Monday, June 29, 2009

This Month's Envelope Budget Experiment

As you might remember, as part of my budgeting goals for June, I decided to try the envelope system for my groceries budget and my home improvement budget. Since we are just one day away from the end of the month, I thought I would report on how I did. The answer?

It was a total and complete success!!!

I have to admit, I wasn't too sure that it would work for me, but as I was going over every single month in these areas, I knew that what I was doing currently wasn't working. So, why not try something new?

I have to confess, I didn't actually use envelopes. I have a rather largish wallet that holds all my credit cards, driver's license and so on. It has two extra pockets, one in the back and one in the front, that I've never used. I decided they would be perfect for my experiment. So, I went to the bank, withdrew $125 for my grocery budget and $100 for my home improvement budget and then put the grocery money in the front and the home improvement money in the back. (I didn't worry about change. Change went in with the rest of my money and was used as necessary.) As I bought groceries or items for the house, I withdrew money from the appropriate pocket. It was as simple as that!

Here it is the end of the month, and much to my surprise I have money left in both pockets...

In the center of that wallet is a section where I keep all my every day money, usually just $20 or so. I admit, I thought that having that much money, nearly $250, was going to be a problem. In the past I have found that carrying cash caused a constant temptation to fritter it away. However, what I found was that having the money dedicated to something totally forestalled the issue. I never once felt the urge to take money out for anything but what it was intended for. Hmmm... could it be that I am a very different person that I was years ago when I had problems with cash??

Grocery Money - $18 remaining

Eighteen dollars doesn't seem like much to me, that is until I consider how many months I have gone well over my $125 goal! I knew I could live on $125 a month, but so often it was easy to just pick up a few extra things, take advantage of a sale, get myself a little treat, and so on. As I love to cook, grocery shopping can be one of the worst places for my impulse shopping. Having a fixed amount to spend really helped, although I didn't change my habits all that much. As usual, I made menus and grocery lists off those menus. I used coupons whenever I could and looked for the best bargain on the shelf. I set a budget before I even entered the store and took along a calculator to make sure that I stuck with it. These are things I have done before, but they haven't always been enough. The problem came in later when I would buy a few things on my way home work one night or maybe for a special event - and then forget to put them in my budget. It wasn't until I crunched the numbers near the end of the month that I would find I had already gone over!

One change I did make was to only buy groceries while grocery shopping. I know that seems a bit silly at first, but think about it - now that there are huge megamart shopping centers, how often do we buy things that aren't grocery related at the grocery store? It is so easy to pick up notebooks in the school supply section or candles in the housewares, maybe a watch battery or a new DVD, and throw them all in the grocery cart. I don't do a lot of this, but occasionally I do get sucked in by other things I "need." Trying to sort these nonfood items out of my envelope system was going to be a big hassle so I vowed not to do it.

The other thing I decided was that if I got to the register and I didn't have enough in my grocery budget... I would have to put something back, rather than use other money in my wallet. That would be rather embarrassing and so, it was the perfect threat to keep me on the straight and narrow. No last minute grabs on the way to the counter, no unplanned stops - I was always sure to leave myself breathing room in my purchases so I wasn't down to my last dollar. The result was an extra $18!

I've decided to continue the envelope system for my grocery budget for the rest of the year. It worked too well for me not to!

Home Improvement Money - $27 remaining

My Home Improvement budget is for all those little around-the-house expenses. Prior to this I had it set at $50, but knowing it was June and I am trying to complete some summer projects, I raised it to $100. Remember too that this covers anything I buy for maintenance of my house, my cabin or as a landlord, so when you break it down that way, it isn't all that much.

I've decided to keep both the $100 budget and the envelope system for this. Again, it just worked too darn well. The money that I have left at the end of the month will go towards my monthly nine hundred dollar goal. This will give me enough funds that I can keep properties in good condition, while at the same time helping me reach my goals.

Photo by: illustratorsam

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Friday, June 26, 2009

I Need Your Advice - Landlord Problems

Help! I could use some advice from all you smart folks out there. I have a bit of a dilemma and would love some feedback. Okay, here's the scoop:

My tenant complained yesterday that her apartment is too hot. You see, we've been having some mighty hot and humid temperatures here in Michigan lately and her apartment is on the second floor and as we all know, heat rises. Actually pretty much everyone I've talked to is having the same problem, whether they have air conditioning or not. It is just the nature of 90+ degree days.

However... my ex is the one who rented her the apartment. She moved in April 2008, when he was still living in the house, before I had taken possession. When he rented it to her, he told her that the air was controlled by the owner's unit, but that the apartment temperature would always be comfortable. Sigh.... I could just kick him for telling her that. After all, comfort is a very relative term.

So here's the problem, my a/c unit is just not powerful enough to completely cool the upstairs. We knew that when we bought the house - the housing inspector told us. So, why my ex told her that is beyond my comprehension. It's an old, old house (100+ years) and big as a barn, so no matter how I set the air, in this weather the exterior temperature is going to warm up the interior air faster than the a/c can cool it. Even if I were to run the a/c at 50 degrees 24/7, it wouldn't cut it, at least not in this weather. So, what is a good landlord to do???

Here's the way I see it....

I don't think my tenant has lived in my neighborhood before. My neighborhood is made up of old Victorian homes like mine, that are mostly fun, hip, artsy rental units. Hers, for example, has hardwood floors, French doors, vintage cabinets, and a huge walk in cedar lined closet. However, the downside of living in these old beauties is that they frequently have some quirks - no air conditioning and funky heat are two of them. It is not the same as living in an apartment complex at all. Most apartments in these old houses don't have any a/c at all, so past tenants have just been grateful for whatever they got and knew they would need a window unit and some fans... it is just the way it goes, but no, my ex promised this one that it would be comfortable.

My house is 3/4ths mine and 1/4th her apartment. I have the whole downstairs and half of the upstairs. So, I have gone through and closed several of the downstairs vents, in an attempt to push the air upstairs. Then I closed all my upstairs vents, to then push it into her unit. See, I am used to living without a/c - I don't really need it, so I don't care if it goes to her.

Then I wrote her an email explaining the problem with the a/c. What some people don't realize is that it doesn't matter what temperature you set the air conditioning to, the air coming out of the unit is the same temperature. In other words, whether I set the air conditioner to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, 7 degrees, or 7 below zero, the air coming out of the grate is still the same. The unit will pour out that cold air until the ambient temperature in the house hits the setting on the thermostat, and then it shuts off. However, if the weather is hot enough, the space big and drafty enough and the a/c unit not powerful enough, then it will just keep running continually, but never be able to lower the temperature all the way. That's what's happening. Now, what do I do about my sweating tenant? I have already gently explained the problem and closed the vents on my side of the house - I could just leave it there, and maybe I should. However, she has been a good tenant and I would like to keep her around. She's quiet, pays her rent on time and keeps the apartment in nice condition. Do I:

1.) Hope that what I have done is enough and be grateful that the temperatures should be getting cooler next week? (Although July and August are going to be hot, I am sure.)

2.) Buy her a fan for the apartment? I did that with a supplemental heater this winter. Fans are cheap and it would show that I care.

3.) Investigate a separate a/c unit for her apartment. Although remember, I have limited funds. I would be interested to know if there was some kind of stand alone or wall mounted electric heat/air conditioning unit though. That would solve a lot of problems.

4.) Investigate a better house-wide a/c system? Again, limited funds here.

5.) Something else????

What would you do if you were the landlord? What would you want done if you were the tenant?

Photo by: molamoni

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Personal Finance as a Personal Choice

This has been a great week for blog articles! Check out this one by Patrick of CashMoneyLife called On Spending Consciously.* This one brought up something I have been thinking about a lot for the last couple of weeks - how people choose to spend their money.

Patrick's post mainly deals with making sure that you are spending money consciously and only when it is in the budget - as opposed to unconsciously frittering away money you don't have out of habit. I would guess that most of us, especially those of us have lived any part of our life without a budget, are guilty of some degree of unconscious spending. Getting it under control is a big part of the granddaddy of all personal finance rules, "Spend less than you earn."

