Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Results of the No Spending Challenge

If you've been reading this blog at all this month you know that for March I decided on a "No Spending Challenge" to help with my budget. I undertook it because expected this month to be very tight financially. In truth, it really would have been a crunch had I not changed my tax withholding. Because of the withholding though, it turned out much better than expected. The Challenge was a good thing for me to do on many levels. Not only did I save quite a bit of money, I also learned a lot about myself and my shopping habits. For instance, it really hit home to me how often I buy things that I feel like I NEED right now. This month I spent a lot of time asking myself, "Is that something I have to buy today or can it wait a month?" You know what? most times, things can wait. That's when I realized that I have a lot of money tied up in pieces and parts of projects I am going to do "someday." This month taught me a good lesson - I need to focus on purchasing when I need something - not when I feel the need to shop!

I also got a peek into my emotional buying patterns. I didn't realize how often I buy things, namely food, out of an emotional need. This explains the chocolate cravings, the wanting a high end coffee, being tempted by bottles of wine, good cheese - that sort of thing. When I am stressed/happy/angry/sad/tired/well rested/contented/you name it, I feel that I deserve certain things. Sometimes it is a reward for hard work, other times it is a balm for my weary soul. I am not sure that this is always a bad thing, but for me it had become a habit. I am still a believer in treating yourself now and again, but swearing off doing it for four little weeks should not really be a problem. It was for me. That makes me think that I need to be a lot more conscious of how I spend... and why.

I'm thinking that I need to make No Spending Challenges a regular part of my life. Not as an every day thing, but maybe one week out of a month or perhaps one month per quarter. If I go that route, my next No Spending month would be June. I felt the Challenge changed my focus and cleared my mind, while at the same time helped my budget. I also think that I was really helped this month in some ways by the fact that I was so busy. That made not shopping a lot easier. It would be interesting to try this again when I had a lot more leisure time.

Now, let's look at the numbers, shall we?

Utilities -

Overall this has been an area I have been working on since I started my budget. These bills fluctuate a bit. This month, for example, my water bill was higher than it has been, but my gas bill was lower. I have installed cfls and have worked on cutting the heat - whatever I can do to trim these bills. Total savings from the budget - $33.89

Auto Fuel -

My spending on gas was a little higher this month than it has been in the past few months - all that driving around took its toll. However, since gas dropped from $4.00 a gallon down to under $2.00, I've been coming in under budget for months. Last June I set this budget at $150 - and was regularly spending $130 -$140 in gas. This month I spent $66.66. Savings from the budget - $83.34 (I plan on adjusting this line item to reflect current prices when I redo my budget in June.)

Groceries -

I spent more on groceries than I expected. When I started the month, I had a pretty well stocked house, however, I was involved in a couple of different gatherings where I was expected to bring something. In one case I was able to pay for that with money from returning bottles (.10 return here in Michigan), but in others I ended up buying things to make dishes to pass. I also had a house guest for several days. Rather than eating out for every meal, we made a few dinners. They were a bit more elaborate that I would have made for myself, so the bill went up. My house guest picked up the tab when we did go out, so the expenditure was probably the same for both of us. While the savings was small - $14.21 I am still pleased. My grocery budget is $125 a month, and this is one of those categories that is very easy for me to go over in. Coming under budget is great.

Dining Out -

This too was higher than I expected, though I still came in under budget. I shouldn't have been surprised though! As I have mentioned, I spent a lot of time volunteering this month. And what do you think a bunch of volunteers do after working hard night after night? They go out afterward! I only went out 3-4 times, but that adds up, especially when you add it to the little lunches with friends I plan on each month. Still, I should be happy, after all, the places we went give me credit in my Upromise account! Total savings- $22.21.

Entertainment -

I give myself a $50 entertainment budget, though I almost never use all of that. This is used for seeing movies, plays, going to museums, etc. When I made my budget, didn't want to cut those things out. Most months I don't use the full $50, so this is another number I may tweak come June. The only thing that came out of it this month was my $5.29 ($4.99+ tax) Netflix account. Total savings- $44.71.

Home Improvement -

I am really, really proud of myself here. This is one of those lines on my budget that ends up over budget regularly. As I have said many, many times - I love home improvement projects! However, I made it my goal not to buy anything I didn't immediately need. The benefit? Of my $50.00 budget, I only spent $2.69 on a dryer vent. I even happened to have a coupon for it! Total savings- $47.31.

Mailing, Shipping, etc. -

This is where I categorize the cost of selling items on eBay, Half and Amazon. It is kind of a mixed blessing that I came in over in this area. On one hand, my shipping fees were low, as were my eBay fees - on the other hand, that's because I wasn't selling very much! Total savings- $56.54.

Charitable Donations -

Another category that is a mixed blessing. Normally I try to donate $15.00 a month to a charity I support. This month I was so busy it slipped right by me! I forgot to donate! Of course, if you count the hours that I put in volunteering, well, let's just say it was worth a lot more than $15.00! In addition, as mentioned under grocery, I spent well over $15 in buying food to prepare for nonprofit events, so I don't feel too bad about it. Still... depending on how money looks next month I might try to donate $30. Total savings- $15.00.

Misc. -

This is the third in the "Usually Over Budget" trinity. This is where so, so many of my impulse buys wind up - under the "Misc."category. However, this month I spend a grand total of $7.90! That amount was for materials to make thank you cards for my fellow volunteers, and because I handmade the cards, I still have plenty of materials left to make many, many more cards for other events. Total savings- $42.10.

The grand total is $359.31!

Almost every month I have budget categories where I come in a little under or a little over - this was the first month since creating my budget in June that I have ever come this much under! Looks like it was a successful challenge all the way around.

It isn't something I could do every month though. Let's face it - some months I am going to have bigger home improvement projects. I'm going to want to use my entertainment fund. I am going to remember to donate to charity! Plus there really were times that I felt deprived, and that isn't what I want. I made the choice sometime ago that I would rather work a little harder at earning money than cut out all the things I love. There were times when the No Spending Challenge was enlightening, but there were also times when it was kind of a pain. I love the quote, "All things in moderation... including moderation." What I think I would like to do is try to apply the lessons I have learned this month to the next couple of months, then revisit the Challenge. This summer, especially July and August, might be great months to go back to this, since I don't have a lot of extra income lined up for those months yet!

With the $359.31 I was able to shave out of my budget and the $736.08 I was able to bring in, my $900 goal for the month was covered and then some! Looks like March didn't turn out to be such a bad month after all!

Photo by: jpre86. I love this colorful piggy bank!

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Pharmacy Discounts and Grocery Shopping

So, today I had to get a prescription filled. Turns out that Rite Aid is having a deal where you can get a $25 gift card if you transfer over a prescription - $50 in gift cards if you transfer over 2! I did this once back in December and got a $25 card, then did it again today for another one. The December one was great because I used it to pick up a number of little stocking stuffers and that kind of thing. This time I just happened to need a refill and instead of going to CVS I asked Rite Aid to transfer it over. One suggestion: if you are going to do to this, bring along your old prescription bottle or the printed information sheet that is stapled to the prescription bag that has your name and the dosage on it. That makes it a whole lot easier. If you stop in a Rite Aid they should have the coupons in their flyer, but if not you can print them from the link above.

To be honest, I am not a huge Rite Aid fan. The one that I go to always seems to have slowest cashiers. However, they do have a pharmacy card that is rather nice. It helps out on the one 'script' that I get that isn't covered by my insurance. (The card is free, by the way.) It also has discounts on Rite Aid products. My plan is to use the gift card I got on Rite Aid cleaning products and things like that, combined with the prescription card, I should be able to stretch that gift card out quite a bit!

In other grocery shopping news....

