Quantcast Finally Frugal: 2009

The bumpy road to financial independence. . . .

 

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Still on hiatus, but. . . .

Okay, okay. I knew I wouldn't be able to stay away from the blog ALL summer! I am still on hiatus, but I had to forward this blog post about a couple who recently had to sell their home to avoid foreclosure in Southern California. This particular post describes the estate sale that they held prior to moving, in which they attempted to sell just about EVERYTHING in their home.

Furniture, kitchen gadgets, piggy-banks, dishes, cutlery, fake Christmas tree. . . . it all had to go.

At first, this post (which is LONG! But worth it) made me uncomfortable. I mean, what would it be like to sell everything one owns, with the exception of some clothing? According to Steph, the author of this blog post, it feels fantastic!!!

As I continue to wrestle with Citimortgage and Wells Fargo, trying to get the loan refinance completed (I've just written to my elected officials, asking for help), I've been kind of obsessed with stories about people who are in dire straits. I know that I'll "make it" as long as I have my jobs and money coming in, but I can't help but feel a little stressed about "what if" scenarios, like the one described in Love in the time of Foreclosure.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Summer hiatus. . . .

Whoa! As you can see, it's been more than a week since I last posted! While summer is particularly difficult for me budget-wise (more fun, entertainment, and travel enters my life when the sun is shining), it's also been difficult to find the time to get to the blog. . . .

So with that in mind, I propose taking a summer hiatus from Finally Frugal---this doesn't mean I'm going to stop budgeting, tracking spending, and increasing savings; it just means that I'm going to try to spend every spare moment in my garden, at the park, and generally outdoors whenever possible!

That's not to say that I won't post from time to time when I come across interesting articles. . . . sometimes I just can't help myself!

Happy summer!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Home repair blues. . . .

I finally had my dryer repaired today, and found that some wires were faulty. I was actually glad to learn this, since I would have felt a little guilty if it had been the heating element (this might have been something I could have fixed myself, rather than paying someone to do it for me).

Although I'm all set up for line drying---whether indoors or out---I'm happy to have my dryer back online for rainy or cold days, and for items that really should have a tumble once in awhile (my duvet cover comes to mind. . .) for the purposes of pet hair removal, at the very least.

I'm looking forward to using my clothesline often this summer, and saving some additional money in electric bills by not using my dryer. Now the question is, how to pay for the roughly $170 bill to fix my dryer? Originally I thought I would just take it out of my emergency fund and pay down my credit card, but on second thought, I'm going to take it out of a separate savings account that is going to help fill the gap when my income decreases next year. That account is quite healthy---there's twice as much money in it as there is in the EF, and if my refinance ever goes through, I'll be able to "skip" a mortgage payment (I'm already a month ahead, even without it) and that money will go straight into that savings account as well.

So my home repair---while expensive---hasn't decimated my budget after all. I can't help thinking how that charge would have remained on my credit card for months or even years just a short time ago, because I wouldn't have had any savings to speak of. How times change!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Frugal change. . . .

Like most of us, I have a jar of change sitting in a dark cupboard, that I sometimes throw my spare nickels and dimes into----they just get in the way in my tiny little wallet! Every once in awhile if I need money for gas (just a few bucks to get me through the end of the month), I'll dive in and grab some quarters, but in general the money just sits there, unused and seemingly unloved! I've never actually cashed it in for "real money", and I'm not sure I ever planned to. . .

With this economy, though, it seems that more people are heading to their local Coinstar or bank to cash in the random change in their respective jars. The bank representative in this NBC video says that not only do they cash out to the tune of $15,000 to $20,000 per week (total) just at her branch, this kind of business has increased by 13% this year! I guess when times are tough, every little bit counts, eh?




I think I may take a second look at my little jar of change! I know I don't have anywhere close to $50 in there, but it might be enough to fund a guilt-free night out with the girls sometime soon!

Friday, June 12, 2009

A frugal commute. . . .

Now that summer is almost here, it's almost time to begin my bus commute from the stop a couple of blocks from my house (rather than the car to train to bus commute that I usually do during colder or rainy weather). Each morning as I pass by the bus stop in my car, on the way to the MAX station, I consider the hour-long bus ride (including a transfer to another bus downtown) that is in my future.

Last year I did this bus commute day in and day out and while I didn't like it, gas prices were so high then (was gas really almost $4 a gallon last summer???) that taking the longer commute in a dirty, crowded bus seemed like a great deal. I was spending less than $20 on gas per month last summer, which was fabulous, considering how high gas was!

This year, I DREAD the thought of waiting at the bus stop (and exposing myself to car horns and cat calls, as it's on a major street) and then waiting again for a transfer to the university. Why is this? Maybe because gas is still less than $3 a gallon here in Portland, and I'm not going to save 'as much' money as I did last year?

Granted, I'm taking a class this summer that will preclude a late-night bus trip, so I'll only be commuting this way three times a week. I think next Tuesday will be my first day back on the bus, so I'll have to see how it goes then. I think my memories of the bus are clouded by the few hot, hot, hot days that I rode a bus without A/C and was simply miserable. For an hour.

I'm going to try to sell myself on the bus commute by reminding myself not only of the money I'll be saving but also by reminding myself that I'll get to listen to my digital books on a more frequent basis (which also helps tune out some of the rather unfortunate souls who also choose this particular bus line).

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Frugal confidence. . . .

Apparently, Americans have a confidence rating in the economy of -47 (on a scale of 100 to -100)! That's pretty dismal, people! This confidence or 'comfort' rating is based on personal opinions about three separate variables:

  • National economy
  • Personal finances
  • Buying climate (meaning, is it a good time to make purchases. . .)
Interestingly, our opinions varied based on several factors. For example:
  • People with higher incomes reported more confidence (-17) than those with the lowest incomes (-72);
  • Those with a college degree felt better about the economy (-35) versus high school dropouts (-63);
  • Homeowners were slightly more confident (-44) than renters (-54).
Also interesting (though not surprising), less than half of us feel positively about our finances. In fact:
"Forty-five percent rate their personal finances positively, typically the best of the three measures. That’s down 7 points in the past month – the steepest such decline since May 2008 – to just 4 points from the record low in January, and 12 points below average."
Actually, the last half of last month and the beginning of this month have been quite difficult for me, financially. I still haven't published my zero-based budget from May, and had quite a difficult time getting my June budget to zero out. Meanwhile, I had my debit card declined last weekend after a day of grocery shopping (I had to transfer from money from savings to cover what I'd spent)! That is the first time this has ever, ever, EVER happened to me, in spite of all the years of spending---and I didn't like it one bit! I guess this isn't surprising, considering I rarely used my debit card in my non-frugal past and simply whipped out the credit card for every little thing.