This concept of conscious spending ties into another concept I've been musing about - priorities. I'm not the only one who thought of that, check out this comment to the article from Miranda:

You have made a great point about PERSONAL finances. What works for one person doesn’t work for someone else. But, for everyone, the key to successful finances is planning ahead and making sure you are in a position to spend what you do.
Back when I was a kid, my mother used to frequently comment on other people's priorities. She would see a broken down, ill maintained shack of a house with a huge, shiny boat in the driveway and shake her head and say, "Well, you can see where their priorities are." As I have grown older and met people from all different walks of life, I've learned that it is hard to know the whole story. Maybe it is a rich uncle just visiting and planning on taking his nieces and nephews for a boat ride, maybe they live on their boat and the shack is just a place to keep a few possessions, who knows? My phrase tends to be, "Well, that would not be my choice, but if it is working for them - "

But that doesn't mean that sometimes I'm not judgmental...

Recently an acquaintance and I were talking about finances and she told me about her personal situation. She had chosen a different way to handle it than I would have - it was definitely one of those "Well, that wouldn't have been my choice" moments - but at the same time I was really impressed with her bravery to meet the problem head on to work out a solution that fit her needs.

Then a few days later I saw her again and I commented in passing about her cute summer sandles. She grinned and admitted that she had treated herself to a pedicure for summer. I said something nice, but as I walked away I was a little bit shocked. This was a person who had admitted having some financial budgeting problems, and who had the guts to make a big bold step in tackling it... but now she was wasting money on a pedicure??? I shook my head in self righteous disgust. I started thinking about a whole blog post about how a bottle of salon quality OPI can be bought at ULTA for $8.50, but there are always coupons or sales, and if you compare that to the $30-$40 (plus tip) a pedicure might run at one of those little nail places....

It wasn't until a little later I realized what I jerk I was being. I knew that as part of her plan she had given herself a little "mad money" each month. Who was I to instantly assume that this pedicure wasn't budgeted as part of that discretionary income? I was so busy mentally looking down my nose that I didn't think about the fact that I have a dining out fund and an entertainment fund. What is the difference between spending $40 on a pedicure or spending $40 on dining out if it is in your budget and you can afford to pay for it? Just as Miranda said, personal finance is a personal thing. Maybe you are saving for a big boat to sail around the world, maybe you would rather paint your own toenails, maybe you are saving every penny you can for an early retirement. The important part, as Patrick pointed out, is that you are making conscious purchases that you can afford.

I read a lot of financial blogs and I see a fair amount of this kind of judgment pop up on other people's finances regularly (especially in the comment sections of more popular bloggers.) It as though there is only one way to financial health - their way. But you know, my mom was right, people do have different priorities and just as there are different ways to budget, there are different ways to manage finances.

There are times when I see people get into the same financial problems over and over again, but unless I know the whole story, I am going to make an effort to be open minded about it and more accepting that everyone has to make their own path... after all, I've certainly made enough odd choices of my own!

* Thanks again to Kristy of Master My Card for pointing this one out!

Photo by: James @ NZ

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Great Debate on How Best to Save Money

Ladies and gentlemen, I now bring you another Fighting Foreclosure rant...

Lately I have been reading a fair number of blogs debating the merits of making "large" financial choices versus "small" ones. I put these words in quotes because I think they are extremely relative, but examples of these large choices seem to be things like refinancing, changing cell phone plans, comparing interest rates on investments and so on. Small (or frugal) choices would be things like using coupons, reusing plastic bags, installing cfls and so on. Every time I see one of these posts they make my teeth curl.

The ones that really get to me say something along these lines, "Why spend your time clipping coupons when you would save far more money by spending that same time researching loan options for refinancing your high interest mortgage?" And at first blush, that seems to makes sense... until you realize all the other added advantages of "small" (aka frugal) choices. In my opinion it isn't about making large or small choices... do both! Do everything that makes sense for your lifestyle and family. Here's how I see it:

You can make frugal choices 24/7.

Okay, so you spend your one hour a day researching new loans. Does that mean you can't turn the lights off or shut down your computer when you leave the room? That you can't have a cfl in that room or have the temperature set a couple of degrees to save a little electricity? Small, big - they are not exclusive of one another. In fact, most little everyday frugal choices don't take a consecutive hour. They can be done in tiny increments throughout the day. In fact, some choices may save you time. Maybe you decide not to water the lawn as much this year, or you decide not go shopping, but to stay at home instead. These types of small changes require little to no effort. Why not do them?

Frugal Choices Add Up

The argument that "big" changes can save you more than frugal changes is really arbitrary. Talk to some of the coupon warriors out there and you'll see that the money they save is incredible! That adds up over time. I was able to cut my electric bill in half by switching to cfls and being responsible with my electric usage. That may only save me $25 a month, but over time it adds up. Especially when I start adding in the other changes I have made on other bills. These little amounts of money can be saved again and again and again. It isn't hard to see how over the course of year they can add up.

Small Choices are Frequently Environmentally Friendly

I wash and reuse tin foil and plastic ziplock bags. I use cloth napkins. I started a compost pile. I do these things not only because they save me money and decrease my trash, but they also are better for the planet. Being wise about gas mileage, installing cfls, using less water, making your own coffee for the morning drive, shopping at local markets... all of these things are good for the wallet while at the same time they reduce your carbon footprint. In fact, other than perhaps coupon clipping, which uses up a lot of paper, I can't think of one small change you can make that isn't also green.

And there is more...

Being Frugal Doesn't Mean Buying Cheap

Most frugal folks I know love getting a good deal, but that doesn't always mean they want the cheapest thing out there. They will do a some research first and then choose the brand/model that has the best value. This may mean buying a more expensive item, but knowing it will last a long, long time. This doesn't put money in your pocket the way that getting new lower auto insurance will, but it does mean that they get more for their money and it will last a lot longer. If they can find it on sale - all the better! I find that frugal folks appreciate good quality and good deals.

Frugal Changes are a Gateway Drug

Once you start saving money, it is hard to stop. Once you see how easy it is to shave off a few dollars here and there, it is hard not to want to see what else you can do. Say you start making a brown bag lunch 3 times a week instead of eating out every day, once you see how much cash you have at the end of a week, I think it is hard not to find other things to do. Actually I think both big and small changes are gateway drugs - people get hooked on saving money. Whether they start with big changes and then filter down to smaller, or if they start with smaller and then start looking at their bigger expenses, it's like potato chips - you don't stop at just one!

You Can Pick and Choose, You Know

It isn't like anyone should be expected to do every single frugal tip out there. Everyone should go through and see what works and what doesn't. I don't feel like making my own laundry soap, though there are those that do. I hired someone to plow my driveway this winter. I don't do my own oil changes. Oh sure, there will always be people out on the outer fringe, but honestly, those folks are rare. Remember your high school statistics and that old bell curve? Most folks are going to be somewhere in the middle. If you don't want to clip coupons - don't! I think it is fun, but I don't spend any more than maybe 20 minutes on it the day I am going to shop. The idea that you only have a limited amount of time to save money per day is a bit silly. The fact is every family and person has their own threshold of what will work for them. Make choices that make sense for your family.

Frugal Choices Can Be a Source of Pride

I am not talking about bragging to everyone you meet about your penny-wise ways. I am talking about that feeling you get from turning an old beat up bookcase into a beautiful piece of furniture with a little elbow grease and a can of paint. I mean the thrill of going out into the backyard and picking veggies out of your own backyard. When I look at home repairs I have done myself, I feel proud of what I have been able to accomplish. Though I paid off my credit card last month and am proud of that, it isn't the same feeling as looking out at my square foot garden. I've been making my own birthday cards and doing a lot of cooking, and while it takes some time, I feel good about it and love what I have been able to create. That's a pretty wonderful feeling.

Frugal Choices Can Improve Quality of Life

I remember reading an article a long time ago titled something like, "You Will Have To Pry My Cable Out of My Dead Cold Hands." The same could be said for some people's vente lattes or Taco Bell lunches. If that is how you feel about, then that is fine. Don't make that switch. Or try a smaller switch - drop some premium channels, get a tall rather than a vente, go out to lunch a few less times. Or don't. Try something else. However, what I keep hearing from people is how much they enjoy the alternatives: people who wouldn't give up some convenience foods loving their home cooked alternatives better, tv buffs who are enjoying having one night off and having family night instead, home cooked "pub nights" with snack foods and beer being better than going to the pub itself. These are the kinds of lifestyle changes that are going to stick, no matter what the economy is, simply because people enjoy them more.

