Saturday, May 30, 2009

Another Bill... Finally Paid Off

Do you know what I have in my hand, right now? To those of you saying, "Of course not dork, I am staring at my computer screen - how can I know what is in your hand?" To you I say... good point. For the rest of you dying to know what is in my hand, I will give you a hint... it is the last of something big.

I have in my hand my last credit card bill. It is for $114.13. Since I made my own raise back in January and went from paying $75 on my credit card balance to $111.68 each month, this last $114.13 is budgeted in, no problem. I will make my last payment on June 7th. What an incredible relief that will be! In some ways it is even better than paying off my car, though the car payment was more money. Now that I have paid off my car, I have something in return... a car. It is sitting out in the driveway right now. I can't say that of my credit card though. I used it to get by during the process of my divorce. That's not something I really want to hang on to, you know? Now I feel like the slate is about to be wiped clean...

Admittedly, this will not be my last credit card statement ever. I still use a credit card for all my gas purchases, which I diligently pay off each month, and I have read all the same blog articles you have about keeping older credit cards active to keep your credit score up. I have a couple cards that I will continue to use once a year or so, but from now on always when I know I will be able to pay the balance at the end of the month. No more ongoing credit card debt for me!!

There are some good reasons to use credit cards. Just this week Mrs. Micah had some on a guest post she hosted on 5 Reasons to Use a Credit Card. However, credit cards aren't for me right now. They have their uses certainly, but I've had too many bad experiences with them to use them in any other way than I mentioned above - occasional, deliberate use, when I'm able to pay off the balance in full.

I am looking forward to next month - no more car loan bills, no more credit card bills - I could get very used to this!

Photo by: bitzcelt

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Friday, May 29, 2009

My Mystery Shopping Paying Off!

I had the most amusing Mystery Shopping trip yesterday. I got an "emergency" email from one of the companies I shop for saying that they needed a mystery shop done that day. Normally they pay $10 with a $1 reimbursement for this particular store, but because of the immediate need, they would pay an extra $5 if I could complete it that day. The last few weeks I've spent the majority of my lunch hour walking, but it was pretty rainy yesterday so I said I would be happy to run over and do the shop then.

The store to be shopped was a local pharmacy* that I have used in the past. The job was to observe the pharmacy, talk to a pharmacist and either make a small purchase or refill a prescription. It just so happened that this store has been running a special on transferring prescriptions, and I had a prescription that needed to be filled...

The special was a coupon that gave you a $10 gift card if you transferred a prescription. So, I did the shop, transferred and filled the prescription and gave them my coupon. In turn, they gave me a coupon for $2.50 off of their store brand items, another $10 transfer coupon for another prescription, and my gift card! This meant that for a half hour mystery shopping trip and another half hour typing up the report, I got the following:

- $15.00 pay for the mystery shopping trip

- $1.00 reimbursement for my purchase

- $10.00 gift card

- A coupon for $2.50

- Another $10.00 gift card offer

Since I plan on using both of the coupons - this means I will get $38.50 for one trip! Normally I think mystery shopping is more of a way to have fun and try new things than a way to make money, but this was certainly a fabulous trip!

* I can't tell you more than that because of mystery shopping privacy rules, in fact, I have deliberately obfuscated some of the details to keep the mystery!

Photo by: Joanna Young

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Three Financial Do Overs

The author of Your Money Relationship has written an article called Money Genie: I Grant You Three Financial Do Overs. Ah... what I wouldn't do for three financial do overs! Even one would be fabulous! Here's what I'd chose:

#1 Not getting married until my spouse paid off his debt

This might seem like an odd one, since my ex and I had many problems, but one thing we didn't fight about was money. However, I have very good reasons for saying this. We had just come home from one of our pre-marriage counseling meetings with our minister and were sitting in the backyard with a glass of wine when I asked him for the details on his debt situation. That's right - I waited until just a month or two before the big day, well after all the plans were made. Not a smart move on my part. My ex, who seems so together, so business savvy, so in control - was massively underwater in credit card debt. I had to make him tell me the amount twice, since the first time I didn't think I could have heard him correctly. I won't state the exact amount, but it was more than 15 times my own debt!

Everyone gets into debt for different reasons, and his may have been perfectly legit. I won't put him down for getting into a massive amount of debt - it happens. But the fact that he still had it, despite having a fairly successful business, and didn't appear to be working all that hard to pay it off was a sign of some much bigger problems. Those problems were going to be part of the personality clashes that were to occur later in our marriage. It also undermined the amount of trust that I had in the security of our life together...

Had I insisted that debt be paid off, I think things would have turned out differently. The amount of time that it would have taken would have allowed me to rethink the idea of getting married in the first place, and saved both of us a lot of heartache. Either that, or the time working on it together would have brought us closer together and helped us take time and work on some of the other underlying problems. Whatever would have happened would probably be better than what did actually occur. I will say that the one thing I am grateful for is that after learning about his debt situation, I insisted that we keep all our accounts separate. I didn't know it then, but it turned out to be a smart move when it came to our divorce.

Ironically, the author of Master Your Card just had an article about this yesterday called 7 Money Mistakes Newlyweds Make.

#2 Saved More When the Money Was Good

Not that terribly long ago I was doing very, very well financially. The economy was good and I was not only making my regular wages, I was also doing well with company profit sharing. Well, that dried up a couple of years ago. I really wish I had put a lot more of that money aside and built up my emergency fund. I've been working at my job for 10+ years. For 7 of those years we received regular extra bonus checks and bonus money. I also worked a few extra part time jobs for a little extra "mad money." I wish now that I had stashed more of it away when I had the chance!

#3 Learned More About Personal Finance When I Was Younger

The mistakes above and all the ones too small to mention in this post might have all be avoided if I had spent more time learning the basics of personal finance at a younger age. Now I find it really interesting - I wish I had 15 years ago! I did take a finance class in college, but it was too abstract, it didn't seem to relate directly to me. Interestingly, my first job out of college was also in finance - but it was more in the annuity and life insurance side, again, not much real world nuts and bolts education. If I could have just one wish from that money genie, it would be this one.

You may notice that one of the things I don't mention is buying my house. Even though it was bought at the peak of the bubble and is making life rather, ah... exciting for me now, I don't consider it a mistake. I still firmly believe that it was a good investment and will end up appreciating in value well above what I paid for it. It may be that I have to believe this just to keep me fighting, but it isn't just blind faith. It really is a wonderful home and in a fabulous neighborhood. Though I might wish I hadn't bought the house with my ex, that is more about wishing I hadn't married in the first place. Despite all my struggles, the house has proved to be the catalyst for getting that financial education that I mentioned; without having this situation, I might never have delved into the world of personal finance and learned as much as I have. So, the house is many things to me - the college and high school finance classes I should have taken, a place to live (and a great place for entertaining), real life courses in "do it yourself" home improvement, as well as a good investment. It might be expensive, but I honestly believe it will pay off in many ways all be worthwhile in the end.

Photo by: Christian & Cie

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Thoughts At the End of May

I am feeling a little unmotivated to blog this morning. Usually I am fired up and ready to write, but today I seem to acquired a case of writer's block. I am writing anyway to see if I can knock it lose.

I've got several items on my "to-do" list that I want to finish up before the end of May. I've been working on my new budget for June 2009-2010, but I seem to be having a bit of a block with that too. Finally I printed off the entire thing and I have it sitting here waiting with a handful of #2 pencils, my calculator and a legal pad. Computers are wonderful creations, but sometimes I just need to see it on actual paper in front of me so I can scribble all over it. Once I get it all roughed out, then I can program it back into my spreadsheet (and write about it, of course).

