Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Look At My Goals for April

Well, we are almost at the end of April so I thought it was time to take a look at my 2009 Goals and how I am doing so far. I've got some good and some bad news to report, so let's see how I did:

My Financial Goals

One Month of Emergency Savings - Well, I achieved this last month with my tax refund... however, it looks like I may need to dip into a little. Getting my house painted is requiring a bit more up front money than I had anticipated. Basically, there is the cost to paint the house which I am paying on the completion of each side, and then there is the cost of the supplies. Supplies are obviously needed up front and that unexpected cost is getting me. So far I have had to purchase $750 (out of an estimated $1,500) worth of paint and caulk and nails so forth. $500 of that I was able to pay for with money I had set aside for that purpose, but the last $250 came out of emergency funds. Fortunately, it is a temporary situation. In the next week or so I will be getting checks from all that extra work I mentioned yesterday. That will go right back into the fund to bring it up to where it was. Still, I don't like doing it - borrowing from your emergency fund is a bad habit to get into.

Credit Card Paid Off - Oh my goodness, I am soooo close! I am under $250! I can't wait until it is finally gone. I'm in a tricky spot for April and May though. I have a couple big bills that are going to be paid off here in the next couple of months, namely my credit card and my car. That will help tremendously with getting the money I need to pay the bills and paint the house, but in April and May I still have to make those payments plus pay for the house painting. I really noticed it in April and I have a feeling I will notice it in May as well.

Car Paid Off - Same as above. I can't wait to be done with this payment!

Three eBay items per week - Wow do I suck at this. I think I did it in January, but haven't done it again since. Umm... maybe May?

Get an Additional $900 a Month - I am awaiting a couple of checks, but I should hit my goal without problem this month. Usually I enter checks the month they are received, but in this case I will have done 98% of the work in April, so I feel I should count it towards April. That will mean that I will start May closer to $0, which is a good motivator. If I started off with my goal already over halfway done, I'm not sure that I would try as hard to get the rest, you know?

Home Improvement

Paint My House - As mentioned above, I am rocking this goal. Two sides have been power washed and scraped. Cedar siding (which is not cheap, by the way) is being replaced where necessary and we are getting this project done. It is rather exciting!

Create a Compost Pile - This is moving ahead nicely. The area where I want to put it has all been cleaned out and it is ready to go. Now all I need is some warm weather... without rain.

Winterize the Home - Haven't done anything on this one yet. I see things that need to be done... but haven't done them yet.

Paint My Bedroom - Haven't done a thing on this one either. That's okay, I still have 8 more months to get it done, right?

Fix up the Attic - I wrote about this one last week. After months of not working on this, I went up and started the process of cleaning it out. I have a long, long way to go, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

Then there are my personal goals....

Personal Growth

Self Schooling - This month I did pretty well in my goal to educate myself in my chosen field while I am waiting for the funds and the time to go back for my Master's Degree. I took a seminar on a related topic and I signed up for a class at the Community College for next fall. While the class won't apply towards my Master's Degree, I want to build up a portfolio of work that I have done and classes I have taken, so that when I apply to go, I already have a background in the field.

Gratitude Journal - As long as I can get to bed before midnight, I write in my gratitude journal. If it ends up being later than 12:00 a.m., I don't. This week I have a lot of 1:00 a.m. nights, but the rest of the month I did pretty well at keeping my journal up.

Overall I am pretty pleased with the month. I went over my budget in a few places though, mostly related to the traveling I did in the middle of the month, but I also over spent on groceries and some other nonessential. Next month I would like to be a little leaner and closer to my actual budget. Speaking of which, my one year anniversary of having this blog will be coming up here in May and that means it is time for a new budget. I've made a lot of changes over the past year, it is time to work those into a new plan.

Photo by: Philip Bouchard

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Punching the Time Clock

I've mentioned a couple times on my blog that my "day job" hours are 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. I've worked this schedule for years, but now it looks like that is all going to change:

When I first started at this company 10 years ago, we were open from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.. The early morning crew would come in at 7:00 and get things ready for the day ahead. The phones would start ringing at 8:00 in the morning and go to 8:00 at night. I was in the marketing department then and worked 9-6. About the same time that I was promoted out of that department and made a manager, my boss was looking for someone to cover the 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. shift, so I volunteered. Honestly, I loved it. That schedule allowed me all sorts of flexibility in the morning (I took yoga classes, ran errands, exercised) but it still got me out early enough that I could have a social life. A few years ago we went through a large series of layoffs, and as a result had fewer late night folks, so we started closing the office at 7:00 p.m.. I too went to 10-7.

Since our last set of layoffs in December, my boss has been thinking more and more of closing the office at 6:00. We were down to just two people working until 7:00 and if one of us was gone or out of the office, it made it difficult on the other. Still, I loved my schedule and didn't want to give it up, but this week my boss decided we should make the break and start closing the hour earlier. I'll miss my old schedule a lot, but it is all for the best. Not only will it be a little easier for the few of us remaining in the office, but it will have some financial advantages for me...

As you know, I work a number of part time jobs, now that I am getting out an hour earlier, it will allow me to pick up some extra shifts. That is always good news! Because I was working until 7:00, for the most I was keeping my part time work to the weekends. However, I do have one job that requires week nights. It is only for 3 weeks a year, so I usually take some vacation time from my day job to even it out. It works, I have vacation time to spare and then I can get paid for my full 40 hours + my outside work. (Besides, it isn't like I have any trips planned!) The new 9-6 shift means that for that job I won't have to take quite as much vacation time, and for other jobs, I can go right after work.

Here's a funny thing - if I look at my schedule from last Saturday to this upcoming Saturday, I will have worked at 4 different jobs! That job that employs me three weeks? Well, this is one of those weeks. In addition, I managed to slip in a few other shifts at other jobs in. Here's how it worked out:

Last Saturday evening - 4 hours at Part time job #3

Monday - Wednesday - 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at Day job. (Using vacation time)

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and this Saturday evenings - Part time job #2

Thursday night and this Sunday afternoon - Part time job #1

Plus I even sold a couple of books this week! All I need to do is slip in a little Mystery Shopping and I will have this week completely packed with odd ways I make money!

Photo by: Joan Thewlis

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

What Everybody Knows

I've mentioned in the past that I am involved in a nonprofits. I volunteer and do other work for them, as well as sit on the board of directors. Locally we have some organizations that support nonprofits in various ways, and one of those ways is by offering classes and seminars. The classes are on different topics: developing a good board, creating marketing campaigns, and as you might guess, fund raising. I like going to these seminars and try to attend whenever I can. I almost always end up learning something.

Last week I attended one of these classes on the very appropriate topic of how to fund raise during difficult financial times. It was a very informative meeting. One of the things the speaker said really surprised me: he had statistics from the Center of Philanthropy going back to 1967 showing charitable giving by Americans. During this time we have had 12 years that were considered recession years. In all of those years charitable giving went down... but only by 3% on average! In other words, even when times are tough, people don't stop giving. In fact, some people increase their giving, because they know that charities need their support even more. That help makes up for those that can't give.

I'll be honest, my charitable giving has decreased significantly, although whenever I can, I do donate. As soon as things level out a little for me, (possibly even as soon as June,) I would like to get back in to regularly giving to the causes that are important to me. But that isn't what got me thinking. Instead, I started thinking about attitudes. I personally would have assumed that charitable giving would have dipped by a lot more than 3%, and I am not alone. At every board meeting we've been talking about how our nonprofit has been hurt by the recession. I started thinking, "Are we, as a board, setting ourselves up for failure?" And then once I asked that question, I started thinking about individuals...

By now, every American is well aware that there is a recession out there. Every day our news media tells us about people that are out of work and bank balances are getting low. Because of what "everybody knows" my fellow board members and I have gnashing our teeth and wailing over how difficult it is going to be to get donations, but how much of this panic is due to assumptions? When you look at the actual numbers, 3% isn't all that bad. We can weather through that!