I'm starting a food pricing spreadsheet. Basically I've got a spreadsheet divided into different categories - bread products, dairy, meat, beverages, etc. and I am tracking how much I spend on different items. This isn't something that I have ever paid any attention to in the past, but now that I am tracking it, I am finding huge differences in cost. For example, my favorite brand of sparkling water is almost a dollar more at the dingy little local grocery than it is at the big mega-supermarket. The funny thing is that if you had asked me, I would have guessed the opposite! I think it is because to me, dingy little store = lower quality which should = lower cost. I sometimes swing in there to pick up standard things I use, (though never vegetables - the place has the worst produce.) but I don't like shopping there. It just happens to be fairly close to my house. Big mega-supermarket, on the other hand, is considerably nicer inside and cleaner. It also has better produce. It's right across from work, so is handy if I am planning on shopping. I would have thought it would be more, but the numbers prove me wrong! It is rather refreshing to know that the place I enjoy shopping is actually less than the place I don't - at least on this item.

Anyway, since I tend to only by staples and very little preprocessed food, the spreadsheet is taking quite awhile to take shape, but it is still interesting. I admit, I love figuring out stuff like that. I'm not good at math, but this is the kind of computer-geek stuff I love!

Photo by: nasirogues

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My 2009 Goals as of March

Since we are getting towards the end of the month here, I thought I would do an update on my 2009 goals. As I've been doing the last three months, the color of the header indicates progress from red, which means no progress has happened at all, to green, which indicates I consider this a success.

My Financial Goals

One Month of Emergency Savings - This has been a success! My 2008 tax refund money is in my emergency account. I now have one month of day job salary + tenant rent + $900 safely stashed away in an online savings account. It isn't getting the highest interest rates right now, but I need to keep it out of my general fund, and yet still accessible for emergencies. I am a long way from being out of the woods!

Credit Card Paid Off - I just keep plugging away at this one. I am now down to $333.43. Since I am paying $111.68 each month, my last payment will be the first of June! I can't wait! Now, I could take that $333.43 out of emergency funds, pay off the balance and then just pay myself back. It makes financial sense, because though my interest rate on the credit card is quite low, it is still higher than the rate I could earn in my emergency fund. Perhaps I should do it, and yet, I hesitate. It feels incredibly good to know that that one month of savings is stocked away. I don't want to immediately turn around and access it for a non-emergency. I've run into problems before by robbing Peter to pay Paul, and I just don't want to do it again. For now I will pay the little extra interest and continue my monthly plan.

Car Paid Off - I am in almost exactly the same spot as above. The last car payment will be due the first part of June. Again - I can't wait! It is very exciting to think about no longer spending that money. I plan on keeping my car for as long as I possibly can. It will be great to no longer have a car payment!

Three eBay Items Per Week - Oh my, how about NO eBay items for March??? I don't like that I wasn't able to meet this goal (or even come close) but I don't see how it could have been otherwise. eBay sales take time and energy and I had neither this month. Since I was volunteering almost every evening, I didn't have the time to take photos, write up descriptions or pretty much anything else. Ah well, April is another month...

Get an Additional $900 Per Month - Looks like I am going to come in a bit shy this month. I knew that would be the case though, and that is why I undertook my No Spending Challenge for this month. Truthfully, I am thrilled with how well I was able to do, considering that most of March I worked an additional 20-40 volunteer hours on top of my regular day job. Because of the challenge I came in well under all my budgets and though I didn't get $900 in income, I have more than enough for the month. In fact, I was still able to work 3 shifts at the part time job and I sold well over $75.00 of Amazon books! That really helped, let me tell you! It looks like with my new home improvement goals, I'll be keeping this $900 a month goal for quite awhile...

Home Improvement

Repaint My House - I put $500 down on this on a security deposit for supplies this weekend. Whew! I can't believe I am doing this. It simultaneously feels like a very mature, smart decision, and really scary to be spending all that money! I work so hard for the extra income... and there a big chunk goes in one little check. Ouch. However, it has to be done and as the painter pointed out, doing it now before too much rots is better than leaving it for too long and having my wood siding be completely destroyed. I also know this will go a long way towards my home value when the time comes to sell it. It is still a big step though!

Create a Compost Pile, Winterize the Home, Paint the Bedroom and Fix up the Attic - What can I say? I didn't do a dang thing on any of these. I vaguely considered it, but much like the eBay sales, I was just too busy. I had hoped to make some progress on at least one of these this weekend, but it turned out that I needed time to recoup. Instead I spent time relaxing, cooking and cleaning. These projects will just have to wait another month, I think. That's okay - I still have 9 more before the end of my deadline!

Personal Growth

Self Schooling - I was able to do a couple of things this month along this line. I met with some people that are putting together a volunteer position in my field of study. I'm not interested in being the volunteer at this point, (I have enough on my plate as it is,) but helping to create this position is valuable experience. I also jumped on an opportunity to register for an April seminar that relates to my field of interest. I still need to get myself down to the library and check out some books so that even in busy times, I can be studying up!

Gratitude Journal - I admit my gratitude journal has suffered a bit this month. Again, it all had to do with late nights and pouring myself into bed without taking the time to write before falling asleep. While I wish I had been more vigilant with it, the fact was that sleep needed to come first. I don't expect that I will have another busy month like this for a long time, so I will get back with my daily writing starting tonight.


I do have a few other irons in the fire as well. I'm not quite ready to talk about them yet, but let's just say that I am not planning on letting any moss gather! I've got some additional ideas for both passive income and "dollars for hours" work that I am hoping I can put into play. (As things develop a little bit, I promise I will make sure and write about them though.) Now that I have this huge expense of getting the house painted, I need to watch dollars and cents even more than I ever have. This summer means a lot less part time work, and though I have put in (for yet another) part time job, I haven't heard anything yet. Still, there are other opportunities like sales of varying kinds, the annual garage sale, and of course, back to eBay!

This gorgeous photo of spring crocus is by: RebelBlueAngel. Crocus are one of my favorite flowers. They don't last long, but you know when you see them that it is finally spring! Mine in my garden are just coming up and starting to open. This makes me very happy.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Getting My House Painted

I met with a house painter today.

It is not going to be cheap to get my behemoth of a house painted. Nope, not at all. And yet, I am oddly incredibly happy. ...why?

First of all, I like and respect the gentleman I am going to hire. I think that is an important factor when it comes to hiring someone to do a service for you. It shouldn't be the only thing, of course, (plenty of people have horror stories about hiring friends) but all things being equal in terms of service and quality, I'll take the person I will enjoy working with over someone who sets my teeth on edge every single time.

I met him when he stopped by a garage sale I held this summer with all my best gals. He and I got to chatting and it came out that he was painter (which was really pretty obvious by his clothes) and I told him that at some point I wanted to paint my place. Shortly thereafter he put together a quote for me. Even though his quote was very reasonable, I couldn't afford him at the time and told him so, but I promised that I'd keep him in mind when I was ready. Well, I'm as ready as I will ever be. I can't possibly hold out too much longer, the wood is starting to rot. I have never had to paint a house before, so I thought I would set up an appointment with him to talk over logistics. It went really well...

He and his lady live in my neighborhood, just around the corner, really, and he has worked on many homes like mine. This was really important to me. Not everyone knows how to deal with these Grand Old Dame Victorian houses. A house is not a house. These girls built in the 1800s have quirks and characteristics that modern homes don't have. My home is 3" clapboard and there are a few pieces already that will need replacing, among other things.

We met at a home he is in the process of remodeling and I was able to look at and see the quality of his interior work, then we drove about and he showed me several homes he painted. He also gave me a list of referrals and copies of his insurance. Overall I feel very confident he is the painter for me.

Now comes the question... how the hen am I going to pay for it?!?!?!

First of all I explained my situation to the painter. I told him where I was coming from and how much money I had. He and I worked out a deal where we can do the house quarter by quarter - basically, I can pay him by the side! This means I don't have to have all the money at once. I have set aside enough to handle the down payment and two sides. I don't have enough to do the other two. However, he said that we can do the two most public sides first and then follow up with the other two later this fall. That will give me time to get get the cash together.