Anyway, this rather rude awakening (it's embarassing!!!) helped me to get back to the basics, in checking my accounts more frequently BEFORE going shopping! I'm feeling a little less positive about my finances than I have in the past, though, in spite of being nearly credit-debt free. This might be because I'm sensing that times will get even tighter when my income decreases very soon!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Credit cards: avoid them. . . .

As my credit debt inched above $300 recently due to a plane ticket purchase (for a trip to see family later this summer), it appears that more Americans are falling behind in paying their credit card bills.

The percentage of Americans who are delinquent is now 1.3% (which seems low to me, to be entirely honest), but that is up 11% over the previous quarter. Analysts think this might be because people are using whatever tax refund/rebate they've received to pay for everyday costs, like food and gas. Meaning, I suppose, that there's no money left to pay the credit card bills!

I can't tell you how thankful I am that my credit debt is almost nil. Even at $300, I'm trying to find ways to pay it down quicker while not decreasing my savings much. Not having a huge bill hanging over my head when I know my income will decrease later in the summer is a huge incentive NOT to use my credit card except when necessary.

I can't imagine the desperation that some people must be feeling in this (still) horrible economy, with unemployment still rising in some places, and gas prices going up as well. I vow never to put myself in such a precarious financial situation again simply for my own sanity.

Friday, June 5, 2009

All about savers. . . .

Yet another article along the lines of the financial personality piece that I linked to on Wednesday. This one highlights research that pertains to 'Savers'. Here's a little recap:

  • 'Savers' start early: 73% indicate that their parents taught them the value of saving money, compared to average savers.
  • 'Savers' are less into the luxuries of life: meaning, they live well but they don't necessarily need a high-priced spa treatment or a Coach bag to feel good about themselves. This makes a ton of sense. When I began my frugal journey, I made a conscious effort to ask myself 'WHY' I was purchasing non-essential items---if I couldn't come up with a reasonable answer I didn't purchase it.
  • 'Savers' know their limits: budgets are already pretty lean for savers, so cutting additional expenses is sometimes not possible---and savers are aware of how far they can go in finding additional savings.
  • 'Savers' are happier with their finances: this makes sense as well. When you're not afraid to open your bills life is much less stressful. I know that having an emergency fund and additional savings accounts helps me sleep better at night!
I wish this article had contained a URL to the study itself, as I wanted to include the tables and graphs (I do love me some graphs!) and to look at the exact numbers and analysis a little further. I'll see if I can find it somewhere online. . . .

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Your financial personality. . . .

Whew! I landed on my feet after a weekend at the beach; who knew that three days out of town could result in getting so far behind in everything else? In any case, my mini-holiday was fabulous, and I'm back to the 'grind', as they say, after a rejuvenating beach vacation.

In the midst of catching up on work stuff, I came across this very interesting article in a British paper (the Daily Mail), about a recent survey on people's financial personality. In essence, it appears that of the people surveyed, over 50% are considered 'Amblers', meaning they simply amble through their financial lives, paying little to no attention to bills, savings, and budgeting! I wonder if these numbers would be the same if Americans were surveyed?

Here's a table with the five financial personalities as defined by the researchers:

In reading this article, I kept wondering: where is The Frugaller? Where is the 'personality' for balanced people who pay attention to their finances, are able to live simply and save for the future without becoming neurotic or anxious (as The Hoarder appears to be)?

Doesn't it look as if financial personalities have been defined a little too narrowly by this study, and perhaps a bit negatively? I know in the past I've been The Ambler, The Evader, and The Splurger, and I know people who fit The Validator profile, but I feel as if I now fit into a sixth category---someone who opens her bills without anxiety or delay, who spends quite a bit of time thinking of her finances---without as much worry as a Hoarder---and who is motivated by optimism for the future, rather than fear.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A budget-busting diet. . . .

I started a diet in a desperate attempt to lose this ten pounds that has hounded me for the last year. The diet is relatively low calorie, and includes a higher percentage of protein than I'm used to eating (I'm generally kind of a carbohydrate whore). I'm also supposed to eat what seems like a giant serving of fruits and vegetables at each meal!

What this means is that I've made two or three trips to the grocery store in the last half of the month to restock my refrigerator, and this has decimated my grocery budget for the month. I budgeted for $85 this month for food, and I'm probably closing in on $150!! And I've barely lost any weight (maybe a couple of pounds).

Granted, it's been less than a month and I'm still getting used to the types of food I need to eat, but I'm just a bit bummed about it. So what's a frugal gal to do? Well, as always, I turned to the trusty internet for some tips. And luckily, one of the first articles I came across was in Consumer Reports (and I didn't even have to subscribe to read the full article! How's that for frugal?)

The article in question is about dieting on a budget, and has some budget-friendly ideas for people like me who want to shed a few pounds without spending hundreds of dollars. . . . here are some of the better ones:

  • Plan ahead: make a menu for the week and stick to it; take a list to the grocery store and stock up on the items you'll need for your meals. This is something that I didn't do when I shopped for groceries at the beginning of last month---I didn't know I'd be on this diet, so simply shopped for my usual items, only some of which I've used.
  • Buy in season: I've said it before, and I'll say it again, watermelon in the summer is cheaper than the same item purchased in the dead of winter (and better for the environment, too)!
  • Eat beans: I already eat a lot of beans, since they're a frugal food source, but I may need to find more recipes to add to my arsenal.
  • Try tofu: now, this is something that I've not tried much yet. Tofu doesn't appeal to me---but that may be because I'm just not familiar with it. So I'll check the price of tofu (against other protein sources like chicken and tuna) to see if this will save me some dough the next time I shop for food.
  • Buy a whole bird: I did this last month---I found whole chickens at .77 cents a pound at Albertson's, and cooked one in my crockpot. It made a fair amount of chicken meat; now I just have to find the time to cook the second one, and keep my eyes peeled for good deals like that. Next time though, I'm going to measure exactly how much meat I get from the bird and compare the cost to the bags of frozen chicken breasts I usually buy, to make sure I'm getting a good deal. . . .
  • Plant a garden: I'm in the process of doing this right now! My seeds took off, and I now have more tomato starts than I know what to do with. Unfortunately, I lost track of some of my seeds, so I now have some 'mystery starts' that I put in the ground last weekend. Hopefully soon I'll know what they are (assuming they survived the transplant. . .)
So there you have it. Although I suspect I'll need to increase my grocery budget to include more fresh fruits, vegetables and protein sources, I think with some planning I can keep my expenditures at the grocery store to a reasonable level. . . .

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Memorial Day savings. . .

In no way do I want this site to become all about the great deals one can find at local drugstores and grocery stores (using coupons, of course). There are too many great sites out there that already do the job commendably, so I'll leave it to them!

However, I did want to show off my "take" last Monday, using coupons, double coupons, and Walgreens Register Rewards. . . .

