1) Um... Michigan!, 2) Might as well stock up while I am here, and 3) It isn't like it goes bad! The next step is to get it out of the plastic bags and into some buckets I have (with lids) that I can put on each porch to make it nice and convenient.

In other news, I've been working on a project at my job that I wanted to write about. The company that I work for wants to raise prices at the end of the year. I'll be honest with you, when I heard that, my heart just sank. We just raised prices last year and believe me, I heard lots (and lots) of complaints then. To make matters worse, the way we did the price increase last time meant that not all of the customers felt it at the same time. Some got it in January, some in February and some as late as March. My boss originally wanted to announce the increase in October, which would have meant for some folks it would have felt like just 8 months between hikes. (We talked him out of that.)

So, here is my ethical dilemma: I think raising prices is a bad idea. The economy has hurt everyone and this is the wrong time to try to get blood out of stones. I also think it will make my company look like a bunch of big, fat, greedy jerks. (To put it nicely.) However, what I think doesn't really amount to a hill o' beans. Why?

Well, I sat down with my boss and expressed my concerns. He listened carefully then laid out the facts -

From the company's point of view: We have to raise prices. If we don't grow, we die. Other aspects of our business are really hurting and if we can't help make that up, layoffs are possible. In addition, our products are a great value and under priced.

So, here's what it comes down to:

  • I think raising prices is a bad idea.
  • It is going to happen anyway.
What are my choices here? Back when I was young, impetuous and more hot-headed than I am today, I walked out on not one but two different jobs when I felt my ethics were different than the company spiel. However, that was back in a different economy when I wasn't struggling. Plus, unlike those times, I like my current job. I don't want to quit in a blazing blue ball of fury like I did in the old days (with no parachute, might I add.) So, I have to find a different solution.

What I need to do is find a way that I can live with it, so that I can accept the decision and more, support it. Fortunately, there is one important fact that will help me do that: "our products are a great value and under priced." That is a true statement. We have great products - phenomenal, really, and they are under priced compared to the competition. In fact, my problem with the price increases isn't the new price - but the timing of the hike. I just wish we had more time, could let the economy recover a bit or at the very least, put a little more time between the last increase and this one. It isn't going to happen though. My boss laid it on the line - Jan. 1, prices go up.

So, if I can't change that there is going to be a price increase, and I can't change when it is going to happen - what can I change? Well, what I can change is how our customers perceive our products. I can go through and add value to our products and what's more, I can work on doing a better job of explaining the benefits of the products we already have. To that end, I have been spending the last few weeks creating big wall sized charts, making graphs, and spending a whole lot of time in the tech. department. I made a big list that says AVEB on the top for Adding Value, Explaining Benefits. My mission for the next two months is to do everything in my power to show our customers that even though prices are going up, they are still getting a huge bang for their buck.

Do you know what? Suddenly I went from feeling disgruntled and frustrated to feeling excited and challenged. I've been really enjoying this process and it has made me more fired up about my job than I have been in a long time.

Which brings me back to my own financial situation. When I first realized that I would have to come up with another $900 each month because of my divorce, I was pretty frustrated and scared. However, once I took it on as a challenge and figured out a way I could control and influence the situation, it became empowering. Even though some months are a struggle, I still feel in control of my situation, in other words, I feel like I am controlling my life - rather than it controlling me. I feel strong and resilient.

These two major challenges in my life have taught me a lot. They've taught me how to take charge and trust in myself. They have also taught me that the road less traveled just might make the more interesting journey.

Photo by: Desert Dream Photography

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lessons in Snowblowing

Last night I went to another meeting of the local chapter of the Torch Club. This is my second meeting, and once again, they had a topic pertaining to what I want to go back to school for. These meetings are fantastic. I am learning that Torch Club people are all a bunch of wonderful, lovable literary geeks (like me!) Basically this is a group of folks getting together each month to talk about some topic or another. It can be anything from Smart Cars to church paintings. The people that I have talked to so far there are librarians, college professors, and archivists - my people! Both times I have gone have just been incredibly inspiring and have helped me focus my career goals. There was only one downside to the evening, when I left I drove into freezing rain.

I live in Michigan and it is November. Freezing rain, snow, sleet and ice are part of the package for the next few months. I have lived here all my life and I have pretty much gotten used to it, but lately I've found myself a little more stressed about it than usual. You see, this is the first time in my life I will be responsible for the removal of it.

