Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What it Takes to Be Financially Successful - No Matter How Rich or Poor You Are

Since my financial rant the other day, I've been thinking a lot about what it takes to be successful at personal finance. Success means different things to different people, so let me first defines what it means to me: it doesn't mean being a multimillionaire, success means that you are actively working on improving your financial situation. It doesn't matter if you have made mistakes, or are in debt, or barely have two pennies to rub together, as long as you are actively working towards making your financial life better, you are a success in my book.

It seems to me that people who are able to make significant impact on their finances have a common skill - the ability to see not only the forest and the trees, but also the acorns. These are people that understand the importance of making short, medium and long term goals. They see how relatively small changes can effect the big picture. Whether it is debt snowflakes, debt snowballs, or debt avalanches* they can picture how these things can all work together.

Let me give you an example from my workplace...

Recently I wrote about how my company went through layoffs. After the dust had settled, we decided to rearrange our office. Our building is "L" shaped. Prior to the layoffs we were pretty well scattered throughout that L, but after the layoffs, we managers decided it would be best for productivity and morale if we consolidated and all moved together into the short arm of the L, leaving the rest of the office fairly empty. The in the long arm of the L would only be left two occupied offices - one for my boss and one for the accountant (both of whom work part time.) So, everyone moved... but me. The accountant wanted to close the books on 2008 and get out the W2s before he and I switched places, so for a week and half I was the lone person on the long side. While I was over there, I took to shutting off the lights on my side - just leaving a few emergency lights on. My office was lit and the area outside of it was plenty bright enough - I didn't need all those florescent on just for me. Now, some people might comment that turning out a few lights was not going to make a significant impact, but I've been being frugal for so long that I couldn't help it! Then talking to a member of our tech staff one day about it, he calculated that when all the lights were on we were using 4000 watts... per hour! I don't know how much I saved by keeping the lights turned out, but I have noticed that since I switched offices, my boss and the accountant keep the lights off too.

The point of this is that when you are looking at your financial picture you have to see how small actions can make an impact. Conversely, it is just as important to be able to set a big goal and be able to see the various steps it will take to get there. It is important to take those small financial steps and grow them into mid range goals and then on towards a bigger and happier financial future - whatever that may mean to you. If you concentrate only on the big goals, but never are able to put together the smaller steps that can get you there, you may end up with nothing more than pipe dreams. If you concentrate on the small goals, but without an overall picture, you are doing the equivalent of running in place - a lot of effort for not going anywhere.

Again, success can have a dozen different meanings, for some it may be getting filthy rich - for others it may mean paying off credit card debt. The point is, that to make it work, you can't have blinders on - you have to see the big picture, its frame, and the tiny jigsaw pieces that make it up.

*In case you are not familiar with these snowy metaphors, a debt snowflake is finding tiny amounts of money in your budget to repay debt. Not using the company vending machine each day, for example, and instead putting $1.00 in a cup each time you would normally buy a candy bar. At the end of a week you would have $5.00, at the end of the year you would have $260 - put that on your credit card in addition to what you normally pay and that is nice chunk of change.

A debt snowball is using snowflakes and other methods to pay off your smallest credit card, then taking that payment and tacking it on top of the payment for your next largest card and so on. Look up books by Dave Ramsey for more information.

A debt avalanche is a similar idea, but instead of tackling the smallest card you go after the biggest with the highest rate. It takes longer to pay off your first card, so unlike a snowball, you have less immediate gratification, but the numbers guys say it saves a bit more money. In my opinion, either plan is fine - just as long as the debt is shrinking.

The question might be, why are all these metaphors about snow? And why not the "Black Ice" Debt plan, the "Dirty Chunks of Ice From Under the Wheel Wells of Cars" Debt plan, or the "I'm Sick and Tired of Shoveling My Driveway" Debt plan? Hmm... can you tell it is winter where I am?

Photo by: Lapstrake

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Meditating on a Neighbor's Mail

On my block there lives a woman whose name and address, if you didn't look very close, somewhat resembles mine. Twice in the last couple of weeks I have gotten her mail.

The first time I didn't realize it wasn't mine. I did what I normally do - take the mail inside and in my kitchen quickly open everything and sort it out. Bills go in the briefcase to be taken care of on a lunch hour, newsletters and items to be read are put next to where I eat breakfast for my morning reading, junk mail and circulars go straight into the recycle bin. I like to organize my mail the minute it comes in so nothing important gets lost and junk doesn't pile up on my counter, (as has been known to happen in the past.) The piece of mail of hers that I opened was a utility bill. I use the same company, so I didn't think twice when I saw it in my stack of bills.

Opening it was something else though. In fact, what I saw almost gave me a heart attack....

The utility bill was overdue. Severely overdue. The amount owed was twice what I normally pay and in big red letters was the shut off date.

It took me several long, heart pounding seconds to figure out that this was not some bill I had missed - that in fact, it belonged to someone else. I felt an enormous rush of relief; then I was overcome by a mix guilt and sadness. I felt guilty that I had seen this piece of mail. It wasn't just an ordinary utility statement such as everyone gets - it was a declaration that my neighbor was in trouble.

And that is why I also felt sad. I don't know this woman, though I have met her. She came to one of the garage sales my best gal friends and I threw. That's how I know where she lives and that she is a single mom with two little kids. I see them playing out in the yard in the summer. Obviously, I don't know her financial situation, but I felt really bad for her. I can't imagine what it must be like trying to make ends meet on your own with two small children to support.

Today I got another piece of mail for her. This time I noticed that it was hers. It was from a bank I didn't recognize, and the odd return address made me notice that it wasn't for me. I recognized the kind of mail though. As I walked it over to her house to slip it in her mailbox, I glanced at it. It was a slim envelope, the kind that looks like it is going to contain a check, but you can tell by the way the address is printed that it doesn't. Back in the days before I was using online banking and bill pay I used to get those exact same envelopes when I had an overdraft. I could have been projecting, but I felt a sense of dread as I slipped it into her mailbox.

I hope I am wrong. The bank also sent me mail like that when I made a mistake in my addition on a big atm deposit. I carried the numbers wrong and typed in that the deposit was $50 less than it actually was - they caught it and corrected it in my account. Or maybe it is something else all together... an offer for a life insurance policy or a reminder to reorder checks.

In any case, I wish her the best. It was a definite reminder to me of how far I have come, yet also, how sharp the knife's edge is that I walk. It doesn't look like I am going to hit my goal this month, but I am okay, I have a surplus from last month - and next month looks very good. Seeing those errant pieces of mail though has made me very, very grateful for all that I have.

Photo by: flavijus

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Friday, January 23, 2009

How To Make Your Own Vegetable and Meat Stock

M is for Money wrote a nice post about Traditional Frugal Skills awhile back, and it has been on my mind ever since I read it. Basically she talks about a number of skills that our grandparents had that kept them going through lean times - and how many of those skills we have lost. One of those is cooking, something I love to do. There is a lot to be said about how cooking your own meals is both frugal and healthy, but for this post I want to concentrate on one of my favorite super-frugal cooking standards - making stock.

I love making stock and broth! (The way I understand it, stock comes from bones, broth comes from using meat, though the terms are frequently interchangeable. We'll use "stock" here, just to keep it simple. ) I make vegetable, meat and poultry stock. The best part about it? You make something absolutely wonderful, for very little work, out of things you would normally throw away!

Here's what I do:

Whenever I am making something with vegetables, I wash them first - then I peel, slice and dice them. Why? Because all the vegetable trimmings go in freezer bags and are placed in the freezer for later use. Carrot peels, celery leaves, mushroom stems, fennel fronds, the corn kennels scraped from corn cobs, tops of onions and the skins of ginger all find their way into my freezer bags. I love tomatoes - the skins, the seeds, the juice from drained cans, even the too wrinkled grape tomatoes left on the bottom of the carton - they all go in the bag. I only use real lemons and limes, so guess what happens to the rinds? Yep, in the bag. I do this all year around and in the summer, when I eat a lot of produce, I will fill a couple of bags in short order. Once the bags are filled, its time for the pot!