I'm trying to stock up for a weekend trip to the beach coming up, on which I'll be responsible for breakfast and snack foods. About half of what you see above is coming with me to the beach (just south of Newport, for those familiar with the Oregon coast. . . .), and I saved a TON, using Albertson's double coupons plus Walgreens advertised specials combined with a coupon.

Total out of pocket (OOP, as the experts say) was $24.96. In addition, I received $5.50 in Walgreens Register Rewards (coupons I can use for other items), which brings the total down to $19.46. I forgot to include the bag of Seattle's Best coffee in the photo, which was $8 on its own (I have a rebate form with which I'll get a full refund on that coffee, by the way. . . )

Not bad for items that would have cost me $62.32 without the coupons! That popcorn was actually free---I went back later and got two more boxes, since you can't beat free!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Happy Memorial Day!

Late day non-frugal post: just a thank you to all of the men and women who have served our country so courageously through the years. I wouldn't own a house, have an education, or have the freedom to complain about my student loans without the good work our soldiers have done for all of us.

Happy Memorial Day!

I'll be posting again starting Wednesday. Until then, I hope you are all enjoying the holiday!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Frugal mortgage. . . .

So, according to CNN, 55,000 people have already taken advantage of Obama's home loan modification plan.

Judging by how long it's taking to get my own "no cost" refinance paperwork completed, I'm not surprised. I wrote a few weeks ago about this, and so far I've received one bit of mail from the servicer, which included several errors. Turns out, the paperwork that they wanted from me didn't even apply to my situation.

Originally, my mortgage broker told me that I'd get the paperwork in "seven to ten days". Well three weeks later, I'm being told to wait a couple more weeks at least. Although I don't think my refinance is connected with the government loan modification program, I'm sure the loan servicer is inundated with all sorts of refinance requests at this point. That would explain the delays and the errors in my own case.

I'm getting impatient, since every day that goes by is a day that I'm still paying 6.9% on my mortgage. Luckily, I'm not in any danger of defaulting on my loan or losing my house, so I can afford to wait a bit longer, but that roughly $170 monthly savings is dancing over my head as I go to sleep at night. Feels like Christmas Eve!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Happy to be a 'deadbeat'. . .

According to this article that discusses Obama's new regulations to limit credit card penalties, I'm a 'credit card deadbeat'! The article talks about how people who pay off their credit cards in full (or at least make their payments on time) will essentially be subsidizing the people who are late or in arrears.

Obama's plan limits the penalties that credit card companies can put on people who pay late, meaning that the credit card companies will need to find other ways to make their money. Which all translates into higher interest rates, annual fees and other ways of taking dollars out of our responsible pockets! Although this may have financial ramifications for me down the line, I was tickled that the article referred to people who pay off their balances as 'deadbeats'---only because they don't make any money from us!

I'm not sure about these new regulations, to be honest. In general, I'm in favor of more regulation versus less, but in this case I think we would be reinforcing the behavior of people who over-use their cards and then don't pay on time. Meanwhile, we'd be punishing the people who use their cards responsibly. Will this result in fewer people keeping credit cards handy? If it ends up costing me $60 a year to be able to use a credit card, I might just resort to using savings to pay for items with my debit card all the time, rather than using my credit card and turning around and paying the bill electronically through my online bank. . . .

Monday, May 18, 2009

Newsflash!

Rich does not equal happy! Somewhere deep down, I knew this, but that doesn't stop me from imagining myself winning the lottery, paying off my student loans, and moving to Paris.

However, a new research study, scheduled to be published in the June issue of the Journal of Research in Personality, found that of the 147 newly-graduated adults they studied, the ones who were most happy and healthy (physically and emotionally) were those who valued "personal growth, close relationships, community involvement, and physical health".

This is pretty much what the authors of my favorite book, Your Money or Your Life, espouse. I think Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez (were he still alive) would agree wholeheartedly with this particular paragraph:

"For this young adult group, the authors suggest that time devoted to extrinsic pursuits, like working long hours, often crowds out opportunities for psychologically nourishing experiences, such as relaxing with friends and family or pursuing a personal passion. Craving money and adoration also can lead to a preoccupation with "keeping up with the Joneses" ― upward social comparisons that breed feelings of inadequacy and jealousy. And unlike the lasting benefits of caring relationships and hard-earned skills, the thrill of extrinsic accomplishments fade quickly; all too soon, the salary raise is a distant memory and the rave review forgotten."
This notion of values and their relationship to happiness hits particularly close to home for me, as my friends often lament my workaholic schedule. And it's true: I work A LOT, between the two jobs and the full time graduate program. My goal in this (temporary) period of overwork is to pay off debt, enhance my education, and improve my employability in a higher-paying job that offers the benefit of more time off. I'll keep this research study in mind as my program ends a year from now and I'm faced with a choice: to keep striving for more pay and a higher salary, or to strive for a slower-paced life in which I can devote some time to relaxing, investing in my relationships, and volunteering my time to a good cause.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Three months to go. . . .

My boss asked me for the specifics of myproposed drop to part time status next fall---in the form of an official letter that she could take to HR to get the ball rolling. Yikes! Putting it on paper really made it seem real, and it also made a tiny wave of anxiety zip through my body. Have a I saved enough? What if I lose my second job? Can I work upwards of 65 hours a week between the internship, the day job, and my night job, without going completely crazy???

A positive outcome of the experience is that I was able to nail down my start date at the internship, which should be September 1st. Since I'm a natural 'planner', this made me feel much more comfortable. On the flip side, this is about two weeks to a month earlier than I anticipated, meaning that I have less time to pad the savings account.

I'm doing very well so far with my goal of getting to $4,000 (I'm at about $2,700 right now), and if I'm very good over the next three months, I should reach my goal, or at least very close to it. I'm still amazed that I started saving in January and have made it halfway! Just think if I'd started saving money when I was in my twenties---or even my teens! I do regret the time (and money) wasted, but then again, I'm also grateful to have 'seen the light' even at this late(r) date.