I've always said winter would be just fine if snow never fell on asphalt. I don't mind the cold and snow, but I hate shoveling it and I hate driving in it. Fortunately I have never had to do a lot of shoveling. I'm an asthmatic with a bad back who went from her parent's house to a series of apartments to being married. For the most part, other people took responsibility for it. Well, not this year. This year, I am on my own.

It isn't that I don't think I can handle it. I mean let's face it, millions of people deal with snow yearly. If they can do it, there is no reason why I can't. I even happen to own a snow blower that was my mother's before she moved into her condo.... of course I don't know how to use it, but I do have it. But really, that is the crux of the problem. Whenever I am dealing with something I am unfamiliar with it makes me a bit nervous. I've written about this before, being divorced means that I am regularly tackling problems like this. If I don't, who is going to?

There are a couple of simple solutions to these types of problems:

  1. Look at the issue - is it really that big of a deal? I have a tendency to allow simple things that I don't know how to do weigh really heavy on my mind. Like when I was dealing with my furnace filter. Every time I went down in the basement and saw that filter propped up against the furnace I would feel this stab of guilt and anxiety. I feel the same way now when I see snowflakes on the weekly weather chart. Then this morning I kind of backed up and looked at it from a different point of view. You know, really the only snow that has to be removed is what will be on my sidewalks and the entrance to my house. Those are the areas used by other people. If I don't blow the snow in the driveway, the only one hurt by that is me, since I am the only one using it. I haaaaate parking in the street (especially in winter), but it was good to realize that the parts that have to be done really aren't all that bad.
  2. Learn about it. Don't believe that old "ignorance is bliss" adage. So, here's the thing - if I had ever done this before, I wouldn't be nervous about it. It is only because it is something "new" that I feel anxious. The solution? Simple, invite my mother over for a cup of coffee and a snow blowing tutorial. This is a little rule I need to remind myself of regularly. No matter what it is that you want to do, it usually isn't that bad - if you have the right knowledge and the right tools. Here's another example: I have a small retaining wall I want to build, but I just don't know where to start. I met someone recently at the last job I worked on who has built many walls. He suggested I take a bunch of photos, get some ideas, and when we run into each other on the next job (in February) he'll give me some tips! This is also part of the reason I love home improvement classes.
  3. Take small steps. Today on my lunch hour I am going to run out and get some salt for the entrance ways. I'll put it in buckets and the front and rear of the house. I am also going to email my tenant so she knows in case we get frozen rain again and the walk is slippery and I am not home. These are all things I know I can do and are easy enough. Problems like these feel like a huge knot of twisted yarn, but if you just start picking at a small section, the rest will fall away easily.
In the last six months I have learned how to mow lawns, repair roofs, fix toilets, install furnace filters and repair leaky freeze door seals. I am sure I can learn this!

Photo by: Maproom Systems

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Make Your Own Peppermint Mocha Happiness

Ok, I confess. I love Starbuck's peppermint mochas. Not only are they delicious, but they feel like a part of my holidays. How many times have I been out shopping with friends during the holiday season and stopped for a peppermint mocha? I swear, having one makes me feel like Christmas - I think of walking through the snow on a cold, crisp clear winter night.

However, those suckers aren't cheap and I don't have the spare cash I used to.

This weekend we got our first bit of snow. I was watching the big fat flakes coming down turning my lawn white, when I had a sudden craving for peppermint chocolate-y goodness. For a brief moment I considered getting my first mocha of the season, but then I thought about my budget. You know, this is a small thing really, only $4.00 or so, but I felt it was one of those little pivotal moments. I could have decided I couldn't have one, been depressed and felt deprived. I could have patted myself on the back for not giving in to expensive high calorie huge corporation chocolate peppermint coffee crack. But, being me, I didn't do either.

Instead, I made my own.

I didn't have any pre-made hot chocolate mixes, of course, but I did have a tin of Hershey's cocoa, a bottle of peppermint extract, soy milk and coffee beans. The rest was easy. In my big pink travel mug I added the ingredients for a single serving of hot chocolate as described on the back of the Hershey's box. Basically it is cocoa, sugar, pinch of salt and vanilla.