The other thing I want to do is work out a plan for my "No Spending" months like I mentioned yesterday...

Going over my budget, I was once again confronted by how much I have gone over my grocery budget for this month. I am over by nearly $100! Some of it was unexpected expenses, some of it was impromptu purchases while I was up at the cabin over the holiday weekend, and some of it was the non-food pharmacy purchases I made. I'm considering next month using the envelope system for both groceries and home improvement - which are my two categories most likely to see overspending. Now that summer is nearly here, I can do a lot of my grocery shopping at the farmer's market and it is easier to use cash there anyway. That might really help with keeping those costs down. In addition, I think I am going to try to clear out the pantries and get creative with what I have in the cupboards. I'm pretty sure if I put my thinking cap on and spend some time with some recipe books I can go quite awhile without shopping.

I think the rest of this week is going to be a lot of contemplation rather than action. I am definitely in a planning stage. After now blogging about it for a year, I want to revisit my finances, my budget, my plans... a little bit of everything. If things are a little quiet here it is just because the wheels in my brain are turning as I try to figure out what lies ahead.

Photo by: De Shark

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Summer Savings and Spending

It looks like I am going to have to start being creative.

I'm already peering ahead at the June calendar and there is not a lot of extra work on the horizon. I have managed to pick up 4 shifts at the part time job, but then work dries up pretty much until September. I got a couple of Mystery Shopping gigs last week, but that work has been pretty quiet too as of late. So, June, July and August are going to be very light as far as extra income.

In an effort to scare up some extra cash, I am putting some more books up for sale. I've been kind of stretching it out to see if my being active in my seller accounts a couple times a week (rather than going in and posting all my books in one big sweep,) influences my sales at all. So far I haven't seen a difference, but it has only been a couple of weeks. I have books that were donated from a friend of mine and a friend's mom, so we'll see how those go. Hopefully that will help a little.

But it looks like I may have to go back to my list...

When I first started "Fighting Foreclosure," I made a fairly substantial list of things I could try and do to earn money. I haven't gone back to it in awhile, I had found a few things that were working for me and pushed those. However, now that I am looking at three months without a lot of extra income coming in, I need to go back and examine the list and see if there are things I can do to help me through this tight period. Some ideas off the top of my head are getting back into eBay/Craig's List sales as well as really working on the garage sale my girlfriends and I are planning for July.

Of course, getting income in is not the only way to get money - not spending it works just as well! So, I am considering another "No Spending Challenge" for at least one month this summer. I did pretty well when I did this in March. I don't have a lot of shopping on the horizon, but I have been spending some money on home improvement projects and flowers and things for the yard. I still have a few plants I would like to pick up for some of my garden beds, so maybe I can set myself a hard and fast limit on that and then do the challenge for everything else? Hmmm... still working that out a little bit, but hey - I've got at least a week to think about it, right?

There is one upside to not having a lot of extra work over the summer though. I have a tiny little cabin up north that constantly calls my name. Not working on the weekends means I can spend more time there! The best part is it is a cheap vacation - all I need to do is throw some groceries in a bag and head up - everything else, including a pair of sandals and a hammock, is already there.

Photo by: Travis Seitler

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Monday, May 25, 2009

It is All A Matter of Knowledge

One of my responsibilities at my day job is testing our company website for customer usability. In other words, I go through the site and make sure that things happen approximately the way they are supposed to happen and that the tools and help text makes sense to the average user. I am not, however, a programmer. You have seen the extent of my programming capability here; I can make things bold, add a link or a page break, but that's about it. So, I take any changes I want made to the site to our programmers, and I have noticed a funny thing happens when I do -

Inevitably when I think something is going to be really complicated, it turns out to be incredibly easy. I approach the tech team with trepidation and they respond with a happy "Sure! No problem!" Of course, the opposite is true as well. I see something that I think will just take a quick fix and the whole tech team groans and tells me what I want is impossible and/or it will take an enormous amount of time and resources to make it happen.

The same thing seems to be true of my home...

At the back of my house is a spot where there used to be a window. Some past homeowner took that window out and added a closet to that corner. They replaced the window with plywood. My ex replaced the plywood with some outdoor paneling, which looked slightly better, but still wasn't perfect. The other night I got to talking about it with my painter. He said he'd be happy to remove the paneling and the old window frame, put in new studs and cover the area with siding so it looked seamless to the rest of the house. When he quoted me the cost, however, I just about fell over. It didn't look like that big of job to me - it was only a window, for heaven's sake, but not only would there be a lot of labor involved, but that cedar siding at $1.00 a foot wasn't helping any either. We decided to just paint the paneling and go back to the window another summer.

While we were chatting about home improvement projects, I mentioned to him that at some point before I relist the house, I was going to need to have a bathroom remodeled. As we were chatting about it, we went in and took a look at the room in question. It looks like a huge job - with tons of tile that has to be pulled off and replaced. He looked it over and said "No sweat - I could finish this two days." Once again, I was floored.

The funny thing is that personal finance can be the same way. When I first decided to tackle getting nine hundred dollars a month it seemed like an impossible task. Now, it isn't so bad. The difference is experience. It comes down to learning and understanding what is really involved. Some goals are difficult and require practice and learning, others take a lot less work than we might expect. Buying stocks seems easy, but it is a quick way to lose your shirt if you aren't paying attention. Building a budget seems like a lot of work, until you've done it. That's why I like personal finance blogs - I get to learn the ins and outs a bit before I jump in with both feet!

Photo of actual home improvement work happening on my house by: Me!

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

One Year of Fighting Foreclosure and Getting Nine Hundred

Do you know what today is? It is the one year anniversary of this little blog!

One year ago today I was scared and nervous, but also determined to survive. My divorce court date was on the calendar, but still ahead. I had spent a lot of time in therapy and was still reeling from the emotional roller coaster that happens during times like this. My soon-to-be ex and I had split up what assets there were, and I knew that in less than a month I would be moving back into the "marital home" and taking sole ownership of it. I also knew I couldn't afford it. My paycheck wouldn't cover the bills.

On top of all this I had made the (bold? moronic? brave? foolish?) decision to pay for it all on my own and not take in roommates. I knew I needed time on my own to heal and the idea of living with other people made me extremely uncomfortable. There were only two solutions that I could see - eventually go into foreclosure or come up with the money somehow, someway. As you know, for the last year I've been choosing the latter.

It has been a crazy journey, but I feel like this year has flown by. I have had ups and downs, low months and windfalls, but I am happy to say I haven't had a late payment yet! With the generous love and support from friends and all your wonderful reader comments, I keep finding the strength to keep moving ahead and plugging away...

I don't know that I would have been nearly as successful as I have been if I hadn't started this blog. It has kept me focused and on track. I've used it to hold myself accountable and used it to motivate me to go the extra mile to get that needed nine hundred dollars. I've also learned so much from other bloggers and picked up countless tips and ideas along the way. Friends and family who read this blog have come to my rescue when they've seen things I've been writing about that I need. It has been a Godsend.

I am far from done though. Just because I made it through this first year doesn't mean I can stop - all it means is that I now know it can be done!!

Thank you to all of you who read this, have commented, offered support and encouraged me. I am truly blessed!