Yet here we are, all sure that this economy is going to hurt us. It is like that old expression "Whether you think you can or can't do something, you're right." And when I think of this, I have to ask, how does what "everybody knows" effect us as individuals? How many people who have been laid off have given up finding work, because everybody knows the job market is bad? How many have allowed their homes to go into foreclosure because everybody knows that foreclosures are happening everywhere?

Do you see what I mean? How much of what is happening is part of a self fulfilling prophesy? I direct this only in part to you, my reader. I don't think this is a huge problem for the people I know. In fact, every blog I read is about people who aren't letting this economy slow them down. They are positive folks who, like me, sometimes get frustrated, but for the most part are holding strong and looking forward to the future. But, I can see in my own life time where I might not be trying quite as hard as I should, expecting failure and blaming it on the recession. The truth is though that everybody doesn't know. None of us expected we'd get in this and no one knows exactly when we'll get out.

The only thing we can do is keep moving forward, regardless of what everybody knows.

From "Everybody Knows" by the fabulous Leonard Cohen...

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose
Everybody knows

Photo by: RickyDavid

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Frugality and the Oddities of Human Behavior, Pt. 1

Wednesday night I had a meeting after work so by the time I got home, I was starving. I've mentioned on my blog a few times how I do my meal planning but for the new folks, I'll run through it again. Usually on Sunday I sit down with several of my favorite cookbooks and a big cup of tea and start planning out my menu for the week. I decide what I am going to make based off what is in the cupboards. At the same time I make my menu, I make my grocery list. I then shop on Monday so I know that I have everything I need to make the dishes for the next week. Clever, right? Well, mostly...

See, I don't really make a "menu" so much as a list of meals I can make. The theory behind this is that if I put down that Thursday I am going to have chicken and Thursday rolls around and I'm not in the mood for chicken, then I am stuck. But if I just make a list, then I can just pick whatever I feel like making off the list. This usually works out pretty good, but occasionally I have something on the list that I don't end up making. Sometimes it's because I accidentally use the ingredients for something else (Like planning on making quiche, but then deciding to make a omelet one morning and using up the last few eggs - which is why improvisation is not my friend.) Or maybe I go out to eat dinner one night unexpectedly. Then again, once and great while a dish doesn't get made because for whatever reason it just doesn't appeal.

My list this week was pretty messed up because I was gone all of last week and hadn't had the chance to go grocery shopping yet. What I had left on the list were a few things that had "carried over" from two weeks previous. I knew this driving home and that is where the craving for take out began. I drove by two fast food restaurants, both of which called my name (even though I rarely eat fast food) and then by a bad Chinese joint. I never like their food, but suddenly I was craving it. I held fast, at least until I got home...

At home I quickly glanced at the list. There were only three things left. One required a ton of work, one required thawed meat, which I didn't have, and the other was a Chickpea and Pasta Soup. Poor soup. It had been on my list for weeks actually, I kept not making it and then moving it to the following week. For some reason it never sounded appealing. But here's the weird thing about it - I had picked it out! So, I knew the recipe must have appealed to me at one time, yet every time I saw it, I went for something else.

It didn't matter though, what I was craving was pizza. Hot, gooey, cheesy pizza, preferably from the little gourmet pizza place I love. My frugal conscience and my hungry belly began warring it out:

FC: Eat the soup.

HB: I want pizza!!

FC: Eat the soup.

HB: I want that pizza, right there on the menu - the one with Gorgonzola and bacon!

FC: You are trying to lose a little weight, remember? Eat the soup.

HB: No! I want the pizza. I need the pizza. The soup will take too long, I'm going to call the pizza place.

FC: If you call them, how long do you think the pizza will take?

HB: 30 minutes, or so.

FC: And how long will the soup be?

HB: Don't know, don't care. Want the pizza.

FC: Check.

HB: Fine. The cookbook says.. about 30 minutes.

FC: Eat the soup.

HB: No, I don't want soup. I want pizza... with bacon.

FC: How much is the pizza?

HB: $12

FC: And how much is the soup?

HB: Free.

FC: Eat the soup. You are wasting precious time thinking about this, you know.

HB: NO! I am going to order the pizza anyway! See! I am going to dial. And then I will go to the convenience store next store and buy some pop to go with it!

FC: You are out of gas.

HB: What???

FC: Your car. The fuel light came on remember? On your way home? You decided you were just going to get gas in the morning at the station near work. The pizza place doesn't deliver. What if you run out of gas now because you waste fuel going to get a pizza you don't need. Eat the soup!

HB: I'll walk.

FC: And look like a complete dork carefully walking with a pizza that will undoubtedly be cold by the time you get home? Eat the soup.

HB: Fine, I will eat the soup.

Seriously, if it hadn't been that I was out of fuel, I would have ordered the stupid pizza. Now, I know that the likelihood that I would run out of gas the next morning was pretty slim, but it was enough to get me to pause and reconsider, which lead me to make the soup. But because I can't leave well enough alone and have to pick at my own brain to see what the devil is going on in there, I started wondering about this little incident. I had all the ingredients, it was easy to make, so why didn't I want to make the soup? And what's more, why didn't I want to make the soup before? Was it the name? I mean "Pasta and Chickpea Soup" does not exactly inspire drool (unlike a Gorgonzola, bacon and green olive pizza) but again, I had picked the recipe out. I only do that with things I want to make and it was out of a cookbook I love. I knew it was likely to be tasty, I mean I wasn't forcing myself to eat cold gruel here.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Not just with food, but with houses, lovers, cars, jobs... everything. We see the sensible solution, but we are drawn to do something else. I am all for treating yourself now and again, but this wasn't a treat, this was me rebelling against myself. Is that what it is? My own personal inner James Dean stepping in? What is it in us that makes being frugal and practical such a struggle? Why do I sometimes choose something that isn't good for me, when I know better?

I think about this with money a lot. I mean in this case it was only $12, but that is a lot to throw away on something I didn't need. How often have we all done things like this, usually for a lot more money? It feels good for a few moments, but the funny thing is, that feeling doesn't last. Once the last pizza slice is gone, I'll start feeling guilty. It's where buyers remorse gets its start. It's hard to return a pizza though. I wonder if this is where the image of a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other comes from, though in my case it was my frugal conscious verses my belly. And afterward? After I made the soup?

HB: Hey up there! I ate the soup.

FC: Yes?

HB: It was delicious!! And it was so easy. It was vegetarian and super healthy. I'd eat that again!

FC: You're welcome.

Photo by: Adam Kuban.

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Changes in the Air

Earlier this week the author of One Caveman's Financial Journey wrote a post about the financial benefits of losing weight. It was interesting to read, not only because of his conclusions, but also because I have been thinking about getting a little more fit myself. I'm not thinking about a huge campaign or diet or anything, but I have been feeling rather sluggish since this winter. I have a lack of stamina and my clothes aren't quite fitting the way I like, so I've decided to do something about it - I'm getting back to walking. I've been an active walker at various points in my life, but had sort of fallen out of it recently. The last few days I've been picking it up again.

Just this weekend a girlfriend and I were talking about it. She's on the same path, wanting to do a little to get back to feeling good about spring... and spring clothes. This all brings me to something I have noticed lately - it seems like people are looking at a lot of life changes lately. I've noticed it in myself, in friends I have talked to and on the blogs I read. It isn't just weight, it is all sorts of changes - going back to school, looking at changing careers, simplifying and decluttering, and of course, financial goals. It feels like New Year's Eve the way I hear people talking about setting goals and making changes. It is almost like something is in the air...