A couple of words of warning here - when you are making stock you don't want too much of one vegetable or the stock will only taste like that one veggie. The big culprit for this is celery. Celery is very strong flavored, so unless you want celery soup, you might not want more than a few handfuls of leaves per pot. The other thing to watch out for is vegetables that get bitter when cooked for too long, like broccoli.

Once I have a couple of bags of mixed trimmings, into the pot they go along with some peppercorns, sea salt, a couple bay leaves and few cloves of garlic. I fill the pot the rest of the way up with water and away we go. There is no hard and fast recipe for this, and it will taste a little different every time. That is okay! I bring the whole mass to a boil, then turn it down to simmer and cook for an hour or so. This is great to make when you are doing housework or some other kind of chore, then when you think of it as you pass by the kitchen, give the pot a stir. Taste it a bit and see if it needs more salt. Although, here again, there is one thing to keep in mind - it isn't soup. You are going to be cooking with this. Less salt is better, because you can always add more to the recipe you are using the stock in, but it is really difficult to take it out if you add in too much!

In addition to vegetable, I also make meat stock...

I keep the meat bones separated in more freezer bags - one bag for poultry, one bag for pork and beef bones. I am not a huge meat eater, so it takes a lot longer for me to accumulate a bag full of bones, but the holidays are a prime time to stock up (Ha!) on bones. For those of you that eat rotisserie chickens - those bones are great in the stew pot!

The process is essentially the same - bones in the pot, followed by peppercorns, salt, bay leaves and garlic. I also add some vegetables to the pot. Sometimes this is a half of bag of vegetable trimmings. It can also be a few stalks of celery, a few carrots and an onion. (just cut the onion in quarters - no need to peel.) Once again I cover the whole mess in water, bring to a boil, then simmer for an hour or so.

Once the stock has simmered for an hour or so, I turn off the heat and I let it cool for a bit on the stove. Then I strain it through a fine mesh sieve. The resulting broth is measured out into .5, 1, and 2 cup measurements, put into tupperware and frozen until needed. The leftovers from the pot get disposed of if they contain bones or meat, vegetable matter only can be composted.

So, there you go - for the cost of of some water and a little time, you have a wonderful, homemade stock, perfect for recipes. The stuff in the supermarket will run you about a $1 a can and is loaded with sodium and other non healthy ingredients. This is delicious, useful - and practically free!

Photo by: Miss Priss

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Thinking About Retirement, And What It Means To Me

I love being inspired by other bloggers. Yesterday I read a post by Frugal Dad about retirement. He asks the simple question, "What does retirement mean to you?"

As I commented on his blog... I don't really know.

In a way I find this strange. Here I am trying to get my financial house in order, looking at long term investments, contributing the max amount to get matching on my 401K - - and yet I don't really know what retirement means to me. I think part of the problem is that I am so focused on the here and now. Right now while I am concentrating on "this week" or "this month," it is hard to look too far ahead.

That isn't to say that I don't have goals. I have quite a few. At the end of last year I made my list of Goals for 2009. I also have a Three Year Plan that involves going back to school and getting my Master's Degree. I have even gone through the effort of sitting down and figuring out long term financial goals, as in how much do I need in my emergency fund to feel safe? But what I'm having a hard time with is long term goals. I feel like my life is in such a place of transition, I don't know where I want to be in the 10, 20, or the 30+ years until retirement. I have some vague glimpses, a rough idea of what kind of job I'd like and how I would like to live, but it is like trying to see through a jar of Vaseline - everything is very blurry.

Here are a few things I know -

1. I know I don't want to be scared of my financial situation ever again. Oh, I know there will be good times and bad - there will be times when investments will go up and times when we will have horrible economies, like the one we are in now. What I mean is, I never want to be in a situation like I am now - not knowing how the bills are going to be paid, not sure if the paycheck will cover the mortgage. Once I get through this period and things settle down, I am going to made great strides to prevent this type of situation from ever happening again.

2. I know I don't want to work multiple jobs and I don't want to work anywhere I don't have a passion for. Currently I have several jobs, and while I am deeply grateful for each and every one of them, this is no way for me to live long term. I need a different work/life balance, and as long as I am working, I want to work at something I care about.

However, neither of these two really answers the "What does retirement mean to you?" question....

I keep thinking about it and considering what I want in my life. I want to have time to write, to putter in my garden, to sit on the shore of my cottage... but the thing is, I don't want to wait until I am 70 for that. I want it now!

And I realize that that is the problem I am having. First, I can't quite imagine myself at 70, but also (and far more important) I don't see why I should have to wait until then to have the things I want. Okay, so maybe instead of trying to see what my life would look like through a crystal ball, I need to start with some simple truths:

- I don't know if I will ever marry again. Whether I do or don't, I refuse to be a financial burden on anyone. This means I will have to make sure I have enough money to comfortably - not excessively, but in a lifestyle I am comfortable with. I no more want to wait to start my life until I am 70, than I do want to have to drastically change it just because I am not working. This means making plans for short, mid and long term savings.

- I don't want to be a health concern for others. So, I need to work on staying active and continue to take care of myself. I also need to be cognizant of various health insurance programs. As my mother ages I begin to worry about her, especially about her health. It isn't something you can always control, but there are steps you can take.

- I refuse to be miserable in my own life again. I went through a period with my past marriage where I stopped making honest and authentic choices and instead I compromised. I compromised so far that I lost sight of myself. I never want to wake up again and look around and think "What am I doing here? How did this become my life?" So, moving forwards I will make choices that are true and genuine. I may make mistakes, but the only way I fail is if I stop listening to my own intuition.

- I don't want to spend my retirement looking back at the past. No sitting around saying "Shoulda, woulda, coulda." That means following my dreams now and keep on following them, whether I am 48 or 84.

- I want to live somewhere I love. I've experienced what it is like to dislike your home. I refuse to let that happen again. While I realize that a home is exactly what you make of it, I also know that there are places that make me happier than others. I am such an introvert that my home is a real extension of who I am. Moving forward, wherever it may be that I hang my hat, I will make sure that it makes me happy to do so.

So, what does this all mean? Looking through this list, I see that it is a prescription for how to live now, but still doesn't say what retirement means to me. So, I guess that is an answer in itself. It doesn't mean a thing. Retirement for me is simply a transition, perhaps working a little less, volunteering a little more, and making sure I get my Senior Citizen Discounts, but that's it.

That means that the trick of my retirement planning is not in how my life will change once I retire, the trick is in making sure it doesn't.

Photo by: SSynth

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Eight Great Reasons Online BIll Pay Works for Me

BeingFrugal.net has a post up right now on a subject that is near and dear to my heart - online bill pay. I love my online bill pay so much, and am so likely preach its advantages to anyone who will sit still long enough, that I am quite surprised I haven't written about it before! Being Frugal lists a number of great reasons why paying bills online is awesome, so instead of copying her post, I am going to tell you how it effects me.

At my company I am paid twice a month, on the 7th and the 21st. So, what I do is divide my bills up. Anything that is due between the 8th and the 20th gets paid with the money from the 7th, anything due from the 21st - the 6th of the next month gets paid out of the 21st check. Basically, bills due at the end of the month or the first of the month come out of the 21st, bills in the middle of the month, get paid out of the 7th. See how confusing this is? This is part of the reason I love online banking - once I get it set up, I never have to worry! I used to sit down with my checkbook every payday and write out checks - but there were two main problems with this system: 1) Sometimes I would get really busy and not have time. Let's say a bill is due on the 23rd of the month. I would normally pay that out of the paycheck I got on the 21st. However, that doesn't leave me a lot of room. If I had a really busy day or was sick or something and didn't have time to mail checks that day, my payment would be late! 2) The other problem was that I didn't like the fact that bill collectors could earn interest on my money if I sent it in early... I should be the one earning interest! Here's another example: say a bill was due on the 6th of the month. I would write the check for that on the 21st. Sure, the payment would be in early, too but early! It would be almost two weeks ahead of time that they would have my money - when it could be in my bank account earning me interest.