Photo by: TW Collins

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Two Musings on Life

Today when I went to open up my budget, I became briefly distracted by another folder on my computer. It lead me to another folder which lead me to another folder that I had entitled "Motivation." In this Motivation folder I've kept a number of bits of writing and so forth that I have found around the web, or were sent to me by friends, that have inspired me in one way or another. One of the items was called "Poem." Before I opened it, I knew it had to be from my friend Catie, as she is a lover of poetry. I was right, I had saved it back in 2004 on her birthday. After reading it again, I decided I would post the poem here and share it with all of you.

Shortly after enjoying the poem, I also stumbled on (by way of Budgets are Sexy) The Wisdom Journal's hilariously true article, I Survived But Just Barely. While technically neither of these are about finance, they are both about life. One made me laugh and one made me smile - and both reminded me to live life fearlessly...

When Death Comes
By: Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

Photo by: mcarrth

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Fighting Foreclosure, How Does Your Garden Grow?

I have written many times here that one of my favorite things to do is to garden. This year I decided to try something new and do a Square Foot Garden. That's it in the photo there.

The idea of a square foot garden is that you grow a large amount of produce in a very small space. It is a four foot square filled with a special mix of soil that helps the plants grow and develop. Currently what you are seeing here is 4 cabbage plants (the bluish green plants on the sides) and 4 cucumber vines (the long dangle-y looking plants in the back), which I raised from seeds my friend Catie gave me. What you are not seeing is the radishes, carrots and beets that are planted but haven't sprouted yet, and the various lettuce and herb seedlings that are in the house (also grown from seeds from Catie) that aren't quite large enough to move outside yet.

I built my gardening frame out of 1" x 6" x 4' boards and painted it blue to match the trim on my house. Under it is a 4'x4' patch of weed protector. The tall stakes you see have fencing stapled around them to keep out the squirrels. I hate squirrels.

Here in Michigan the last frost date in May 15th, and even after that there were warnings of patchy frost. The best I can tell, it is now past (since we are hitting the near 80s during the day) so I felt it was time to plant! I also planted four Brussels sprout plants. They could have gone in the garden box as well, but since they take a lot of space, I decided to put them in other sections of the garden. I also have garlic, shallots, chives, oregano and mint growing nicely already, with more to come...

This is something of an experiment. I have never tried to grow this much in produce before. I've always had an herb and flower garden, but this is more veggies than I have done in the past. I am excited to see how it goes. I won't lie, the soil was a little pricey, though I already had a huge block of moss, one of the key ingredients. What I would like to do is track how well the process goes, how much produce I am able to grow and frankly, how much it costs to do it. I have a farmer's market not far from my house, so does it make sense to do my own gardening or should I just buy from them? Will the satisfaction of growing my own make it all worth while? I'll keep you regularly updated on how it all goes!

If you are interested in learning about Square Foot Gardening, I highly recommend Mel Bartholomew's book. There is a lot of great information on his website, but I find myself referencing the book over and over again at home. Even though the writing is a bit simplistic, he lays out the information well and it is easy to go back to. I am glad I bought it.

What about you? Are you doing any gardening this year?

Photo by: Me!

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

My Car is Paid Off!!

Guess what today is?!?!

That's right - today is "Pay off the Car" day!! That's right - today I submitted my very last payment to Honda for my car. Hooray! My little buggy is now officially mine. I can tell you, it feels pretty good. I had been spending about $300 a month on my 5 year car loan and now it gone. Yeeeeessssss!

Now, the smart thing to do would be to take that $300 and just keep clipping right along and put that amount in a nice little savings account so when the time comes for me to get a new (used) car, I would be all set. I'm not going to do that, however, well, at least not yet...

This house painting thing is taking a lot out of me. I have two sides that are almost done, but it has been a significantly larger drain on my extra income than I planned. I had anticipated the labor costs, but the supply costs are getting me. My painter has been great, he has worked with me, showed me exactly what he is buying and why, and is going extra steps to help me keep the costs down. Still, I am not sure I am going to be able to afford the next two sides for a few months. I rather expected that, but I was hoping to possibly just keep going and get the whole thing done at once. No such luck.

So for now, (June, July and August,) the "extra" money from my auto payments are going to my general reserves. That will give me $900 - one month's income. Then hopefully once summer is done, I will be able to start that car fund up. I want to build up a reserve fund for both the purchase of a new (used) car and for unexpected car maintenance. Fortunately, my Honda is a great little car and I have no intention of getting rid of it anytime soon. In fact, as I have mentioned here before, I plan on driving it until it becomes a lawn ornament! I am assuming, at the very least, that will give me another 5 years - if not a whole lot more. So, waiting three months to set up my car fund doesn't worry me too much. I bought my current car brand new, but the next time I think I will go with a good condition, low mileage used car.

If you are wondering about how paying this off will effect my goal of getting nine hundred each month, it really won't - at least not until the house is painted. It is still going to take me quite a bit of work to earn enough to pay for the completion of the work. Not paying the car payment each month will give me a jump start on the nine hundred, but essentially, the goal doesn't change at all.

The great news is that I am now at less than $125 of unsecured consumer debt - and that will be paid off shortly as well! It looks like I am going to have to have a very frugal summer to get the house done, but once that is tackled, fall might be a little easier! (Let's hope!)

Vintage Honda ad photo by: gingerbeardman

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Windshield and Auto Glass Insurance - Is It Worth It?

Do you have Auto Glass Insurance? If so, check out this article on The Canadian Financial Blog about "Insurance You Can Do Without." Why do I bring this up? Because it is something I have been thinking about lately.

A few years ago the auto insurance that I had came with auto glass insurance as part of the package. It turned out to be a good thing - I used that policy more times than I have any other auto policy. I don't know why, but the couple of years I had it I had several windshield nicks, cracks and so forth. I've never had a problem with it otherwise.

My current policy doesn't come with that rider, and at first I was a little concerned about it. I really enjoyed the convenience of being able to just call my agent anytime a stray rock hit my glass, but in time I kind of forgot about it. That was until the other night...

I got in my car and saw a big chip in the windshield, right by the driver's side. My heart sank - that really is really low on the list of things I feel like spending money on right now! As I drove I kept finding that my eyes were straying to the chip. It was a perfect circle, slightly less than the size of a pencil eraser. At a stoplight I started to realize that at the angle I was looking at it, I couldn't tell if that circle was convex or concave - in other words, it could conceivably be a drop of something clear and gelatinous, like tree sap, on my window and not a chip at all. That would make sense, since I didn't remember any rocks hitting my windshield, and based on the size of the chip, I'd remember it. I was hoping, praying, and crossing my fingers that it would just turn out to be some harmless goo and not a dip into my emergency fund in the making.

When I got to my destination the first thing I did was check the windshield and whatever it was - it smeared. It wasn't a chip! Hooray!

Since then I've been considering checking out the cost of insurance. I was not a big fan of the panic this blip of bug guts put me in. Then I read The Canadian Finance Blog's article. While this is in Canadian dollars and I am in the States, it put it nicely in perspective. I already have auto glass insurance... it is called my emergency fund, and unlike an insurance policy, this one pays me interest!

Photo by: thorazine

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fighting Foreclosure - Getting Nine Hundred

Those of you who are long time readers here at Fighting Foreclosure / Getting Nine Hundred might see a couple tiny new tweaks to the my blog. One of the nifty things we blog authors get is a whole series of tools letting us know how many people are reading our ramblings and what search terms they are using to get here. It is all fairly clever and rather addicting.