Here's the truly funny part... I've been playing with my budget lately, trying to put together a new budget for June 09-10. From what I can see, if I add in all the extra income I am getting and then subtract all the things I have been able to save on and then I throw back in the cost of painting the house, the total that I need to get to make all this happen without taking on anymore debt is...... (drum roll please)

$900 a month.

Ha! Actually, I might be able to do with a little less and it would better if I could come up with a little bit more. I still have to crunch a few numbers so I can get a hard number, but roughly, it looks like if I want to keep the emergency fund funded and get the house painted without going into additional debt, I need to stay on my $900 a month track. This will mean just doing exactly what I have been doing - continuing to look for ways to save, keep being frugal and picking up extra income any way I can. In fact, a friend just clued me in on where I could get some summer work. It was a great idea so I just emailed to see if there was anything open. (Keep your fingers crossed for me!)

There are some other options available that could work if the money doesn't come through - I could pay to get the two sides of the house done with cash and get a loan for the other half. That would make for more debt which I don't want, but comparatively, it would be a very small debt. My mother has also offered to loan me some money. Again, I would hate to go down that road, simply because I feel borrowing from family is generally a bad idea, but the option is there for an interest free loan and she is very sweet to offer it. Finally, worse came to worse, I could paint two sides now and do the other two next spring. That means the unpainted sides might accrue more winter damage, but it is a possibility.

Actually, what I really just need is to win the lotto. Anybody want to buy me a ticket?*

* I'm kidding! I don't have much faith in the lotto as a way to get ahead.

Photo by: Miss Kitty

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Spring Update and Looking Ahead

I've had some nice sales on my Amazon and Half books and CDs lately. Things had been mighty quiet for awhile, then out of the blue last weekend I had 6 sales all in a row! It was great! Then I saw another sale come through today. I don't usually make a ton off those sales, but every single dollar helps and they do add up nicely. Speaking of small checks, I got another one from one of my surveys this week. It is only $3, but hey, I am not complaining! I got some mystery shopping in last week and have another one set for next week, so that is all good too. Those two are for actual stores rather than restaurants, which means I will get a small check ($10) for each plus a reimbursement for purchase ($1-$5.) The restaurant gigs just pay for themselves for the most part, so while they are more fun, the stores pay more.

Looking ahead at April, I have work coming in from two different part time jobs. Unfortunately both are at the end of the month. Because they overlap I won't be able to take full advantage of both of them, but I guess that is the way it goes sometimes. Part time job 1 will have work through mid-June for me, if I'm lucky. Part time job 2 will finish in May and won't have work again until late fall. I may have to look for another side hustle for summer.

In other news, my volunteer work is just about done...

The project I've been working on at the nonprofit will wrap up this weekend. I have three more shifts to do. I've loved working on this, and as I have said before, it was a once and a lifetime opportunity, but at the same time, I am kind of looking forward to it finishing. I have lots of my own projects I need to work on and things I want to do - it will be great to have free time again!

My yard is really calling me right now. It's starting to get warm here, but it isn't quite "nice" yet. Even the sunny days have a cold wind blowing through them. Nonetheless, I keep getting the urge to rake the flower beds and start working on my garden. I see lots of little green shoots coming up - including my garlic and shallots that I planted last fall. Yay! I even see my oregano peeking up through the leaves. I really am looking forward to being able to wander out my back door again and just snip the herbs I need.

Photo by: Sara and Mike ...probably

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Effects of Changing My Income Tax Withholding

I mentioned awhile back that I would be changing my income tax withholding. The tax refund that I got was pleasant for funding my emergency fund, but I am one of those folks that doesn't believe in giving Uncle Sam a free loan. My accountant naturally agrees with me. I told him that my ideal tax refund would be somewhere between $300 - $500. That would be enough to pay for his services while at the same time giving me a nice little buffer so I don't owe anything.

This year I got over $3,000 back! Again, while a windfall was certainly nice, I would much rather have the income over the course of the year so I can invest it or use it to pay my bills. The accountant pointed out that the refund I received was in part based on 6 months of home interest. (My ex. paid the mortgage from Jan. - June '08. That is when I took over.) This year I will be paying it all myself, meaning an even greater possibility for an even larger refund. Instead of allowing that to happen, he gave me some figures for calculating my deductions. I changed the deductions so that approximately $3,200 less would be taken out of my taxes. I realize that this may be low and I probably should have done more, but I feel comfortable with this as a starting off point. So, how much more does that mean in my paycheck....

$139.38 per paycheck - which means $278.76 a month!* It is quite a change, let me tell you.

So, does that mean I really need $621.24 a month? Well, yes. But then I have also found ways to trim that budget in savings, so it isn't quite $900 anymore. Talking to my insurance agent, for example, saved me $31.44 a month. That's another $30 trimmed off that $900 figure that I no longer have to get. So the question becomes, what do I need?

I think I am going to wait awhile to answer that question. In just a few months I will also have all my non secured debt paid off - no credit cards or car loans anymore. That too will effect my budget. June brings another milestone with it as well - it will be the one year anniversary of this blog! So, I think I am just going to let things ride as they are until then. As each paycheck comes in, I will add that extra amount to the sidebar, just like I do with income from my part time jobs. I'm going to take the next two months to work on a new budget for June 2009 -2010 that will include all of this and the changes that are coming up. I am also going to work on setting some new goals. I have my 2009 goals, and those are still valid, but I need to set more financial goals. Having this blog to help me focus has been so incredibly helpful and I want to keep that momentum going.

Here are things I will be thinking about and working on over the next two months:

- How much income exactly do I now need to bring in each month? Obviously, I need a new budget. On my old one I sort of tacked things on ad hoc. The new one should take into account all the things I have done since last June to trim my budget, plus what I have done to get extra monthly income, like changing my tax withholding.

- What are my short term goals? Of the 2009 goals that I set in December I had four financial ones for the year: Put aside one month of emergency savings, get my credit card paid off, get my auto loan paid off, get $900 a month. The tax return funded the emergency fund, so that goal is done. The car and the credit card will both be paid off in June or sooner. So, what do I work on from June 09 to June 10? I suspect it will have to do with more investments and...

- How much money do I need for home improvement projects? I have three big projects that are on the horizon - I need to have the house painted, my shed rebuilt and my bathroom remolded. The painting has to happen this year. The wood is starting to rot in places. The shed also has to happen, but it could be done a little later in the summer. I might even be able to stretch it to fall. The bathroom can be done at any time at all, as long as it is before I sell the house. So, it could wait years... but, the work is extensive and has to be done by a professional. I am fairly handy, but this would be getting into some areas beyond my expertise, I think. Starting to save up for that project now, as well as these other projects, is really important to me. I want to see how much of this I can do without going into debt. This means the first thing I need to do is start getting some quotes and start a home improvement fund.

- What about going back to school? Getting my Masters Degree is important to me, but I don't think it is something I can embark until I have sold my house and can eliminate a lot of my extra stress. Still, I want to spend time thinking about this and how I am going to pay for it.

- Finally, what are my long term goals? This is something I think about a lot. What are my goals for retirement and what would it take to make me feel financially secure? For example, I know I don't have nearly enough in my emergency fund. I'd like to spend some time thinking (and, of course, writing) about where I want to be in 5, 10 and 20 years. I have been so focused on living month to month; I'd like to also look ahead and see how the tools I have learned over the last 10 months can help me to move forward.

Of course, whatever I decide, however my budget turns out, whatever this blog becomes - I'll be writing about it here.


The IRS has a withholding calculator. You can find it here.

* I think the "Work Pays" Stimulus tax break is in there too. They happened at about the same time.