I'm not an analyst so I can only hazard a few guesses as to why this might be. Part of it might be because it is spring. There is something about spring - Mother Nature is shedding her bleak coat and appearing fresh and renewed. Is it all that surprising that we want to do the same? Maybe we are sick of being cooped up inside and are ready for some kind of change. Or maybe it is simply that change is in the air and people are catching it like a virus.

I also wonder, however, if this financial crises doesn't have something to do with it. We've seen that jobs can be lost - even ones you thought you could count on. We've seen employers doing some pretty shifty things. We've seen homes being lost and bank accounts depleted. We've seen that gadgets and cars and big homes aren't making people happy. When everyone is making (and spending) lots of money, it is easy to overlook the things we don't like in our lives. Money can smooth out all the rough edges for awhile, but once the money dries up, we are left with all these sharp corners that poke and prod. I wonder if subconsciously, or even c
onsciously, people are getting back to things that are important - spending time with family, feeling healthy and strong, having places to live and work that make them happy, following their dreams.

I wonder...

I wonder about all the people, myself included, who have said, "Okay. Okay, I will take your mind numbing job if in return you will provide me security and health insurance and money to buy the things I want to buy." Where are they now? Could they be looking around and realizing that the mind numbing job won't provide all those things, in fact, the jobs may be gone already? Maybe those people are starting to think that if they can't rely on their job or the government or anyone else for happiness, then it is time to find it ourselves. Maybe that means losing a few pounds to feel better, or getting rid of extra things around the house. Maybe it means taking some classes or looking at starting a new business. I guess what I am getting at is, maybe the silver lining of this recession is it bringing people back to basics, it is helping us refocus on what really matters.

What do you think? Are you making any changes? Setting new goals? Trying something new? And if so, why? What's motivating you right now?

Photo by: Catd_Mitchell

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Working Many Jobs to Pay the Bills

Good news! I picked up another part time shift. As a reminder, in addition to my day job, I work sporadically at three different places: one intermittently throughout the year, one three weeks out of the year (one of which is next week) and one every now and again whenever they are desperate and need someone. I had kept this upcoming weekend free because it is my mother's birthday, but it turned out we are just getting together Sunday night for dinner. That meant my Saturday night was free to pick up a shift. I'm glad because not only can I really use the work, but it also helps out a friend of mine, so all around it is a good thing!

You know, when I first started thinking about a part time job, I was thinking mostly about getting an actual 20 hour a week regular job. I was considering seeing if any stores were hiring, including the little convenience store around the corner from my house. I have tons of experience in retail, so I was thinking about that, or possibly even restaurant work, (though food service has never appealed to me before.) The problem is that I work an odd schedule at my day job (10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.) and that would mean trying to pick up extra work on the weekends or finding some place that would need someone from 8:00 p.m. to midnight or something. I have to admit, that didn't exactly appeal. Thank goodness I found another option...

Through my friends Mary Jo, Shelly and Roseanne, I found work that fits my schedule completely. I don't know that ordinarily I would have thought of having several small part time jobs, rather than one regular one, but it has really worked out. In fact, now that I have been doing it for awhile, I think a traditional second job would have really wore me out. This way I have time off and my schedule is pretty flexible. It allows me to make sure that I am keeping some sort of balance in my life.

One of the added benefits to my jobs is how they bring me in contact with other wonderful people. I feel like I have a tremendous social network of friends and good acquaintances. Most know about my financial situation. Years ago I would have found that embarrassing, but now I accept it. I don't feel ashamed of my situation, "it is what it is." Furthermore, I don't know many people who haven't been hit by the recession in some way or another. I also think my honesty about it has helped other people to feel comfortable talking about their situation with me, and that has brought us together. It has also brought an enormous amount of support. I cannot even begin to list all the ways that friends and family has helped me!

Working like this does occasionally make for a busy schedule, but I'll tell you, the many benefits make it all worth while.

Photo by: Katherine of Chicago

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

House Painting Begins!

Last week while I was out of town, the house painter started working on my home. This is a big deal as I've never done any home improvement project this big before! Fortunately, the painter has been wonderful through this beginning process and really willing to work with me. When we met last summer, I explained my financial situation and when we got together again this spring to do the quote, I was brutally honest about what I could afford to pay. Because of this, he and I were able to work out a deal to do two sides of the home at a time. That way I can get two done now and then once they are finished, I can evaluate when I will be able to do the other two. It may be mid summer, and then again, it may have to wait until late fall. It just depends on finances.

Although I hate spending all this money, what is great is how well we are working together. For example, when he gave me the quote, we decided to do the North and West sides of the house first. However, he was able to score a great deal on renting some scaffolding for a couple of weeks this month. Since the South and East sides of my house have pavement near the home while the North and West will have to all be done on a ladder, we swapped the the order of the sides. It didn't matter to me, after all, the house has four sides and they all need paint, but it helped him out. In return, he noticed that some woodwork needs replacing and asked me this morning if I wanted it done. He offered to include it in the original quote if I buy the lumber. Perfect!

Painter guy has been great about communicating with me on what is happening, what he is working on and on top of that, he even came over on a Sunday to sweep up the paint chips that were all over my driveway from the power washing. I haven't had any worries about the job getting started, then him disappearing. So, even though I am spending a whole lot of money, I feel pretty good about who I am spending it with. Which is good, because I discovered that this isn't the only work that needs to be done...

Power washing the house really pointed out a problem I had been suspected for awhile - one of my windows is all "wonky." (Yes, that is the technical term.) This probably isn't too surprising for a house that is 200+ years old. In fact, you have to expect this kind of thing. Anyway, the water actually came through the window and ran down my cloth blinds. Not too pretty! Fortunately I have a friend* whose folks used to be in the blind cleaning business, so I plan on picking his brain and seeing if my blind can be saved or if I am just out of luck. On the outside, the window looks normal, but on the inside you can see that the foundation has sunk and the inner portion of the window is all off kilter.

Anyway, painter guy and I got talking about it this morning. He even came in and and took at a look at the window for me. Not only does he do house painting, but he does other types of older home refinishing, so I thought I would get his opinion. His suggestion was to seal up the outer (normal looking) storm window with caulk, then rebuild the inner wonky looking window by redoing the framing on the inside.

The window itself consists of a large newer window on the bottom with an original small panel window on the top. Painter guy said that I cannot replace the window because he thinks my home is in a historic area. I think I'm just on the outskirts of both nearby historic areas, though I haven't been able to find a map online to tell me for sure. Most of the windows in my home have been replaced, so I wouldn't be too worried about it, but truthfully, I would like to keep the old window for its aesthetics. Part of the reason you buy an old home is for details like these. However, it is better if they are at least straight! I'd love to get this repaired, especially because if water can get through, you can bet the cold winter wind can, but it is all about money - and at this time, I don't have it. It will just have to wait for another day; all I can do is one project at a time.

Still, it is nice to see the progress happening. Currently he has power washed the two sides and they look pretty rough - but in that "break a few eggs to make an omelet" kind of way. You can see that this will be a good start. Next up will be replacing some of the rotten wood, which is the whole reason I am getting the house painted this year - because the wood was starting to go, and that gets expensive!

One silver lining to all of this is that a portion of the work will be tax deductible because there is a rental unit in the house. That is something I think I will really appreciate come next April!

* Yes David, I mean you.

Photo by: Bjorn Sahlberg

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Insurance Renewal Time

Well, I just got a bit of good news! My insurance agent (who also just happens to be my brother-in-law) emailed me the following:

Hey Dawn. I can lower that home insurance premium with another carrier. It’s about $200 less annually than your current insurance with XXXX Insurance.

Let me know if you want me to switch it. Your mortgage company already paid it so I would send you the $189 difference between premiums in a few weeks.

We can look at moving your auto to this company at the July renewal. I think we can drop your auto a little bit then too.
I emailed him back and said that no, I would rather pay an extra $189. Ha! Of course I want to switch! I asked him to send me the forms ASAP.