What I am finding is that most of you stumbled on me one way or another, usually through someone else's blog. Once you've been here, you come back by using terms like "Fighting Foreclosure" or "Getting Nine Hundred" occasionally combined with "blog" or "blogspot". I am going to be making a few minor tweaks to try to make sure that when you use those types of terms I show up somewhere in the search!

See, when I first started this blog, I made a little mistake...

I wanted to call my blog Fighting Foreclosure to be a little constant reminder of why I am even doing all this. Frankly, I have a deep (and perhaps a bit over-reactive) fear of going through foreclosure or bankruptcy. The idea that I could screw up my credit puts me into a panic attack. My therapist literally had to talk me down once using the simple, but effective, method of saying, "Dawn, if it happens it will not kill you." If it weren't for the fact that I read blogs like Bouncing Back From Bankruptcy, I'm still not sure I would have believed her! Now I am a little more accepting that if it happens, then it does. In the meantime though, I am going to fight with everything I have to keep that from happening.

However, "Fighting Foreclosure" as a url was already taken by another blogger, unfortunately. So, I went with the accurate, though slightly awkward, "GettingNineHundred" since that was the other key piece of my journey. So that has been the url, with FF as the title of the blog, which I have come to realize isn't such a good idea. Having them different makes it harder for readers to come back and find you later. Consistency is the key! (Oh, and if you want to read a bunch of great blogging tips from someone who is far more knowledgeable than me, check out Writing For Your Wealth. They haven't updated in awhile, but the archives are well worth checking out.) I think I should have stuck with "Getting Nine Hundred" as my title and theme, but to be honest. I like "Fighting Foreclosure"!

So, to try to bring these two together in some kind of consistancy I am slightly modifying the name as you see above. I might be making a few other little tweaks and touches here and there to solidify it. If you have any suggestions on the matter, I would love to hear them!

Wonderful photo by: etgeek

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The Sad State of My Grocery Budget

Good news! I was just able to complete a mystery shopping trip on my lunch hour! I love those. This trip paid $10 plus a $1 reimbursement. Now, $10 is only a drop in the "getting nine hundred" bucket, but as I like to say - from pennies, dollars are made.

It's a good thing too, because guess who just flew right over her grocery budget this month??? Yeah, me. Turns out I am not alone, the author of One Caveman's Financial Journey just wrote a post called "How to bust Your Budget in Two Weeks." It turns out, I fell into the exact same trap he did...

Usually I do one giant run to the store once a month and then sometime later in the month do a second much quicker stop for a few smaller staples like milk and yogurt. This month I made a series of smaller stops, and the $40 here and $30 there and $10 over here all added up quickly. Part of the problem was that I went to a couple of places that I didn't consider "grocery stores" in my mind when I was there, but when I sat down to put them in the budget, that was the only place they fit. For example, I spent $40 at the pharmacy picking up some much needed medications and other health items. I didn't think of it as "grocery shopping" at the time. However, when I got to my budget I knew that is usually how I categorize things like that, and I couldn't change it for one month just because I'd be going over. (Normally I wouldn't spend that much on pharmaceutical items all at once but I had some fabulous coupons and it was all for items that I need and use regularly.)

The other killer was going with an out of town friend of mine to a local gourmet grocery. In addition to picking up some items for dinner, we also bought sandwiches for lunch and few other treats. There was another $30 I hadn't been mentally thinking of as grocery shopping. All in all, I am over my grocery budget by about $50. Yuck. The good news is that I have only 11 days to go until the end of the month - the bad news is, is that there is a holiday in there and I am not prepared for it.

The real cause of me going over my budget wasn't just those places I mentioned, though. The real problem was that I didn't update my budget for over a week and those slipped in. Had I been doing my daily updates, I would have realized how close I was and perhaps made some different choices. There is no sense in beating myself up about it though, the point is that I really need to keep on track with this. It only takes me 3 or 4 minutes each day and it really makes a difference to my bottom line.

Photo by: ccarlstead

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Easy Chunky Chickpea and Pasta Soup

A few weeks ago I wrote about making a very tasty 30 minute chickpea and pasta soup. My friend Catie, who regularly comments here, asked me to the post the recipe. I've been meaning to do it for awhile now and this morning I finally jotted it down so I could pass it along to you. This recipe is from Mark Bittman's The Best Recipes in the World which is one of my all time favorite cookbooks. I think most people who love to cook have one or two favorite cookbooks, (my dad always called his his "Cooking Bible".) This is definitely one of mine, and I wrote about it here.

Mark Bittman's Chunky Chickpea and Pasta Soup, page 129

Note: There is also a blended version where the vegetables and chickpeas are processed with an immersion blender. It looks tasty, but since I don't own an immersion blender and hate trying to puree soups in a blender, I went with the chunky version, which also had the benefit of saving on cooking time.

3 Tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 carrot, chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

1 teaspoon dried rosemary

2 cups cooked* or 1 can chickpeas, drained

1/4 cup small pasta, such as elbow macaroni or broken spaghetti (I used 1/2 cup)

salt and pepper

fresh parsley (optional)

(Click "read more" for the cooking directions)

Put 3 tablespoons of oil in a large saucepan or stockpot over medium high heat. Add garlic, carrot, celery and onion and cook stirring occasionally until very fragrant and vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes. (Note: I pressed, then chopped my garlic before adding to the oil.) Add rosemary and chickpeas and stir well.

Pour in enough water to cover the chickpeas, cover, lower heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. (This was about 3 cups of water for my pan.) Meanwhile, cook pasta in boiling salted water until nearly tender, drain. (I used mini penne pasta, but that is just what I had in the house at the time.)

Just before serving, stir the pasta into the soup and reheat. Season with salt and pepper, garnish with parsley and serve, drizzled with a little extra olive oil.

A couple more notes from me:

This is a fairly flexible recipe. Most of these things are items I keep in the house at all times, however, at the time that I made it, my celery was looking mighty limp, so I made it without. It was still wonderful. The next time I make it I will use the celery if I have it, but I won't sweat it if I don't. I could also see adding cooked chicken.

If you are not going to serve and eat all the soup at once, Mr. Bittman suggests keeping the soup and pasta separated until just before reheating. The idea here, I think, it to keep the pasta from being soggy. I didn't do this. I forgot and added all the pasta at once. It turned out to be fine, but I ate this all in fairly short order. (It makes 4 small - medium size servings or 3 large main course servings.) In the future, I would probably do as he suggested, maybe coating the pasta with a little olive oil first before putting it in a storage container to keep it from sticking together.

Finally, that last step about drizzling olive oil over the top is worth it - yum!

* Buying dried chickpeas and cooking them yourself is not only incredibly frugal but also really tasty! Mr. Bittman has a wonderful recipe in his cookbook for doing them - and they freeze great! That said, I still always keep a few cans in the pantry for quick emergency dishes.

Photo by: Martin Deutsch

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Organizing Your Home and Finances

This weekend I was talking with a friend of mine who had been through some difficult times over the last few months. His mother had been quite ill and he found that he had to care for her, along with some other personal issues. Fortunately things have stabilized for him and he was doing much better. One of the things I thought was interesting was that he specifically mentioned how much better he felt now that he was able to get his house back in order. In fact, he was hiring his niece to come in and clean once every two weeks to help keep him on track.

I'll be honest, at heart I am a fairly lazy person when it comes to cleaning, but I do it, and I do it often, because I firmly believe in the old axiom "a cluttered room equals a cluttered mind." My friend and I, (oh, let's call him Boris,) were talking about how hard it is to clean when you are depressed. Boris said that he would sit there and look around his apartment and want to tidy up, but he didn't have the energy, yet the clutter would make him more depressed, which just made him less likely to clean up - a vicious circle! And let me tell you, I have been there!