Then I made a cup of strong coffee in my French Press. A few loosely ground coffee beans, some hot water and 4 minutes later, I had a a hot cup of joe. This I poured into my mug, filling it up to about two thirds.

The last third of the mug I filled with soy milk. I love the creamy slightly nutty richness of it. I always order my peppermint mochas made with soy, so this was my nod to tradition.

Finally I added a 1/8th of a teaspoon of peppermint. This was the same quantity as the vanilla extract called for in the Hershey's recipe. I stirred well and wallah! My very own home brewed peppermint mocha. It was fabulous, though honestly, it was a bit too much peppermint. (I love peppermint, but it was a rather strong. Next time I will just put in a few drops.) Sure it wasn't a Starbuck's latte and it didn't have foam or little red sprinkles, but it tasted mighty good and cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $.18 and 4 minutes of time. (I've stood a lot longer in line.)

Here's the real moral of the story though - just because I can make my own, doesn't mean I might not splurge on one if I am out holiday shopping with friends. I believe in small splurges and even more, I believe in good times with friends. Just because I am financially struggling, doesn't mean I have to completely deprive myself. What was it May West said, "Moderation in everything - including moderation"? However, because I am financially struggling I can make it a rare treat, not a weekly (or worse yet daily) habit. And now, if I am craving a peppermint mocha on a random Saturday afternoon, I can just whip one up in my kitchen rather than wasting time, money and gas to buy one at a chain.

One of the bloggers I read recently (and I really wish I could remember who - I'd give credit where it is due) wrote that one way to save money is to make your favorite dinning out dishes at home. There are tons websites that have copycat recipes out there. Just because you are trying to be more financially responsible, it doesn't mean you can't have the things you love. It just might mean that you get to enjoy them at home instead... without the gum chewing waitress or small child kicking the back of your seat.*

Copycat Recipe Sites:

Copycat Restaurant Recipes

Robbie's Recipes

Top Secret Copycat Recipes

Copykat Recipes

*Then again, maybe these are perks of your home!

Photo of deliciousness by: dugasj

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Working on Cutting Costs of My Heating Bills

One of my big fat expenses is my heating bill. My house is a huge old Victorian and she just eats up heat. Add to that the fact that part of the home is a one bedroom apartment and the tenant shares my heat, but not my enjoyment of a frosty bedroom, and you have one high heating bill. I am working on some techniques to cut that bill as much as possible.

One thing I do is pay by the "budget" plan. This means I shell out the same $146.95 each month for heat. (Can you say "ouch!"?) Granted, this also includes a warranty plan for the a/c, furnace and hot water heater, which I carry because again I am a landlord and cannot afford to be out of hot water for a day or two. If I wasn't a landlord, I probably wouldn't have it, since I can deal with cold showers. Still, I have a responsibility to my tenant to do what I can to make her apartment a good place to live. I have had my own share of sleazy landlords and I refuse to be that to someone else.

My first task is going to be to go through room to room in my portion of the home and look for anything I can seal up to keep the cold air out. One surprising spot for cold air? Electrical sockets! Put your hand by the outlet on a cold day. At my house, I could feel the cold air coming in! I have installed in all outside walls sockets little foam insulators. They are cheap and easy to install, and they really do help.

But even after putting these in, some cold air came in. Fortunately years ago I read a tip in "This Old House" magazine on how to solve that - child safety caps. My ex and I had put them in most of the sockets, but I noticed a few that weren't plugged. I picked up a box of these for less that $4.00 and made sure every outlet on an exterior wall was plugged. Here's the one downside though: these things are hard to get out! Of course, that is how they are supposed to work, they keep kids from electrocuting themselves after all, but getting them out can involve breaking a nail and saying a few curse words. So, if you use that socket a lot, you might not want to push the safety plug all the way in. For example, I don't leave any of my kitchen appliances plugged in, so I have to wrestle the plug out to plug in my mixer. I have learned to leave it out just a tiny bit so I can get a grasp on it. It still keeps the cold air out, but doesn't rip my fingernails off.