I'm committed to paying attention to what I spend each month, and decreasing expenditures where I can. Here's a list of budget tips from a recent CBS article that helped motivate me to continue on my frugal path:

  • Save on personal care products: the article discusses using smaller amounts of products like shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste, which is a great idea. I would add that local drugstores and grocery stores OFTEN have great deals on these items. If you keep your eyes open for sales and use coupons or rebates, you can often get these items for free, as my recent post shows.
  • Save money on clothing: CBS urges us to splurge on an accessory, rather than a higher-priced item of clothing. Slightly ridiculous is the suggestion that we purchase two necklaces this year and nothing else, for a $600 savings. That seems unnecessary when there are so many thrift stores around, just waiting for frugal shoppers to grab those deals. I know that a trip to a thrift store often scratches my itch to shop---even if I don't find anything I want to buy.
  • Save money on entertainment: a reader commented recently about the $1 DVD's that are available at Redbox, which I think is a great deal! If you're willing to be patient, you can also rent DVD's at the local library, which is something I've been doing for a couple of months. I've been very happy with the selection and I love getting random emails from the library to let me know a DVD is available for pickup (they'll even mail them to me). The bonus (aside from the price)? I get to keep the movies for up to two weeks!
  • Save money on exercise: I canceled my gym membership when I was in the midst of paying off my credit cards, and in November---when my balances finally fell to zero---I renewed it (I waited for a special deal when there were no initiation fees, of course). I've been going to the gym regularly for $29.99 a month, and I feel that this is a fair price to retain my sanity. Exercise truly keeps me balanced and healthy. I also bought a DVD that I use in the mornings when I don't have time for a gym visit, which I'll use for years. Aside from that, there's the great outdoors---parks, paths, sidewalks, outdoor tracks---that are free for the taking.
  • Save money on your ride: One of the reasons I moved to Portland was to get out of my car and have access to more public transportation options. I LOVE riding the Max (and, to a lesser degree, the bus) each day to work. When gas prices went through the roof last summer, I was barely affected because I can---if I choose---walk three blocks to a bus stop where I can grab a ride downtown. Granted, it's a LONG commute compared to taking the highway or even surface streets to work. But I save on gas, I save on parking, and I save the additional miles on my already high-mileage car. Even if public transit isn't an option, consider carpooling! You'll save money AND the environment. . . .
  • Childcare: somewhat sadly, this isn't a line item in my budget! However, if I had kids, I'm sure the outrageous costs of childcare would be a major drain on my finances. I have friends who make use of flexible grandparents and other relatives as well as friends to provide low-cost (or free) daycare. In my opinion, this is seriously an area where a little government investment would make sense. I think a lot of single (and coupled) parents will continue to live in poverty because coordinating and paying for childcare is simply overwhelming.
As long as I can keep these expenses low this summer (and next year), I should be fine. Although I'm feeling a little anxious, I've been crunching the numbers and I think I'll make it. In fact, in spite of the many hours I'll be working each week, I'm looking forward to this next challenge! I can do anything for nine months!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

In praise of coupons. . . .

In the past, I've pooh-pooh'ed the use of coupons, with the argument that I could save more money by purchasing store brands, and that I didn't use anything for which I could find a coupon anyway. Well, I've changed my tune. When used correctly and judiciously, one can save a substantial amount of money.

Case in point: Albertson's offered double coupons (up to $1) in the Sunday insert. When combined with a store sale and a manufacturer coupon, some items are either FREE or very, very inexpensive. Here's what I got, for a total of $1.00. Yes, $1.00!!!! I know there are "super-couponers" out there who would consider this small-fry, but personally, I'm amazed.


What I love about this is that I will use all of these products. While I lament the plastic packaging (one really doesn't have a choice with shampoo these days, does one?) I AM a fervent recycler, so that mitigates the environmental downsides (and my inner eco-guilt) a little bit.

The other thing I love is that had I simply bought these items "on sale" (minus the manufacturer coupons and Albertson's double coupons), I would have paid a grand total of $14. Who knows how much this would have been at the non-sale price (considering it's Albertson's I'd add from .50 cents to a dollar to each of these items). And I can't even begin to count the number of times I've run out to the store at the last minute because I've run out of salad dressing or shampoo, thereby paying full price. So with planning and strategy (thanks to coupon match-up sites like this one I recently found: Frugal Living NW) I saved $13---or roughly 93%!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Emergency Fund update. . . .

The week before last, I wrote about using my credit card to pay for a rather hefty veterinarian bill (one of my cats was suffering from some sort of allergic reaction, which, now that I am purchasing Very Expensive Food seems to have cleared up). These days, anything over $100 on my credit card bill bothers me, and I figured that at 9.99% interest, taking the money out of my emergency fund (which only gets 1.5% interest at the moment) would result in a savings of 8.49%.

Although I'm loathe to use the EF for something that really should have been expected (I plan to begin both a car maintenance savings account and a pet maintenance account in the future---after I'm finished with school, most likely), I'm even more hesitant to keep a large balance on my credit card.

So, I decided that the $330+ was going to come out of my emergency fund. End of story.

What I didn't factor in, though, is that May is one of those magical months that occurs just twice a year, in which I get not two but THREE paychecks from the night job!!! Woo hoo!!! What this means is that my first May paycheck went directly to the credit card. I still have a bit left to pay on this card due to some small indiscretions (items---like my McAfee Virus Protection program---for which I'll get a full rebate later) but it's less worrisome than it was.

Yay for the night job! I'm feeling very optimistic about my finances, in spite of that student loan debt looming over my head. I'm confident that if I can manage to decimate my credit card debt, control my spending, and increase my savings, I can---and WILL---conquer my other debt too!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Frugal veggies. . . .

I joined a Community Supported Agriculture program last week, and on Tuesday, I was the recipient of my first monthly fruit and vegetable "bin". It arrived on my front porch as requested, and contained:

2 Fuji Apples - *LOCAL*
3 Ambrosia Apples -
2-3 Blood Oranges - 'Cali'
1 pkge. Strawberries - 'Cali'
1 Leeks - *LOCAL, farm direct*
1 bunch Red Kale - *LOCAL*
1 bunch Spinach - *LOCAL*
2lb. Potatoes - *LOCAL*
1-2 Yellow Onions - *LOCAL*
1 bunch Radish - *LOCAL*
1 Euro Cucumber - "B.C"
1 Rhubarb - *LOCAL*
1 Leaf Lettuce - *LOCAL, farm direct*

About half of the items are locally grown, while the remainder comes from California---this is undoubtedly going to decrease my 'carbon footprint' compared to purchasing all of my produce from the grocery store, where almost all of the items are flown in from other areas. Of course, the produce will change on a monthly basis, depending on what's in season at that time. I'm excited to learn which vegetables and fruits are available at different times of the year, since this is something about which I'm fairly ignorant with the exception of the very common items like strawberries and watermelon. . . .

I'll pay $27 a month for this delivery, and although so far I'm satisfied with it, it remains to be seen whether this will create value in my grocery budget. Generally, I purchase my fruits and veggies either at the grocery store or at the farmer's market (where I pay a premium for locally grown, organic produce). This year, I'm growing tomatoes, peas and squash in my yard, so that will add to my bounty. At $27, I'm left with $58 in my grocery budget for non-produce items (and for items like bananas that won't be included in my bins). I think this is manageable.

Perhaps more importantly, I think I'll be induced to eat more healthy, raw foods---something I've been trying to do without much success as I attempt to lose ten pounds. Now, the big question is, what the heck does a person do with leeks and kale, let alone rhubarb???? I can see that at the very least, my gastronomic knowledge will be much improved with the inclusion of my monthly bin.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

April Zero Based Budget. . .