When I was first separated from my husband I moved into an apartment so small, I didn't have room for a couch. In fact, when my girlfriends came over we all had to sit on the floor because I only had two chairs, but honestly, it was the best thing for me. The place was so tiny everything had to be in its place. I only had 18" of counter space, so one plate sitting on the counter took up so much room I couldn't cook. It meant that I had to keep the apartment looking good which turned out to also be good for me emotionally. Now that I am in this gigantic house it is so, so easy for clutter to pile up. Sometimes it is because I am busy, other times it's because I am in a bit of a funk like I was last week, but whatever the reason, I have found that untidiness is bad for my mental health. It is always easier for me to think, be happy, and function in a clean house. When my house is messy I get distracted and what's worse - I feel guilty. Let's say I am having an incredibly busy week, I get home and try to unwind for a little while, something I need to do, but the whole time I am not relaxing and not unwinding, because the back of my brain is buzzing with the fact that my house looks like a wreck.

My friend Boris went through the same thing. He was dealing with a lot, physically and emotionally, and needed time and space to deal with it all. What he didn't need was piles of dirty dishes and dust bunnies under the sofa making him feel worse. So, what does all this have to do with personal finance? Well, quite a lot really...

One of the reasons we work hard on organizing our financial plans is so that we don't have to worry anymore. We want to make sure that when emergencies happen we can concentrate on fixing them, not on where we are going to get the cash. A good financial plan means we don't have to feel guilty about our spending or fret about creditors calling. An organized house works in the exact same way. It isn't bogging down our brain with guilt or fear that a friend might want to stop over. An organized home and organized finances means you can stop fretting.

Now, I am not saying that every house should be able to pass your grandmother's white glove test. Goodness knows mine wouldn't! But, I make the bed every morning, I keep things picked up, the dishes are done, the floors get swept. I don't spend hours on it - just a few minutes here and there. As I mentioned, I am essentially lazy when it comes to house cleaning, and I have found it is a whole lot easier to clean up a tidy house than to start from scratch trying to get a messy house clean!

This is ultimately what I hope to achieve with my finances. I want to be able to keep them well maintained. I don't want to have to spend hours and hours on it, I want to just have a few routine tasks that take a few minutes and then I can move on and live my life. I could "solve" my recent financial problems with getting the house painted by throwing the whole thing on credit cards, but without a plan to get them paid off, that would be just like asking a college frat house to throw a weekend long party in my home! I've come a long way and that would mean worse than starting over. I refuse to do that to myself. Even though it seems easier to let things pile up and not deal with them, the truth is, that just makes them all the worse and all the harder to clean up afterward!

Photo by: JulieLane Photography

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Online Shopping Bargains

I've been using ebates since I posted about it back last May. I just got my first payment from them for $31.20. No, that doesn't sound like much, but remember, over the last year I haven't done hardly any online shopping at all! I really wish I had known about this site back in my big eBay, Barnes and Noble and Zappo shoe shopping days, I'll tell you that! Now that I am poor, pretty much the only things I purchase online are gifts or items for work.

Of course, I shop online quite a bit differently than I used to. Now, I love seeing how many things I can use to stack up the points on a single purchase. For example, I might use swagbucks to hunt for what I want, then I'll pop over to RetailMeNot to see if I can score a coupon code, then head over to ebates to make the purchase so I can get a rebate. (I know there are other various sites doing the "shop online and get a rebate on your purchases" thing, but so far I have really had good luck with ebates.) In fact, in many cases I feel like I can better deals online than I can in person, but it depends to some degree on the purchase, I guess.

There is one thing about ebates I am looking forward to though...

Remember back in April when I was traveling through work? Well, I bought my ticket through Expedia - but I went through the ebates site first so that I could get a rebate on the purchase. It takes 45 days for Expedia to be report those, but that should means that in a couple weeks I should have another bit of cash sent out to me. The best part is that work paid for the travel and hotel, of course, but I will be the one getting the rebates!

Speaking of good shopping deals - if you are thinking about making a purchase, my boss directed me to this article on The 10 Best Coupon Sites. There are some interesting sites on there, although the only ones I have used personally are Coupon Mom and RetailMeNot. I have to say though, the real benefit of online shopping is that I save money in avoiding impulse shopping! I rarely pick up something I don't need online - that's probably the biggest savings of all!

Photo by Daniel Broche

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Fighting Foreclosure gets a Hand From Fate

Thank you all so much for your wonderful comments on my post on Friday. I will be going through and answering them soon. Friday turned out to be a rather amusing day. All day I had a case of the blues, and as I said, I know this happens from time to time. Even during the midst of feeling like I just wanted to give in, turn the house over the bank and join the Peace Corps, I knew that it was a temporary feeling and would pass. What I wasn't expecting is that "fate" would lend a hand.

Friday evening I had plans to help out at the nonprofit group I am a part of. I was able to stop home, change clothes and grab the mail before going to volunteer. There were four envelopes in the mailbox. The first contained a check...

for $196.95! It was the refund check from switching my home insurance. The second envelope was the new home policy and the third envelope contained yet another check. It was a $3.00 check from one of the surveys I completed last week. I could tell the fourth envelope was from my house painter and assumed it was a receipt for the money I had given him for supplies. Well, that's exactly what it was, but the supplies had come in at $10 less than he had expected, so in the envelope were two $5.00 bills!

By this time I am kind of giggling. I had gone from feeling completely depressed about money to being completely amused by it in the time it took to open the mail! I was up $209.95 from where I had been just a few moments later. It didn't stop there though, on my way to volunteer I found $1.00, then when I checked my email Saturday morning, I saw that ebates had sent me a refund check. (More on that later.)

With the exception of the $10.00 from the painter and the $1.00 I found, all of the money was expected. I knew it would be hitting eventually. What I didn't expect was that it would all come on the day I was a bit in the dumps.
Money might not be able to buy Happiness, but it can sure kick Worry right in the butt!

The weekend turned out to be great. I spent some time with friends, did a bunch of yard work, worked on my vegetable garden and even hit a few garage sales. Just what I needed to get back in the swing of things!

Photo by: Vaguely Artistic

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Feeling a Bit Financially Depressed

It happens.

It seems like every couple of months or so I have a few days where I start feeling depressed about money. and this is one of those days. I'm not sure why, but the last couple of days I have felt really sad about my financial situation. Fighting foreclosure seems like a heavy weight to carry.

I guess that sometimes I just get tired. Most of the time finding new ways to earn money, scrimping, saving, and being frugal is fun. I see it like a game - how much can I save here? How much can earn this month? What will it take to get my nine hundred dollars? But, like any game, there are times when it gets tiring.

Part of it might be that I just paid one quarter of the cost to get my house painted. He finished one side this week, so I wrote him a fairly large check and along with it, another check for supplies for side 2. Seeing all that hard earned money go out of my hands that quickly, it hurts a little. Don't get me wrong, I am incredibly happy with the work that was done - it is 100% better than what it was, I just hate paying for it, you know? Even though I feel I am getting a good deal, it still sucks to write that check.

Still, I have to keep in mind that there are good things coming up...