Online banking solved both of those problems for me. I use the system through my credit union (which is free, I might add) and go in and put all my bills in there. For most typical transactions, it takes only 2 days for the money to go from my account to the creditor. So, I can go into my online bill pay the day I receive a bill and set up to be paid. That means that in the first scenario it doesn't matter if I am sick or busy on payday, the credit union will automatically make sure the bill is paid on time. In the second scenario, I can set the payment out so it goes out just two days before it is due - meaning the money has the maximum amount of time in my checking account. It's a beautiful system! Not only that, but the credit union guarantees the money will be there or they will fix the problem. I tell you, I never got that guarantee from the U.S. Postal Service when I was mailing checks!!

I use online bill pay for all my bills including the ones that are the same amount each month, like my mortgage, to ones that change each month, like my electric bill. For the bills that are always the same, I set them up on a cycle so they pay each month at the same time for the same amount. I then let that run for a year. In December, I reevaluate as sometimes the amounts will have changed. For payments that are different each month, I pop online each time I get a bill and set up the payment. So, when my utilities bills come in I just take 5 minutes out of my lunch hour to set up a payment. Easy peasey.

I can even use online bill pay for writing checks to individuals. For example, when I was separated from my ex husband we still had some joint bills, like auto insurance. I would set up a check to go out to him sent right through my bill pay system. A warning - nontraditional checks like these took more like a week to go out, so I had to plan for that, but the bill pay system tells you when the money will arrive, so you can make those adjustments. Here's another one - at that same time I was living in a tiny apartment in a home owned by a woman who lived down the street. Rather than worrying about making sure she got her rent on time, I would simply have the bill pay system handle it - and I never had problem one.

Oh, but I am not done yet...

Being Frugal mentions the cost savings of not using stamps and one of her commenters mentions the cost savings in writing checks - I can attest to that! I only use stamps for birthday cards, and if you looked in my checkbook you would see I write "maybe" a check a month - if that! I haven't bought checks in so long that they have my married name on them, and the address of the home that I moved out of for a year... and then back into!

The other thing that I love about online bill pay is that all my bills are in one place. I know a lot of people pay their utilities bills or what-have-you directly on that creditor's website, but I am not fond of that. I like the ability to log in whenever I want and see all my bills, plus how much is going out and when, all in one place. I am sure arguments could be made for the other way as well, like for people who pay for everything with credit cards to get the maximum amount of rewards as in my buddies Budgets Are Sexy and Passive Family Income but I'll be honest with you - paying all those bills with credit cards gives me the willies. Then again, I am working my tail off to pay off credit cards, were that not a problem, I could see how this could be a good way to earn rewards. In any case though, I would probably stick with my online bill pay because I just love seeing everything all laid out for me.

Here's another thing - I've had friends of mine say they don't use online bill pay because they have sporadic income and don't want bills to go out if they don't have the money. To that I say that they should really check out their online bill providers - mine will not send out a payment if I do not have enough funds in the account. This happened to me awhile back, a check hadn't cleared and I had dipped a bit lower than I had planned. My online bill system sent me an email warning me and then did not send out the bill until the following day. And guess what? There was no fee doing this for this.The fact they let me know was a huge relief! I was able to transfer over a bit from my savings and have the bill go out the next day - no overdraft fees were charged, no late fees incurred! In fact, I haven't had a late bill in years - it is part of the reason I have an outstanding credit score.

But, oh - I am not done yet! As I said, I am working hard to eliminate that credit card debt. With online bill pay I can make an additional payment in a snap! I usually pay $75 a month on my card, but last month when I had a windfall, I made an additional $250 payment. It took me less than 5 minutes to do and I didn't use a stamp. In the past I would have either hunted down a past statement for the correct address, account number, etc. or I would have waited until the next statement... except by then I would have gone shopping or out to dinner a few times and then suddenly I didn't have as much to send in as I did before! This might not be as big of a problem now that I have better money management skills, but it sure was helpful in preventing impulse purchases when I needed it.

So here is a wrap up of why I love online banking:

1. Ease - It is so simple to set it up and I can do it at any computer - no hauling my checkbook and a file folder full of bills and stamps around to get my bills paid.

2. Reliable - I know when it first came out some people had some problems, but I have been using it for years and never had an issue. They guarantee to take care of it if there is.

3. No stress - I used to worry a lot about bills being paid on time and so forth. Now I set it up and forget it. No worries.

4. Fabulous credit score - I attribute a big portion of my high credit score to the fact that I never have a late payment.

5. Saves money - I have saved so much money in not buying stamps, checks, return address labels, envelopes, and in not getting late fees and overdraft fees. It still amazes me that online bill pay is actually free!!

6. Helps my budget - All my bills are in one spot - I can log in an see in a glance what has been paid and what is scheduled to be paid. Having it all together helps me know how much I need in my account at any one time and since it is connected to my checking account, I can easily verify that everything is moving along as it should.

7. Encourages Bill Pay - Making extra payments on debt it so easy, it encourages me to actually do it - rather than blowing a windfall on something I shouldn't and would later regret.

8. Helps Me Earn Interest - Because now I pay bills when they are due, and not several weeks beforehand, money stays in my account longer, meaning I get the interest - rather than someone else.

So, what's not to love?

EDIT: (added a couple days later) I found another reason to love online bill pay. Credit card companies are radically shortening the time you have to pay your bill. I just received an American Express bill that closed out on the 12th. I got it on the 15th. It is due on the 27th. It was due just 15 days after they mailed it out! With holidays and postal delays, it would be pretty easy to end up with a late payment. Fortunately my bill pay was able to have it there in two days.

Photo by: athena1970

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Almost Falling in Love

Sunday morning a friend and I were going out to grab some lunch when we saw a big, beautiful American Bulldog running free. Even though the streets and sidewalks were full of snow, and he was white as well, he was hard to miss - a big, gorgeous dog without collar or leash, jumping over snowbanks and running down the sidewalk. We both looked at each other, then my friend said, "I'm going back."

As I mentioned yesterday, its been bitterly cold here and temperatures have been down in the single digits. As we rounded the corner looking for the wayward dog, we were both thinking the same thing - in these temperatures, if he didn't find home soon, he wouldn't live through the night. As we came around the block we saw him again.

My friend stopped his van and got out to say "hello." In short order, I had a big white dog licking my face and I felt myself falling a tiny bit in love.

He was a sweetheart, and obviously very happy to get out of the cold. His coloring was almost identical to the one in the photo up there - mostly white with a few brown spots behind the ears. He leaned against my shoulder as I scratched him behind the ears and along the chest while my friend and I talked about what to do. We drove very, very slowly around the block, looking for someone who looked like they were looking for a dog. The dog appeared well cared for, although there was a scratch behind one of his ears, so we assumed he lived nearby. We attempted to ask him where he lived but instead of answering he just lolled his tongue out and gave me another lick.

As we came around the corner, we saw a few kids playing outside in the snow. My friend rolled the window down and asked them if he knew where the dog lived. It turned out that they did. The pointed down the road to a house where a young man had just stepped out onto his porch, looking like he might have just rolled out of bed.

We drove up, and sure enough, the man claimed our dog and said his name was Kimba. Interestingly, Kimba did not want to get out of the car. My friend opened up the side of his van, and Kimba promptly jumped into his seat. So, he went around and opened the driver's side door, and Kimba went to the back of the van. Going around to the back of the van, Kimba climbed on my lap - and so on. This went on over and over, all the while the owner stood 10' away, doing no more to help than calling occasionally "Here, boy." I'm not sure what it was. Maybe Kimba wanted a longer ride, maybe he didn't want to get out in the snow again, or maybe (and this is what my heart was saying) he really just wanted to stay with us. Finally however, he jumped out over my lap and headed home.

All he left were white hairs on the shoulder and sleeve of my winter coat - and truthfully, that is about all of a dog I could afford right now. But there were a few minutes there while scratching his big furry head that I honestly thought about what might happen if we couldn't find his owners. I'm glad we did find his proper home of course, but I admit, I wish that the owner had seemed happier to see Kimba and that Kimba had seemed happier to see his owner. He seemed like he was such a wonderful dog.