Here's the damage to my April 2009 budget. Not too bad, if you overlook the fact that I spent waaaaaaay too much in the miscellaneous category again (I've increased this category in May's zero-based budget).




I did succeed in keeping my overall spending percentage under 78%, which I consider a good thing. That means that my total savings was around 22%! Much better than the negative 6% savings rate I had when I started this frugal journey! Hopefully by the end of this month my internship year savings account will hit $3,000, which will make me much more comfortable with my decreased salary next year. . . .

The shopper's high. . . .

Last weekend, I made a trip to a local mall to visit Barnes and Noble. I'm trying to lose the ten pounds I've gained since moving to Portland, and find that I just don't have time to get to the gym every day. I chose a 20 minute workout by Jillian Michaels, one of the trainers on The Biggest Loser. So far, it's giving me a run for my money!

Anyway, it's been quite some time since I've wandered through a mall, and I felt my anxiety rising with each step. Although my head swiveled to the left and right as I passed interesting stores, I successfully avoided stopping in at my favorite pre-Compact stores (Banana Republic, The Gap, Ann Taylor Loft. . .) but ended up walking past a couple of stores that brought back that credit card itch! I'll admit to making a quick detour through the shoe section at Macy's on my way out of the mall. Luckily, nothing truly caught my eye---and I was happy to turn my back on the springtime displays of strappy sandals and peep-toed flats.

I re-entered the outside world with a "Whew! I made it" attitude. But why was I lured in the first place? I felt like a diabetic sitting at a dinner table with a giant chocolate cake in front of me.

As part of my night job, I routinely read articles from all over the world, and although frugality and simple living aren't part of my target focus, it's impossible to pass up a headline like: Why spending money is like a drug. Researchers showcased in this article found that the perception of higher salaries (and spending money) actually activates a part of the brain termed the "reward center". Although this particular article focuses primarily on how our 'reward center' is activated when we perceive that we have a higher salary (regardless of inflation), there is a secondary reward when we purchase an item.

This might explain why there is an actual term for compulsive shopping, called Oniomania. For example:

"Victims often experience moods of satisfaction when they are in the process of purchasing, which seems to give their life meaning while letting them forget about their sorrows. Once leaving the environment where the purchasing occurred, the feeling of a personal reward has already gone. To compensate, the addicted person goes shopping again. Eventually a feeling of suppression will overcome the person. For example, cases have shown that the bought goods will be hidden or destroyed, because the person concerned feels ashamed of their addiction and tries to conceal it."
This is exactly how I racked up so much credit card debt (except I never destroyed my purchases---though I did sometimes deny that an item was new if someone asked). When I'd had a bad day, when I was depressed, when I felt fat, or ugly, or any other negative emotion, I often turned to the mall to assuage my feelings. Interesting, then, that researchers have recently found that anti-depressants like Prozac can actually help 'cure' people of overspending!

Luckily, I've made a commitment to both The Compact and to not adding useless charges to my credit card. I never again want to be in a position where my credit card payments are larger than my deposits to savings and investment accounts. I can't say it's been easy, though, as my recent trip to the mall illustrated. Maybe someday I can walk through a shopping center without feeling anxious about not spending anything. I do know that even when I find a used item at the Goodwill or some other used clothing store, I feel a momentary thrill--and that, for now, is more than enough for me.

Monday, May 4, 2009

My frugal weekend. . . .

Yesterday I spent the day in frugal pursuits, designed to both save me money now and in the future! Here are the highlights:

Bought a box of Gain detergent at Walgreens on sale for $5.99, and used a $3.00 Register Rewards coupon that I already had, plus a $1.00 manufacturer coupon that I got in the mail. Result? An entire box of detergent (40 loads, which I'll stretch into 60) for $1.99! It would have been .99 cents, but the $1.00 register reward that should have printed with my Gain didn't, and I didn't notice this until later (of course). I may go back and ask for this to be corrected. . . .

Did my regular monthly grocery shopping trip, at which I purchased a bunch of cilantro. Since I'm only using a tenth of it now, I made a batch of cilantro pesto, and froze it for later use. . . . (note: I used pine nuts and pecans---the nuts I had on hand---in place of the almonds in this recipe).

Made a batch of Chilaquiles (like a Mexican lasagna) so I'll have lunches (and one dinner) all week long, saving me the money I might have spent at my favorite local eatery near work----Chipotle.

Found two pound blocks of cheese (cheddar, Monterey Jack, mozzarella, and Colby) for $3.89 at Winco! That's a pretty amazing price (I know this because I'm still using my Price Book). I purchased one of each, and spent Sunday with my friend the Cuisinart shredding most of it to be placed in the freezer.

I didn't do ANY homework, but hey, at least my freezer is stocked!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Soup, anyone?

In the spirit of stockpiling non-perishables for next year, I found an awesome deal at Walgreens (thanks, Hip-2-Save and Money Saving Mom!)

WAGS had an in-ad coupon for .59 cent cans of Campbell's Tomato or Chicken Noodle Soup (limit of six per transaction). Now, this is ordinarily a very good price---and I'm a big fan of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches on dreary winter days. In addition to this great price, though, there's an online coupon at the Campbell's soup website that gives $1.00 off any two 'cooking soups' from Campbell's.

I was able to print out quite a few of those coupons, and purchased 12 cans of soup (6 tomato, 6 chicken noodle) for a total of $1.08!

That means that each of those cans of soup cost .09 cents!!! Amazing. . . .

I have a raincheck for six more at a local Walgreens which ran out of soup (not surprising), so I'll add some more to my stockpile next week---although I'm not sure I'll have any more online coupons to use---there is a limit, after all!

Friday, May 1, 2009

A frugal refinance. . . .

With the low interest rates, I've been contemplating jumping in and grabbing a refinance on my first mortgage at least (which is currently at 6.59%). My problem has been that I hope to sell my house and move to a less expensive place in a year or so, and I don't want to pay the cost of refinancing if I won't recoup that. Also, the value of my home is now lower than it was when I purchased, and if I'm lucky it's worth about as much as I owe on it.

Anyway, I recently took a day off from work and printed out all of my financial information---bank statements, tax return, pay stubs, etc. I took this in to the bank which holds my first loan, and began the process of talking to the mortgage loan officer about possibly refinancing my loan. My ideal would be to wrap my second mortgage into the first, since I pay an astounding 8.9% on that one (and it's a balloon loan, meaning in 12 years or so, I'll have the pay the entire balance all at once).