While it is true that I don't have a whole lot of outside work lined up right now, (there will be some part time work at the end of this month and first part of next, but that is it for the summer) this is the start of "pay off time." My last and final car payment is set to go out in 6 days! That is going to feel soooooo good. The last credit card payment is not far behind. Once that is done, all consumer debt will be completely gone! On top of all that, a friend of mine dropped off a box of books for me recently and I have been working on getting those online. Hopefully that will breathe some life into my online book sales.

I've got some weekend plans for tonight and tomorrow evening, but the rest of the weekend is looking pretty free. I think I am going to try to relax and work in the yard. I want to spend some time in the kitchen as well - so time for gardening and cooking, two of my favorite things. I'll be seeing friends Saturday night, so that will help too.

I don't think I have much in the way of money I have to spend, so hopefully I can kick this case of the money blues this weekend by just taking it easy and doing things that make me happy. Barring that, I'll just rob a bank.


Photo by: Orfield Photography

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Art of Haggling

Trent, over at The Simple Dollar, has a really interesting post about Haggling. (Be sure and check out the comments too, there is some interesting information in there.) My mother is a world class haggler. She has absolutely no problem asking for a lower price on anything. I will admit though, she does her research first. She likes high end furniture which she buys at "Going Out of Business" sales and Outlet Warehouse Sales. She knows exactly what things are worth and how much she is willing to pay for them. Mom also has no problem buying damaged merchandise she can fix up, but you can bet she will be paying only a fraction of the regular price.

Mom has another advantage over many of us - a No Return Policy doesn't phase her at all. She has an uncanny ability to know exactly how a piece of furniture is going to look and fit in a room long before it gets there. She never has to worry about returning something she doesn't like - and even if she does miscalculate slightly, she has two daughters who have similar taste!

Mom is smart. She gets to know managers at Outlet Warehouse Stores. Managers are more likely to give you a break if they think you are repeat customer. She also shops her favorite haunts often. She knows when something is new or when it has been sitting around awhile. She examines items carefully and looks for damage, and knows what she can fix and what she can't. She also pays attention to the gossip around town, she knows when a store is going out of business - and that is the time she strikes.

Me? I hate haggling. I am absolutely no good at it...

Once my mother asked my sister and I to pick up a chair she wanted. She asked us to make sure to find a certain manager and tell him it was for her - then she told us the price she wanted to pay. It was about $200 less than the marked price, if I remember right. My sister and I spent the whole ride over to the store saying "You ask him, I'm not going to do it" to each other. I don't remember which one of us finally got up the guts to do it, but sure enough, we got the chair for the price she wanted!

Here's how bad it is - when I was in the Islands a guy approached me on the beach selling freshwater pearl necklaces. I asked the price and decided to buy one. When the guy saw I wasn't going to haggle, he got this incredulous look on his face. I think he felt embarrassed for me! He even threw in the matching earrings. Haggling makes me so uncomfortable, just tell me how much it is worth, and if I can afford it, I will buy it.

However, that isn't to say that there aren't times when it is appropriate, and as I say, my mom does really well with it. What about you? Do you haggle? What's the best or most memorable deal you've ever gotten?

Photo by: TheeErin

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Can Volunteering Help You Get a Job?

A friend of mine, who I will call Gretta, was laid off back in February. She was given a pretty decent severance package, as I understand it, but still, this lay off came as a complete shock. She had been working at this company for 20+ years! When Gretta and I chatted about the situation back in March she said she was actually doing pretty well. Her severance package had kicked in so she was fine financially. In addition, in some ways it had turned out to be a blessing - shortly after she was laid off a close family member had some serious medical problems. Being laid off meant that she had more time and energy to care for that person.

During this time and through all of April, she worked on some projects that had been on the back burner for awhile, did some cleaning and gave herself permission to enjoy some old fashioned rest and relaxation. Then, once all that was done, she started itching for something to do, so she did something I think is absolutely brilliant...

Gretta volunteered to help as the receptionist at a large nonprofit organization. This major charity (I guarantee you know it, so I am not going to mention it here) was looking for people to help out a few hours a week answering phones at their front desk - so, that is what she offered to do. She told me that her position was only supposed to be for a few hours a week, but now she is volunteering two full days there! I think this is a fabulous idea, and here is why:

1. It gets her out of the house and being productive. You know the science principle about an object at rest staying at rest? Well, it applies to people too. I know that if I sat home day after day without creating some kind of routine to my days, I would quickly get to where I wouldn't want to leave the house at all, let alone the couch! During these hard times when jobs are scarce it is so easy to be unmotivated, but a job, even a volunteer one, can help get you going and keep you moving.

2. It makes her feel good. Let's face it, even though being laid off is almost never personal, it still is a horrible feeling. Plus with the job market as it is right now, even the best candidates are going to be facing a lot of rejection, and rejection sucks! All this can rapidly lead to depression. However, any time you give to an organization you believe in, it boosts your mood. On top of that, this nonprofit company is appreciating her skills, time and effort. We all know that being appreciated feels good. So, she is doing something good for the community and also for herself at the same time.

3. It is a great place to network. I don't know that they will offer her a job or even if they are hiring - but she is working with a whole bunch of folks who can see her skills. If they do have an opening, they might think of her. If not, this is still a fabulous way to make new contacts. Who knows? Someone Gretta volunteers with might know someone looking to hire a candidate with just her qualifications.

4. Adds to her resume'. There are a bunch of ways that volunteering could add to her resume'. For one thing, Gretta won't have any big gaps. She can show that she was almost continually doing something, which always looks good to an employer. (This is true for freelancers too - don't leave that off the resume' just because it isn't a "typical" job.) Plus, this could add to her skills and her list of affiliations. I don't know that answering phones is a different skill set for her, but she might learn their database or contact manager system. Really, anything new she learns just adds to her portfolio of experience. Where she is volunteering also adds to her resume'. Awhile back she mentioned to me that she might want to get into the nonprofit sector, this is certainly a step in the right direction.

5. She can leave at any time. An advantage of being a volunteer - Gretta can pick up and go whenever she wants to. So, if the perfect job comes along, she can just let them know. It is a lot less hassle than leaving a part time job, and because she is only working two days a week, she still has plenty of time to pound the pavement looking for full time employment.

6. No stress. Gretta chose volunteer work that was easy, has no stress and that she doesn't have to take home with her. It makes her volunteer work fun. She gets to meet new people, help out an organization she believes in, and leave all the stress to others.

7. Tax break
. Okay, this is pretty low on the list of reasons to volunteer, but it is something she can take advantage off. She can track all her hours, mileage and so forth and put that on her tax return next year.

8. Will not effect her unemployment - I have heard people saying that they won't take a part time job because it will effect the amount of money they get through unemployment. The money they make won't make up for the money they lose. While I am not 100% sure I agree with that reasoning, I do understand needing every single penny you can scrape up. Volunteering, however, won't effect her benefits at all.

I am hoping she and I can sit down for a cup of coffee sometime soon so I can find out how it is all going for her. Our brief chat yesterday led me to believe she is really enjoying herself and looking for new opportunities.

Photo by: freedryk.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cheap Dates - It's All About Quality

In my family when I was growing up, gatherings or special occasions always revolved around food. For every birthday for our own family and a small portion of our extended family, we went out to eat. Big holidays called for long elaborate meals. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but somehow in the years since my sister and I have moved out of the house and started our own lives, getting together came to mean going out for dinner. "Let's spend time with mom" meant "Where are we going and who is making reservations?"

I think it got skewed that way because it was easy. No one had to clean their house, no one had to cook. We all were doing well financially, so the money didn't really matter.