There Are Only So Many Big Changes

Let's face it, there are only so many huge changes you can make in your life. Eventually you are going to get through them and put them on a maintenance list, to be reviewed monthly or more likely, yearly. If you want to keep saving money, you are going to have to start looking in other directions.

Believe it or not, Frugality can be Fun.

I suspect that people who think frugal tips are a waste of time feel that way because they don't personally want to do them themselves. I don't recommend making yourself miserable to save a few pennies. As I mentioned, I don't make my own laundry soap - it sounds like a long, tedious, messy process. But there are many who do. They don't just do it because it saves money, they do it because it is kind of fun - there is a mix of science and DIY pride there. Frugal tips should have an element of fun. I love seeing my grocery bill go down when I had over my stack of coupons - not just because of the money I save but because it is fun. I feel like a video game that I just won. I made my own pita bread the other day and watching them puff up on the stove was a hoot! I actually look forward to getting my utility bills to see if I was able to beat the company this month.

Honestly, I think everyone should look at their personal big picture. How much income do they have? What are their goals in 5, 10, 20 years? How much money do they need to achieve their goals? What kind of lifestyle is important to them? What will it take to get it? Based on current income you might have to pinch every penny until it squeals or maybe you're doing just fine, but would like a little extra folding money in your pocket. Mix the big and the small choices for what works - it shouldn't be an either/or thing.

Photo by: swister_p

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A Review of My Car Purchase

Thanks to Master Your Card for pointing out this article by Generation X Finance, called Your Car is Making You Poor and What You Can Do About it. It was a very interesting read. In fact, I wish I had read it back when I bought my car in 2004!

Fortunately for me, I was able to pay off my car this year, which significantly decreased my monthly expenses. Looking back on it though, there are some things I did right, and some things I did wrong, back when I bought my car. Here's a look at what I have learned:

Things I did wrong:

I did not have a down payment. I did get a great deal for my trade-in (much more than I would have gotten had I sold it myself, which is a rare occasion, I know.) but I did not bring money to the table when I bought my car. That was a bad idea - it meant I was paying interest on the full amount from day one. Next time I buy a car, I will have money in hand first.

I took a 5 year loan. Actually, my interest rate wasn't bad at all and the payments were quite manageable - but that was all I looked at. I didn't think about the fact that the longer the loan, the more interest I would pay. In the future I would definitely go with the shortest loan possible - or better yet, no loan at all!

I bought new. After reading 18,000,001 financial articles about it, I now know it is far wiser to buy a lightly used car. However, I will say that this was one of those life milestones for me - it was the first time I picked out a brand new car (with some help from my ex, but more on that later) and purchased it completely on my own. I am glad I did it, but probably wouldn't make that same choice in the future.

Now, let's look at some things I did right...

I bought a smaller car - well before gas prices skyrocketed. Although I wouldn't have dreamed back then that I would see $4.00+ a gallon gas prices, in 2004 I was determined to buy a more fuel efficient car. Up until that time I had been driving a pickup truck, which got about 18 mpg, at best. One of the things I was determined to do was get something smaller that would use less gas. Last summer I was thanking my lucky stars I did.

I asked for help. I made a list of features I wanted in a car, then asked my (now) ex for help. He is a bit of a "car guy" and read lots of car magazines, so he knew what was out there. He showed me several different makes and models, all along the lines of what I was looking for before I picked out my car. This helped me not get overwhelmed by possibilities or steer off track.

I bought a reliable brand. I have a Honda and this car has been wonderful as far as maintenance goes. The small amounts I have had to invest into it were for ordinary reasons - like replacing tires when I ran over something in the road. Other than that, it has run great.

I have a high resale value. Honestly this was pure fluke. I didn't know it at the time, but my car is rather favored among car folk, and so, it has a higher resale value than similar 5 year old cars. I really think this is something I should have looked into more, and I would definitely do in the future, although I actually have no intentions of selling it. I will keep this car as long as I possibly can.

Overall, I would say that I did well with my purchase. What's more, I still love my car and I have been very happy with the way it performs. When the time comes, 5 - 10 years down the road, I hope to apply these lessons I have learned and do even better on the next one!

EDIT: I just read a post by Frugal Dad that I wanted to add for some additional information: Car Maintenance Tips: How to Help Your Odometer Reach 300,000 Miles.

Photo by: kandyjaxx

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Part Time Jobs

Recently I got a postcard in the mail from one of the little stores I shop at regularly . Apparently, they are hiring. This is a food store that I purchase things from fairly often and I got the card because I'm on their mailing list.

At first, I was pretty interested. As I have written here before, my part time work really dries up in the summer. I thought it might be a great way to pick up a few extra dollars, and maybe even get an employee discount. Then I looked at the hours - they are open only Monday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.. Since I work at my day job 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., the only time I would have been able to work was Saturdays, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it wouldn't work...

In reality, I think my chances for being hired would be pretty slim. Oh, I'd be good at the job, but even though the work was part time, I am guessing they would want someone for more than just Saturdays. But supposing for a moment that they did want a Saturday person and they did decide to hire me, what would that do to my life?

The part time jobs that I have now I do after work. Sure, that makes for a long day, but if I schedule it right, I can still have my weekends free. Or, if I chose to pick up some weekend shifts, they are only a few hours out of a day, I still have the rest to work on the yard, clean the house, or just relax with a good book. Working 10-6 would be like adding another full work day onto my week.

Plus, if I was working every Saturday, it would be almost impossible to get over to my cabin. Even if it wasn't my favorite place in the world, I need to get up there every so often just to take care of the lawn! It is a little over an hour away though, so going up for just one day isn't a great option.

Would I give up all my free time to keep myself out of foreclosure, if I had to? Sure. I could temporarily knuckle down and work every hour. However, my whole goal going into this process was to find a way to get by without resorting to that. I've been successful so far. My budget now will pretty much take care of itself. I still need extra income, but not at the sacrifice of everything else. So, I looked at the postcard, made a wish that someone who really needed it would get the same card and land the perfect job, then I slipped it into the recycle bin.

Photo by: Zervas

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Who Are The People in Your Neighborhood?

Last weekend my neighbor Bob had a brunch to which I was invited. It was quite a party. I don't know how many of us were there, but we nicely filled up his backyard. The funny thing is that I met more of my neighbors there in an hour than I had in four years of owning my house!

I think it is harder to meet your neighbors these days, everyone is so busy and works such odd hours. On top of that, my neighborhood doesn't have many kids, so we aren't meeting that way - and we do have a lot of renters, so people tend to come and go. Before last weekend I only knew two neighbors, the guy next door and Bob across the street. I can't even say that I knew either of them really well or anything. Both had been to my summer garage sales and I chatted over the fence Home Improvement style with the next door neighbor on occasion, but that was about it.

That's not the only reason I haven't met many - as I have admitted here a few times, I tend to be a bit of a hermit. Although I am good in social situations, I am a fairly private person. Small talk just doesn't appeal much to me. Nonetheless, I decided to go...

For one thing, I was rather flattered that Bob should ask me. I appreciated the invitation and figured the least I could do is walk over with a bowl of pasta salad. But the real reason I went was that a few weeks before Bob and a few guys from the neighborhood were out riding their bikes and ended up stopping in my driveway to chat while I was out planting flowers. It was just one of those little coincidence things that happen, but within 15 minutes or so of our casual conversation, I found out all sorts of things about the neighborhood. I'm not talking about Peyton Place "who sleeps with whom" stuff, I am talking about important things - like incidents of pretty crime. Things I don't really want to hear, but am glad to know about.

It made me realize that getting to know some of the "old timers" who owned homes near mine would be a really smart thing to do. So, last Sunday I whipped up my salad and moseyed on over to Bob's brunch. Sure enough, it wasn't long before I was meeting all sorts of folks (unlike me, Bob is the social sort and knows everyone) many of whom lived in my neighborhood. They even helped clear up a little mystery about my own house!