I've thought about getting a dog on and off for years, but for a variety of very practical reasons I haven't done so. My sister, who has a fabulous pooch, has encouraged me on more than one occasion to get one. In the past I have always waived off the suggestion, but had we not found a home for Kimba... well, let's just say for the first time in my life I would have been sorely tempted.*

I have no time or money for a dog right now. My life is too strange. But, it is something I may put on the back burner for when life gets a lot more settled.... we'll see.

Photo by: Nal from Miami

* Granted, I would have contacted shelters and put up posters and that kind of thing before making any sort of assumptions. I'm just saying that had I known for sure that he was abandoned, I might have taken him home.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Freezing Pipes and Heat Tape

So, the last couple of weeks we have been experiencing extremely cold temperatures here in my home state. The other morning I woke up, stumbled downstairs and glanced at my fabulous indoor/outdoor thermometer*, and thought for a brief minute it was broken - then I realized that it wasn't telling me it was 40 degrees out, it was 4.0 degrees. brrrr.... and that doesn't take into account the wind chill!

In truth, I actually like this weather. One of the reasons it has been so bitterly cold is because there hasn't been any clouds, and no clouds means that we actually have sunshine! As I learned in sixth grade science class, clouds help keep the earth warm. When the clouds are gone, the weak winter sun does not have the strength to warm the climate over here, so temperatures drop like a hot penny through snow. Most northerners I know, (myself included,) would rather have 3 degrees and sunshine over 30 degrees and gray, gloomy cloudy weather any day. This is part of the reason that we all get really, really depressed come March. March is usually a whole month of gray, cloudy, nasty weather.

In any case, this weather does hold some dangers, one of which is freezing pipes. You guessed it - the reason I am mentioning it is because of my pipes froze this weekend.

I was very lucky. I was home when it happened. I also am aware that this particular pipe has a penchant for freezing. It is a cold water pipe that runs from the basement to the upstairs bathroom. It is against an outside wall and has been known to freeze before. Because I was home I was able to solve the problem before the worst could happen - when pipes freeze up like this, they can burst, causing all sorts of damage. The pipe breaking isn't so bad in itself, but the water damage can be horrible.

One of the ways to keep your pipes from freezing is to run the cold water faucet at a trickle. I hate doing that though... I swear I can hear my water bill going up with each trickle down the drain. Instead, I have been making sure to run that faucet at least twice a day, and making an effort to use that bathroom more. It had been working... up until Saturday. Saturday I went to flush the toilet and nothing happened. I lifted the lid off the tank, and sure enough, there was no water in there. I checked the sink and the shower, and no luck. The cold water wasn't running.

A friend of mine was over at the time, and we rigged a system where we put my hair dryer on a photographic light stand. We locked the dryer in place with zip ties, aimed it at the pipe and let it run for about a half hour. That did the trick! Soon the water was flowing again!

As I said, I lucked out. I was able to catch it before any damage was done but I can't rely on that. Last night I went out to the hardware store and bought a Heat Tape system. (This isn't the exact one that I bought, but it is close.) Of course, now the temperatures are starting to warm up a bit and I may not have this problem again this winter, but one of my goals for 2009 is to winterize the house from top to bottom. I want to make the house more economical for the next few years that I live there. This system has a thermostat so it only goes on when needed. As a frugal consumer, I like that! I am going to get it installed ASAP to prevent any more problems during any future cold snaps this year and then keep in place to plug in next year.

With the cold weather, this has been a good month for spotting other problems in the house - ways that that cold air can leak into the house. I plan on doing a lot this year to make it more efficient.

Photo by: Digitalpapercuts

* The Indoor/Outdoor Thermometer was a Christmas gift from my sister and brother in law. Thanks guys!! I LOVE it!!

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My Financial Rant

Excuse me... pardon me...

Watch your elbow there... I've got this big soap box here under my arm. Here, let me just set this down. Ooofff. There we go....

Wow. Soapboxes are heavy. I see why they are only made figuratively now days and not literally. Lend me your shoulder would you? I'm just going to step right up here and don't want to tip...

Thank you! Ah, that's much better. Quite a view from up here.

So, look. There's been something I've been wanting to write about for weeks, nay, months even. This is something that's been going around and around in my head for a long time, but every time I start to write about it, it comes out as a rant. I don't consider this blog as a place for rants so I kept stuffing in back down into the old mental filing cabinets, but it won't stay there anymore. I have to write about it and along with writing about it I am going to make a deep confession about something I am not very proud of. However, instead of jumping right into the dark and nasty stuff, let's start with something positive, shall we?

I started this blog at the tail end of May last year. Before that time I was always interested in finance (in fact, I got myself completely out of debt... twice) but since that time I've become enamored, enraptured by personal finance; some might even say obsessed. Part of it is pure and simple - I'm picking up survival techniques, but it isn't just that. It is also fascinating to me how many people out there are on their own financial journeys.

Take a look at my blogroll over there. There are people like the author of Bouncing Back From Bankruptcy, who has been through bankruptcy and is now working her way back to financial freedom. Or the author of Moolanomy, who not only shares his financial wisdom, but is also working on really innovative ways to network personal finance folks together, (see pfbuzz for an example.) There is Passive Family Income, a blog by a father who wants to create passive income streams so he can spend more time with his family, and then there is J. Money who actually wildly maintains that Budgets Are Sexy. And that's just a few of the folks, click over to pfbuzz and pick an article at random - there are all kinds of folks out there who are dedicated to one kind of financial path or another.

Bloggers aren't the only ones that inspire me. I have friends and family members that do the same. Those that will talk to me about finance (which is still a pretty taboo subject for most folks I know) tell me about how they are creating budgets of their own, scaling back on purchases, and using creative visualization to get more work.* Over and over I see people striving for their financial goals, and doing whatever it takes to make it happen.

Which leads me to both my rant and my confession...

When I hear of people who are giving up, I get angry. Really angry - and (here's the confession) I find myself being judgmental. It is terrible. Here I am try to be the best all-inclusive "support others" liberal that I was never raised to be - and I find myself wanting to just shake people. In the last three days I have heard two stories on NPR and read another in a news magazine about people losing their homes to foreclosure and I find myself thinking, "But did they really, truly try or did they just give up?" When I hear stories about people I know that aren't paying their bills and aren't even making the effort, I want to walk up and smack them!

It is like there is two extremes in me. I have the highest respect for anyone who tries to do something - even if they fail. Anyone who is out there, brushing off the dust and picking themselves up has my sincere admiration. Anyone who takes on a a financial challenge, whatever it may be, I just want to give them a standing ovation. But when I hear in the news about those who seemed to give up their homes, lives and happiness without even trying - without even a fight, I can't find a lot of pity.

Oh, I know there are two sides to every story - and I also know that what I hear on the news is just a brief human interest segment on the finance show, but I still can't help thinking things to myself like, "So, you need more income? Don't we all! What are you doing about it? Have you checked out Moolanamy's 40+ Alternative Income Ideas and Resources?" or "You - over there complaining about not being able to pay down your debts, have you read Mrs. Micah's post on How to Manage and Start a Debt Snowball?!?" It isn't just bloggers - there are 34,736 books on Amazon all under the heading of Personal Finance (really, I checked.) Trying to save money? Then go check the books out at your local library!

The thing is, personal finance isn't hard. None of us are geniuses. When I hear people say to me, "Oh, you can do it because you are so... (fill in the blank)." I get angry. I'm not any more fill-in-the-blank than anyone else. Okay, some of the terms in finance are complex - I will give you that, but that is why people invented things like dictionaries, libraries, bookstores, Wikipedia and Google... so you can look things up. Much like many things in this world, like plumbing or cricket, for example, it all becomes a whole lot less complicated once you know the terms. There a couple of more things you need for personal finance goals - drive, the willingness to learn and some motivation, but really that is it.

You know what I want? I want every single person who is struggling with a personal finance goal to do two things, 1) go out and get help - whether that is asking a friend or family member for advice, hiring a professional, reading a book or perusing blogs - whatever it takes, I want them to get the information they need. I guarantee it is out there somewhere. 2) I want them to make a effort to reach that goal - whatever that goal may be. I want people to stop sitting on their couches waiting for the president or the tooth fairy or whoever to bail them out. I want them to take matters into their own hands and just try.