The other project I started last night was installing window insulator film. At one point (before I bought it) previous owners remodeled my house and so all the upstairs windows are new, however, some of the downstairs windows are original... from 1847. They are pretty drafty! I am putting plastic sheeting window insulators on as many as I can. The only thing I don't like about it is it requires the extensive use of my hair dryer and I can almost feel my electricity bill growing as I use it! Personally I like to buy the rolls of sheeting and tape separate. While they do make some nice kits with everything included, it limits my options with odd sized windows. Furthermore, it is less expensive this way.

While I won't see a difference in my bill because of the budget plan, it will help me from going over. In July they will recalibrate, and if I have used up more than I've paid for - I'll have a big bill due. Yes, I have had that happen in the past. However, I have also had it where I was able to use less than predicted and received a credit on my account and a drop in my bill the following year. That's really what I am aiming for!

I've got a few more winter and fall projects on my to-do list as well. I've got a hot water heater blanket to install and a few other ideas for keeping the heat in. So, if it is getting to be winter in your neck of the woods, what are you doing to keep the house cozy?

Here's what I'm using right now:

Beautiful photo by: ezioman

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10 Tips for Cutting Costs at the Grocery Store

Recently I needed to do some grocery shopping for a few items. With a few simple tips, I was able to cut my costs at the store from $68.72 to $45.68. In other words, by doing just a little extra work, I was able to chop my bill by a third! Here's a list of my favorite tips for cutting grocery store costs:

  1. Take Your Time. If you really want to cut costs and hunt for the bargains, give yourself the time to shop. If you dash and grab, you are likely to miss the good deals. Sure, sale items are usually marked, but sometimes the best deal isn't the sale item, it's grocery store brand item sitting next to it. Or as That One Caveman found out, sometimes the best deal is hiding in different packaging.
  2. Return Your Bottles and Cans. This only works, of course, if you live in a state that has a bottle return. I do. Although I don't consume a lot of soda, I do drink some. (I am especially fond of ginger beer. YUM!) Once upon a time, I didn't bring these bottles back to the store - I might only have 4 a month or so, and it seemed easier to just put them in the recycle bin. But now that my favorite saying is, "From pennies, dollars are made" I save each can or bottle that comes my way. This resulted in $1.70 off my grocery bill.
  3. Make a Grocery Shopping List - I Mean It! We have all read this advice before, but honestly, this is the best method for buying only what you need and staying away from impulse purchases. Too often impulse purchases sound good at the store, but are not good for the bottom line (Or the waistline, for that matter.) Having a predetermined list is one thing that really helps me stick to my budget and cut costs.
  4. Decide How Much You are Going to Spend Before You Go to the Store. Bring a calculator if necessary - goodness knows I can't keep all those numbers in my head! I'll be chanting "$13.75... I'm at $13.75" silently in my head and then I turn from the baking aisle to the canned vegetable aisle and the next thing I am doing is thinking, "Where are the garbanzo beans? ...and was I at $13.75 or $17.35???" So I like to bring a calculator along to keep track, so I can really work to stay in my budget. Believe me, you may feel a bit like a dork, but most of the people who see you adding up figures are in the same kind of financial situation you are - and will most likely admire you for for frugal food shopping!
  5. Use Coupons. The Simple Dollar put me onto this great tool: The CouponBar. The website is slightly a pain if you use a Mac (like me) because then you can only print out the coupons if you are using Safari, but that is a minor inconvenience. I've used it a few times now with great success. During this trip I saved $2.25 with grocery coupons I printed from here. I then saved another $5.99 with a store coupon I had especially for this store location.
  6. But, Don't Be Married to Your Coupons. The thing with coupons is, sometimes, they aren't the best deal. For example, one of the things I wanted to get was a multivitamin. The name brand that I had a $1.00 off coupon for was about $12.00. The store had a buy one get one promotion on their own brand which were normally $5.89. So I got two bottles of store brand for $5.89 rather than spending $11.00 on the name brand! This was a case where my coupon certainly would not have got me the best bargain.
  7. Look For In-Store Specials. Let's face it, the economy is bad and food prices have been on the rise. However, stores are hurting too and I have noticed that the grocery stores seem to be doing a lot of promotions lately. In fact, this was the bulk of my savings. I saved $14.90 by buying purchasing items on my list that were on sale in the store. Pretty much everything that I purchased that wasn't produce was on sale.
  8. Don't Go Hungry. Another old chestnut in grocery store tips, but still a valid one. I always try to make sure I have eaten before I go. Truthfully, I don't do well in crowds, so I try to shop when it is isn't a peak time. Heaven forbid if I try to go at a peak time and I haven't eaten - that is just a recipe for disaster! I get so flustered that I don't take the time I need to shop properly (which ruins tip number 1) and I am so hungry I buy more food than I need, (tip 3.)
  9. Do Not Buy (or Limit) Food That is Pre-Prepared. The more a food is prepared for you the more you pay for it. TANSTAAFL*. Passive Family Income had a great post about this the other day. If you buy shredded cheese - you pay someone to do that for you. If you buy pre-cut up chicken, you pay for that too. Now, some things may be worth it to you. For example, I like keeping pre-shredded cheese in the freezer and I am usually willing to pay more for the convenience of having it done for me. However, I bake all my own bread. You have to find the right mix for you, but just remember the more "meal in boxes" you buy, the more you pay.
  10. Look at Packaging per Price. If you have your handy calculator along, this is a great way to use it as well. Be sure to look at the price per ounce or item in the box. We all know that usually this price goes down the larger the quantity, but sometimes it really varies from brand to brand too. It may look like you are getting a better deal... until you realize that you are actually getting a lot less.
Do you have other tips? Let me know - I would love to hear them!!