Do you check your insurance every year to make sure you have the best coverage? I used to be bad at this in the old days. I would stick with one company long after it made sense to switch, just because it was easier and out of some weird sense of loyalty... even though back then I never even talked to my agent!

The advantage I have with my current agent is that, not only is he my brother-in-law, but he also really loves his job. I've encouraged a couple of my coworkers to go to him and one of them tells me all the time how great he is. When someone really cares about what they do, they tend to put a lot more heart into it. My house painter is the same way, you can just tell he loves what he is doing. I got to admit, I wished I felt that way about my present job. Its a good place to work, but I don't have the passion for it these guys do about their jobs.

If you don't have an agent like mine who keeps an eye on this kind of thing for you, make sure you are doing your own research every year. Companies are really hurting for business right now and with all the competition out there, you might be able to lower your premiums or increase your coverage for less than what you were paying. Just make sure to read all the fine print!

I would love to see the cost of my auto insurance go down. Unfortunately I got a speeding ticket a few years ago and that has been raising my rates. It was only for 5 miles over, but still, that has an effect. That ticket should be dropping off here soon, so hopefully that will help considerably. Since the car will be paid off in June, that will be my only automotive costs, other than fuel and maintenance, of course.

My brother-in-law said he would be mailing me the paperwork this week, which would be excellent. That $189 will make a nice unexpected windfall.

Photo by: djbones

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Working on 2009 Goals - The Attic

One of the goals I set for 2009 was to fix up my attic space. I have a small third floor finished attic room that has been needing some help for awhile. When I was married, this tiny nook was my office. I had my bookshelves up there, my desk, a comfy chair, and, of course, my computer. Unfortunately, because it is tucked up in the eaves, the room was always blistering hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. Even with alternating between my space heater and my widow air conditioning unit, it was hard to find a comfortable temperature. When my ex and I separated, I left a ton of stuff I didn't know what else to do with stashed up in this room, along with all my files.

Now that I am back in the house, I've put my office in the spare bedroom where there is a lot more space and a more consistent temperature. What I would like to do with that little attic space is make it into a nice storage area. Although it is finished, it needs a lot of help. The carpeting is stained and the walls need repair and painting. (It didn't bother me that much when it was my office - the bookcases and file cabinet hid a lot of the damage.) I've been thinking though that this is the perfect home improvement project for someone who is still learning her way around a tool belt.

Since the room is small, it won't be a huge project to undertake and since it is tucked away on the third floor, I can work on it in my leisure, and not have to worry about making a mess or being under time restraints. I'd like to pull up the carpet, take down the nasty wallpaper boarder, then repair some of the drywall. A fresh coat of paint and some cabinets from the discount store, and I think this could be a fabulous multipurpose storage room. But first, I need to clean it out...

There are boxes, old computer equipment, miscellaneous books, and all sorts of stuff from my marriage tucked up there. It's become something of a "catch all" for things I wasn't sure what to do with. Before I can rip up the carpet, I need to get all the junk up off it!

So, after months of admitting in my monthly posts on my goals that I hadn't done anything with this room, I finally got off my tush and did something about it. Last night I emptied out my file cabinet and brought it downstairs to the spare bedroom. It was a bit awkward, not heavy, but rather bulky and there was no good way to hold onto it, but still, I managed to get it down the stairs to where I wanted it. The next step was bringing down all my files. I haven't done a good job filing my papers since I moved out, so for about two years, things have been chaotic. Since I've moved back in, I knew that I was going to work on that room which meant moving the file cabinet, and that would mean moving it empty. So instead of filing any new papers, I just put them in piles on the floor around the cabinet. (Real organized, eh?) In hindsight, I realize that was kind of a dumb thing to do. With the old files already in the cabinet, I was able to just pull them out, stack them neatly and then carry them down and put them back in the drawers where they belong. Now though, I have to take all my piles of miscellaneous papers from the last year and start filing. It would have been an easier job if I had just done that from the first place! Ah well... live and learn.

The good news is that with a little bit of work I now have a nice clear patch of carpet in the attic and I can easily get back to keeping all my records, financial and otherwise, in an orderly fashion. It will be nice having all my financial papers in one spot. I keep all my receipts in two shoe boxes, each marked with the year, one for regular receipts and one for tax deductible items, in the closet of the spare bedroom. I also have nearby a fireproof safe for extremely important documents. Now that I have the file cabinet in the spare bedroom, all these storage units are a whole lot closer together, which should make filing a whole lot easier. Isn't it nice when a plan comes together?

Photo by: Curiousyellow

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Frugal Foods - Risotto

Because I was gone all of last week, I did my best to eat up as much of my perishable groceries as I could before I left. That meant there was very little spoiling. However, it also meant that when I got back in on Saturday, there was no food in the house. After poking through the cupboards and freezer for awhile, I decided to make one of my favorite frugal meals - risotto. Risotto is an incredibly frugal dish that tastes really expensive, but can be made with basic items I always have in the house. Essentially what you need is: oil (or butter), risotto rice (Aborio), and something to add to it - veggies, meat and/or cheese.

The Aborio rice is the only expensive part of the equation. Around here 16 oz. usually runs me between $6-$7. However, since I get 4 good sized servings out of just one cup of rice, (and it reheats beautifully - oftentimes even better on the second day) I can really get my money's worth out of a bag. Plus, the rice is something I can keep on hand for whenever I need it, I don't have to worry about it going bad. Risotto isn't exactly the healthiest of meals (though you can adjust for some of that) and it certainly isn't fast, but if you are looking for a filling, delicious dish you can make with whatever is in your cupboards - risotto is the way to go.

Here's how I make mine...

What you need:

1 Tablespoon of oil/butter (this can be olive oil, butter, margarine, vegetable oil, or pretty much whatever you cook in)

1 cup of Aborio rice

5-6 cups of liquid (Broth, wine, etc.)

3-4 large-ish handfuls of "stuff" (Veggies, meat, and so on)

See why this recipe is so forgiving?

To prepare:

If I have an onion in the house, the first thing I do is chop it up and saute' it in the oil/butter until it is translucent. Don't have an onion? Celery is a good substitute. So are shallots. Have just one stalk of celery, a half of onion, a shallot and a garlic clove? Use that! If I don't have any of them, I skip this step completely and just warm the oil.

Next I add the cup of rice. Stir frequently until the grains are coated in oil. It will just take a minute or two. Then I add the liquid.

Now, a word about the liquid - You need quite a bit of it. Most recipes I have seen call for a combination of stock and something else - usually wine or cream. I usually stay away from using cream to avoid calories, but I've done it and it is mighty tasty. The ratio is usually 4-5 cups of stock and 1 cup of other liquid.

I always have stock in the house, since I make my own in large batches and freeze it. You can use chicken stock, beef broth or vegetable stock. If I have a cup of white wine in the house, I'll use that for one of the cups, however, most often I just use all stock. (You can use red wine too, but it will color your rice red.) Another trick is to save the water when you rehydrate dried mushrooms or sun dried tomatoes. I like to throw it in a little container and keep it in the freezer. Just make sure you strain it first - especially the water from mushrooms, as it will have grit in the bottom. Another option is if you are going to add tomatoes to your risotto, use the juice drained from the cans as some of your liquid. Just remember, whatever liquid you use, that will be the flavor of the rice. This weekend I used 3 cups of homemade chicken stock, 2 cups of vegetable, and 1 cup of mushroom water from rehydrated dried porcini mushrooms, all out of my freezer.

Put all of your liquid in a small sauce pan on another burner and cook on medium low. I throw my tupperware containers of frozen broth in the microwave for 30 second then pop the frozen broth into the pan and warm it up that way. If the liquid is warm, it absorbs easier into the rice. When your liquid is warm and your rice is nice and shiny and coated with oil/butter, you are ready to start mixing the two together.