The woman I spoke with had a stack of loan applications on her desk, but promised to get back to me within 24 hours. Five days later, I finally got her on the phone. She said that the bank had a new program that was no cost (no points, no fees, no NOTHING) and which guaranteed at least a point reduction in my interest rate---and I was approved for 5.37%. This is higher than the current rates hovering around 4.5%, but it's still substantially lower than the 6.59% I'm currently paying. She couldn't tell me whether my second mortgage would be rolled into one big one (my second is with a different bank, unfortunately). I'll find that out this week, when the paperwork arrives. The mortgage officer predicted that even by just 'modifying' the first loan, I'll save $200 per month!

After hanging up the phone I burst into tears, I was so relieved. I'd had no idea that my mortgage(s) were creating so much inner strife. I've been doing well with saving my money and planning for the future, and although my budget is tight and I'm working two jobs out of necessity, I feel much more secure (and lucky) than many people do right now. So I was a bit surprised at my reaction, to say the least!

Of course my pessimistic side is thinking that this is just too good to be true, and that when the paperwork arrives there'll be some hitch that the loan officer failed to mention in her very brief conversation with me. Then again, this might be just the thing that will allow me to breathe a little easier each month when my income falls next year. Heck, I might even be able to rent out my house without too much trouble and find a small, cheap apartment for myself, thereby saving more money and living closer to work (uh oh, there's my optimism rearing its shining head above the pessimism).

I'll let you all know how it works out!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Stocking up. . . .

As I increase my usage of coupons and store deals, I've come to the realization that although I feel as if I'm spending more money at one time---because I'm stocking up on good deals---in the long run, I'll save money. Why is this? Because in the past, I used to wait until something ran out before running out to the store and purchasing a replacement---generally paying the highest price for that item. My money slipped through my fingers in dribs and drabs in this way.

Now that I'm collecting coupons and scanning the weekly ads for Walgreens, Rite-Aid and some of the local grocery stores, I'm actually planning ahead! Do I use some items regularly enough that it makes sense to buy two or three while they're on sale AND I have a coupon? Yes!

Part of me rebels against this idea of stocking up, primarily because I have a grandmother who, when we moved her into a nursing home from her apartment, had probably a year's worth of toilet paper and shaving cream in her closets (and my grandfather had been dead for years---not sure how much shaving grandma was doing on her own. . . and I probably don't want to know. . .) I don't want to be the crazy old lady who stockpiles soap at the expense of having fun. Then again, stockpiling can be a great money-saver, as long as it is done in moderation.

Case in point: I went to my Walgreens last weekend to stock up on some items that I use (or will use, when the weather warms up) regularly. Here are some of the deals I got:

Reynolds Wrap Aluminum foil: on sale for .89 cents, minus a .55 cent coupon I had. Final price? .34 cents! I only had one coupon, so only bought one, but .89 cents is still a good deal so maybe I'll go back for more.

Three packs of diet Pepsi, for $11. This is a pretty high price, but I got $3 back in 'Register Rewards', that I can use the next time I go to Walgreens (maybe for my aluminum foil?). At $2.67 per box (and 12 cans per box), that's about .22 cents a can! A good deal, for something I love to drink in the summer while working in the garden . . . .

Colorsilk haircolor, which runs anywhere from $2.50 (on a good day) to $3.89 (waaaaay overpriced) was on sale for $1.99 a box. I happened to have a $1.00 off coupon, so I snagged three boxes (the limit) for $4.97, or $1.66 a box. Not bad!

I bought some other items on sale as well, which I won't detail in this blog post, but suffice it to say that my total savings was $25.40!

Part of my strategy of saving money for next year's drop to part-time status is to stock up on non-perishable food and household items so I won't have to spend as much money on them next year. Of course I am somewhat limited by available money and space (although it occurs to me that the space under the beds are not being used to their full potential) but I'm making more money this year than I will next year, so now is the time to stock my cupboards, especially when the products I use are on sale! By the way, the Dollar Stretcher has a good article with reader suggestions on stocking up when the prices are low. . . . check it out!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Frugal movies. . . .

I don't enjoy the luxury of just chilling at home much these days (and, truth be told, I'm not a couch potato even in the best of times . . .) Between Job #1, Job #2, and being a full-time graduate student, my schedule is tight, but my budget is even tighter, meaning that entertainment gets squeezed in here and there, as time and money permit.

A couple of years ago, I explored the possibility of 'renting' movies at the local library, only to find that the most popular movies (meaning, anything with a title I recognized) had from 10 to 75 'holds' on them, placed by other patrons. I chafed at the prospect of not having my movies when I wanted them---wait times could be months long---and continued to rent some instant gratification from Blockbuster, at almost $4 a pop!

Now that I'm two-thirds through my graduate program, I'm feeling the need for additional 'self-care' while also feeling the pinch in my budget from ramping up my savings to account for my upcoming drop to part-time status at the day job.

So once again, I went back to my beloved Multnomah County Library website and set to work finding some movies that interested me. I dutifully placed my holds, behind scores of other library patrons, and settled in for a long wait.

Imagine my surprise, then, when just weeks later I received an email from the library letting me know that my first DVD hold had come in! I trotted down to the library before getting on the Max (light rail system) for the ride home, and presented myself at the DVD counter. Shockingly, there were FIVE movies waiting for me! In placing my holds, I had tried to be strategic, placing holds up to the limit of ten DVD's, thinking that they would arrive in a staggered fashion, allowing me to watch one or two DVD's every weekend or so. Not so, not so. Although patrons are allowed a whopping TWO WEEKS to keep their DVD's, many often return them in mere days, meaning that the 'hold list' decreases much more quickly than I had assumed.

So far, I've watched six or seven FREE movies over the course of the past month or so. Using coupons, I purchase some packaged popcorn, and voila, I have a fun movie night that cost pennies. I've had friends over to watch a couple of movies with me, and if they bring beverages, we're all set for a frugal evening of entertainment.

Note: I have been downloading free audiobooks for my MP3 player for about a year, which I use when I go to the gym. I can get all sorts of books this way, without paying the $15-$30 they cost on the iTunes and other audiobook sites. . . .

Friday, April 24, 2009

Using the emergency fund. . . .

One of my cats has some kind of itchy-scratchy thing going on, that has resulted in some major discomfort for her. After trying some home remedies (including changing her food, in case that was the cause of it) I finally broke down and took her to the vet. $300 dollars later, I walked out with my cat, some EXTREMELY expensive cat food (care to feast on peas and venison, anyone?), and drugs galore.

Now, this is not the kind of thing I would consider to be an emergency. I did put the charges on my credit card, and want that debt GONE as soon as possible, but I was hesitant to use my emergency fund cash to pay it off (I have almost $1700 in my EF right now).

Then I started thinking, and yes, actually doing the math. I get 1.5% on my ING Direct savings account right now (I can't believe I started at 3.75% before the economic bust. . . I'm salivating at the interest I could be earning---and will earn again at some point in the not-so-distant future). I pay 9.99% on my credit card. Sooooo, an intelligent woman would figure that I'd be 'earning' 8.49% by paying off the credit card (9.99 minus the 1.5% I won't be earning on that money).