List making photo by: bookgrl
*(There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.)

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Things are Getting Back to Normal so I am Getting Back to Goals

After a very busy week last week, things are getting back to normal. Not only did I work my regular day job and one of my second part time jobs, I also went on two mystery shopping trips! One was to a local hardware store that I had never been to. It isn't really in the direction I usually travel, so I had never stopped in; besides, I tend to be a Lowe's gal! But, I was really impressed with the store, the staff and the selection. In fact, it might become my next "go-to" place when I need something quick and don't want to go all the way out to Lowe's, which is a pretty healthy hike from my house.

The mystery shopping will pay in 30 days, so I will probably see that next month, but as you can see from the side bar, I am doing pretty good so far. That sum includes my part time job paycheck, lots of books sold through Amazon and Half, and the monthly savings I get each month from some big changes I made to my finances back in May when I started all this. For example, I worked with my brother-in-law on my insurance and was able to drop my rates considerably. I pay annually (which also helps), but I budget for it monthly since each month I have a set amount going to one of my online savings accounts specifically set up to hold my insurance money. When the bill comes, I just pay with that. It is a great plan - it not only lowers my rates, but I earn interest on the money in the meantime! I win all the way around! So, I have about $160.00 in savings from the insurance savings and several other monthly bills I was able to slash that I get to count towards my $900.

I worked quite a bit on my book sales this weekend too, organizing and inventorying. Slowly but surely I am working my way through the boxes and boxes and boxes of books I bought at a garage sale this summer. I won't be selling all of them, in fact, I have a fairly large box of books to be donated to my local library because they just aren't "selling material." By that I mean they are popular fiction titles that are in fairly rough shape - they would still be acceptable to someone to someone getting them at a deal at a library sale, but they won't sell for anything online. The good part about this is that by donating them to the library, I will be able to take advantage of the tax benefits. It won't be much - but hey, every penny counts!

I also worked on eBay listings for this month. I spent some time this weekend taking photos and jotting down descriptions so I can get a few more items up. I have a friend of mine that offered me several boxes of her things to sell awhile back. I've still been working through them. I'm planning on putting a number of her toys that are new and in boxes on Amazon for the holiday season. Since those listings are free until the item sells, I can have them up until Christmas if I want for no cost. If they don't sell that way I can also list them on eBay. I've sold quite a bit of her stuff over the past few months, so I am going to cut her a check this month for what has sold through October. (Some of the sales were under $3, so it just makes sense to total everything up, rather than write a $1.50 check every time something like that sells, you know?)

I am hoping that with the economy being what it is, a lot of people will be looking for gifts for less - books, dvds, things like that. I have quite a few waiting for the right buyer!

Now that I have a lot of things organized, this week I am going to try to concentrate on getting those listings up. I am working my day job and I have one mystery shopping gig, but other than that, it should be pretty quiet. I also have another friend who would like me to look into selling her furniture. She has some gorgeous pieces! So, my assignment for this week is researching them a bit, looking at placing Craig's List ads, and doing a "dry run" of going to where her furniture is stored (she gave me a key) and making sure I can get in easily. I would hate to meet someone out there and not be able to get in!