One of the many odd little quirks of my house is that there is a section in the living room where the hardwood floor has a slight bump and it is uneven. That isn't too unusual - the whole house is uneven, what can you expect from a home built in the late 1800s? Anyway... this is an odd spot that I have wondered about in the past, but chalked up to the house settling. Nope.

My husband I bought the house from a young couple who didn't have it for very long. The owners before that were two guys and apparently before that was an older woman who had had the home for years and years. Anyway, the guys are the ones that did most of the remodeling in the home (whereas the couple are the ones that did the horrible exterior paint job I am having to repair.) They were pretty popular and known for having big parties. One of my neighbors told me about one New Year's Eve when he and the guys were both throwing parties. All the sudden my neighbor looked up to see people from guys' party streaming towards his house. When he asked what happened, it turned out that they were using the living room as a dance floor and there were so many people dancing.... that it caved in.

Okay, "caved in" is a bit strong, but the whole thing tilted in on an angle. The guys had to re level the floor and put in new joists and beams in the basement, hence the bump in my living room! Personally, I find the whole thing hilarious! And no, I won't be having any dance parties in my living room.

Despite my standoffish nature, it seems to me that there are some good financial reasons to get to know your neighbors, even if it is just a bit beyond a wave in the driveway. One is to learn stories like that - if you bought your house from someone else, you might be surprised on what your neighbors might know. Another is safety. Bob is not only someone who knows everyone in the neighborhood, he also knows everything that is going on in it. I like knowing he is at the end of the block, keeping an eye out. I'm also more willing to watch out for other people's houses, now that I know them. Then there is just being able to ask for a helping hand. Remember last Christmas when I got stuck in my driveway? How nice would it have been if I felt comfortable knocking on a neighbor's door, even if it was midnight on Christmas Eve.

The brunch was nice. It cost me very little, just some time and some pasta, and I am definitely glad I decided to go. Bob was talking about having another party this summer. I hope I get invited, after all who knows what else I might learn?

Photo by: StevenM_61

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Frugal Cooking and the Fighting Foreclosure Kitchen

I got a couple of comments on my last post about grocery shopping with the envelope system that inspired me to write a little bit more about how I shop and what I eat.

From Miss M of M is For Money:

Wow, we spend way more on groceries. LA is just so expensive, it's nearly impossible to escape for less than $100. Of course Mr M is pretty well fed ;)
From Kristy of Master Your Card:
...I'd like to know what you got for $40, though! LOL....
Ladies, this post is for you!

To give you some examples, I am going to write about just a couple of meals that I've made while up at my cabin recently and how I did my grocery shopping for them. The first dish I made was this Black Beans and Rice Recipe. I didn't see any recipes in my cookbooks that particularly caught my eye and I wanted to use up some items from the cupboards, so I went searching on the net for something that would work. This one from Recipezaar sounded tasty and had good ratings. ( I was quite happy with the results too!)

Black Beans and Rice Ingredients:

Olive Oil - I save on olive oil by buying it from a local Middle Eastern store. The quality is fantastic (it really tastes of olives, which I love) and the prices are much better than in my local megamart.

Onion - I had onions in the pantry already... actually, I should say I had them in the basement. I buy bagged onions to keep costs low and keep them in a large foil lined cardboard tray, (with plenty of air circulation between them,) on a shelf in the basement. Light and heat is what makes onions sprout and go bad. I have found that since I started storing them down in basement, I have very little spoilage.

Garlic - I had a bulb already, however, soon I will be having LOTS of garlic. I planted a ton of it last October. I can't wait!

Brown Rice - This was another pantry item. I had a half a bag, which was more than enough for this recipe.

Chicken broth - I make my own! This costs absolutely nothing to make. I make it in big batches and then freeze it for when I need it.

Tomatoes - This was part of my farmer's market trip. I found a vendor who had baskets of "seconds" for sale for $1.00. I purchased a small basket of Roma tomatoes and one of green peppers. All had small puncture spots where they were going soft, but I knew I was going to use them right away and could cut out the good sections. In fact, I had plenty left so that I could use them for many more meals. (More on that later.)

Black Beans - While I do occasionally buy black beans in cans, I much prefer to cook my own from scratch. This was the whole reason I was looking for a black beans and rice recipe - because I knew I had a opened bag of bulk black beans in the pantry that I wanted to use up.

Red Pepper - Instead of using a red bell pepper, I used one of the green peppers from above with some cayenne pepper.

Cumin - I buy all my spices in bulk, mostly from Penzy's. You can save a lot of money that way. I just reuse the glass jars or occasionally re-purpose another jar and make my own spice jar. I find that ounce per ounce Penzy's routinely beats my grocery store in price, and the quality is far superior.

Curry powder - Again, I make my own. There are lots of recipes out there to make it. I use one from Mark Bittman's cookbook. I do this more because it is fun than for the economical aspect.

Cilantro - I am growing cilantro in my garden right now, but it was not quite big enough to give me enough for this recipe. Instead, I bought a flat leaf parsley plant for $2.00 at the farmer's market. I needed the parsley for another recipe anyway, and by buying a plant I can use it all summer long - rather than a buying a cut bunch at the store for $1.99. The taste was different than cilantro, of course, but still really good.

But don't go thinking it is all beans and rice over here at Fighting Foreclosure, let me give you another example...

I also made marinated Middle Eastern shish kabobs with rice pilaf, hummus and a yogurt mint sauce. Let's take a look at that, shall we? I don't have a link to the recipe, but again, all these came from Mark Bittman's The Best Recipes of the World cookbook.

Kabob Ingredients:

Lamb - I enjoy lamb, but it can get really expensive. Instead I substituted some beef I had purchased on sale a week or two ago and had frozen. Wanting to use up this meat was the basis of selecting these recipes. I also liked that they shared many ingredients with the black bean and rice recipe.

Plain yogurt - This is one of the grocery items. I was fortunate that I had a coupon for it that I found off the Money Saving Mom blog.

Lemon - I only use real lemons, never those bottled lemon juices. They just don't taste the same. Again, I buy these in bags. I use them enough that they rarely go bad, and it is much cheaper to buy them in bags than individual lemons. This is another grocery store purchase, as they don't grow in my part of the country.

Onion, Green Peppers, Garlic, and Cumin - All mentioned above.

Rice Pilaf:

Rice - As I have mentioned before, I have found that rice is less expensive in the ethnic aisle of my local grocery stores than in the rice and bean section. I buy rice in bulk and had some long grain rice in my pantry. However, I just discovered that my Middle Eastern market carries it in big bulk bags. Once I am out again, I will do some price comparisons. I am guessing the market will once again beat grocery store prices.

Chicken stock, onion, tomatoes, lemon juice, parsley and spices - all mentioned above. Again, this was all about using the same ingredients to make very different dishes.

Yogurt Sauce:

Mint - Once again, I bought a mint plant at the farmer's market rather than buying a pre-cut bunch. I used what I needed for the recipe and put the rest in a potted container in my garden. (Mint can take over, so unless you want a lawn of mint, it is best to grow it in a container.)

Garlic, Plain Yogurt, Lemons, and Cumin - all mentioned above.

Hummus: While hummus is great as a dip for veggies, my favorite way to eat it is as a side dish with grilled meat.

Chickpeas - I always have a few cans of chickpeas around - I pick them up when they are on sale. However, like black beans, my favorite way to prepare these is to cook them myself. Again, these are very cheap at the Middle Eastern market, so what I like to do is cook up a whole bag at a time, then freeze them in 1 and 2 cup serving sizes with a bit of their cooking liquid. These make great hummus!

Tahini - The sesame paste that gives that special flavor. You guessed it, I buy it at the Middle Eastern Market. In the refrigerator, this stuff lasts forever, although I usually go through it in a few months. Like natural peanut butter, it will have to be stirred, the oil will seperate.

Lemons, Garlic, Olive Oil and Cumin - all mentioned above.