Oh, and I also want world peace.

...told you I was a liberal.

* Speaking of creative visualization, Master Your Card has a really great blog post about using creative visualization to complete your personal finance goals. Seriously, it is worth checking out!

Photo by: /\/\ichael PatricI{

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Productive Start to January

I've been feeling remarkably productive lately.

I think part of it is that December was so busy with outside things: I worked two of my part time temp. jobs and did quite a bit of Mystery Shopping on top of all the holiday shopping, parties, functions and so on. It was a month where not a lot of my time was spent on my own projects. Even on the rare occasions when I was home, I was spending time making Christmas gifts, wrapping presents or making holiday food. (Is it just me or does Christmas seem like a year ago already?) That isn't to say that that wasn't valuable time, it was definitely time well spent! But it is a stark contrast to the way things have been going lately.

Though we are only two weeks into January, I've already spent more time on my projects than I did the whole month of December. Being snowed in last weekend helped, but it is more than that - I even seem to find more time day to day to get things done. For example, for months I have had three items sitting on my desk that needed a dab of superglue. For almost the exact same amount of time I have had a brand new package of superglue sitting next to them, waiting to be used. But did it get done? Noooooooo... Then this morning I finished breakfast a bit earlier than usual and realized I had an extra 15 minutes in my morning. Without a second thought I grabbed the items off my desk and the bottle glue and made the repairs. When I think about how long it took me to get around to do this project that in actual time took less than 15 minutes... it is almost embarrassing. On the other hand, at least it is done!

I think one of the big reasons I have motivation this month is because of this blog...

Here's why - in December I posted my 2009 Goals. Most of these goals require a lot of motivation; motivation for cleaning, reorganizing, getting additional funds, etc., and along with motivation, I need accountability. Oh sure, I can be accountable to myself, but when I think about the end of the month and writing a post on how my goals are going, well, let's just say I am a little more likely to take those eBay photos!
One of the things I love about this blog is thinking about all of you who are out there reading this. I really value you guys, and knowing you are all out there inspires me.

Here's another thing, by putting my goals in this blog and referring back to them often, I am putting them out in front of myself as well. Too often in the past it has been easy to make goals for a year and then just forget about them. In fact, I just was going through a blank journal the other day... well, I thought it was blank. It turns out I had written my 2007 goals in there. I had no idea I even had 2007 goals! I couldn't remember writing them in the journal. This year though, I am putting my goals in a place I look at almost every day - my blog. On top of that I will be writing up a summation each month in how I am doing. That too will help keep me on track, not just in measuring success (because there may be down months) but in keeping those goals on the forefront of my mind. They are a bit of a stretch, but completely achievable.

I know it is only 13 days into the month, but I feel like I have made some good progress, and that right there is another motivator. Once I get rolling and start getting things done, I want to keep going - get more done. I'm going to ride this feeling for as long as I can!!

And here is one more motivator - the great gifts I get from other bloggers. Check out what Passive Family Income wrote about my blog today. Thanks again PFI - you put a huge smile on my face!!

Photo by: ....Tim

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Weekend Reflections

Wow, I had a productive weekend! How was yours?

Saturday I had plans to run errands, but when I looked out I noticed it was snowing.... and snowing... and snowing. I am a #1 wuss when it comes to driving on bad roads (despite the fact I have lived in Michigan all of my life) so, I decided to spend time working on inside projects instead. To start with, I finally took down all of my Christmas decor. I would have done it earlier if not for the fact my mother said she wanted to see my house done up for the holidays. Unfortunately, however, she hasn't made it over to my house. I had stopped lighting the tree after the weekend following Christmas, and there is just something depressing about a dark Christmas tree. I just couldn't wait any longer, so down it went. After taking everything down and carefully putting it all away, I cleaned and vacuumed the rooms and put back out my non-seasonal decor. I also did laundry, organized my closet and took a whole bunch of photos for eBay.

The only time I left the house was to shovel. I spent about an hour Saturday night thoroughly cleaning snow and ice from my turn around, my walkway and sidewalks. I even did the neighbor's sidewalk as a thank you for all the times he has snow blown mine. I used the ice scraper I wrote about to clean up all the caked on snow from where tires and feet had compacted it. It worked great! That packed snow is impossible to shovel, but it came right up with the scraper. One funny thing that I noticed - from my upstairs window you can look down at my driveway and even after it is all cleared of snow, you can see a path of icy footprints from the garage to my porch, like a crime scene from the abominable snowman. (With daintier feet, of course.)

Naturally it was all covered with a fine layer of snow by Sunday, however, it was a light layer. Since Sunday seemed like it was going to be a better day for driving I went out - shopping. Does it seem surprising that I would go out shopping?? Well, it wasn't for anything frivolous...

You know how you have "around the house" projects you want to complete but just never do because you are missing some key ingredient or tool? I keep a small notebook in my purse of things like that so that when I am out and about I remember what I need to get. Sunday was a day of picking those things up and crossing them off the list.

I went to the fabric store where I bought two spools of thread to fix a favorite bag and a pair of pants of mine. The thread (which was 50% off) was far less expensive than a new pair of pants! That pair had been sitting in my closet for months because I didn't have the right colored thread to sew a button back on, and since it is button on a back pocket, it would show. Now I can fix them!

I went to Bed, Bath and Beyond where I picked up a birthday gift and some new skirt hangers. I have pretty strict "one in/one out" rule when it comes to clothes, but for some reason I have had several plastic skirt hangers break in the past few months. Since organizing my closet on Saturday, I wanted to make sure everything was hung properly, so I got a new set of heavy duty wooden hangers. Using my 20% off coupons they were about the same as the regular price of the plastic ones, and I think they will last a lot longer.

At the hardware store I bought more driveway de-icer, plus picture hangers so I could get some of my artwork that isn't hung off the floor of the spare bedroom and up on the walls where it belongs. That will not only not only look better, but also help with my goal to get that room cleared out. Mostly I bought regular hangers, but I did buy a set specifically for hanging a 50lb mirror. No, I don't have a 50lb mirror, but I do have a heavy stained glass window that my mother gave me years ago. It is time to get it out of the basement and out on display. I also found that spackle was on sale - just what I needed for my 2009 goal of redoing up the attic room!

I went to not one, not two, but three different stores for pharmacy related products. What can I say? I had gift cards for Rite Aid and Target and a couple of expiring coupons for CVS. (Here's a question for you - why are razor blades so $^*%^! expensive?) I had several things I needed and made the most of each stop.

It might sound like a lot of driving around, but all the stores I needed to hit were along my route to and from Target. While I did spend more money in one day than I have in quite awhile, it was all towards things I need to repair or complete projects. I did splurge on some 90% off "Christmas" wrapping paper and some candles that, in fact, are so neutral they can be used all year around. I love deals like that - just because the packaging has a Christmas tree on it, they put it in the clearance aisle! I would say that almost everything I bought was either on sale or I had a coupon or a gift card for. Overall it was a really good day.

Now that I've been spending though - it is time to get back to the business of making money!

Photo by: vistavision

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ice Scrapers - A Tool To Have

Christmas Eve night I got stuck in my driveway.

Each year on Christmas Eve my sister throws a party. Her husband's family are invited, as are my mother and I. My sister always throws a great gathering and without fail, it is a fun night. This year because of the holiday, I got out of work a bit early and went over to help her set up and cook. Then after the party I stayed to help clean up. I got home about midnight... and that is when I got stuck.

The plow had been through my street leaving a huge pile of snow and ice at the bottom of the drive. To make matters worse, it had just started warming up a bit here, so under all the ice was slush. Here in Michigan we got a record amount of snow for December, so I was pretty used to plowing through snow. I thought I could make it through and up the drive. I was wrong.

I love my car and it has actually been really good this winter. Though usually considered a sports car, if you read car mags all the gurus complain that my particular model is heavy - which means less horsepower. What might be a problem to some is a benefit to me. The extra weight is steel and that means that not only do my doors have that satisfying "thunk" when they close, but the weight helps pilot the car, even when there is so much snow on the roads it feels more like driving a boat than a car. The downside of my car though is that it is really low to the ground - really low. I mean, maybe 6". That was a big part of the problem Christmas Eve.