So, lots of goals on my to-do list, but nothing crazy. I do like to make sure that every weekday I am working towards hitting my $900 goal, but I also try to keep a good work/life balance. I enjoy working hard, but I refuse to make myself miserable, you know?

I will say that so far my goal of tracking spending everyday is working out great! I feel much more on top of it. The combination of updating my budget daily when I log onto my online banking account has been a really good fit for me. I also discovered today how looking at my monthly budgets regularly is making things "click" for me. For example, I get paid on the 7th and 21st of the month, so what I do is arrange my bills to be paid on or just after those dates. With my monthly tracking I am getting a much better feel for how much needs to be in my account each of those days (plus my paycheck) for all of the bills. Knowing that will definitely help me manage my money better!

Striking autumn photo by: Dr. DeNo.

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

How I am Earning Money From 3 Jobs... In One Day

That's right, yesterday I brought in income from three different sources (and actually there is a fourth bonus one I'll put at the end.) While non-passive dollars-for-hours income can be draining, there are only so many hours in a day after all, if you can work it out in such a way that it isn't stressful, it can be really rewarding. Here's what I had going on yesterday:

1.) Day job. I work a standard 40 hour a week salaried job for which not only do I get a paycheck, I also get vacation time. I am using some of that vacation time this week for my second job:

2.) Part-time temp. work. I have two sources currently for limited time part-time jobs. These jobs run for a week to six weeks and are mostly on the weekends or evenings. This week, I'm using that aforementioned vacation time so I can work every evening. Honestly, the hourly pay is pretty low, however I absolutely love what I do and the fantastic people I work with. Also because it is limited in term, I don't get burned out, so it is something I look forward to doing.

3.) Mystery Shopping. On my lunch hour I ran out and did some secret shopping. I just started working for a new company, so we'll see how this goes. If everything works out, I will have two different companies that I work for. These really don't pay much, for example, I will get $12 for this shopping trip. However, small checks can add up, and I'll get $12 for time that I usually spend sitting in the company lunch room! I would love to have a mystery shopping job about once a week. That would be perfect!

And there is the bonus income...

4.) I have over 200 books, cds and DVDs listed on Amazon and right now. Unfortunately, I didn't sell a book yesterday, though usually I average one a day. I still consider it bringing in income because it is out there always working away for me. The trick is simply to find the right buyer! This is a favorite income stream of mine because while it takes a little while to list them, there are no fees or additional work until they sell.

Also, my expenses this week are really low, so I am saving quite a bit. Because I am never home, I'll do well on utilities and because I am always working, I won't be spending money - I don't have time to go to a store. Plus, I cooked a bunch of meals over the weekend (knowing this week would be busy) so I am eating healthy low cost meals at home. It works out all the way around. It almost makes me wish I could keep up this pace!

Photo by: StefZ

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

October Round Up - Money Tracking Revisited

Well, shoot. I thought I was doing so well in October, but after crunching the numbers, I didn't do nearly as well as I had hoped! Do you know what the problem is? I can't seem to keep up with my daily finance tracking.

So, here's the thing: I did really well in certain budget categories, namely utilities and auto fuel. I was under in electric, water and fuel and hit exactly on target for all the others. I also was under budget on entertainment, dining out and gifts. However, certain other categories got me: car maintenance (and the too expensive oil change), purchases for home improvement projects and that one that gets me every time, "Misc." This time it was a combination of Health and Beauty items, the fantastic conference I attended, and the books I bought to sell online. Each month it is something different for this category, which makes it hard to budget for. The only good news is that my over spending was less than it has been in other months.

What bothered me though, was that I was surprised by these over expenditures. Had I known I was doing it that would have been one thing, but I was actually blown away. For example, I knew I was probably over in the Home Improvement category - but not by as much as I was!! It is not that the purchases aren't worthy or that they won't help save money in the future; I bought landscaping stones to try to prevent a drainage problem, a hot water heater blanket, window seal kits for my tenant - all understandable purchases. The problem was that I thought I was $10-$15 over, when I was more like $40. I know what the problem is, of course, it is because I haven't been doing my daily spending tracking.