Fun photo of death and taxes by: aja joy

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Reflections on Consumer Spending Trends

I read a fun post over at GreenerPastures today on 5 Consumer Trends in the Recession Economy. I found the article on pfbuzz, which is my favorite place for finding new blogs. I always read the folks on my sidebar there and have a few more that I follow and keep up on, but sometimes I get itching to read more. That's when I head over to pfbuzz. If you haven't checked it out already, give it a gander - plus it is a great place to post your own articles.

Anyway, back to the trends - the author of Greener Pastures looked at several areas to see how they were hit by the economy: alcohol, chocolate, movies and gambling. I thought these were fun topics to explore. How has the economy effected your spending in these areas? Here's how my spending has been -

Alcohol - Greener Pastures found that alcohol spending is down. This is one of those tricky ones. On one hand you can see why people who are depressed might have a few extra glasses of wine, but on the other, well, let's face it - booze is expensive. I wonder if people are really buying less or if they are just buying less expensive hooch? For me it is both. The amount that I buy in general is waaaaaay down. When I was married the ex and I would usually have a glass (or two) of wine with dinner each night. If we were out at a restaurant, we would have always have something to drink. As a divorcee my drinking is way down. I buy wine rarely for home consumption and I drink a lot less out than I used to. I still have a beer or two with friends, but I would say that my consumption is about a tenth of what it was. I am also a lot more frugal on what I buy. I used to drink $10 - $15 bottles, now I am more inclined to choose $8-$9 wine. When you are on a limited grocery budget, alcohol can be a big chunk.

Now onto chocolate...

Yum - chocolate! Greener Pastures reports that spending is up. I would say that chocolate and alcohol are both equal in the "guilty pleasure" scale for me, but the advantage of chocolate is that it is so much cheaper. A typical glass of wine will probably run $6, but you can buy a bag of Dove chocolates for less than half of that. Besides, you can buy a candy bar with your spare change - hard to do that with a beer. I love chocolate, though I don't eat a lot of it at one time. I like to break off a piece of a bar of chocolate at a time or have smaller individually wrapped pieces, and make it last. So, I am more likely to have chocolate in the house than booze. My local pharmacy has had some really good deals on chocolate and I admit to indulging in the past. Although, I've been really good this month because it squarely falls under the No Spending Challenge. I wonder if high end chocolate bars have taken a hit? There was a trend there for awhile for $5+ gourmet bars. I have to believe that they've seen sales drop dramatically.

Spending money on attending movies is up. Personally, this isn't true with me. My spending on movies is way down. I really have to make an effort to see a film now - for one thing, I hate the regular prices, so I prefer a matinee, which means planning and scheduling it. For another I am just too busy. I do understand it though - movies are a wonderful form of escapism. What better way to get out of the house and forget your troubles for awhile?

And finally, spending on gambling is down. Although I love the city of Las Vegas, I am not a big gambler. I am kind of surprised by this though. I would have guessed that lotto spending would be way up. Maybe you need to feel confident and good to gamble though, and it doesn't seem to me that that is where people are at right now. Me? I never play the lotto - never have - so my spending, or lack thereof, is the same.

I have also heard that home improvement spending is also down. This is one that at first surprised me. I would have thought more people would be "doing it themselves" rather than hiring work done. Then I realized that people are choosing not to do elective home repair projects - they are waiting on things that aren't emergencies. I can see that, especially as so many Americans are in foreclosure or upside down on their loans. Who wants to work on a house they may not own in a few months? Me, my home improvement spending is probably a bit up, and I see it continuing to do so.

Personally, other than home improvement, I figure my spending overall is going to be down for a long time. Regardless of what happens with the economy, I still have bills to pay and financial projects in mind. Should the recession turn around, it won't considerably change my personal financial picture... of course, that probably won't stop me from indulging in a chocolate bar now and again!

Photo by: Tasumi1968

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Critters in the Dryer Vent

One cold, cold night this winter I was getting ready for bed when I heard a sound. You know the kind: that rustle-y whirring sound that says "critter in the house!" It is sort of heart stopping and I froze for a moment, wondering if I heard heard correctly. Then I heard it again.

One of the quirky things about me is that I have a terrible ear for directional sound. I am the last person in the car you want to ask if that clanking banging noise is coming from the passenger front tire or the driver rear. I simply have a really hard time in telling. (The advantage to this is that there is absolutely no point in me buying expensive stereo equipment.) I started tracking the sound and to the best that I could tell, it was coming from the laundry area.

This pretty much made no sense at all. I assumed it was a mouse, which is the most common house intruder here in Michigan, but if so, why was it in the laundry area? Why not be downstairs in the kitchen where the food was? Still, knowing my ability to track sound, a couple days later I had a friend over and asked them to listen. Sure enough, we happened to hear it - in the laundry area.

The laundry area is really just an upstairs closet with a washer and dryer in it. It was strange that in a space so small I couldn't see the little guy. Not knowing what else to do, I set traps. The traps stayed unsprung, but the rustling continued. What was going on?? Then finally, I figured it out...

There was a bird in my dryer vent. At some point my dryer vent cover had pretty much disintegrated and most of the cover had blown off. Now there was a 4" circle shaped hole in the wall. I couldn't really blame the bird - this was back when it was well below zero. Here was a perfect little shelter that was heated and warm. It was a story and a half up and safe from predators - it must have seemed like heaven! I knew how cold it was and I wouldn't have minded so much that he was in there (though I knew it couldn't last) if it weren't for the fact that he would start making noises about midnight. That dryer is not too far from my bed, so talk about waking up with a start!

There was no way I could fix it in the winter though. My washer and dryer are on the second floor which meant the only way to get at the vent was to get out my extension ladder. There was no way I was going to set that up in the snow and ice and go crawling up it! Plus, the ladder is mighty heavy and long and I am rather uncomfortable carrying it on my own. Even if I could, I have had two friends that have had severe accidents due to ladder mishaps, so I certainly am not going to go halfway up my house on a ladder without someone to hold it! I had to wait until the snow had melted and a friend could lend a hand.

That was back in January, and to be honest, I had kind of forgotten about it. That was, I did until Saturday afternoon I went to put some clothes in the dryer and heard a fluttering of wings! I decided it was time to fix the problem - the last thing I needed was to have a bird build a nest in there! I know I am on a No Spending Challenge for the month, but this constituted an emergency. I happened to have someone over who could help me, so the two of us took off to Lowe's. A new vent cover ran me about $3.45. With my friend's help, it was installed in less than 20 minutes.

I don't think the bird could have harmed the dryer, but I wasn't anxious to find out. The likelihood of finding a new dryer for under $4.00 is pretty slim!

Photo by: toyfoto

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How and Why I Got Here - A Follow Up Post

I've gotten quite a few comments on my "Why I Bought A House I Couldn't Afford" post that have made me realize that it was incomplete. I quickly jotted it off with my regular readers in mind, but I had forgotten that I have gotten quite a few new folks on the site and they may not have all the back story. I should have be been more clear. So, to make up for my lack of detail, here's a little follow up post -

I was divorced in June of 2008. My husband and I had our marital issues, obviously, but none of them were financial. Had we stayed married, I have no doubt whatsoever that we could have weathered this financial recession without any problems. Oh, we might have had to be a touch more frugal, but no more than anyone else in these times. I have a good steady job and he has a successful business. We would have been fine. You want a great financial tip? Don't get divorced. The cost of lawyers, court costs, and having one income when you are used to two - it adds up!

But the truth is, money isn't everything, and as anyone who has been divorced can tell you, it certainly isn't enough when you are miserable. It so happens that our marriage couldn't last. I'm not going to go into any of the gory details because this is not the place for it, but suffice it to say that I moved out in May of 2007. I lived by myself for a year in a tiny 400 sq. foot apartment as we tried to figure out our lives. Now, let's get down to the financial nitty gritty shall we? Here's how I ended up where I am now....