Bonus Dishes:

Here's a few other things I have done with the ingredients I bought:

The shish kabob recipe wasn't a big one, so I had plenty of the sides left after I had eaten all the grilled meat and peppers. So, I spiced up and grilled some chicken thighs and had those with the remaining yogurt sauce, pilaf and hummus. I also had some hummus with crackers as a snack.

I made a pasta salad using the parsley, tomatoes and green pepper.

Lemon Angel Hair pasta from my 30 Minute Weight Watchers cookbook was made with the garlic and lemons.

I still have a few tomatoes left, so I am considering making Miss M's Roasted Tomato Soup recipe this week!

And hey, if you have any frugal recipes or grocery shopping tips of your own, let me know. I would love to see them!

Photo by: sndrspk

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Expectations and Financial Savvy

You might not believe it, considering I have a blog with 300+ posts about the state of my finances, but I was brought up never to talk about money. The way I grew up, money was something nice people didn't talk about, like bathroom habits and politics. Prior to my separation, really the only person I talked to about money was my friend Catie, who sometimes comments on this blog.

That is one of the very reasons I started "Fighting Foreclosure - Getting Nine Hundred" - to start talking about money and budgets. So much was happening a year ago - I had just gotten divorced, I was moving for the second time in year... and I wasn't sure how I could handle all of it, plus I had no idea how I was going to afford it! Finances were one of the number one things on my mind then. After all, I knew I could get through the stress of the divorce and knew that the heartbreak would eventually heal* but not if I also had a house going into foreclosure. I had to figure out something fast!

And just as importantly I had to talk about it. In part, I needed to have a place where I could track my ideas - see what worked and what didn't. I needed some kind of record so I could chart successes and I wanted a place to put new ideas I wanted to try, but more importantly, I needed to break free of my childhood stigma of talking about money. While there is certainly something to be said about keeping financial information close to the vest, there is also this huge cloud of shame that is wrapped up in money. If I had tried to be all stoic this last year and hide what was going on, I think that shame would have brought on a real bought of depression. What I'm going through is hard, but it is what it is. I didn't want to add feelings of embarrassment on top of it! The only way I knew how to break free of all that was to talk about it... a lot. This blog has been fabulous - I've been able to write about my life, plus get tons of support from friends, family and fellow writers.

And it has spread into my day to day life. Now, I am pretty comfortable talking about my situation with just about anyone; not just my friends who read Fighting Foreclosure, but any friend or acquaintance who asks how life has been treating me post divorce. I've gotten used to telling people, "I am broke but still fighting" and even explaining the whole plan for getting nine hundred dollars a month if they ask. Oh, occasionally I still get that slightly offended, "I'm not sure you should talk about money that way" look, but I figure those are just people who were raised like I was. Most people are interested and in turn, the more I have become willing to talk about my struggles, the more willing people have been telling me about theirs.

Which leads me to some thoughts about expectations...

One of the things I have learned is that intelligence doesn't automatically equal financial savvy. I know a lot of very smart people who are in a bit of a financial mess, including myself. I think financial skills are just like any other talent - take singing, for example. There are those rare few who can sing like Pavarotti, those who don't perform but can rock a karaoke machine, and those (like me) who only sing in the key of "off." Most fall somewhere along this spectrum. For some folks, singing comes naturally and it is something they enjoy practicing and learning more about, for others of us, singing is something we only do in the car. Alone. With the windows rolled up. Just as not everyone is born to be an opera star, not everyone is born to be Warren Buffet. It doesn't have to do with how smart you are, it has to do with a certain amount of natural talent, combined with interest, combined with drive. If I chose, I could take singing lessons, and while I may never perform in public, I might get to the point where I didn't have to lip sync "Happy Birthday." Financial skills can be learned as well, and while I may not be a multimillionaire, you can bet I have learned a lot over the last year!

A painter friend of mine was recently frustrated when some pieces of art he was working on weren't coming out perfect the first time. As we chatted about it, he told me that he gets really disappointed when it that happens. I tried to tell him that expecting perfection the first time was a bit much, but it wasn't getting through. So, since he is a sports fan, I used a hockey analogy - did he think that great hockey players didn't have to practice? Did they step out on the ice and have perfect games every time? Did they never made mistakes? Did it not take years and years to get to where they were? Thinking about that later, I thought, isn't it the same thing with finance? Some might say having good skills is as simple as spending less than you earn - but isn't that like saying hockey is just skating and hitting a puck?

What I am getting at here is that I used to be more like my painter friend when it came to my own finances. I'm a smart gal, and I expected that I would be able to handle everything easily the first time. The last year has taught me that that expectation was a bit ridiculous. I needed to learn better skills, but it wasn't because I wasn't intelligent - it was because I hadn't read up on this kind of thing before, I never felt I really had to. I know a number of sharp individuals that are in the same boat - having to reevaluate their personal finances because of job loss, medical problems or even just a few choices that seemed like a good idea at the time, but didn't pan out. These things happen, and have happened to a number of us. I think it is a part of learning - first, you have to fall on your face a few times.

So my words to anyone going through tough times is this -

1. You are not alone.

2. You can be a smart person but still know bupkis about finance.

3. Talk to other people, they may share your problem or have something similar. In my experience, people are incredibly supportive if you are working on solving your problem.

4. Read everything you can, or if you are not a reader, find a few people you trust who can help teach you the basics.

5. Don't give up, and see rule #1.

* The average time for a heartbreak to heal? 18 months. Really, scientists have proven it. I found that oddly comforting during my divorce. It is good to know that eventually things will get better.

Photo by: Adam Foster - Codefor

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Great Way to Sell Your Old iPhone

This afternoon I have a guest post for you from my friend David. I love hearing stories about how people are able to save money or make it in unusual ways, so I thought I would pass this along -

From David -

I have the first generation iPhone. Works great. Doesn't have the few additional features that the last upgrade has (GPS, faster network connection), so I decided that I would upgrade to the new iPhone that is coming out tomorrow.

Because I'm at the end of my contract, AT&T will subsidize most of the cost of the phone, leaving me to pay $199.

I figured that I would put my old phone up on ebay. Probably get about $50.

But then I saw this article on and I took their suggestion and went to Their system made me an offer......

of $104.95! And they're paying for the shipping and sending me a box!

Part of the reason why they're offering so much is that I kept all the original packaging and have all the original accessories. It pays to be a geek-pack-rat!

Way to go David!! I admit, I am terrible about keeping all the packaging. I get annoyed by all those boxes laying around. However, if you have got the space it certainly sounds like it is worth keeping it. Now that I am living in a house with a basement I have a lot more room for it. Of course, I am always on the end of the curve when it comes to technology... my last cell phone I was able to turn in for a whopping $8!

What about you? Have you had any success doing things like this?

Photo by: armintalic

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Book Sales Make Me Happy

Ha! I have to laugh. As soon as I write about not selling any books - guess what happens? That's right - I have sold a bunch of books! That's right, my Fighting Foreclosure* Bookstore is up and running again!

Okay, "a bunch" might be a bit of an exaggeration. I have sold 4 books and 2 CDs. Not bad though - especially since one of the CDs was out of print. It was a nice little sale. It is funny, I wrote awhile ago that it seems like when I work on my book sales, I sell more books. I know that seems obvious, but yet... it doesn't make any sense. Two of the books I listed in October of last year and the CDs were listed last June! And yet, I am finding it is happening again...

My aunt gave me a few books and I picked up a few more off some friends, so the last week I have been working on putting them online. The last few weeks I've been putting a few on each evening, not out of any desire to stretch it out, (although I am starting to think that is a good idea) but because I only have so much time in a given evening. I try to put a hour in a night or so, and that usually lets me put up about 5-6 books. Well, after weeks of sales being totally dried up - I have already had a rather nice week, and it is only Wednesday!

I've got a lot more to list, so we'll see how it goes!

* That's not really what I call it, but it would have been a fun name! People might think I only had finance books though.

Photo by: wenzday01.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Grocery Shopping and the Envelope System of Budgeting

This weekend I did some grocery shopping to stock the pantries and refrigerator for the next couple of weeks. As I have mentioned before, in June as part of my No Spending Challenge, I am trying something new - using the envelope system for my grocery budget. My typical monthly budget is $125, so I took that amount out in cash and tucked it into its own special slot in my wallet. Since it is the middle of the month and I've done a bit of shopping, I thought I would update you on how it is going.