Add one cup of liquid to the rice, stir and allow to cook on medium heat until the liquid is absorbed. Now, seriously, here is the trick to a great risotto - you cannot rush this next step. In total, risotto will take about an hour to cook. If you rush it your rice will be crunchy and undercooked and not fabulous creamy goodness. Personally, I usually have to walk away. I like to have things to do - otherwise I stand over the pot and over-stir and rush the absorption process by turning up the heat too high. This weekend I occupied myself by sorting mail and cleaning the kitchen. Every couple of minutes, check the rice. When you stir it and most of the liquid is gone, then it is time to add another cup. ...then walk away again.

You will do this until all the liquid has been absorbed into the rice and the grains are fat and creamy looking. Now, this is when I add "everything else." Everything else is what makes this dish a frugal person's delight. I usually use 2-3 additional ingredients plus some cheese, if I have it. This weekend I had two leftover frozen turkey sausages which I chopped up, a cup and a half of frozen peas and about 3/4 of a cup of walnuts. Seriously though, you can use anything that appeals to you - that is why this is the perfect dish to use up little leftovers: cooked chicken, frozen veggies, fresh herbs, mushrooms, green onions, canned tomatoes, chopped nuts... whatever you have! I made a fabulous risotto with leftover chicken, pistachios and dried cranberries once. I have a friend (and great home chef) who made one using champagne as part of her liquid and asparagus. (She made that a couple years ago, and it still sounds good to me.)

Once the liquid is completely absorbed, I add all the other "stuff" whatever that may be. I stir a few times, then cover and remove from heat and let it sit for 20 minutes. That last 20 minutes is important. I don't always see it in recipes, but from long risotto experience, I can tell you, it makes a huge difference. It not only heats up all the "stuff" you just added, but it also allows the rice and the flavors to meld and to completely finish cooking.

Now for the cheese - I almost always have some kind of cheese in the house and you can use just about anything, although favorites are Parmesan, Fontina, Ramano, Asiago and the like. However, I've also stirred in goat cheese, feta cheese, and Swiss cheese. This last one I made I used about 3/4 of a cup of a combination of Parmesan and Monterey Jack. Obviously, this is where you can really change the calorie content. Use a low fat cheese - or none at all - and lots of fresh veggies and lean protein and you can take some of the evil out of the dish!

Though I don't make it that often, mostly because of the time it takes to cook, I love risottos for how easy they are to make, how can use different ingredients in each one, how wonderfully they reheat and how filling they are. It is great as a side dish or a meal, and I can pack it up and take it into work the next day for lunch.

So, what are your favorite frugal meals?

Photo of fennel risotto by: Rachel is Coconut & Lime

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Back Home Again

I'm back! Last week I was out of town at a trade show for work. The show went well, but more importantly (to the purpose of this blog) I have lots of stories to tell and lots of blog posts in the works. First though, I have to get settled back into my regular writing routine.

The bad news about being out of town last week was that I had to close down all my online sales. The process is really easy through both and Half - you can just log into your account and indicate you are on vacation. Once you do that, all your listing are removed from the sites. When you return, you can click a link and poof! your listings are back online. It must have worked, I came back on Saturday and already had a sale on Sunday. However, that was a whole week without extra income.

The good news is that I have some additional work coming up...

On Saturday night (the day I flew in) I was able to pick up a shift at my part time job. I'll be working two more shifts for them coming up. In addition, I have a week's worth of work starting the 27th at another job. Hopefully between the two, they will help make ends meet. This month isn't looking too exciting so far, although I have received some money out of the blue. My sister, unexpectedly, paid me for puppy-sitting while she was on vacation, and I was able to get a few extra dollars from taking surveys.

Fortunately May is looking pretty good at this point. There is the possibility that I'll be able to pick up quite a bit of part time work, and since I don't have a lot of other things going on, I'll be able to jump back into eBay sales and things like that. Plus, I need to get in touch with my girlfriends and see about having our yearly garage sale!

Photo by: caribb

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Frugality for a Better Life

Last week Trent from Simple Dollar had a post about frugality called The Little Things That Make You Happy. His point was not to cut out the things you love, but instead, find ways to make those things more frugal. One of his examples is for a daily latte lover to look at purchasing a smaller size, checking out other coffeehouses for better deals, etc.. Now, I'm all about this kind of thinking! If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know I don't believe in sacrificing the things you love in the name of money. Even as broke as I am, I still make time (and money) for things I care about. At the same time though, I do look at ways to make them more frugal. I love to dine out, for example. One way I can do that on a frugal budget is to accept Mystery Shopping assignments for restaurants. I write up a report on the service I received, they reimburse me the cost of my dinner. It's a great system!

One thing Trent didn't talk about, but I mentioned in his comments, is that what some people don't realize is that frequently the more frugal alternative can be better that its more expensive counterpart. This goes right back to the post by Frugal Chick that I mentioned last week. She mentioned that at one point in her life she never thought she would give up her frozen pizza, now she can't imagine ever going back to it! It isn't just that her homemade pizza is less expensive to make, it is that it tastes so much better!

I was reminded of this concept recently when I was looking at my plates...

Shortly after my husband and I got married, I hosted my very first Thanksgiving dinner. Naturally, I wanted everything to be perfect, so I was trying to plan every detail. One of the things I realized was that I didn't have a butter dish or a cream and sugar set. He and I had gotten a set of dishes when we were married, but we just didn't happen to be given these particular pieces. The set had come from Bed, Bath and Beyond, so a few days before the holiday I hopped online to see if I could order them. Ordering them wasn't a problem, but the cost was! The sugar and creamer set was over $35 on its own! I should say that the dishes themselves were pretty middle-of-the-road as far as price was concerned, we're not talking fine china here. So I was shocked! $35 for just a sugar bowl and a small pitcher to pour cream?? There was no way I was going to pay that.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving I had gotten out of work early and was driving home. I still hadn't come up with a solution to the problem. Then I had a brilliant thought - I quick turned my car around and drove over to a local antique shop. I love vintage glassware and I figured I might just be able to find something there. It turns out, I was right! Almost right away I found a beautiful little clear cut glass creamer and sugar set for $6. I didn't find a proper butter dish, but I did find a small 4" round clear cut glass shallow little bowl with feet. I decided to soften the butter then scoop out balls of it with the small end of my melon baller and pile them in the little bowl - just like getting little molded butter pats at a high end restaurant. The best part? The bowl was gorgeous... and only $2!

So, for just $8 I had all my serving pieces. While they didn't match my plates exactly, in my opinion, vintage glassware goes with anything. These looked like family heirlooms - all the more appropriate for a holiday dinner with family.

Now time has passed. When my ex and I split up, we split those dishes right down the middle, however, I kept my little cut glass serving plates. A few months after the divorce, my ex bought new dishes for himself and so he gave me back his half. These dishes are absolutely fine. They are nice and sturdy, and I still like the colors. I will probably keep them a long time, but honestly, they don't mean as much to me as my little cut glass pieces. I like them not only for themselves, but I love how they have a story. Not just my story, but other people's stories. Who knows where these pieces came from originally? Where they someone's grandmother's wedding set? When were they made? Who has owned them? I find it's delightful mystery.

In fact, I haven't bought another serving piece for my original set, even though Bed, Bath and Beyond occasionally has them on sale - and I always have a coupon. I have however, bought more cut glass pieces. The beauty is that I can pick them up at garage sales, thrift stores and antique stores for just a few dollars. I don't care if the patterns match, in fact, that they don't match, it adds to the charm. Last fall I picked up a cute relish dish for $1 a garage sale and just a couple of months ago I got a big serving platter at a thrift store for $2.50. I tell you, you can't find many treasures for those prices in a big retail store!

Frugality is great for the pocketbook, but I also think it makes us more creative. We do more on our own, make our own memories, add our own special flair. Not only that, but it is frequently better for us - and our planet! It isn't just about the pennies saved, though that is important, it is also about finding better ways to do things.