What happened was my car got stuck on top of the ice and snow at the bottom of the drive. The slush underneath gave me zero traction. I couldn't rock the car, and I certainly couldn't push it - so there I was stuck fast half in, half out of the driveway on Christmas Eve - at midnight.

What do you do? I called one friend who I knew was awake, and not with family, for some advice. Unfortunately, because he lives on the other side of the state he couldn't offer in person assistance, but I figured he might have some tips or ideas. He did. He suggested that I use my garden spade to help break up the ice, so I went to work....

I was at it for about 20 minutes and not getting anywhere but more frustrated, when three slightly drunken college students appeared. One was so hammered that the other, a sweet gal in her twenties, had to take him inside. Before staggering away he offered me a Christmas beer. Nice, but I refused. The other gentleman was sober enough to offer to help. For the next half hour or more we worked at getting my car out. Ultimately I ended up being able to move my car back a few inches - where he would hurriedly shovel out as much ice as he could, then I would rock it forward and back a few more inches and he would shovel again, and repeat. Honestly, once I realized the full extent of the problem, I am not sure how I would have ever got the car out without his help. Oh, and the young gal... she came back and tried to help, but in a 4" skirt and unpractical boots, she wasn't really dressed for it. I appreciated her efforts however, both of them were a Christmas miracle as far as I was concerned!

Once we finally got the car out, I spent another half hour clearing out the residual snow and ice before attempting to take my car back up the driveway. It was certainly an interesting night.

On Christmas Day my mother (ironically since, of course, when she bought it as a gift she had no idea I would be stuck in the driveway the night before) gave me an ice scraper like the one pictured above. It is fabulous! I don't know how many of you live in winter states and half to deal with clearing snow and ice, but this tool is amazing. If I had had one of these, getting my car out would have been much easier! I've used mine a few times now and it is great. The longer handle makes it much easier than my short handled spade and it chomps through ice like a hot knife through butter.

This is not a sponsored post, notice there are no links to a sales center. I just had never seen or used one of these scrapers before and I wanted to share how well it works. You can probably get one at any Home and Garden Center. (I think mine came from Ace Hardware.) Personally I have a bad back, so snow removal is not one of my favorite things. Any tool I can find to make life easier is great by me!

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

An Empty Refrigerator is a Happy Refrigerator

I just looked in my refrigerator and it is getting pretty bare. This makes me rather happy.

Why? you ask. Good question!

I know many frugal grocery shoppers out there are big fans of stocking up. I don't shop that way, however. In fact, I prefer to buy most of my food items in pretty small quantities. For me is a little like dollar cost averaging - I might buy some things high, but other times I buy them low. I guarantee, however, I only buy what I need.

I work from a menu. Once a week or so I sit down and make a menu of things I can make for the upcoming week. I usually try to shop from my own cupboards first. I look for recipes that will let me use up that half a bag of lentils or partial box of whole wheat pasta, for example. I also prefer to eat seasonally. This means in the winter we are talking about a lot of beans and grains here. In the warmer months I shop at the farmer's market and buy all my produce there, but with a few exceptions, I don't like purchasing produce at grocery stores. Too much of it is shipped in from other places and grown not for flavor or nutritional content, but its ability to survive a long trip. That isn't healthy eating to me. Besides, some items like bell peppers are so ridiculously expensive they are hardly frugal.

So, I make menus. I like to sit down with cup of coffee and pour through my cookbooks and find things that look interesting. I rarely make the same recipe more than once or twice. I'm like my father in that way. He was a fellow home cook who would bored with making something after awhile. Half of the fun of cooking is figuring out new recipes!

While I am making my menu, I am also making a grocery list. It is so much easier to just do the two at the same time. Then, when I go to make something off my menu, I know that I already have the ingredients in the house. So, if I love to cook, why am I happy my refrigerator is empty?

Well, if you think about it, Refrigerator = Perishable. Items in the freezer are going to last quite awhile. Same thing with items in the cupboard, but the majority of things in the refrigerator are items that you either have to eat up, or it goes bad. I absolutely hate wasting food. It drives me crazy to throw something out that just didn't get eaten - and since I live alone, believe me, I know who is at fault!

Over the holidays with parties and holiday gatherings, my refrigerator got stocked with a lot of perishable food. Every time I had dinner at my mother's, for example, she sent me home with bags of leftovers. I threw a big gathering the Saturday after Christmas and ended up with a whole stocked refrigerator of delicious, but perishable, foods. On top of that, one of my friends gave me a Christmas gift that was absolutely perfect for me - a whole basket of cheeses. (Yum!)

I am rather pleased that very little went to waste. The cheeses were enjoyed over glasses of wine on several cold and snowy nights, and I was able to either eat, freeze or cook with nearly everything else. Leftovers are wonderful a wonderful thing. I would have been sad if I had had to dispose of them. (I even managed to freeze all the bones from a chicken dish a friend made at my house for the party. I plan on making a big pot of homemade stock.)

Now as I peer into my refrigerator and see the empty shelves, I smile to myself. It is time to make a new menu.

Photo by: Miss Barbara

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Friday, January 9, 2009

Home Sweet Home

So, I was noticing last night that I use my house completely differently now that I am divorced than I did when I was married. Anyone who reads this blog probably knows my story - my ex-husband and I bought this house when we were married. We separated and I moved out and he was supposed to take over the house, per our agreement. For various reasons that didn't end up happening and when the dust cleared and the divorce was settled, I ended up with the house. Paying for it is the whole reason I started this blog.

Back when I was married, I would say the majority of my time was spent in three areas of the house - my office, one of the dining areas, or in the room I now refer to as the library. My office was located up in the attic and was my place to "get away." My computer was there, along with my art supplies and favorite books. It was my own little haven. "Dining areas" refers to three different places - the front and back porches and the dining room. In good weather we always ate outside. I would say that a lot of my time with my ex was spent in one of these spots, having long talks over meals. The room that I call the library (we called it something else then) had a couch and tv and was the general room for watching movies and so forth. I now call it the library for two reasons: 1) it has great big bookshelves loaded with books in it and 2) I have always wanted to live in a house with a library.

Having moved out of the house for a year and then moved back in, I now use the house in other ways than I did before. I actually have stretched out and use a lot more of the house than I did previously. That strikes me as strange. Going from a 400 sq. foot apartment to a 2300 sq. foot house, one might think that I would stick to just one or two rooms, but that hasn't been the case at all.

To start with, I don't use the dining area as much. Oh, I still love to eat outside, but I don't have furniture on the front porch anymore, that went to my ex. I still have a set for the back porch, but that only works in the summer! It is a bit nippy to be eating out there now, not to mention I hate getting snow in my food. I find that I occasionally eat in the dining room, but mostly I eat at the counter bar in the kitchen, something I never did when married. It isn't because I have the world's ugliest dining room table, because frankly, what it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in comfort. These chairs may be painful to look at but they sure are comfy! (And I can't complain at all - it was free!) Yet for some reason, I just gravitate to the kitchen more often than not. Maybe because kitchens always feel homey?

Then there is the front room of the house - the formal living room, if you will. It has beautiful furniture and is a nice room, but in the past it was pretty much only used for company. Now I find it is one of my favorite rooms for reading, talking on the phone and even taking naps. It's a chilly room, as it is one of the few rooms with original windows from the 1800s, but I've put a few afghans around. In the old days I would only use the room when I thought to myself "Gee, I should use that room more." but now every time I am on the phone for more than a few minutes I find myself gravitating there, to curl up on the couch with an afghan over my legs and to idly watch the snow fall.

The library is still a favorite room of mine. My favorite reading chair is there, along with my reading lamp and, of course, all the books! But it isn't the only place I read. Sometimes I find myself in the front room, other times up in the bedroom.

In the past I never kept books in the bedroom since my ex had an issue with it. It had to do with feng shui; he felt that it distracted from sleep. I never noticed that being a problem for me, so now in the bedroom I have a small bookshelf with many of my spiritual books on it. I also have a couple beautiful photo books on my nightstand and a novel (or two) tucked underneath it. The last couple of weeks when I haven't been feeling well I've been going up to the bedroom, lighting a few candles and snuggling in the covers reading. It's been wonderful and very peaceful.