The problem is I am just not good at jotting down every expenditure; I forget or I put the receipt in my purse to add later or whatever. I just seem to have a mental block about doing it. So, when I crunched September's budget I carefully used my monthly bank statement to verify the numbers I had been keeping on my budget. I made a few adjustments, but overall it worked out well. So well, in fact, I decided to just use the monthly statement this month - BIG MISTAKE!

By not adding in my purchases each day, I just lost track. That step of taking my daily spending and putting it into the correct slot in my budget spreadsheet is a constant reminder to be frugal. Had I been doing it, I am sure that I would have purchased less or deferred some of the purchases to this month. So, I have a solution that I am going to try for this month. Pretty much every weekday I check my bank accounts online just to make sure things are running the way they should. When I do this, I am also going to have my budget spreadsheet open and handy so I can add the previous day's purchases. For the most part I pay for everything with a debit card and as fast as stores process purchases these days, I should be pretty up to date with everything.

The one hole in this solution is, of course, cash. Not quite sure what to do there, though typically I make very few cash purchases. I am just going to have to make a strong effort to remember them so I can add them to the spreadsheet. Big cash purchases are easy to remember - it is the small stuff (like parking meters) I forget. But then again, a parking meter or two isn't going to break my budget.

I am still pleased with October, however. My cash income was up nicely and I was able to make some changes that resulted in measurable savings. Overall I was able to spend less than I took in, which is exactly what I am looking for! Now, let's see how November goes, shall we?

Photo of his rent by: velo_city

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Busy Week Ahead - Second Job Income

I might be a little scarce around here as I'm working evenings at one of my part time temp. jobs this week. It's theatre related, so I will be working 5:00 p.m. to about midnight each night. Since I'll be pretty busy, there might be a few less posts. Here is how I am leveraging my 40 hour regular job to allow me to work the part time job, and receive income from both:

I normally work slightly odd hours - 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.. I've been working this schedule for five or six years now and I just love it. It is one of the great non-monetary benefits of my job. However, I need to be at the theatre at 5:00 or so each night. Now, I could try to go into work at 8:00 a.m., take a half hour for lunch and leave at 4:30 (my boss would let me switch schedules for a week) and I have done this in the past, but I found it burned me out really quickly. Even just a week was rough - since I get out of 2nd job at midnight (or later) by the time I get home, relax and get to bed - I'm getting less than 6 hours of sleep. I don't function well that way! It is just part of my make up. I can do it for a day or two, but I found that by Friday and Saturday. when I had to be top of my game, I was exhausted, cranky and muddleheaded. Not a good condition for a job that requires concentration and the ability to work well with others!!

Fortunately, I get quite a bit of vacation time from my salaried job. Since I am perpetually low in funds, I won't be taking any trips in the near future so even with taking a few days off here and there for personal days and whatnot, I still have plenty left. I decided to use 20 of those hours this week. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday I am working 10:00 -4:00, which will give me time to run home, change, eat something fast and head to the theatre. I am taking Thursday off completely. Why? Because that will give me a chance to get "caught up" on sleep, dishes, and laundry before the big weekend.

I have tried other variations on using vacation time for this work (I do it three times a year.) This will be the first time I try this out. I am hoping it will go smoothly. The advantage I have is that I will be getting my full 40 hour salary as normal and will be adding on the income from this other job. That part should work out nicely.

I also spent a fair amount of time this weekend doing some cooking in preparation for this week. I absolutely hate fast food - it isn't fast, it isn't cheap and it is barely food. When I head home from the office though, I won't have time for a lot of cooking. I will need to heat and eat. I made up a casserole, a low perishable salad, baked bread for sandwiches made with some leftover chicken, and have some veggies that just need reheating. That should keep me set through Thursday and then I can see what I will need for the weekend.

This may sound like a lot of work for one job, but really all it is is preparation. I love the 2nd job work, but I'm just not a kid anymore - 12-14 hour days are hard. By thinking ahead and making just a little extra effort I can make this fun - rather than a drain. The first year I did this I would speed out of work after working 8 hours, grab fast food on my way to the theatre, eat it in the car, rush into the theatre where I would change my clothes and then start working. At the end of the week I was totally wiped out. If it had to always be that way, I couldn't do it. This way though, I can - and not go insane in the process!

Photo of footlights by: routemaster_fan

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