Is my math correct on this (more importantly, is my LOGIC correct)? It seems to make sense. Why would I willingly pay 9.99% interest when I'd only LOSE 1.5% interest if I took the money out of my emergency fund?

Of course, the trick is to replace that $300 over the course of the next few months so my EF is nice and healthy again.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Frugal errors. . . .

Note to self: always check the small print on the bills before paying them.

Case in point: I received my Qwest (phone and internet) bill a couple of weeks ago. Because the amount owed is usually in the $65 range, I was shocked to see that my bill for the current month had increased to over $80!!

Panicked, I tore through the many, many pages of internet charges, discounts, phone charges, taxes, more taxes, credits, etc, etc, etc. On the very last page, I saw that an internet voicemail account---to the tune of $14.99 a month---had been added to my bill! I didn't recognize the company and had no recollection of needing or signing up for internet voicemail, so I immediately called the 1-800 number listed on that particular page, ready to do battle.

Turns out, the person who had my phone number previously (about three years ago) had used MY phone number to sign up for this internet voicemail system. Meaning that he received the service and I was to pay the bill! I was LIVID. I wonder how many people simply pay their bills---even if it's a little higher than usual---without looking into the details? The person who had my phone number previously probably hoped that I would simply pay the increased bill and chalk it up to inflation.

There isn't much (that I can find, YET) on the internet about this type of fraud (because that's how I see it) but I did come across a good resource for consumers, related to phone bills. Importantly, there is an address for the FCC that consumers can use to communicate their complaints about phone companies. Personally, I think there should be some sort of protection in place to keep someone from simply using the internet to place charges on my phone bill. At no time was I notified about it, until I was actually charged for the internet voicemail service.

I'll be writing a letter to the FCC to complain about this, and in the meantime, I'll be going over my bills with a fine tooth comb.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bulking up. . . .

I continue to be amazed by the savings one can find by shopping in the bulk foods aisle. On a recent trip to Winco, I made a note of the items I was purchasing in the bulk section, and then checked their prices in the 'packaged' food aisles.

Here are some of the examples:

Orzo pasta

  • Bulk: .85 cents a pound
  • Packaged: $1.37 a pound
Brown sugar
  • Bulk: .60 cents a pound
  • Packaged: .71 cents a pound
Basmati rice
  • Bulk: $1.79 a pound
  • Packaged: $2.10 a pound
White rice
  • Bulk: .74 cents a pound
  • Packaged: .99 cents a pound (and this price was based on a giant, 20 pound bag of rice!)
Rotini pasta
  • Bulk: .84 cents a pound
  • Packaged: $1.19 a pound
As you can see, doing the legwork and cruising the bulk food aisle is worth the extra time it takes. Knowing these differences allows me to see where my greatest savings lie. So if I have a coupon for $1.00 off a certain type of pasta, I can work out the after-coupon price to see if it's better than the bulk price (it usually isn't!)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Frugal kitchen tips. . . .

By the end of March, I was committed to not making a trip to the grocery store to replenish my refrigerator and cupboards (I will admit to purchasing more coffee---it gets ugly around my house when there's no coffee). I started cruising the recipe sites (like Allrecipes), where I can enter the ingredients I have and want to use, and the site spits out a few recipes that might work for me. In this way, I was able to make it through March, and even made use of some items in the refrigerator that would have gone bad had I not used them up. . .

In any case, this end-of-month desperation not only resulted in my spending a bit more time in the kitchen, it also inspired me to search for other ways I could save money in and around that crucial room; after a search of my beloved internets, here's what I found:

  • Challenge yourself. Last month, Money Saving Mom challenged herself to eat from the pantry for two weeks! With a husband, two little girls, and a little one on the way, going two weeks without a trip to the grocery store is the definition of a challenge, but she made it through! This is similar to what I did, although with just myself to feed, I think my challenge was probably a little easier.
  • Make use of the freezer. I have three sad, BLACK bananas on my counter. I never ate them, yet I can't seem to throw them in the composter yet. A friend suggested making banana bread, but I think they're even past that use (these are some OLD bananas, folks). What I didn't know is that I could have peeled and frozen those bananas before they got really bad. Apparently, freezing fruits and vegetables is a time-honored way of preserving them until you need them, and there are many ways to go about doing this, according to this website.
  • Apropos of that last bullet, growing your own fruits and veggies can be a great way to save money during the summer and fall months. And knowing how and when to freeze them is a wonderful strategy to enjoy your bounty throughout the year! I've started my seeds and am (im)patiently awaiting my first tomato of the season. According to this CNN article, many Americans are growing what's being called 'Recession Gardens' this year. I think this is one of the few positive reactions to our dismal economic environment.
  • Don't forget the leftovers! Since I'm usually so busy during the week, I've been trying to make a large batch of something (lasagne, stir fry, a casserole, etc) on the weekend. That way I have a nice Sunday dinner, but more importantly, I have lunches for the rest of week, making it much less likely that I'll go 'round the corner to Chipotle for a $7 burrito!
  • Mom was right when she told you to eat your vegetables. A diet that is lower in red meat and higher in fruits, grains, and vegetables is not only healthier for you, it's cheaper! You may even live longer, according to research. I recently came across an article that shows that people who eat proportionally more red meat are more likely to die from cancer and other diseases.
  • Eat locally, and eat with the season. I can't tell you how many times I've paid three times more for a piece of fruit in January, that grows in my area (or at least the western United States) in the summer. Where is that winter peach coming from? Probably someplace very far south of Portland, that's for sure. So not only am I paying a premium for the fruit, my craving is adding to carbon emissions to get the darn thing here!
I'm sure there are many more ways to save money in the kitchen, these are just my favorites, and the most realistic for my life. Perhaps you're into drying fruit, or canning, or raising chickens, and if so, I commend and admire you!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Internet coupons. . .

I generally find the best coupons online---those that I can simply print from my computer, without having to purchase the Sunday newspaper or stalk the local library (you would not believe the number of women who stand with their noses pressed to the door so they can be the first to snag the Sunday coupons when the library opens at noon). Internet coupons allow me to pick and choose what I need, and they seem to be rather 'high value' when compared to the Sunday inserts. . . (this could just be my imagination).

Unfortunately, my favorite low-price grocery store (Winco) didn't take internet printed coupons ("IP" coupons)----until a few weeks ago, that is!!!

The excitement that this engendered in my still somewhat virginal coupon brain was almost more than I could bear. I immediately called my favorite local Winco to inquire about the veracity of this rumor. The woman I spoke to said, in no uncertain terms, that they do not take internet coupons "of any kind" (whatever that means).