The attic, where my office used to be, is empty. While is a great space, being up in the eaves, it gets mighty cold in the winter and mighty hot in the summer. One of my plans for 2009 is to clean up this room and make it into a great storage/work space. It needs some love: mainly some plaster patching, some old carpet pulled up, and the floor repainted. I am also considering keeping my eye out at the discount warehouse for a cabinet or two I could install. Basically I want to make this into a functional room for either an office or storage.

Not using this space means I don't have an office area of my own yet. I have my computer tucked away into the spare bedroom, but that area needs a lot of help. Tons of help, actually. I tend to keep my house pretty tidy, but this room is where all the miscellaneous "stuff" gets tossed. One of my goals this weekend is to start working on it. What I would like to do is clean it out completely and make it into an area that will be both my office and a spare bedroom should I have company. I also want to keep it open in case I should have to take on a roommate for awhile. A lot of the "junk" in the room is eBay stuff. Since I have started setting up a space in the basement for eBaying, I want to sort through everything and get it downstairs. Another goal for 2009 is selling 3 eBay items per week, so these two goals can work together.

In the basement presently I have my book selling area. Again, I hardly used the basement before I was married. Now I spend a lot of time down there organizing books to be sold. I also have my workshop down there for home improvement projects and soon all my craft supplies are also going down there, just so that everything is in one spot. It will be great when I can easily lay my hands on anything I need for a project, be it glitter or a jig saw.

It occurs to me as I think about all this, that I am using my house more completely, more fully. I am actually getting more value out of my home than I did before. I am sure the change has to do in part with the divorce, but also in how I view the space. When my ex and I were together he paid predominately for the house and I paid for the cabin. Now that I am paying for the house, it feels more like mine. I think there is something in feeling like you own something when you pay for it. Also, way back then my ex had hired the services of a house cleaner. While it was nice, I find that now that I am doing all the cleaning and repairs myself, I feel more connected to the house. I see things that I never noticed before, I am learning its personality and quirks. In the past I felt like a stranger living on a set, now I feel like I am home.

Photo by: Riot Jane

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Hey - I Just Made Money with eHow!

So, here is something rather cool. I just got paid $5.69 for my articles on eHow. A few months back several bloggers like Passive Family Income wrote about their successes with writing articles for eHow. (Writing for Your Wealth is another great blog for this type of work and just had a great series on it.) So, I don't know - back sometime in September I wrote a couple articles... then forgot about them. Just this week I received an email from them letting me know they had credited my account. Yay!

The concept of eHow is fairly simple - you write "How to" articles and post them. As people read them and click on the advertising links, you get paid. The website is really easy to use and you can write about anything from How to Make an Emergency Kit for Your Car to How to Replace the Speakers on a 1987 Chevy. The articles are designed to be short and sweet and are really easy to write since they have a nice template all set up for you to use.

So, the other night while driving to my mother's house I was thinking about writing this post and I thought of several other different articles I could write. Fortunately, I keep a notebook in my purse at all times for just this kind of thing, so at the next stoplight I jotted down several ideas. I mean, why not? I love writing and this is the kind of thing that is right up my alley.

My in-the-car inspiration aside, the hard thing is coming up with articles to write. I don't feel like I know how to do much that other people don't know how to do, but then again, every article doesn't have to be about brain surgery. In fact, I just used an eHow article the other day when I was having problems configuring my Yahoo email account. A couple weeks ago I used another one for how to put up caulk in cold weather.

With the internet being such a huge resource for information, people are going online first when they are trying to solve a problem. I think that with the new frugal-forward fix-it-yourself economy of 2009, this is going to be truer than ever. So why not share your knowledge?

Photo by: MatthewBradley

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Making Your Own Raise - And How To Spend It

My boss stopped into my office this morning and said, "Oh, by the way... with everything the way it is right now, we are in a wage freeze."

I nodded and quickly donned my human resources hat. "That's okay," I said, "I don't think anyone was expecting raises. Besides we don't have anyone due for a review for awhile."

"Well, there was one person who was due for January..."

"Who?" I asked.



I was hired in May, so that is my official anniversary, but way back when they asked me to become a manager they gave me a raise, so that became my official review date. It had somewhat slipped my mind. Of course it would have been nice to get a wage increase, but with the layoffs we just had, I certainly wasn't expecting one. In fact, Budgets Are Sexy had a post today asking if you would be willing to take a 10% paycut if it meant that other employees could keep their jobs. I absolutely would. Frankly, while a raise would have been nice, I'm just happy to have a job.

That doesn't mean that my paycheck will stay the same though... we also have a Flexible Savings Account plan where I work. I love my FSA. Each year in December we have to decide how much we want taken out of our paychecks to be put into the account. It is always a bit of a crap shoot since you want as much as possible in there for all of your medical bills that might come up, but if you don't use it, you lose it. Ever since the year where I had to run out and get a pair of prescription sunglasses to make sure I had enough reimbursements, I tend to shoot for the low side. I figure out what my approximate yearly health expenses will be, tack on a couple hundred to round it up and call it good. Almost every year I have ran out, usually in about December. I figure that is pretty good odds. I get the majority of my costs covered, no money lost, and I can usually handle any bills that come up in the last month of the year.

Last year I knew going in that I was going to have a pretty expensive year financially. On top of all the regular routine sorts of things, I had regular therapy appointments and a few other medical needs. I set my FSA as high as I have ever had it. It worked out pretty good too - in December I was down to $.92. One dentist bill later and my FSA for 2008 was wiped out. This year, however, things are bit different. My medical needs this year will be a lot lower, so I lowered the amount going into my FSA.

This reduction means that I get an extra $36.68 in each paycheck. I get paid twice a month, so then I had to decide what to do with the extra $73.36.

I thought for awhile about how I can best use that $36.68 each paycheck. The goal would be to maximize it so I get the best and most practical benefit out of it. My first thought was to funnel it into my emergency fund, since that is one of my big goals for 2009, but I've already done some work in that direction. However, the biggest goal I have and the most important one is to make my $900 goal each month. So, I decided that the best thing for me was split the money up. One $36.68 would go into my checking account to help me reach my goal. The other $36.68 would go towards my credit card.

I am currently paying $75 a month on the card. At this rate it will take me slightly over a year to pay off the balance. However, having it paid off this year is another one of my 2009 goals, so now I will bump up my monthly payments to $111.68. Now, I am looking at just 8 months. However, I am not quite done yet. I mentioned in another post that I plan on taking some of my December surplus and also applying it to my credit card balance. If I put $250 of the surplus money on the balance, now I am looking at just over 5 months of payments!

Besides finally being free of the debt that I have been carrying since my divorce, this will mean a huge bonus for me this year. As I've mentioned, my car is paid off in June and the current car payment is $307. If the credit card and car are paid off at about the same time, that means that I will have an extra $418.68 each month! Wouldn't that be wonderful?

I thought about putting the whole $73.36 towards the credit card. If it weren't for the fact I start out each month in the hole, that is exactly what I would do. However, with my situation, I need cash, simple as that. Even $36.68 makes a difference! On the other hand, I could put the whole amount towards my monthly goal, and then if I hit $900 put the surplus towards the credit card, but the problem there is that nothing gets added if I don't make the $900 each month. I feel that by splitting the money up I can get the biggest bang for my buck - if you know what I mean!

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

January Bills Come Rolling In

It looks like it was a good thing that I had a profitable December. Some of the bills are coming in and things are a little higher than expected.

My electricity bill went up a bit, which actually wasn't entirely unexpected. I chose to have Christmas lights up this year - not on the house, but I had two trees (one large, one small) that were on timers. They went on just before I got home each night and went off at midnight. The difference was only about $20 on my bill, but considering that I have gotten my electric bill as low as $25, that is quite a percentage jump. Still, it was worth it - I definitely got $20 of Christmas cheer out of it! I also suspect that I had the lights on more in general and I haven't been as vigilant lately in making sure that I am using predominately the fixtures with CFLs in them. Since using CFLs has been such a successful method for lowering my bills, I am going to make it a higher priority this month to get back in that habit.