Photo by: SnowRiderGuy

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Monday, April 13, 2009

My Stimulated Paycheck

Last week Tuesday was payday at my day job. As I was filing away my pay stub, I noticed something.... my pay check was slightly different than the paycheck I got a few weeks ago. I'm not sure that I would have normally noticed it, especially prior to the whole "Getting $900" business, but since I just changed my tax withholding a little while ago, I'm a little more sensitive to that bottom line. Anyway, I decided to ask the office accountant about it. While I always appreciate at a few more dollars thrown in my direction, I figure it is better to ask now than to have my boss asking me for repayment a few months down the road!

If I had studied my paycheck a little closer and read through all the itemized lines before going to the accountant, I would have spotted the reason myself - it was my "stimulus check." As most people know, we aren't getting an actual check this time, instead we are getting a break on our taxes...

Mine was $20 exactly. I have read that most Americans can expect an average of $13 more in their paycheck, but I don't remember if that was for weekly or biweekly paychecks. If it was for weekly, then I am behind that statistic a bit, as I get paid biweekly. In any case, it looks like I can start expecting a little more in those twice a month paychecks.

I've seen blog posts and whatnot about "What would you do with your stimulus tax break?"implying that people will take that $13 and do something different with it than they would the rest of their paycheck. Personally, I don't see that happening much. If the little $20 or $13 checks or whatever were sent to folks directly every pay period, then people might direct that money to different places. My guess though is that most people will be like me and just put it in their checking account along with the rest of their paycheck.

So, what about you, fellow Americans? Have you seen a change in your paycheck? Are you doing anything special with it?

Photo by: djbones

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Frugality Making Life So Much Better

I liked this short little post from Frugal Chick called Oh How We Change. She found a list a that she made for herself a few years ago that listed things she would never give up. Turns out that she made the switch away from one of them a long time ago... and never even noticed!

Sometimes I think that is one of the sweetest things about a frugal lifestyle - finding better options (better = healthier, cheaper, more value, etc.) and not even missing the old stuff! I was thinking about this myself the other day, like Frugal Chick, in regards to food. There a number of convenience foods that I used to love that I simply don't eat any more. For example, I used to love Kraft Mac and Cheese. Not the powdered kind - the family kind with the foil envelope of cheese food that you squeeeeeeze out into the hot pasta and mix in. I loved it even as a kid! When I start craving comfort food, this is one of the things I think of. So, not too long ago I decided to buy a box, just to have around as a little treat to myself when I was feeling down. Sure enough, the day came when I was feeling down and the cupboards were bare, so I grabbed that trusty blue box. And you know what?

It was terrible.

It wasn't the product's fault exactly, it was simply that my palette had changed. I love really good quality cheese and what they put in that stuff isn't exactly "gourmet." To me it tasted horrendously salty! I still love high quality restaurant or made at home mac and cheese, but I can't eat the blue box version anymore. Now when I am at home and need something to fit the bill I have my own recipe for comfort...

I have an easy recipe that calls for a cup of macaroni pasta, some lemon juice, a touch of butter, some garlic and Parmesan cheese. I can make it in 15 minutes. It still isn't exactly health food, but I know what all the ingredients in are - and how to pronounce them! Plus, if I had to go to the store today and buy everything for it (unusual since it is made with staples from my pantry, but bear with me) it would cost slightly more than the blue box of Kraft, however, I could make many, many more servings!

My point isn't to compare my cooking to store bought, though. (Since my cooking will win out nearly every time!) I just love that once you become frugal you find little things that change - and not only do you not miss the old stuff, you think the new stuff is better! So often "Frugal" gets this bad wrap of having to sacrafice, but it doesn't have to be that way at all. If there is one thing I hope people carry with them after this recession ends* and people are feeling like spending money again, it is these little things. People who are reconnecting with family because they turned off the cable, people enjoying home cooked meals over restaurants and store bought, people finding joy and pride in doing things themselves rather than hiring it done... these types of things are so valuable, and not just to the pocketbook. I hope these little lessons stick around.

* It really will end.

Photo by: Antonio Illardo

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

How To Select The Perfect Cookbook

I was reading a post recently by the author of Get Stuff Done about wanting to try Vegan cuisine. I started to write a loooooooong comment about how I started with a Vegan cookbook and then how I went about selecting that cookbook, when I realized that it would be better suited for a blog post. So, I made a short comment that actually related to what she had written and then set about writing this. First of all, I am not a Vegan. However, I love trying new cuisines! I also love cookbooks, but I keep them to a minimum. Even if I made a new recipe every day for a year I couldn't get through all the recipes in most cookbooks, so having hundreds of cookbooks just doesn't make sense. My parents had a huge library of cookbooks and then made one or two dishes from each one. I prefer to find a few really good cookbooks and work my way through them.

Here are a few of my favorite cookbooks and why I love them:

Photos - I love trying new cuisines, but whenever I am dabbling in something I have a limited amount of experience in, I look for cookbooks with photos. Not every recipe in this wonderful book by the multi-talented Madhur Jaffrey has a photo, but most do, and that makes it a lot easier for me when I am in the kitchen. I don't expect that the first time I make a recipe it will come out picture perfect, but it is handy to have that photo when reading statements that seem a bit ambiguous. I mean, what does "the sauce should be soupy"really mean? Is my "soupy" the same as hers? This is when I check the photo!

Ingredients you know - This is the cookbook I bought when I was trying Vegan dishes. I totally lucked out on this one, because frankly, this cookbook violates a lot of the rules that I now use when selecting a new book. I am happy to try new techniques and buy new spices, but I want to have a fairly good idea of what I am getting into. This cookbook has a few ingredients I had never heard of - nor had my grocer. Apparently they are available at most health food stores, but I didn't know that at the time. I'm pretty adventurous, but I still want to know where to shop for things! Actually, I love all the recipes I have tried out of this book, and with a little help from the internet was able to find substitutions for those couple of ingredients I didn't know. This cookbook does take a little skill though.

And that brings me to another point...

Know what you are getting into - We all have
different skill levels when it comes to cooking. Personally, I think everyone should at least have at least one basic cookbook with all the terms explained and cooking times for common foods. I couldn't find a photo of my old Betty Crocker cookbook, so this will have to do. It's my "go-to" book when I need to remember how long to cook an acorn squash or what the best temperature is for a rump roast. I have to admit, I don't make many recipes out of it anymore, but I use it as a back up all the time.

When shopping for a cookbook, try to keep your skill level in mind. I'll tackle the cuisines of the Middle East with gusto, but Japanese dishes are still outside of skill set. (I did try making sushi once... let's just say I still have a long way to go on my rolling technique!) Here's the thing, if you are looking for a challenge, that is one thing, but if you are looking for a cookbook you will use time and time again, browse through the pages and look and see if the recipes have directions that are clear and use techniques you feel comfortable with. If not, you might want to look for something else, because it will probably just end up collecting dust on the shelf.

When in doubt, ask a pro -
You want to learn how to cook a steak? Ask your neighbor - the one who grills in the dead of winter. Want to learn to make a perfect pie crust? Ask someone's grandmother. Want to learn a new cuisine? Ask someone from that background to help you pick up out a cookbook. My Lebanese friend gave me this wonderful cookbook and it is one I go back to again and again. He tells me it is one of the more authentic Lebanese cookbooks he could find. I might not have picked this one out on my own, so I am grateful that I got his personal insight.

Most of us know people who love to cook, and in my experience there are two types of cooks - those who do it all out of their heads, and those who use a recipe. I'm a recipe gal. Then, once I have it down, I'll tinker with it. If you are shopping for a new cookbook, find folks whose opinions you admire and ask for their help - and hope they are a recipe person! In a pinch, I will even read the reviews online, but I don't follow those too closely, I would rather trust my gut.