When I went up to the cabin on the weekend of the 6th, I spent about $20 in groceries and another $10 at the farmer's market on my way up. When I am at the cabin I love to make long slow dishes on the stove that can cook while I am out working in the yard, or even just kicking back in the hammock! I picked out a few favorite slow cook recipes that would use up some items from my cupboards and would provide plenty of lunches for the following week. It went well! In fact, I am finishing up the last of the leftovers in today's lunch.

That brought me down to $95 for groceries. Last week, I stopped at my favorite Middle Eastern Market to replenish some staples and picked up olive oil, labna, pepper and dried chickpeas, which totaled to about $15. That brought me down to $80 for my shopping trip, and here's how I did...

I decided I wanted to only spend $40 of the $80 I had left. There are still 2 weeks of June left after all! Before I left the house I made a menu of some simple summer dishes I could make for the days ahead; these should last me at least 10 days, if not longer. Again, I concentrated on picking meals where I already had some of the ingredients on hand or that shared some of the same ingredients. (Several dishes called for chicken, for example. This means I could take advantage of the sale on chicken and not also have to get pork, beef, etc.) As I made the menu I made my shopping list, then I packed that, my coupons, a calculator and pen and headed out.

I decided not to go to my usual mega-superstore this time, but instead hit a smaller neighborhood grocery. The megamart sometimes has cheaper prices, but not always. I've been keeping grocery store price comparison and on the things I purchase, I find that it pretty much evens out. This time I chose the neighborhood grocery for a couple of reasons: 1) I would not be as likely to purchase non-grocery items with my grocery money and 2) I was going on a Saturday. The megamart is a madhouse on Saturdays. I didn't think my rising irritation and aggravation would be conducive to a smart, methodical shopping trip.

As I picked up the groceries, I jotted down the prices on the back of the envelope* that holds my coupons. Then when I got a handful of prices all jotted down, I added them up. Math is not one of my strong points - hence the calculator. It comes in handy though, especially since I read an article on The Simple Dollar about "Quantity Surcharges." I had never heard of such a thing before! The stores I go to frequently have the per unit price on the price sticker on the shelf, but if they don't, I check it myself.

When I finished up at the store, I had calculated I would come in at $41 and some change. The cashier rang me up at $51 even - until I handed him my coupons. I didn't have a lot of coupons this time, but the ones I had were great. Several were freebies I picked up off Money Saving Mom. Total cost? $39.70! (I had deliberately slightly over estimated the cost of some of my produce items, just to be on the safe side.)

So now, the trick is to make it to June 30 on just $40. My pantry is full and I have list hanging on the refrigerator of meals to make, so I should be just fine. I am finding that the envelope system is making me a lot more conscious of where my dollars and cents are going. It is an interesting way to budget.

* Since I pay all my bills online, I like to reuse the return envelopes that comes with bills for grocery lists and holding coupons.

Photo by: Fellowship of the Rich

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Financial Personality Types

Last week Budgets Are Sexy mentioned a fun article by My Money Shrugged, called "What Type of Millionaire Would You Be?" He lists the six types of wealth personalities (as defined by MSN money) of people who have a million dollars or more.

Me, I'm a Satisfied Saver. Check this out:

These are the folks you would love to have as your parents or grandparents -- happy, well-adjusted, and rich! They make up 24% of the wealthy population and share these characteristics:

  • Average age: 60
  • Built wealth through hard work, by living below their means and taking moderate risks
  • Financially savvy
  • Lost relatively little in the bear market
  • Know how to make their money work for them
  • Enjoy making a difference through charitable efforts

  • This fits me to a tee, and if you've been reading my blog for awhile, you'll know the one line that really hit home for me...

    "Enjoy making a difference through charitable efforts." That certainly fits my personality. I've had a strong urge to give back as long as I can remember. I'm not sure if it was the way I was raised, or if it was simply that the first time I was actively involved in a nonprofit, I felt like I had found my place in life.

    The other characteristics fit me too. If I ever am able to have a million dollars, I am more likely to acquire it through hard work and moderate risks than receiving an inheritance, taking big chances or having my own business. (Which are some of the characteristics of the other wealth personalities.) I don't know that I can call myself financially savvy yet, I still make mistakes, but seeing how the average age is 60, I still have awhile to learn!! Actually, the last year of struggle has had some really hard moments, but the benefit of all of it is that I am far more financially wise than I have ever been and I find that I enjoy learning more! Learning about money and how to use it wisely is something that I am going to continue to do throughout my life.

    What about you? Where do you see yourself in those wealth personalities?

    Rorschach test by: tyldur

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    Saturday, June 13, 2009

    Slowing Book Sales Sadden Me

    I finally had a book sell online yesterday. It has been weeks since I have had a sale. I have heard through NPR that book sales are down at all bookstores, and let me tell you, they really are. I have noticed a drastic difference between now and just a few months ago. I used to have a couple sales a week, now I have a sale every couple weeks!

    And I miss them. It isn't just the money, which is nice, but I sold this last book for under $3, so we aren't talking about a lot of scratch here. What I really miss is the little bumps to my getting nine hundred meter over there on the right side of the blog. I didn't realize how much I liked those little reinforcements that I was working on bringing more income; each time I updated that meter, even if it was just a few dollars, really felt good. It made me feel productive. Those sales were like little pats on the back...

    There isn't much I can do about it. I could lower prices, I suppose, but many of my prices are as low as I can go and frankly, if people aren't buying books at all, it really doesn't matter how cheap you offer them. The only thing I can do is continue to ride it out, keep adding to my inventory and hope that as the economy gets better the sales will improve.

    I recently got from friends a few more boxes of books to sell. Even though my sales are down, I keep putting them online. I've been trying to list the Nonfiction books first, those seem to sell the best, although my other top sellers are Science Fiction and Self Help books. (Boy, it seems like there should be a joke in there somewhere, doesn't it?) I also have a big box of books that I just can't sell online - mostly mass market paperbacks of really popular authors - Mary Higgins Clark, for example. Those books don't sell, there are just too many copies out there and when you go to Amazon you can find hundreds of copies for a penny. I can't compete with that! Instead, I plan on offering them at my garage sale for $.25 - $.50, since I will actually make more that way.

    In the meantime I will miss those positive reinforcements. I'd love to see somethings sell, if only from that standpoint. Ah well...

    What about you? How is your sideline businesses going?

    Photo by: Gret@Lorenz.

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    Friday, June 12, 2009

    Frugal Money Saving Websites I Like

    A quick note - J. Money over at Budgets Are Sexy is running a giveaway for 3 Amazon gift cards. All you have to do is check out the website Mr. Rebates and then leave a comment saying what you thought about it on his blog. Go check it out!

    I've been using ebates, which is a site similar to Mr. Rebates. I have to say, ebates has been great to me. Just last month I got over $30.00 from them! One of my favorite purchases was when I had to travel for work last April. I went to ebates first, then purchased my plane ticket and hotel through Expedia, and paid for it with my work credit credit card which earned me reward points! It is always fun to double up the points and rewards that way!

    I've bookmarked Mr. Rebates near my ebates link and I plan on checking both out the next time I need to make an online purchase! Speaking of which, here are a few other sites I use a lot to get extra deals:

    Money Saving Mom - This is a blog with an incredible amount of tips, freebies, coupons and other money saving deals. I check her blog out at least once, if not twice, a day. (Today you can find a link to get free chocolate! How cool is that?) I have received a bunch of free samples from links that she put up to companies running promotions. Here's an interesting fact - I loved the new Head and Shoulders Shampoo that I tried, but wasn't crazy about the Aveeno at all. If you had asked me to predict which I would like, I would have guessed it would have been the exact opposite.

    Awhile ago I wrote about Upromise. Upromise doesn't give deals exactly, although they frequently offer coupons, but they do give you money towards college. They have an online shopping area like ebates, but what I love is the local dining selections! Short of using coupons and perhaps a credit card with rewards (though I have sworn off credit crads for the time being,) there are few ways to leverage dining out purchases - the exception is Upromise. What is fabulous about them is that they have lots of locally owned businesses on their program, and many that are favorites of mine! Some offer as much as 8% that goes towards the college fund.