The agreement we had when my ex and I split was that he would keep his rental property (which was his before we met) and he would take the house. I would take the cabin. If you've read my post about the house, you know that he paid the lion's share of the house and I paid for the cabin and some of the house. In dollars and cents, this worked out to about equal. In reality, it meant that the cabin felt like "mine" and the house felt a bit like "his." So, the division of property made sense - we each got a property from the marriage that we had paid for. The downside was that we would both have to stretch a bit. He'd have to find a way to cover my share from the house and I would have to find a way to pay for a place to live and pay for the cabin at the same time. This was all fine and dandy until one day he told me he didn't want the house anymore and was "giving it back" to me.

That was the day I got a lawyer.

The lawyer and I discussed a number of options - everything from a short sale on the house to taking every
single piece of property and all the assets that my ex and I both had and throwing them into one big pot and dividing them down the middle. Every solution we came up with was ugly and would have dragged out the divorce process and made it even more miserable. We did put the house up on the market, but I didn't expect it to sell - by January of last year the bottom of the housing market had already fallen out, and there was nothing moving. The realtor himself told me he had 18 months of houses already on the market just like mine and his projections for selling it were gloomy.

That's when the lawyer suggested that I consider keeping the house. "It's a nice piece of property, in a great neighborhood," he said, "what about getting a couple of roommates, sticking it out for a couple of years? Do that and you'll be able to sell in a few years for a nice chunk of change - think about it." So, I thought about it. What would happen if I kept both properties, the house and the cabin?!? It was a wild, radical thought. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed possible. For many reasons I have written about before, I didn't want to sell the cabin. (And even if I did, I'm not sure I could have with the market being what it is.) But to keep the house too.... could I do it? The house was a great investment property, and though property values have dropped like a stone, I am confident they will come back. This house is in a fabulous area and has so many features people want. The more I started thinking about it, the more I started thinking that of all the many ugly solutions that my lawyer and I had come up with, this was possibly the "least" ugly.

Would I have bought a huge, wooden Victorian house, built in the 1800s on my own? Of course not! Would I have bought it and the cabin by myself? Not on your life! I wouldn't have even bought the cabin on my own. In my marriage two homes made sense, my husband was really handy, he and I could care for two properties. On my own it seemed absolutely ludicrous! And yet... what was the worst that could happen? I could fail. I could lose the house to foreclosure. It could ruin my credit score... but those things could happen if the divorce fight went on and on anyway. On the other hand, if I took the house the divorce proceeding would go smoothly, and I could get out of that mess. It would mean I would have to come up with an extra $900 a month, but my lawyer was right, if I could sweat it out for a few years, I would have a couple very nice properties I could sell.

So, in the end, that is what I decided to do. Was it the smartest decision? I don't know yet, but I will say this, I have not paid a bill late yet. I've kept my credit score as "excellent" and I haven't had to get roommates. I think my story surprises people because usually it is the man who gets the "fuzzy end of the lollipop" when it comes to divorce. In this case, not only did I take on the financial burden, I did it willingly - not because I had to, but because to do otherwise would have made the divorce all that much harder, and frankly, he and I were hurting enough as it was.

Am I over mortgaged for a single woman? Heavens yes! I'm not complaining about it though. I try never to complain in this blog - even on months where the money has been slim, I don't want to complain. I made this choice and I am doing all I can to make it right. Plus this has been a wonderful opportunity for me. I have learned so much and I am holding on strong. Bills are being paid, an emergency fund has been created and I see a lot of potential for the future.

I started writing this blog for a few reasons. The first was simply that I had so many ideas and thoughts about making and saving money running around in my head that I needed one place to put them. I wanted a place to track ideas, try new things and also read what others were doing. I wanted to share my success stories. There are a lot of folks out there who need to make extra money each month - I wanted to show that it was possible to do. There are options out there! There are also things that don't work. I wanted to share my experiences with both. Though I wouldn't go so far as to say it has been "easy" it has been simpler than I would have thought. We all have the power to do some pretty amazing things if we put our minds to it.

In just a few months I will have my car and my credit card paid off. I won't need the full $900 anymore. But you know what? I'm not going to stop. I have other big financial goals. I still have a house that needs painting, a emergency fund that needs more funds, a dream of going back to school for my Masters degree. I now know what can be done with a little effort and few sacrifices. I hope that my blog can be moderately entertaining coffee break reading for others and also help out a few folks that some extra money. I'm hoping that maybe someone who was thinking about foreclosure sees this and decides to hang on just a little longer.

Failing all that, this is still my favorite place to sort out all my financial ideas.

Photo by: Meredith_Farmer

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Using Budgets and Tracking Dollars

Last week the author of Budgets Are Sexy pointed out a great article by StretchyDollar.com that has gotten me to thinking. It was called "Understanding When to Stop - A Key to Your Budget." The premise was simply this: many people start off with budgets that simply show how much money is budgeted and how much has been spent. This is a good start, but it doesn't do much to reign in spending mid month. In other words, you don't know you are over your limit until it is too late.

I used to have budgets like this. They were written out carefully on legal pads. The first page would have my meticulously planned budget. Each subsequent page would be for the individual months. I kept all my receipts and bill statements in a big envelope, and at the end of the month would plug everything in. It kind of worked, but I ran into the same problem that StretchyDollar did. I'd go out to dinner a few times at the top of the month, a few in the middle and maybe once at the end, and wouldn't realize I was way over my dining out budget until it was too late!

This time when I built my budget, I did it differently. First of all, I did it electronically, which is just wonderful for making updates and corrections. Secondly, I have four columns - Item, Budgeted Amount, Actual Spent and Difference. Now I enter my receipts daily and at the same time update the Difference column. That tells me when I am getting close to hitting the budget and keeps me from going over.

Although my homemade spreadsheet is my favorite budgeting tool, I also use www.mint.com. Mint is a free online budgeting tool that has some nice features. In fact, one of my favorite features is the nifty graphs. That's one there showing my budgets for Groceries, Restaurants and Utilities. It also has a "Trends" section that shows your spending compared to other users. Check out how I compare to other Michigan spenders...

Here's the Food and Dining chart. It compares me (in orange) to other Michigan Mint users. March is looking pretty low for everyone so far! Maybe most folks eat out at the end of the month? Anyway, as you can see, I am usually behind the curve. Then again, I'm one single gal. My guess is this includes couples and families... naturally I come out quite a bit lower.

I do notice I either bought a lot of groceries or went out quite a bit in February. Hmm.... wonder what was going on then? Anyway, here's another rather nifty chart:

This one is shopping. I look awesome here! I'm not entirely sure how accurate this is though. I mean, did I really not do any shopping in the months of October, November and December? It also depends a little how you categorize your purchases. That little orange blip in March? That is a gift that ended up being categorized incorrectly. So technically it shouldn't even show up on here. Also, not in this category are my impulse purchasing traps - home improvement and personal care. Home improvement spending is in another category all together appropriately called "Home." I don't look nearly so well when you pull up that graph. Here it is - Gulp!!

"Home" not only includes Home Improvement but it also has the Mortgage & Rent. Got to say, this is more than a little painful to look at. I am spending at least double, if not three times what other Michigan Mint users are spending. Then again, I have two homes so maybe that all works out. Of course, the housing and real estate marketing here in Michigan is in the tank too. Yesterday I heard that 1 in 5 buildings in Detroit is vacant. That is not good for anyone! I even heard that there was talk about abandoning parts of Flint because there are so many empty homes. They are tossing about the idea of moving people in closer to the more populated areas and then turning the empty areas into green space. Right now it is all talk, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear of something like that happening.

The important thing about budgets is to find what works for you, and to keep tweaking it until you find the right method. Each person will have their own quirks. I think that is why I like my homemade budget the best, though Mint is great for having all my various banking information (and credit info) in one spot.