Make sure it has recipes you actually want to make - Okay, I know this sounds basic, but this is actually the most important thing of all. How many people (myself included) buy cookbooks because they thinkthey want to be the kind of person that would use that cookbook. Maybe it is a health cookbook when they know they really are a couch potato. Maybe it is a book on French Cuisine because you think it would be sexy on the shelf. I have a grilling cookbook because I thought it would be great to cook outside on a summer night. There is only one problem. I don't own a grill.

Sometimes what we want our outside appearance to be doesn't match realty. Buying things that aren't true to who we are is a problem in many areas, not just cookbooks. To solve that problem in this area I have a hard and fast rule now when it comes to cookbooks. The first thing I do is open it up at random and look a recipe. Then I ask myself, the following questions:

1.) Is this something I want to eat? Does it sound delicious?
2.) Is it something I want to make? Would it be fun to cook?
3.) Could I make this? Do I have the equipment, skill, ingredients?
4.) Do I wish this was on a plate in front of me right now?

I do that up to 10 times - just flip through and scan the recipe for these questions. If it scores 9 out 10 or better, I know I have a winner. This cookbook by Mark Bittman was missing my beloved photos, but it scored high in every other category, especially on these last questions. It is my number one cookbook right now, and has been for a couple of years. It is my absolute favorite. However, it isn't for everyone. It is a fairly meat-centric cookbook and it does require some skill in the kitchen. Yet, if I had to take only one to a desert (or should that be dessert) island, this would be it. It still rings true on question #4 almost every time I open it.

There is no sense spending money on cookbooks you won't use, so make sure you do a little research. Other great options are checking them out from a library first, or borrowing them from a friend. Also, when you go to buy, check out and see if you can get a used copy online. Check the condition first (I like to buy Very Good or better,) but many times you can save a fair amount of money that way, and let's face it, books in the kitchen will get spilled on or stained anyway, so a little wear on them when you get them hardly matters.

One more quick tip - if you are looking to try something radically different or have a specific ingredient you would like to use, there are thousands of recipes online. Talk about a frugal way to get new recipes! My favorite websites are Epicurious and

I don't know how many cookbooks I have in total, but I would say I have about 7 I use day in and day out. I use them to make weekly menus, and from there make my grocery lists... but I'll leave that for another post.

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On the Road Again...

Once again things might be a little quiet around here. I'll do what I can, but I'm afraid my posting is going to have to slow down for a week or so. On Monday I will be taking a business trip and I will be gone through Friday. While I will have a computer along, of sorts, I don't know if I will get much opportunity to write. My plan was to try and write a few articles in advance before I left, but trip planning has been taking up all my time.

Not only do I have to take care of all my own packing and so forth, I am in charge of prepping everything for my two coworkers (well, except packing their suitcases.) All the work equipment we'll need (and we are talking 4 50lb boxes) has to be packed up and shipped out. I am also supposed to be the one who thinks of every contingency. While it isn't like we are going to be in the middle of the North Pole, no one wants to have something break in the middle of a presentation. It is my job to think of "worst case scenarios" which means... I'm a little high strung these days.

The other thing that is stressing me out is that I am not going to be able to earn any extra income over the next week...

The fact that I won't be able to do any part time work is actually okay, there isn't a whole lot going on next week anyway. The bigger disappointment is that I am going to have to put all my book sales on hold. It isn't a lot of money, but it brings in a few extra well needed dollars each week. However, I can't have orders sitting around for a week and not being sent out, so I need to put everything on hold.

I did manage to pick up two Mystery shopping gigs this week, both of which I completed on lunch hours. I also signed up for several part time shifts when I get back, but I think I am really going to have to pump it up in May in order to get all my goals accomplished.

Its funny, at the beginning of the week I was so upbeat about my finances, now I am feeling the teensy bit stressed. Ugh! It is like a roller coaster!

The good side of all this is the trip will be some enforced relaxation. I, oddly enough, enjoy airline travel. It's sort of mindless. You are just a cog in the system, you know? I pack as lightly as possible and have little tricks for making getting through the airline smoothly. (Tip One: Don't wear metal.) I'll pack my iPod (well loaded up with NPR shows,) and bring along a few books. I'll be spending most of Monday and Friday in airports, and as long as I can snag a quiet-ish corner I can kick back. Plus even while I am at the location working, there will still be downtime. I don't have money to go out on the town, but I can always grab a swim in the pool or go for a walk.

If you find yourself missing me, check out some of the blogs in my sidebar there. There are some great ones on there!

Photo by: heather

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Looking at the Future and Possible FInancial Goals for 2010

I love reading personal finance blogs. Once and awhile I read an article that really catches my attention and when I do, I like to throw them in a bookmark folder to go back and read again later. Here's one from back in October I really liked: 10 Things That Will Happen On the Road Between Being in Debt and Being Debt Free by No Credit Needed. I think the author lays things out pretty well!

I have such a weird situation, I mean, in many ways I'm not really "in debt" as it is usually defined. Oh, I have a touch of consumer debt, but it will all be paid off in just a couple of months. Besides, it wasn't like I was out buying crazy things - my credit card debt was accumulated through my divorce. Let me tell you, divorces are expensive. Even if your divorce is fairly amicable, as mine was, there are still a fair number of unexpected expenses that can crop up. For me, a lot of that went on the old credit card. The good news is that it is almost a year later and that will all be paid off. However, while my consumer debt is almost gone, my mortgage debt is through the roof...

Remember when real estate was considered one of the few true solid investments? No matter what happened, "real estate would always increase in value." Ha! Still, no use crying over spilled milk or underwater houses. Instead I've been thinking a bit on my financial goals for the future. For right now I have a couple of months to get the consumer debt paid off, plus I am working on paying for getting the house painted. That will keep me working on that $900 monthly goal through the summer. ...but then what? I have a few more home improvement projects, both at home and at the cabin, and I would like to go back to school, but I am also starting to think about that mortgage debt.

There are a number or arguments on why (or why not) to pay off your mortgage and I've read the pros and cons on each. What I am thinking about though, is tackling just one loan. See, each property was financed with two loans in an 80/20 split. That means I have 4 loans total. One of those has a slightly higher interest rate than the others and not as good of terms. It's also one of the smaller "20" loans. Even though we are only 4 month into 2009, I am already thinking about 2010 and I'm kicking around the idea that once I get what needs to be done taken care of this year, I next start to tackle some new projects, namely: 1.) Get the emergency fund up to 3-6 months of savings and 2.) Pay off that smaller mortgage.

Now who knows what the future will bring? Right now this is only an idea I am toying with. I realize that even if I were to jump into these with both feet, it will take me a couple years to achieve them. However, awhile back I wrote about how not having financial security saps away at my happiness. I was feeling pretty low when I wrote that piece, and I am not sure I would say the same today. Fortunately, I don't feel quite so much like I am walking a tightrope as I did then. I feel like I do have some security, even if it is only of the "Well, I ain't died yet" variety. I have happiness. At the same time though, I wrote some good solid goals in that article on what it would take to make me feel more financially secure. Those are still valid and worth fighting for. Tackling the emergency fund is a given, I think. Already I feel better knowing I have 1 month stocked away, having 6 months would be incredible. If along with that, I could chip away at some of that mortgage debt, well, that would be fantastic.

Photo of underwater houses by: bk-robat

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Different Budgets for Different Folks

Budgets are wacky things. What works for one person won't work for others. Trent at Simple Dollar has an article that spells it right out: Why One-Budget-Fits-All Doesn't Work - And Why it is Difficult to Compare Spending Between People and Families. His point, and I think it is a valid one, is that everyone has different priorities and situations. One family with relatives in another state may spend more on auto fuel than a family that doesn't. A person living in a old house (like me) may have high home repair costs, whereas someone living in an apartment may have none. Budgets are a bit like personalities - everyone's is unique to them.