Somehow, that same thing seemed to seep into my social life. I did see my friends at their house or mine, but still, a lot of hanging out was over a glass of wine at a restaurant, or dinner, or coffee. Again, I don't think there is anything wrong with this - I love doing it! But since everyone I know is either trying to save money, lose weight or both, it seems like we are going out a lot less and spending more time staying in.

Take this Mother's Day, for example...

My mother's birthday is just two weeks before Mother's Day so we had just all been out to dinner together recently. My sister and I decided we wanted to do something different. Instead, we'd have a cup of coffee or some lemonade at my sister's house and then go hit the walking trails that are near her house. It turned out that the weather was too cold for walking, so instead we just hung out and talked while my sister and I put together a new bookshelf she had bought.

It may sound funny, but we don't usually have low key activities like this on an "event day." My sister and I will get together once and awhile to just catch up, but we don't do it so much as a family anymore. It turned out to be a lovely afternoon. Mom called me the next day to ask me about something and made sure to mention how much she enjoyed her day!

My girlfriends and I have found the same thing about our time together. We still love to go out, but we are just as likely to stay in and sit on the couch with a glass of wine and catch up. We started doing this a lot more regularly over the last year. There is something about these informal, impromptu that I really like - and not just the fact they are easy on the pocketbook!

Photo by: _Dave Austria

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Monday, May 11, 2009

A Plea From an Occasional Thrift Store Shopper

Friday I wrote about needing to put together some outfits for Spring weather. I didn't get a chance this weekend to really go through my closet properly, however, I did take a little time while doing laundry to assemble a few outfits. I decided not to worry about ironing too much for now, and just concentrate on putting together some quick easy business outfits. I can iron whatever pieces I need to on the morning of. All total I was able to make 8 outfits, which works out to two weeks of work. (Fridays are jean days.) That should keep me going for awhile.

Speaking of which, Saturday I was out running errands with a friend when they asked if we could swing into a particular thrift store. I was willing, I always like poking through those kinds of stores! It turned out that all women's tops were 50% off. I sorted through the racks and was able to find two really nice light weight summer shirts. One was from the Gap and the other was Liz Claiborne. They turned out to be $1.00 a piece! Both will be be sharp under a jacket for work, so it was an easy way to expand my wardrobe a little. I did notice one thing about going through those racks, however...

A lot, if not most, of the clothing had small stains or tears. Now this might have been because they were having a sale and just like a regular store, the good stuff goes fast. But I have to say, the racks were pretty full and I was really disappointed in how much of it was damaged.

A few years ago I used the Flylady system for organizing. When it came to donated items she always said that if it wasn't something you would give to a friend, throw it in the trash wear it belongs. (Or as I like to do, turn it into cleaning rags.) Thrift store workers cannot be expected to sort through every item. Many of the workers are volunteers and even if they made that a full time job, what are they supposed to do? Throw things out because you can't bear to? That "lucky" green polo shirt with the mustard stain on collar is only valuable to you because you remember wearing it when you were on the winning team. No one else wants it. You want a good use for it? Use it to clean out under the sink and save on some paper towels.

I understand the urge - I have been there myself. I've held up a perfectly wearable pair of paints with just a tiny hole in the knee. They are wearable, heck, I've worn them. If someone didn't have any clothes at all, they would be a real improvement. But see, there is the rub. If you are donating them to a charity that has a thrift store, the item is going to be sold, not given to someone with nothing. The money then goes back into supporting the store and into the charity's programs.

I think donating to thrift sores is a great way clear out the closet! It is tax deductible and it goes to support a good cause, but before you throw it in that donation box, think to yourself, is this something I would buy?

Photo by: an0nym0n0us

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When Will We Recover From the Recession?

In April, Time Magazine did a telephone poll asking 1,000 people, "What is your best guess about how long it will take before the economy begins to recover?" Here's what they said:

Six months - 12%

One year - 26%

Two years - 24%

Three years - 9%

More than three years - 11%

Start of a long term decline - 14%

So what about you? What do you think?

Me, I tend to be in the 1-2 years camp. I am hoping for one year, but expect it will take closer to two. Of course some of this will go area by area. I heard something on NPR the other day where a pundit suggested that some areas (he used Florida as an example) were hit particularly hard by the economic situation because they were not expecting it, however, because they have very diverse economies, they are expected to recover fairly quickly. On the other hand, my home state had been sliding into an economic downturn for years before the rest of the nation felt it, and we aren't expected to recover nearly as quickly.

To be honest, I have only lightly been effected by the recession, which is pretty funny considering I write a blog called "Fighting Foreclosure." But as most of you long time readers know, my financial problems came from divorce. I still have my job and have been able to hold onto my property, but that isn't to say that the recession has completely passed me by. Long before the government started talking about bank bailouts, there was the housing bubble and its subsequent collapse. I bought my house at the peak of that housing bubble believing, as many did then, that "real estate always increases in value." Ha! In addition, I work in a field related to the housing market. I've seen our company shrink from 70+ employees to 12. Once upon a time we used to get profit sharing, but we haven't seen that in a couple years now. The company was always careful to let us know that profit sharing was never guaranteed, so fortunately I never relied on it exclusively, but I surely wished I had saved a lot more of it! Man, that money would be handy now.

I have seen several good friends hurt by this though...

I know quite a few people who have been laid off due to financial cuts made by companies. One of my friends, a full time employee, had two part time gals working for him. The company wanted to lay off the part timers, but instead my friend stepped in a offered to be cut instead. He saved both their jobs and is working on building his own business. I love stories like that - they give me hope.

I would like to see the economy turn around though. I think it is great that it is getting so many people to refocus their attention to what really matters in their lives, but I hate seeing folks needing work and not being able to find it. The silver lining of people paying attention to personal finance in new ways and companies running leaner and being more aggressive is great, now we just need employment to open back up.

What do you think? When do you think it is going to turn around? Have you been effected personally? Tell me your recession recovery thoughts!

Photo by: RogPool

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Revamping Last Year's Budget

On Friday I updated my "getting nine hundred" monthly goal tracker on the sidebar there with half of the extra income I get each month from changing my paycheck withholding. Part of this extra income comes from the changes I made on my tax withholding in March and part comes from changing my Flex Spending Account deductions. These changes add up to quite a bit more in the old paycheck. I get paid bimonthly, so I get half of it in the beginning of the month and half at the end.

The month of May will be the last time I will be recording this income.

When I created my budget last June, I took my then current income and subtracted all the known expenses, which brought me to the realization that in order to fight going into foreclosure, I needed to get an extra nine hundred dollars a month. Because the extra income received from changing my withholding was over and above what I had been earning, it made sense to add it to my "achieved" goal. However, as I am going to be starting June with a fresh new budget, I will no longer be including this income as "extra." Instead, I am just going to treat it like regular paycheck income. The same thing goes with some major savings I was able to make in changing my insurance. Again these were changes I made after my June 2008 budget was created, but for 2009 I will just record the lowered expense.

I'm still hammering out the details so I don't know exactly how everything will play out yet, but already I have found a few other changes I am going to make...

There are at least two items on the budget I am going to treat completely differently: one is Gifts and the other is Car Maintenance. Both of these items appeared on the budget, however, if I didn't spend anything on them, the money just stayed in my regular checking account. Here's the problem with that - my gift budget is $30 a month*. Some months go by and I don't have any occasions to spend it, which is no problem, but then comes along a month with two birthdays, a wedding and a bar mitzvah! Not good. I end up overspending, whereas if I had put the $30 aside on those "dry" months, I would be fine.