    Swagbucks - I've been using Swagbucks for about a month now. Swagbucks is a search engine, like Google. When you do your searches through them you have the chance to win "Swagbucks" which can be turned in to get prizes like gift certificates. Just 45 Sawgbiucks gets you a $5 Amazon gift card and I racked that up pretty easily. It isn't always the most accurate engine, sometimes I still end up going back to Google, but it is a whole lot more fun. I love seeing that I did a search that won a few bucks!

    RetailMeNot - Before I make any online purchase I always stop here first to see if there is a coupon code. Sometimes there is, sometimes there aren't, but frequently I've scored free shipping or discounts, just by taking a minute to look.

    What about you? Do you have any sites you use to save money or get deals?

    Photo by: littleamandie

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    Finding Balance

    My sister and I were talking last night and she said something to me about how busy I am in the evenings. She asked "Don't you ever get sick of it? Don't you ever just want to stay home?" And the answer is... Well, yes.

    But I have a problem slowing down and it has to do with the kind of things that I am doing in the evenings, namely: spending time with friends and loved ones, working part time jobs, volunteering, or attending meetings and functions for the nonprofit I am a part of. The nonprofit probably takes up the most time. Lately I have done a bit better there; I was on 4 committees and have been able to scale it down to 2. Even still I have, on average, three or more meetings a month. That doesn't sound like too much, but then I almost always also have at least one function to attend. So, that is 4 or more times a month, or at least once a week.

    I would be sad to have to leave the nonprofit, I really enjoy and support the work that they do. I love feeling a part of this vital and important organization. In fact, I wish I had more time to devote to it, and frankly, the good thing is that most of the meeting are fairly short. It isn't as though they go late into the night! So, then I look at the other things on my plate...

    Naturally I try to pick up as much part time work as I can. This is really important to me. Every extra dollar I can earn working at the part time jobs is one that can help me reach my goals. On the other hand, I do try to pick my shifts wisely. My employer allows me to submit a schedule I would like to work and then makes it from that. Some nights I will get, some I won't, so I try volunteer to work as many shifts as I can, knowing that I will get a portion of them. It is a little bit of a balancing act though, if I were to say I could do every night, then it is possible they would all be assigned to me - and I would be responsible for that. So I try to offer to do all that I can, without biting off more than I can chew.

    As far as volunteer work, I don't do nearly as much as I once did, (unless you consider my work being on the board of the nonprofit.) I pretty much have taken a hiatus from it, though I know if a special project came along, I could be very tempted to help out. That is what happened in March, a project came along that I couldn't refuse - I wanted to work on it. However, I don't have any plans for volunteer work for the rest of the year.

    Then there are friends and loved ones - I don't spend nearly enough time with them as it is! Currently they are getting the "fuzzy end of the lollipop" as my dad used to say. I love them for being so patient and understanding though. I am actively trying to work on being a better friend and at least make time for phone calls and emails, if nothing else.

    So, what's a girl to do? My sister pointed out that in the past I had fewer reasons to want to be at home. Before I was married I had an apartment that required very little work, after I was married, well, when things started going bad the only thing I wanted was to be out of the house. But now that I have my own home (even if it is a whole lot more house than I would have ever bought by myself) I find myself want to be there more. I want to work in the yard, work on projects, and simply sit out on the porch with a good book.

    I just read this wonderful article on "Pushing the Reset Button on Your Life" by On Simplicity that I loved, but I can't quite see how to do in my own life. I guess I am just not at the point where I am willing to let anything go. When that point comes, I will. But one of the things that I am trying to be better at is seeing the bigger picture when it comes to my calendar. Sometimes something will come up and see I have that night free and I'll jump on it - only to realize later that it was the only evening in two weeks I had to myself! I have a full month calendar I look at when I set dates and I have been trying to look at the whole thing before scheduling anything. I am also trying to be more proactive - setting up things or spending time with friends myself ahead of time.

    My thought for the day is simply this - finding a little more balance in my life may be the silver lining to the fact that the part time work is going to be pretty slow this summer. My work for the nonprofit board also usually slows down in the summer, so even without making a lot of changes, July and August might be a bit quieter. Sometimes when life give you lemons, you have to make a lemon battery out of 'em.

    Photo by: wooooody

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    Thursday, June 11, 2009

    Does Stocking Up Make Sense When You Are Broke?

    The other night I went out to buy someone a small gift. I am currently on a No Spending Challenge for June, but before I started it, knew I had a couple of gifts to buy in June and set aside the money for them. Anyway, so I was out at fairly well known department store with the express intention of going in, picking up the gift and getting out. I had my coupon in hand and knew exactly what I needed, I had just two items on my list.

    The first I found easily, then I walked around the other side of the rack to look for the other item... and then the store almost got me. There in front of me was a clearance rack with 70% off on one side and 90% off on the other. 90% off!! Like magnet it drew me in...

    I've always been a sale shopper. I do love clearance racks, and it wasn't long before I was idly looking at the merchandise and checking out the prices. When I saw how low some of the discounts were I started thinking about whether or not these were something I could use or whether they might make good gifts. A few things were winter merchandise and I wondered who might enjoy these for Christmas gifts. Then I heard it, a little voice inside my head that seems to have appeared since started my Fighting Foreclosure blog, it is the voice of you dear reader, as well as the writing voice of this blog, and it was speaking very clearly. It said:

    "What in the Sam Hill do you think you are doing?!?"

    For a few moments I had forgotten my No Spending Challenge completely. I had even forgotten about the other gift I wanted to buy. I was lured in by the promise of big sale prices. The truth was though, that even at 70% and 90% off things weren't really all that low. (Maybe I've just gotten accustomed to thrift store prices.) Yet in the old days I might have spent some serious time at that sale rack and eventually I would have found something I wanted to buy. Then, just like having one drink makes it easier to have several more, I would have walked through the entire store, searching for more racks and other discounted treasures. I'm not saying I wouldn't have found good deals, and I'm not even saying that it doesn't make sense to shop for holidays in advance... but only when you have the money to invest in it.

    Here is something that I have learned over the last year. Stocking up and buying in advance makes sense, but when you do that you are tying up that money into something you can't spend. It is no longer cash, it is now a sweater or a can of paint. For example, let's say that I ended up buying $25 worth of Christmas gifts off that rack and just for nice easy math, it was $100 worth of merchandise. So, it would be a great deal, right? But that $25 is now locked up, and it won't be used until December. If you have extra money in your budget and you don't think you will need that $25, then go for it! But, if you are like me and having to scrimp and save every penny, tying $25 up in a way I can't use it isn't smart.

    Because, you know it isn't just $25. It is the $30 that was spent stocking up on hair care products because there was a great sale, and $50 in lumber because eventually I am going to fix that fence and I want to have the supplies on hand, and another $10 spent stocking up on canned goods, and so on and so on. A sale is not a great deal if it hurts my purchasing power when I need most. It doesn't make sense to have Christmas gift stocked away when I am struggling to make sure I have grocery money - no matter how good a deal it is!

    Until things are better for me financially, I am trying to buy more with a "Just in Time" mentality. I will shop as I need things. Yes, I know that I may miss a few deals here and there, but the thing is - stores have sales over and over again. Missing an opportunity now may mean I have to wait awhile before another comes my way, but it makes sense for me for right now. I'm not saying at all that everyone should do this. I don't plan on doing it myself, forever. However, as long as cash is so tight and my budget so slim, I need to shop only as I need things. Not to mention that I definitely shouldn't be doing non-essential shopping on a No Spending Challenge - jeesh!

    Fortunately I heard that voice, and for once, I listened. I dropped what I was looking at and headed to the other side of the store, got the other part of the gift and got myself out of there ASAP!

    Photo by: cjelli.