What about you? How do you set up your budget?

Photo by: Jeffrey Simms

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spring Musings - Contemplating the Weeks Ahead

Well, I picked up another Mystery Shopping gig for the end of next week. Usually I do restaurants, but this one is for a regular store. Although I have never been to this particular store before, it is in an industry I am fond of, so I am looking forward to it. If you are looking to pick up some mystery shopping, I found the companies I work with here. (You have to play around with the site a bit, but they have lists of mystery shopping companies you can sign up for.) I signed up for 4 originally and then weeded it down to 2. One of the companies I originally picked didn't send me any work, but did send me a lot of email, and the other had assignments that were all really far away from me. If you want to give Mystery Shopping a try, I recommend it, just have an open mind and don't expect too much out of it.

I also am doing some part time work on Sunday. I've been putting in a lot of hours this week - 40 at the day job and at least another 40 at the volunteer gig. (As of last night I was at 30 hours, I am sure I will have 10 or more in before the week is done.) On top of all that it will be about a four hour work shift on Sunday. I wish I had the day off, but hey, that is the way it goes. Next week things will begin to slow down. I will probably volunteer 15-20 more hours and then the project wraps up on Saturday. Life will get a little bit easier then...

April, so far, looks a little calmer. I don't plan on doing a lot of volunteer work and do plan on picking up some extra work at the end of the month. The part time job should have some availability come the end of April to first part of May. That should be really good.

Because I've been working so much I haven't been to my cabin in a couple months. I always go up there in the winter, but this year it didn't happen. It seemed that every time I had a spare weekend we were hit with a huge snowstorm. I finally marked off some weekends next month that will be dedicated to getting up there. At the very least I need to make sure that everything made it through the winter.

All this makes me realize how happy I am that it is spring! I have so much to do - I am so grateful for the beautiful weather and not having to worry about being stuck in snow anymore!

Photo of Spring flowers by: SantiMB

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Avoiding My Coffee Craving

I have a confession.

I am seriously craving a vanilla soy latte.

Or a caramel mocha cappuccino.

Or both. At the same time.

I have been SO good this month. I haven't broken my No Spending Challenge at all. I have been tempted many, many times, but I've held strong. I've dined out, but only with friends and I haven't done any impulse shopping at all. However, there has been one temptation stronger than all others - I have had a craving for a fancy flavored coffee. So far I have held strong though - I have been quenching my craving for coffee with my own home brewed blend, hot chocolate, herbal tea and good old fashioned water. A friend of mine even bought me one the other day, bless her heart*! It hasn't stopped the urge though!

The funny thing is, I am not that much of a coffee drinker. Yes, I like it, but I hardly have it every day. I enjoy the occasional coffee shop specialty, but I never would have thought that that, of all things, would be an issue! I would have thought staying out of hardware stores (I do love my DIY projects) would have been much worse, and yet, every time I drive by a coffee shop my mouth starts watering! I haven't had that problem with Lowes at all. Yesterday, I had to pick up a book for work and the store cafe was tempting me. I could hear it in my head saying, "Come on... no one will know but you... how about a nice Americano???" AGH!!!

I thought it was because I am not spending money this month and it was part of that whole "You only want what you can't have" thing, but yesterday I finally figured out what was really going on. It was something far more insidious...

I want one because I think I deserve it.

I mean after all, look at the facts:

- I am being really good at not spending money this month
- I am working lots of hours and volunteering at the same time
- I've been eating super healthy lately
- I didn't go shopping in the bookstore when I was there for work, even though I wanted to.
- I didn't get fast food either, though I thought about it.
- I haven't had nearly enough sleep
- I'm an adult, I can buy myself a coffee if I want too.
- I'm not only working, but also picking up extra jobs and attending board meetings. I'm working really hard and giving back - I should at least get a coffee.
- Some people were rude to me the other day and hurt my feelings.
- As the lone female manager of my company I get all the sucky girl jobs.

Pathetic, isn't it? If you imagine all those italics as whining, you have an idea of what the 6 year old inside my head is like! Agh!!!

I realized that not only do I buy things on impulse sometimes, I am also an emotionally impulsive eater. Having a big gourmet coffee fills both needs! Descendant spending AND a heavenly mix of chocolate, caffeine, caramel, cream, and all things I love. I want them all NOW because it has been a rough month, and even though consciously I feel perfectly okay with my busy schedule, unconsciously I'm like a whiny kid in a toy store.

I think this was a good lesson to learn. I've never really felt that my buying habits were all that out of whack, but I've never really studied them before. I like learning these things about myself. Would having one coffee kill me or my budget? Of course not, but at the same time I want to stick to my plan not to buy unneeded items this month. It seems kind of funny, but you know, avoiding big purchases is easy. I don't need a new car, television, dvd player, or heaven knows another house! I don't have urges to buy clothing or things for the house. I could use a computer, but staving off that urge is easy. It is the little things that get me! Those are the purchases that sneak in under my radar. Now that I know they are there, I can spend mindfully rather than mindlessly.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go get a coffee cup full of fresh, clean, cold water.

Photo by wax.ti

* Thanks Catie!

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Seeing Bills Differently

One of the amusing things that has happened since I've become frugal is how much I actually look forward to getting my bills each month. Lara at No More Spending and I were laughing about it a bit in the comments on the post from Wednesday. Now that I have a budget, I look forward to plugging in the numbers each month and seeing how I am doing.

For example, I love getting utility bills. I'm doing a lot of things to try and cut those - getting my furnace repaired, installing cfls, looking for ways to cut water usage, but the only way I can tell if my tricks are working is by checking the bills. In fact, I get a little anxious if the utilities bills aren't there when I expect them.

But those aren't the only bills, I also look forward to getting my credit card bill and my car statement bill! I am paying those babies off and I love seeing the balances drop. I think, "just a couple more months now and you will be gone!' So it makes me happy to see those bills. I remember times not that long ago when that wasn't always the case. There was a point that I hated going to the mailbox...

Before I was avidly tracking my finances, I would be "surprised" by bills. Sometimes it was the timing, sometimes it was the amount. I've always been better at thinking about my money in terms of a single month, which is sometimes good, but also bad. It meant that quarterly and semi-annual bills (like insurance) always seemed to throw me. I never felt prepared for them and when they hit, I would end up scrambling for the cash. Now I have a little put aside each month in different accounts for those types of bills. I have mini-accounts for the water bill, my insurance, my car registration, the trash bill - basically anything that isn't paid monthly. When a bill hits I have the cash - and it was already accounted for in the budget. (I refuse to pay extra to pay a bill monthly. I would rather pay myself, collect the interest, and then be ready when the bill comes.) I used to hate seeing those bills come in, they felt completely random. Now I am prepared and they don't bother me a bit.

It wasn't just the timing though, I was also surprised by the size of my bills. This would happen often on credit cards. Some people can use credit cards regularly, but I'm not one of them. I have to be very careful about my credit card spending. Since I don't see my balances or can easily access them, I tend to forget about them! I wish I had a dollar for every time I was surprised by the size of my credit card bill, (it would go a long way to helping me finally pay it off.) I've had my credit cards completely paid off twice. Both times that I accumulated debt (ironically during both my wedding and my divorce) the same thing would happen - I would put a couple of small charges on the card and plan on paying it off at the end of the month. Then I'd do that again. And again. Each time forgetting the other purchases, so when the bill came in - it was three times the size I was expecting! So, I would pay off most of it and plan on getting the rest the following month, but that month it would happen again and the balance would grow larger. It got so that I hated seeing those bills in the mail! Now I put everything, except for gasoline, on my debit card. I use a gas card, but I track those purchases closely and expect the bill. Since I have been dedicated to getting the debt paid off, I actually look forward to getting the statements - I want to see how well I am doing.