The same thing happens in my car maintenance fund. I budget an amount for it each month, but really am only using it to get oil changes. However, my car is 5 years old and I plan on driving it until it becomes a lawn ornament, so I need to keep up the maintenance. Instead of just letting unused money sit in my checking account to be spent on other things, I am going to start putting money allocated to car maintenance and purchasing a new car in a separate account. (Hey, I might have a Honda but it won't last forever.)

By creating two separate accounts and actually transferring the money into them directly each month, I am hoping to even out my spending and be better prepared for these expenses. I also know that these accounts are sort of back up emergency accounts. If something bad should happen, I can always pull all the money from my Gift fund and give friends handmade cards and hugs instead. I know they would understand. On a lesser degree the same thing is true for my car maintenance/new car fund. If I got into a tight spot, I could "borrow" from that account.

As for my old goal of getting nine hundred each month, I don't know haw that is going to play out yet; I am still crunching the numbers. From what I can see so far, it no longer looks like I have to have $900 every month to get by. Over the last year by raising my income and lowering expenses, I have evened my budget up some. That isn't to say I am not still on the hot seat - I have a lot of ambitious goals for the next couple of years
from fixing up the house to sell, to going back to school, and all of them require money. I still have an emergency fund I would like better more padding in as well!

Next on my budget review list - utility spending!

* Thirty dollars may seem low for a gift budget, but it is what I have decided I am comfortable spending. In the old days when I didn't have such a large financial burden, I was more inclined to spend more and someday I will again. For now, this is a good amount for me.

Photo by: jek in the box

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Frugal Fashion for Spring

It is finally officially spring here in Michigan, and you know what that means - spring clothes.

I hate spring clothes.

Spring is one of my favorite seasons, but I hate the clothes. I'm just not a lightweight flow-y fabric, pastel kind of gal. I don't like open toed shoes. I don't like baby doll dresses, or most sundresses in general. This is on myself, you understand, not on other people. Other gals look cute in this stuff, but me, I'm just not comfortable in it. I like dark blazers, heavy sweaters and tailored pants. I like boots. I like wool, velvet and cable knit cotton. What can I say? I love fall and winter clothes... and my closet reflects that.

But spring has come around, like it does every year. And while there is no law from on high that one must wear open toed shoes beginning May 1, I still have to dress in clothing comfortable for the weather. My office, in particular, tends to get pretty warm this time of year because the afternoon sun beats down on my windows. I also love to walk on my lunch hours, and if I am going to be walking outside in 70 degree weather, I can't be wearing wool! Now here's the thing, I know that each year I get through this season. I know I must have something I can wear, but this morning when I was looking through my closet, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what I wore! Since new clothing isn't in the Fighting Foreclosure budget, there is only one thing I can do...

I need to plan better. Once and awhile I get ambitious and pull everything out of my closet and start putting together as many work outfits as I can. (Outside the office isn't as much as problem, thanks to the ubiquitous use of jeans, but office apparel always takes more thought.) I did this one day last winter and was able to put together a whole bunch of outfits that I could just grab and go. In turn, it makes my weekday mornings go so much smoother - no standing in the closet wondering what to wear. The only reason I don't have these marathon outfit creations more often is that the whole thing takes a lot of time. I literally pull out of the closet and throw on the bed anything I might want to wear and then start putting them together in different combinations. Once an outfit is made, I hang them in the closet together. That way I can just grab a skirt/blouse/blazer combo and go.

The advantage to doing this isn't just that it gives me extra time in the morning to linger over my cup of herbal tea. The other reason is that it gets me to shop from my own closet. If I am in a rush, I tend to wear the same things over and over. I go for the easy, non-wrinkled, favorite things. If I put together outfits, I am more likely to wear some of the less chosen items. I also pair things together differently. For example, I might always pair the black top with the mustard slacks and the black and mustard shoes because I know I like it, it looks good, and it's easy, but if I am in the midst of one of my outfit creation days, I might put the black top with that olive skirt I haven't worn in awhile and the mustard slacks with the brown linen shirt. In other words, it gives me more options for new outfits with the same pieces.

That is what I have to do for spring. I need to spend some time this weekend putting together as many spring outfits as I can. It will keep me from being frustrated and running out and buying a whole bunch of new clothes. Although frankly, since I don't like spring clothing, I don't know what I'd buy anyway! However, I know I have things I can wear - after all, I didn't go to work in wool sweaters last June! Appropriate clothing is just hiding... lurking in the back of the closet and I need to find it!

...and iron it.

What strategies do you have for making the best use of your closet?

Fabulous photo by: seq

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Fighting Foreclosure with Snowballs

One of my favorite methods of getting nine hundred dollars each month is through my online book sales. Okay, selling books on Amazon and isn't going to make me wealthy or keep me out of foreclosure. In fact, my best months have brought me between $60 - $70 per month, and most months are quite a bit less. Still, I find it to be worth it. For one thing, small amounts of money can certainly add up, and for another, used books have always been near and dear to my heart. I have always dreamed of owning a used bookstore or working in a library, and in this small way, I do.

My basement book selling area has shelf after shelf of books - I typically have around 300 up for sale at any one time, plus some DVDs, CDs and a few other odds and ends. The books have come from a variety of sources. I've bought some at garage sales and used book stores, though by far, the majority have come from my own library and donations from friends and family. In fact, a girlfriend of mine just donated a nice big box of books to me the other day. They are books she probably would have donated, but instead she gave them to someone she knew who needed them to help keep herself afloat - me. As I have mentioned many times here on Fighting Foreclosure, I have the best friends in the world!

Sales have been pretty low the last two months, but here we are, just 7 days into May, and already I have had 3 sales. I don't have any proof of this what-so-ever, but I get the feeling that the websites "pay attention" to active and inactive accounts. Here's what I mean...

It seems like when I am busy posting books online, sales come rolling in. When I take a break, sales stop. For example, in February I was extraordinarily busy, so I didn't list as many new books on the sites as I would like. In return, my sales were half of what I am used to. In March, when I got slow, sales picked back up. That month a friend of mine's mom donated a couple of grocery bags of books to my cause and I spent some serious time putting them up - and my sales went up. Last month I was crazy busy and, sure enough, sales were down.

Now, this would seem obvious - put new books on and those books sell, right? No big mystery there, except... the books that sell aren't always the new listings. For example of the three books that I sold in the last two days, two were listed last August and one was listed in January of this year. Unlike on eBay, where listings are only up about a week, on Amazon and Half you never know when a particular book might sell. I've had them sell in less than an hour and I have some I listed almost a year ago that haven't found their new home yet. So, I don't know if the increase in sales is due to some sort of web monitoring that pays attention to how often I am logging in and somehow gives the active user preference, or if by the simple act of concentrating on it I am using the power of attraction to draw sales to me. It's a puzzle, an interesting one.

You know, there are a lot of blogs that talk about about snowflaking, (getting small amounts of money and putting it towards towards your debt.) One of the things that doesn't get mentioned much is that snowflake money is often fun. Whether it is filling out surveys or turning in your spare change, there is something really satisfying about getting $5 out of nowhere. It is like a game and you just won a prize for being incredibly smart. It sounds a little silly, but it is true. I get a little jolt every time I see a $2 book sale or a $3 survey check in the mail. Plus, as I say, that money adds up. Pretty soon all those snowflakes add up to a snowball. It has been working for me, next month all of my consumer debt will be gone!

Now I just have to tackle those mortgages!

Photo by: ailatan

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