I also have snowplowing done at my cabin. Even though I almost never get up there in December, I still like to have it plowed so it looks occupied. My neighbor keeps an eye on the place for me, but still, there is no use encouraging vandals! I do love to go there in the winter whenever I can though, just because it is so peaceful. I like to snuggle up by the wood stove under an afghan with a mug of hot chocolate and book, watching the snow blow across the lake. One year I took a winter vacation there and spent a whole week in January just relaxing. I'd be tempted to do that again if it weren't for the recent layoffs at my job. Although I don't think my job is in jeopardy, I do think it is a good idea to be seen around the office as much as possible for awhile. I am hoping I might be able to get up to the cabin for a weekend or two this month, anyway. The snowplow service is flexible. He does it only on the weekends and only as needed. I can always call him if I were planning on going up the middle of the week, but for the most part, this system works out well. I pay on a "as needed" basis and last month it was needed every weekend. So, that is an unplanned expense that I will have to budget for next year.

My other unplanned expense was my cell phone bill. It was up quite a bit from my normal rate. That was due to holiday calling and a lot of extra text messaging. I have a text plan that normally works out great, but I went over last month. I hate doing that, so I am going be a lot better at keeping an eye on my usage. I don't expect it will be a regular problem though, again I think it was mostly due to the holidays.

The good news is that once again I got my bill for auto fuel and it was incredibly low. Though I budget $150 monthly for gas, that was in the $4.00 per gallon heyday of summer when I was driving a lot more. Last month I spent only $33.92 on gas! I am tempted to adjust my budget, but I think I will just let that line item ride for awhile. I suspect that gas will go up and spring is not that far away - both will mean more money spent on gas. I started my budget in June, so perhaps I will leave it where it is at for a full year, then do an average.

Another boon for this month is that I am well stocked on groceries. Hopefully I can get by with fewer stops to the grocery store this month. Last month was expensive with bringing dishes to parties and so on. I don't see that being much of a problem this month. Perhaps the big bills and small will all even out in the end.

Photo by: Dolinski

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What to do with December's Surplus

Last month I was over my goal by over $1000. The question now is, what do I do with the surplus?

One of my goals for 2009 is to get one month's income stashed tidily away in an emergency savings account. To that goal I transferred over $250 from the December surplus into my emergency fund. This, plus the amount that I already had stashed away, puts me at about 25% of my goal. That's a pretty good start for the beginning of the year, but it won't be enough.

Each month, as part of my $900 a month plan, I transfer over $50 into emergency savings. So, that means $600 for the year. Naturally I try to add to it in various ways, but let's just start right there. If we take $600 + $250 + the current emergency fund = Less than half of what I need. Ouch!

So what does that mean? Is my goal too ambitious? Not only am I looking to have one month of emergency money put away I am also going to pay off my credit card, my car and make $900 a month. Am I wanting too much? Am I completely crazy?

I don't think so. Already in the past six months that I have had this blog I have seen that amazing things can be done if you put your mind to it. I know that there will be financial returns in the future that will help with this goal - I may not be able to predict what they are going to be, but I know they can happen. In these months, twice I have not only hit my goal but exceeded it. A few months like that - a windfall - a little extra part time work - even just a few extra dollars here and there. That is all it takes, "from pennies, dollars are made." See what happened last month - it was just small transactions, a few dollars here and a few there that made that month work. I can do this.

And, time is on my side. My car will be paid off in June and that will free up an extra $300 a month. I plan on taking another portion of last month's surplus and paying down my credit card. Once that is paid off, it will free up $75 a month - and at the rate of $375 a month, I could get that emergency fund funded in no time!

It won't be easy, but I know it can be done. This is going to be an incredibly productive year. I am going to work hard and make it happen.

Photo by: marielito

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Monday, January 5, 2009

How I Made My Financial Goals Last Month

Here are all of the ways I made extra money above my regular income last month:

1. Bank Interest - I love bank interest. Bank interest really is the perfect passive income. It requires absolutely no work on my part, other than making sure I have money in the accounts to begin with, of course! Currently I have 3 money in three different banks that pay interest - my local credit union, ING Direct and Emigrant.com. While it isn't a lot of money each month, I love that it just automatically appears in my accounts.

2. Tenant Rent - This income does not appear in my little counter on the right, but I am including it here in case anyone is looking for ideas on ways to make extra income each month. My home has a one bedroom apartment in it that I rent out. Being a landlord is not easy money, however. It is a lot of work and responsibility.

3. eBay - Didn't make a lot of money here, but I did sell a few items. This is on my list for my 2009 goals. I plan on doing a lot more with eBay in the coming months.

4. Amazon.com/Half - I had hoped that my online book selling business would really boom in December as people were buying Christmas gifts, but I can't say that I saw that happen. Overall it was a pretty standard month for me. Still, this is a great way to make extra money each month, and in fact, my aunt gave me a big bag of books so I have some new ones to add to the inventory.

5. Closed a bank account - In addition to the accounts mentioned above, I had another small account at another local bank. It was a business account for a small hobby/business. I had been really unhappy with the bank's customer service and decided to close the account.

6. Mystery Shopping - For the most part, the money I get from Mystery Shopping is not income, but is actually reimbursements. I make very little actual extra money doing Mystery Shopping, however, it is a great way to go out to eat with a friend (since I mostly shop restaurants.) However, due to the accounting most of my Mystery Shopping reimbursements come in the month after I do the work, so to make things easier, I simply put the expense in my "Dining Out" column of my budget and the reimbursements in the next month's income.

7. Holiday Bonus - This is what really made this month great. I was not expecting much of a bonus at all, but we were fortunate. Compared to past years it was a small bonus, but considering where the company is right now, it was unexpected and welcome.

8. Part Time Temp Job #1 - There was a lot of work at PTTJ #1 in November and December. The work that I did in November got counted towards December because it was paid out Dec. 1 (and I never add the money to my goal tracker until the check is in hand.) So, I got two checks in December for this job. I work there in the evenings and weekends when there is work available.

9. Part Time Temp Job #3* - Another "when there is a little extra work" job, I was able to help out one night at PTTJ #3 last month, which was great! I love helping out there.

10. Paid Surveys - Again, not a ton of money here - just $6.00. Still, it was $6.00 I didn't have before and for a very small investment of time. I tell you, I wish I had a lot more of these to do.

11. Escrow Reimbursement - Certainly not something someone can rely on, but this check was really welcome this month. My ex had extra home insurance for his camera equipment. That was removed when we were divorced in June. My payments didn't change then, but they reimbursed me in December and my payments are about $20 less for next year. Which leads me to -

12. Savings - Got to love Savings. Savings are even more passive than bank interest. What do I consider savings? Savings are any amount that I can shave off the $900 goal each and every month. When I took over the house and set my budget, (and started this blog) I took the same figures that I had been using pre-house and added to it all the known mortgage and house expenses. As I have written before, I made the conscious choice to continue to set money aside for Christmas, to continue to pay down my credit card at far above minimum payments, to not eat Ramen noodles. This meant that when I added everything up, then subtracted my salary and the tenant rent, I was $900 short. "Savings" in this context isn't coming in under my grocery budget, it is making a change that reduces that $900 consistently. In my case it was decreases in property taxes, changing my insurance and changing how I managed my emergency fund. These were all changes that took place at the end of May, and have saved me $161.44 each month. This month I will be able to add that $20 decrease in my mortgage payment to it.

This month - This month is going to be a bit harder. I don't have any part time work lined up yet. There is some at the end of the month, but once again, that will pay in February, so it won't help me much. That means I need to rely on my own power to make money this month, which means I need to work hard in the sales area. I have eBay and Amazon sales I need to do as well as selling my friend's furniture. The good thing is that after such a great month in December, I do have a bit of a buffer built up. That makes things a little easier.

Photo by: Carol Esther

*By the way, in case you are wondering there is a PTTJ #2. It has work just 3 weeks out of the year though. My next time working there will be in February.

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