One of the things I've seen several financial bloggers write about is how getting your finances in order can really be all about finding personal peace. It is so true! I feel so much better now having control than I did when I hid my head in the sand. It isn't bad to open the mailbox. I don't worry as much as I did. It is kind of ironic isn't it? I actually worry less now when I am broke and having to come up with $900 a month than I did when I was flush with cash.

Ain't life funny?

Photo by: rbatina

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My March Money

I've added a new feature to the blog - the Top Articles section. These are a combination of "most read" posts and also ones that I think explain my financial situation and give a bit of back story. I've noticed that I've had a lot of new readers lately, so hopefully that will help out.

In other news, I've gotten some nice additional income this month. I wasn't expecting to be able to get as much as usual because I am doing so much volunteer work in March, but things are looking really good. I already mentioned the surveys I've been taking, and speaking of small, but nice checks, I was also able to pick up a bunch of mystery shopping (even did one on my lunch hour yesterday) and was paid this month for some shopping I did last month. For larger returns, I picked up three shifts at the part time job. The last of those three shifts will take place on Sunday. They should be cutting that check before the end of the month, so that will be great. In addition, I also have had a number of book and CD sales on Amazon and Half! Things were pretty slow last month, but they have been slowly picking up a bit.

The one downside is that I haven't done nearly enough with sales in eBay or other venues. I wanted to, but with the hours I am putting in on other things, it just hasn't happened. However, next week looks really good for getting a few things posted. The money may not hit until April, but it will be a good start to that month.

I have been getting extra funds from another source as well...

I've found that changing my tax deductions has really made a difference! I'm going to leave that for another post, but for the moment suffice it to say, my $900 a month goal is a bit more manageable now! I'm not entirely sure I will hit the $900 goal this month though. In one way I have already succeeded it and then some, since I got my income tax returns, but I would really like to keep that money in savings instead. I put the whole thing in my emergency fund for now and will do some number crunching towards the end of next week and see if I need to use it for this month. I don't think I will, I have a bit of a buffer built in from other months and the No Spending Challenge for March has been awesome! For example, I have only been to the grocery store once this month (to buy healthy, portable snacks for my busy month) but other than that the only purchase I have made was some shampoo and conditioner. (I was completely out and had rinsed out the bottle with water for the last drops... twice.) This means that even if I don't hit the $900 goal in the sidebar, I still could be just fine since I've kept my budget as lean as possible. I won't know until next week for sure though.

Finally, I've been considering a few other income streams of late. My part time jobs won't be happening during the summer, so I need to be thinking about some things I can do that month. eBay and other sales, including at least one garage sale, are in the future, but I want to see if there are other things I can do then as well. We'll see how it goes. This no Spending Challenge has been great though, so if I have to I could do a No Spending Summer. For now though, I am just tossing ideas around. We'll see how things go!

Photo by: s.alt

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Budgeting and Bill Creep

I just read a rather interesting article on Yahoo's Finance pages called "In the Fight Against Bill Creep, Every Extra Fee is the Enemy." The concept is how bills can sort of gradually increase in size - either due to our own additions (like extra features on your cell phone) or added taxes, warranties and fees the company tacks on. I had that happen to me not too long ago with my cell phone - without warning they increased the cost of my warranty, so I canceled it.

One of the benefits of budgeting is that you can spot bill creep right away. My cell phone bill had been pretty close to the same amount each month, but when I saw a jump, even just a few dollars, I spotted it right away. I wasn't that diligent in the past. In fact, I am pretty sure that before I kept a strict monthly budget, I would have missed it.

Now that I have a budget I update daily, I catch all sorts of things I would have missed before...

Utility bills now fascinate me. I am always looking for ways to lower them, and I notice even a few dollars difference. I know there is sort of a movement in the personal finance blogsphere that a few dollars here or a few dollars there doesn't make a lot of difference, but I beg to differ! I bring in funds each month in $10 and less increments. I love small savings I can spot and make happen over and over again. I feel like I have already done all the "big" frugal things out there - dropping cable, not having a land line, reevaluating my insurance, changing my tax deductions, etc. The list goes on and on. However, along with those big things spotting little ways you can save money is not only rewarding, it can also be very valuable.

That's why I like my budget. It is nothing fancy - just spreadsheet with categories for each expense and fields for all the various ways I bring in income. However, I have every month at my fingertips - going back to June when I first started tracking expenses. Now I can instantly spot bill creep. If I were to add on a service, I would see instantly how that would effect my bottom line. In the old days, I wouldn't track month to month expenses that closely. I knew approximately how much things were and always had the previous months' statement, but small changes could easily slip by me.

I know a lot of people aren't particularly fond of budgets, but I have to say, they are a fabulous tool for preventing or stopping bill creep. My budget is one of the main things that has helped me stay on track, spot areas I could save, and makes sure I know the bottom line.

EDIT: One more reason to keep an eye on those statements - check out this article by Fine-Tuned Finances about Mysterious $.025 Charges Appearing on Credit Cards in the United States.

Photo by: Josef Stuefer

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Life's Greatest Assets

I recently read what I thought was a pretty thought provoking article over at The Simple Dollar called My Real Net Worth. Apparently I was one of the few that enjoyed it, the comments are pretty snarky. If you want an uplift, and aren't too offended by someone taking a bit of literary license with accounting terms, take a gander at the article. If you want to keep that uplift, however, don't read the comments.

His point is rather beautiful - while he can add up all his financial statements until the cows come home, it doesn't take into account all the things that are valuable in his life - family, friends and his support network. I've read a few bloggers writing about net worth statements lately. Personally, I don't keep one, at least not yet. I have three accounting/budgeting systems that I use on a fairly regular basis - my online banking, Mint.com and my own homemade budgeting spreadsheet - modified to my own personal quirks.

My net worth statement would include my assets against my greater debts, which essentially narrows right down to mortgages vs. housing prices and I pretty much know right where those are at. I do have other assets, a 401K and my car is actually holding surprisingly well in this market, but you get the idea... I have enough to track on the day to day stuff right now. Once things shape up a bit I may study at the bigger picture more.

I think the author of The Simple Dollar has a good point though - it is really easy to focus in on that bottom line, but at the same time, I have some wonderful assets in my life that cannot be measured on a spreadsheet. Oh, they might not be assets in the technical term - I certainly couldn't sell them, but they are things that make all this worthwhile...

For one thing, I have this blog. I don't ever intend to make much in the way of money off it, otherwise there would be a lot more ads. This is more for me - a forum for me to express my thoughts and ideas. However, from this simple electronic tool I have received so much of value - generous support, great tips and ideas and a community of people I respect. I heard something on NPR the other day that studies in Japan show that people who blog about their depression have a better time coping than those who don't - much because of the reasons I mentioned. I not only can believe it, but have seen it in my own life.

Another asset that means a lot to me is my family, particularly my sister and my mother. Both have been so supportive of me - not only that, but they have offered to loan money or give me a place to live if I needed it. I hope I don't have to take either of them up on it! Yet, it is so nice knowing I have that safety net. I've been doing okay, but life has a funny way of playing tricks on you - it is never a bad idea to have a Plan B! Besides all of this, both have given me items to sell on eBay, Amazon and Half. My mother even scored me some nice padded envelopes for mailing things out!

Then there are my friends. I am so very fortunate to be surrounded by an amazing network of friends! There are my close friends who have helped me move, let me cry on their shoulders, given me jobs, offered me help in countless ways, and even offered to come over and fix tropical drinks at my house! (I'm taking them up on that one as soon as my schedule slows a titch!) On top of that I have an extended network of friends that is as large as it is deep. Like my family, I know that if I were to fall - they'd rush in and help. I don't want to have to get to that place, but knowing I can means so, so much.

I have a nice steady day job, where my boss has been very understanding as I've been navigating through this whole pre/post divorce stuff. I have two part time jobs that help me pay the bills. You could put a price on them in terms of how much I bring in each month, but not in the satisfaction and enjoyment I get from these places.