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    Wednesday, June 10, 2009

    The 2009-10 Fighting Foreclosure Budget

    Here's the long awaited post about the June 2009-10 budget. (At least it was long awaited by me!) I've been crunching numbers and crumpling scrap paper and I think I finally have things worked out. One thing that really helped this year was that for the first time ever I was able to print off an entire year's past budget and see actual numbers. In the past when I have made budgets, I always jotted them on legal pads or whatever and eventually stopped using them, so at best I might have a couple of months of accurate figures. Because of my Fighting Foreclosure blog, I've actually kept every month's budget in a spreadsheet, and it was great to just click "print" and have 12 pages of data right at my fingertips.

    I took most of the variable expenses and averaged them over the year. For example, most of my utilities are on a budget plan, all except for the electric on the house. Since installing CFLs I have been able to cut that bill about in half. I was originally budgeting $53.00 for it (based on my ex's 10 month average) and I was able to knock that bill down to about $27.00. However, what my full year budget showed was that there are peaks - during holiday season when I had Christmas lights up, for example. I was a bit surprised that my 12 month average was as high as $40, but that is where it came in at, and it does provide me with a little cushion. Here are some other things that have changed from June of 2008 to June of 2009 -

    Mortgage payment - payment went down on the house due to lowering home insurance. I am no longer paying to insure my ex's photography equipment and that took a bit off the bill. Mortgage payment on the cabin also went down shortly after starting blog. I had been paying a mandatory premium to have the lake sprayed for weeds. That ended last summer.

    Utilities - The electric budget at home went down, as mentioned, from $53 to $40. Gas went down from $132 to $109. I am on the budget plan so this is pretty much a fixed expense. Gas for the cabin remained the same, but electric went up a bit.

    Insurance - In addition to lowering the home insurance through dropping the rider for the camera equipment, I lowered it again in May 2009 by changing carriers. I am hoping I will be able to do this for auto insurance as well. My renewal is in July, so we will see how I do.

    Car payment - What can I say? I eliminated this all together! I went from $307 to $0! However, I have begun funding a new Car Maintenance account with $25 a month. I know that isn't a lot, but it should be enough for regular oil changes and small maintenance items. Eventually I would like to boost the payment into this account by quite a bit and make it a Maintenance/Next Car fund, but that will be down the road when I am feeling a bit more flush with cash. Last September I also started a Car Registration fund. This just takes $7.50 each month and puts it away so when my renewal comes up I have it ready. I am trying to do a lot more of this with annual bills - put a little aside each month.

    Auto Fuel - Agh! I still don't know what to do with this! I had it as high as $150 for awhile when gas was $4 a gallon. Now gas continues to rise, are we going to hit those kind of numbers again? Summer is a busy time for me too, I do a lot of driving. For now I am leaving it at $100, though last month I only spent $23.41.

    Groceries - This is still at $125, which is what I set it at last year. However... if there is ever a budget I break, it is this one. I considered raising the limit, but instead, I am going to try the envelope system for this category. Last Friday was payday for me and I took the money out in cash and have it tucked away in a special part of my wallet. What I would like to do is spend much less than $125, then take what is remaining and put it in a canning jar under my bed or something. That way when I have more expensive months, know I have a back up. For example, attending a bunch of holiday parties where I bring a dish, always seems to be more expensive month than I plan. I'm still not too sure about this though, so I will let you know how it goes as I go along. I am hoping this No Spending Challenge for June will really help.

    Credit Card - At the beginning of starting my Getting Nine Hundred goal, I had my credit payment budget at $75. In January I was able to make some changes to my Flexible Spending Plan and get a little more income, half of which I put in my bank account and half I applied to my credit card payment, bringing it up to $111.68. This month I made the final payment of $114.13, so this is done! My budget now is $0.

    Dining Out - In June of 2008 my Dining Out budget was $200. This was based on some very real estimates of what I had been spending on this... of course I had also just gone through a hard separation and divorce and had a tiny kitchen in the little apartment I was living in, so dining out happened a lot. By July I had dropped it to $150 and by October I had it down to $100. With a little thought, a lot of coupons and some frugal choices (like not dining out alone) I have been able to keep to that $100 budget. That is what I am sticking with for 2009.

    Entertainment - My entertainment budget has stayed pretty close to $50 all year. Usually I don't use it at all, but occasionally I do see a movie, go to a museum or a play. This all fits in here. I rarely go over $50.

    Christmas Fund - Even through the worst of times, I funded my Christmas fund. Why? Because I love Christmas! Now, if I had ever had to dip into it for emergency reasons I would have. As it turned out, I've never had to, so I had money for gifts and parties and all that jazz last year. At the time, I was putting away $12 a week, but after Christmas time last year I decided to bump it up to $13.50 per week. Again, I kind of consider this a back up emergency fund. Like car maintenance or any of the others that I stock away a little for each month, if I have to use the money I can. I also have a gift fund for year around birthdays and things. This year I am actually taking that amount out each month and putting it in a separate account, that way the quiet months can help pay for the months when I have three birthdays, a wedding and a 50th anniversary party to attend.

    Home Improvement - As I have written about (until even I am bored with it) this is another of my danger categories. It has been $50 a month, yet with two houses, I have blown through it more times than I can count - sometimes by a lot. This month I am doing it like I am groceries - by the envelope system and I am doubling it to $100. I'll let you know how this goes.

    Miscellaneous - Dreaded miscellaneous. All that stuff that just doesn't fit anywhere else goes in here. It was $50, it continues to be $50, and I know this is one of those weak areas I may go right through because I cannot plan what will end up here. All I can do is look for patterns and try to fix them whenever I can. This is actually where the idea of the gift fund came in.

    eBay/Shipping - This started at $35 and went up to $55 through the course of the year. This is for all eBay fees and the costs of mailing books and other items that I sell. Frankly I could care less if I spent every penny out of here because spending from here means income is coming in.

    Charity - Charity was at an ambitious $35, but over the last year I had to bring it down to $15. I still believe in giving, but I only do it when my nine hundred goal is met or when I have saved enough in other areas that I can afford it.

    Emergency Fund - I put $50 a month away each and every month into the emergency fund, and more when I have it. This is a continuing plan for 2009.

    Income - Fortunately, my income has gone up. Even though my company is on a wage freeze, I have still been able to increase my take home pay. I changed my payroll tax withholding deductions and my flexible spending plan, both which put more dollars in my paycheck. I also picked up several part time jobs, and even added a little more from online sales, taking surveys and mystery shopping. The only money I can actually budget though, is my take home pay. The other money is unreliable and variable.

    The Bottom Line:

    So, what does this all mean? It means that if I am careful and don't exceed any budget item I can actually make it each month. I don't need to get nine hundred each month, in fact, I will come in over budget by about $250!! I went from needing $900 each and every month, to now having that and being well over budget. How did I do it? The only way you can - I decreased spending by lowering bills and increased income.

    However, my journey isn't over yet. Last month I got two sides of my house painted with the money I had saved up. Frankly, I thought it would take longer than it did, but he wrapped it up in pretty short order. The only problem is, I don't have the money to do the other sides! The whole thing cost more than I expected and I had to dip into my emergency fund as it was. Now, if I want to get the house finished by the end of this summer, I need to get about $900 in June, July and August. So, it is like I am right back where I started from!

    Until the house is finished, I need to keep going the way that I have been - scrimping and saving and putting away every penny. It is great to know that I probably won't lose a house - and as long as things stay exactly as they are, I will be okay. Of course, tell that to the thousands of Americans who said the exact same thing a few years ago and are now losing their homes! My goal is to get enough money to finish the house paint job. Once that is done, then stock away every single nickle I can to get into the emergency fund. I need that fully funded and some better safety nets in place. I may not be fighting foreclosure right now, but I am very aware at how close to the razors edge I am.

    I am also resetting everything to zero - no counting the changes I have made from last year. Everything you see me add in now is new... which is why I only have $14.14 in the kitty right now! However, I am going to do something new that I haven't done before - I am going to count money that I save. You and I both know that if I follow my budget to the core, I will have an extra $250 at the end of the month. If I overspend, I have less; if I save more, I will have more. So, at the end of each month I will add up my budget and see how I do. Whatever I can come up with will add to my $900 goal up there at the top and that will go to the house painting project. This should help keep the frugal wheels turning!

    Photo by: Orfield Photography

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