Even the way a budget is created can be different person to person. Some financial folks recommend tracking your spending first, others say that isn't necessary. Most will tell you to add up your income and then subtract your fixed expenses (car loans, mortgages, etc.) and what is left is what you can use for variable expenses and savings. Of course, when I did that I ended up with a negative number!! Now what?!?

I'm not going to tell you how to make a budget. There are lots and lots of resources out there for that, in fact, I am going to include a list of budgeting articles from bloggers I like at the end of the post. I will tell you how I went about setting up my budget though and why I decided to live with a negative budget...

I didn't start by my tracking my expenses. In fact, I have tried repeatedly to track my daily expenditures and I always seem to fall off the wagon somewhere. The problem is tracking cash. I start off doing well, jotting every little thing in a notebook, and then I forget a $.25 cup of coffee at the office or how much I spent at the farmer's market, and then I get all thrown off. I have found that I have much more success by putting everything on my debit card and using the receipts for tracking. Cash just gets recorded as "cash" and I don't try to itemize it. However, I discovered all of this after I made my budget.

I created my budget back in May of last year, and I started by simply taking my income from my day job and adding to it the rent that I would get from the tenant. (The house has a one bedroom apartment that I have rented out in it.) This gave me a fairly static number for income. I knew that things could happen - I could lose my job, the tenant could break her lease, but it gave me a starting point for what I could expect.

Then I made a list of all known constant expenses. These were all the bills that I knew would be consistent each and every month, like my mortgage, car payment and insurance. Next were estimated expenses, like utilities, that I knew would hit each month, but I couldn't absolutely predict. Fortunately, I had 10 month averaged list of the utility costs that my ex had put together for the realtor when we listed the house. (I took it off the market when I moved in. It wasn't going to sell at the price I wanted in this market anyway.) That helped me plan for the electrical, water, trash, gas and so on. Then I made rough guesses at truly variable costs such as groceries, home improvement, and car maintenance. Really, these were no more than stabs in the dark and based only on gut instinct.

You know, of course, what happened when I did the math - I came up with a negative number, a big negative number. That promptly sent me spiraling down into a sea of depression for awhile. It is a good thing I was in therapy, because that made me I decide one day to face my fears. I reworked my budget. This time I not only included all of the things mentioned above, but also all the of the things that were important to me. Some would consider these "extras," but I didn't. I knew that my first budget had been incomplete and therefor unworkable. This time I didn't think about the income number, but instead I concentrated on making a realistic list of expenses that included everything I could think of. I went ahead and "shot for the moon" and added everything in that I wanted. I created a list that I felt was reasonable, but that would still gave me a good quality of life. I figured why not? I could always scale back later, (and I did.)

This list included things like adding to an emergency fund, continuing my Christmas fund, dining out, entertainment, buying gifts, and contributing to charity. I also added a "Misc." because I knew there would be expenses that didn't fit under any other line. I tweaked it a little here and there, and lo there it was - $900 a month. Now this is where I differ from most folks out there in the personal finance world. Many would have started scaling back and trimming until their expenses were less than their income. Really, that is the logical way to do things by far. The problem was that I already knew that my fixed expenses were more than my income, and no amount of trimming could change that. Once I accepted that I was already in the hole each month, well, what was a couple hundred dollars more? I had to get the income anyway. I realize now a year later, after reading countless financial blogs and articles, that this was probably incredibly naive and foolhardy of me. I'm not even sure I would make the same decision today, and yet, it has worked! So far, I have kept my property out of foreclosure and more than that, haven't had one late payment. The point is, every situation and budgeting solution is different. What works for me would be complete lunacy to someone else. My budget is big and so are my goals - but built into that is some flexibility. I strive to come in under budget each month and mostly succeed, but there are times I go over. I pump up the income line with extra work, but I also know I could quit contributing to my emergency fund or my Christmas fund in a heartbeat if I needed to. I could even access that money if it came down to it.

My budget is like a living, breathing thing. It changes and morphs. It seems that every few months I realize that something could be tweaked. Changing to cfls halved my electricity budget, changing my tax withholding increased my income. I've added some things, like my car registration and shipping costs for eBay, that weren't in the original document. In June, when my budget hits its official one year mark, I plan on going over it with a fine toothed comb. I'm going to look at the last year and see what I need to correct in it for the next. I don't think a budget should be like a hall monitor - ready to blow a whistle at you and make you feel guilty anytime you do something "wrong." A budget should be a friendly guide to help you get to your goals.

I think people who hate budgets do so because they make ones that are impossible to live with. They set them too hard for reality. Reality is messy - it isn't easily contained in a black and white spreadsheet. Telling yourself you are only going to spend $10 on dining out when you are used to spending $100 is a recipe for failure. Be honest, set the numbers to what is real - then shoot to be under them. That way if you only spend $90, you've had success. Spend only $75 a few months in a row, then, you can lower your budget. At least, that's how I see it.

Here are some links to other people I admire who have written about budgeting. There is a whole range of ideas here from different types of budgets to not budgeting at all. See what rings true and makes sense for you. Oh, and if you have an article about budgets, leave a link in the comments so we can add to the list!

Being Frugal - How to Make a Budget That Works

Budgets Are Sexy - Budgeting 101: Get Your Priorities Straight

Budgets Are Sexy - Budgets are a Man's Best Friend

Frugal Dad - Envelope Budget System

Master Your Card - How to Make a Budget That You'll Actually Stick To

Milk Your Money has a free downloadable monthly budget

Moolanomy - Living Stress Free Without Budgeting

Mrs. Micah has a one month series on money tracking and budgeting. You can find Day One here - Where is My Money Going?

One Caveman's Financial Journey - Pay Yourself First and Grow Your Savings

One Caveman's Financial Journey - Frugal Living Bandaid: Give Yourself an Allowance

Simple Dollar - Why Traditional Budgets Don't Work - Wiser Actions You Can Take Instead of Filling Out a Budget Form

Photo by: Woman of Scorn.

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A Well Filled Calendar

Next to my desk I keep a large wall calendar and near it I keep a mug fill of ultra fine point Sharpies in a variety of colors. Whenever something comes up, I jot it on the calendar with one of my markers. The colors are mostly random, though I have a few that are used for certain purposes. Red is for when my coworkers are going to be out of the office - it lets me know more help may be needed. Other colors represent certain people - orange, sage green and purple all stand for particular friends. I also tend to use one color when I have a repeating event - for example, all my part time job shifts are in one color, the days I will be traveling for work is another, and so on. Why do I bring this up?

Because yesterday there was nothing written on my calendar. The next day I have like that is the 25th of April. So much for this month quieting down!!

Don't get me wrong though, I am not complaining. Many of the things coming up are really good...

For example, a gal I have known for awhile and really respect as a fellow volunteer invited me out to see a play with her. We've never spent much in the way of social time together, so I am really looking forward to it. The week after next will be that travel for work that I mentioned, while I will be working, it will also be a chance to get a change of scene and get out of town for a few days on someone else's dollar. It should be fun! I've also got some part time work lined up, which is always good!

Not all my nights will be too busy though. I am pet sitting this week for my sister's adorable pup, and even though it is something I need to do, it also just means that I will be spending a bit more time at home. I've also got two Sundays coming up (Easter and my mother's birthday) that I will be spending with family, not to mention getting to sneak in a little extra "sister time" tonight when she brings over my only nephew(dog). Again, all good things. In fact, I can't say that there is one thing on my calendar I don't want to do... I just wish they were a little more spread out! Anyone got an extra week they could spare??

Actually, I think it will be good. While it is busy, it isn't unmanageable and the concentrated schedule just might help me focus more on what needs to get done this month. If not, well, there is always May...

Photo by: Miss Shari

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