Another asset that I have found is my new found knowledge. Not only have I learned a lot about finance and budgeting, but I also have a greater understanding of myself. I know now exactly what I'll do when my back is up against the wall!

I have my health. I have friends struggling with bad health and my heart aches for them. I have a cousin recently re-diagnosed with cancer. Being able to get up and go to my jobs without pain or suffering isn't something you can put in a column or add up, but I don't know what I would do without it.

Finally, I have peace. Yes, it may seem like this hectic life of mine is anything but peaceful (I just picked up a mystery shopping gig for Wednesday afternoon - that'll be three jobs in one day!) but in truth, it is peaceful. Before my divorce I was miserable. I couldn't find peace. Living on my own, it started come back, but I had the fear of paying for the house looming over my head. I can actually say that even though I still have occasional bad days, I have peace now - and it is priceless.

Photo by: elissabetha

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Preaching the Word About Finance

I read a great post this morning by the author of Bouncing Back From Bankruptcy called "The Fastest Way to Get Someplace is the Way You Know How to Go." She tells a wonderful story from her recent trip that compares driving directions to how you choose to handle your personal finances. (She tells it far better than me, so I recommend you go check it out.) Anyway, her conclusion, and one I agree with completely, is that everyone has to choose for themselves the best method for handling their finances - what works for one, may not work for another.

I got one of those "smack to the forehead" lessons on this very subject this week! As I've mentioned, I am doing a lot of volunteer work this month. Last week one of my fellow volunteers and I went out to grab a bite afterward. On our way over to the restaurant, he happened to mention that he had just gotten a new roommate. Frankly, he sounded a little glum about it, so I immediately launched into my story. "You don't NEED a roommate!" I exclaimed. "It can be done without one." I enthused. I admit, judging from the alarm in his eyes, I must have sounded a bit like I was next going to whip out a Shammy-Wow sales pitch...

I babbled on for a good twenty minutes, talking about how I was able to come up with the money I needed each month by having extra jobs, scrimping and saving, selling items on eBay and so forth when finally I got a little food in my belly and I realized something... he was completely bored. It hit me that I had been talking nonstop about myself and I hadn't allowed him to tell me his story. Sheepishly I did my best to shut up.

He's a young guy, in his late 20s, has his own house, a decent job that he's been at for over 10 years and, like me, loves to volunteer. He's looking to get an extra $350 dollars a month from having a roommate. As he talked about it he told me he wasn't fond of saving, but he had a few bills he was looking to pay off and that was the reason for getting a roommate. Eventually it got through my thick skull that while the roommate situation might not be optimal, he really didn't mind it all that much. Because I'm nervous about roommates I was projecting my feelings onto his words and just assumed he wanted to hear about other options.

That's when everything that Bouncing Back from Bankruptcy sort of hit me. It was a definite reminder that each person will have their own solution. It is hard if you read a lot of personal finance gurus or blogs (as I do) since sometimes they tout their way is the "one true path." I obviously have a tendency to do that myself. I don't think it is because we are egoists, I think it is because we have found something that works for us and we want the same for others. Still, it was good reminder. I saw a statement on one of those church billboards the other day that said, "To save face, keep the lower half shut." Not bad advice that!

I think next time I start "talking" finance I am going to try to do a better job of shutting up and just listening!

Photo by: ASdesign46

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cooking Up a Storm for Next Week

Well, it has been a long week this week! As I mentioned the other day I am working my regular job plus volunteering 4-5 hours every night. I love what I am doing, but I admit - I'm getting a bit punchy! I go straight from the day job to the volunteer work. I've been finally getting home at night somewhere between 10:45 and midnight, depending on the evening. When I get home I usually have dinner then set up everything for the following day: pick out my clothes to wear to the office for the next day, pack my spare clothes for the volunteer work, put together the next day's lunch, and then hit the shower before hitting bed. I'll tell you, the alarm clock ring seems to come awfully early!

I've been trying to cook predominately out of my own pantry as part of my No Spending Challenge, but I did go to the grocery story last week and pick up some easy to eat, portable snacks to keep me going on these busy days. I bought granola bars, cheese, lunch meat and things like that. While the cupboards were pretty well stocked at the beginning of the month, I don't usually keep a lot of snacks around.

Fortunately, today I have pretty much the whole day open until 6:00. (At 6:00 I have a shift at one of my part time jobs. It was one of the few evenings I had free this month.) My plan is to do laundry (of course) and also do as much precooking for meals for next week as I can. I love to cook, so for me this will be a fun, restful way to spend the day. I believe that when life gets really busy, no matter what the reason, one of the best things you can do for yourself is eat healthy. It keeps your body going in times of stress. I also think planning ahead helps, so here's what's on the menu for today...

First up is a bean soup. I love beans - they are healthy, nutritious, and frugal. The big advantage is that they are full of protein, so the soup will "last." There is always a lot of snack food laying around the volunteer area, plus a vending machine right around the corner. If I want to avoid both I need to have something that will fill me up! Once the soup is on, then I will throw together a loaf of bread. Great for breakfast, snacks (toast with peanut butter is one of my favorites) and "on the go" sandwiches. The best part is, I almost always have the ingredients on hand.

I've got some chicken to go in the oven for both ready to eat dinners for next week and those sandwiches I mentioned. (Even though I did buy some this week, I am not fond of pre-made lunch meat. Too much sodium for my taste.) Once that is in the oven I'll whip up some hummus. Also a great "stick to the ribs" food that is good on sandwiches or with veggies. I have some nice carrots I could peel and prep for lunches.

These are all great because I can get one cooking while I am prepping the rest, and they will all use different cooking equipment, so I can do them at the same time. I've got a couple other ideas too, depending on time and if my memory is correct on what is still in the cupboards. Either way, anything I can get made or prep ahead will be good. This upcoming week is going to be even busier as the volunteer work kicks into overdrive then. This last week was prep work - this upcoming is "go time."

I hope everybody is having a great weekend!

Photo by: Yolise

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Taking Surveys for Extra Money

I had a couple of nice little checks today! I just got a $10 check from Socratic Forum. They are one of the paid survey sites that I participate in whenever I can. They typically pay $3 - $5 a survey and you can get the funds in a check or in as an Amazon gift certificate. If you are interested in joining, click here to sign up. Surveys usually take anywhere from 10-25 minutes and I think they are kind of fun. I also do surveys for Pinecone research. I've gotten $6 from them so far this month, which is about typical for me. Their surveys take about the same amount of time and pay $3 a piece. Unfortunately they have very specific ways of signing up. If they give me a referral code I can pass on to you, I will!

I also do some surveys for e-Rewards - they credit my Upromise account. I wrote about joining UPromise awhile back - they are a site that gives you money for college for shopping on certain online stores, resturants and buying certain things in grocery stores. I had to smile - I saw they recently credited my account with $.70 for some dining I did last month while working a nonprofit benefit at a local bar and grill. At this rate it will take a long, long time to pay for a master's degree, but hey, every penny counts!

Speaking of getting money in, I just got my state tax return! I debated on where to record it though...

I have 11 fields at the bottom of my budget to record the various sources of income I get each month. I don't always use all 11, but sometimes I come close! Since I was planning on putting all the money in my emergency account, should it really be recorded there?

I finally decided that while it isn't precisely "income" which is how I think of that area - it is money coming in, and since that is where I record all money coming in, that is where it should go. I also added it to my sidebar up there. Since I don't know how this month will turn out yet (though the no spending challenge is really helping) I may have to use it for bills. We'll just have to see. For now I popped it over into my short term savings account. I can't wait to get the federal return - that will be fun, seeing that money sitting in my emergency account. However, the city tax that I owe? I'm sending that out last minute!

Photo by: topgold

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