Undeterred, I called my second-favorite Winco store, located about twenty blocks from the first. The woman at THAT store confirmed that, yes, they do now take IP coupons! So I called the first store back and indicated that I had called store #2 (confused, yet?) and that they do, in fact accept IP coupons. I was then tranferred to the manager, who confirmed yet again that "NO", they do NOT accept IP coupons. Sigh.

In any case, I ended up going to store #2 to purchase my groceries---and even the cashier had to check around to see if she could take my coupons! I promised the store manager of store #1 that I would be calling regularly to find out when their policy would align with that of Winco corporate policy. She was extremely doubtful that I could be correct.

Anyhoo! As one example, I was able to use a CoffeeMate coupon, printed from the website ($1.50 off when you buy two) to snag two 32 ouncers for less than $1.50 each! Fred Meyer sells this stuff--on sale--for $2.50, but it's usually closer to $2.89. The regular, pre-coupon price at Winco is only $2.18. So, I scored. And next time I'll use two $1.00 coupons, and get my CoffeeMate for $1.18 each! Assuming Winco doesn't raise all its prices in response to the IP coupon rush, that is.

Where do I find my favorite coupons? Aside from reading Hip2Save and MoneySavingMom religiously, I also visit:

CouponMom
Coupons.com
Smartsource
Hot Coupon World

While I'm still a little green in the world of couponing, the new policy at Winco (well, at ONE of their stores, anyway) will allow me to purchase items that I use regularly not just at the very low Winco prices, but at even less than that, with the use of IP coupons!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A small non-frugal post. . .

This YouTube video has nothing to do with frugality or simple living, as far as I can tell, but it's making me tear up and I just wanted to share it with you.

It's the British version of American Idol, which is called Britain's Got Talent (neither of which I watch), and it's the singing of a woman named Susan Boyle, whom the audience clearly expected to fail, miserably.

And what did she do? She went out there and knocked their socks off!! You have to watch it to appreciate how courageous and talented this woman is. I'm not a fan of these types of shows (they often seem scripted to me) but this episode is a real winner!

Okay, so with that, back to the frugal issues tomorrow!

Monday, April 13, 2009

March expense to income chart. . . .

Now that I'm a few months into 2009, I wanted to share my progress in a graphic way (I do love the charts, folks!) As you can see, my expenses in March climbed significantly, mostly due to a birthday celebration to which I contributed quite a hefty sum (it was worth it, by the way---this is a good friend, whose birthday I missed last year due to work).





And, the chart itself:



One thing that jumps out at me right away is that although I spent more money in March than I intended, I spent LESS than I had in January, while my income was higher in March as well. So, although my perception had been one of failure to control my spending, the reality is that I did just fine.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Goodwill find. . .

Late last month, I went on a quick tour of the Goodwill store located closest to my work, which also happens to be a 'high quality' Goodwill. Meaning that any designer items or even higher priced clothing (such as Banana Republic castoffs) will be funneled to this particular store. Of course, the prices at this store are also quite a bit higher than at other Goodwill locations around town. In spite of the high prices, some good deals can be found.

For example, I've been on the search for a good pair of jeans---I like the designer stuff, but I'm not willing to pay more than $40 dollars for a pair of jeans. Hence, I wear a lot of Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic jeans.

However, on this particular day, I came across a pair of 'Joe's' jeans at the local Goodwill. They fit me well, the length was perfect with boots (difficult when you're only 5'4"), and they were in good shape. At $29.99, they were more expensive than I'd expect from a used clothing store, but I thought it was worth it.

Upon arriving home, I checked the Macy's website to see how much this particular brand generally sells for. What I found was astonishing! These fairly run- of-the-mill jeans typically sell in the $155 to $175 range! Unbelievable (I would NEVER spend that much money on a pair of jeans). What this means is that by shopping in a used clothing store (even a more expensive one), I saved approximately $140, or about 80% off retail!

Friday, April 10, 2009

March zero based budget. . .

Whew! I finally put together the remains of my March zero-based budget, and it ain't pretty. I was dreading looking at the numbers in black and white, because I knew I hadn't done well in the 'Fun' and in the 'Miscellaneous' categories.


As you can see, I overdid my 'Fun' budget by $21.48 and spent a whopping $91.26 more than I had allocated in my miscellaneous category. I covered for this by taking away the savings ($60) I usually send to my account that covers my monthly trash pickup and water bill.

Although I did overrun my budget slightly, I was happy to see that I spent only 76% of my total income---the rest went to savings! Also, my spreadsheet shows that I ended up with $70.92, but in reality there was only $5.25 left in my checking account at the end of last month (I sent this to my savings account). Somewhere along the line, I 'lost' about $65, so I'll try to be better about accounting for every penny this month.

All in all, March was an expensive month (I overspent on a friend's birthday celebration) but I'm relieved to see that the damage is not as bad as I anticipated. Now, on to April!!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Bliss!

Last weekend, we enjoyed the first truly sunny, warm days in Portland! Aside from the fact that I had a chance to replenish my diminishing supply of Vitamin D after a grey, rainy winter, I was also able to air dry my laundry outdoors---in a matter of hours!

I purchased a retractable clothesline at Home Depot, installed it in a half-hour or so, and ran inside to wash the linens that had been piling up---I was dreading the idea of trying to figure out how to dry sheets and blankets indoors. By Sunday afternoon, all of my sheets were clean, and I even took the opportunity to wash my duvet cover---something I generally avoid even when my dryer is working, since it's so large and unwieldy. I confess that after the duvet air-dried, I put it in the dryer to tumble for a few minutes, just to remove the last remaining bits of lint and pet hair. It worked like a charm!

Ahhhh, if only Portland could offer sunny weather on a more regular basis. It's been years since I slept on sheets that had been air-dried---since I was a child, really---and the smell is fabulous!

With that said, I did learn some tips to make line drying more successful:

  • Snap the clothing, sheets or blankets before hanging them on the line. This will help smooth out some of those wrinkles the items gained while clumped up in the washing machine.
  • Hang socks and shirts upside down, to avoid any stretching.
  • Fold towels and jeans over the clothesline, and flip to the other side halfway through. I forgot to do this with a pair of jeans, and the legs look a little weird. . . .
  • Use a bit of vinegar in the wash water, to help avoid the crunchy-crinkly feel of towels, sheets and clothing. You can also throw these items in the dryer for a quick tumble, which may help soften them prior to folding and placing in cupboards or closets.
  • Hang colored items inside out, to avoid their being bleached by the sun.
  • Wash items that may generate tons of lint with other items of the same color/type. Now that my black polar fleece jacket is covered in white lint, I'll pay more attention to these details in future!
Alas, today is our last day of sun before the clouds and rain (and MUCH cooler temperatures) return. I'm all caught up on my laundry, but look forward to the next blissful sunny spell so I can continue saving money on my utilities. . . .

Monday, April 6, 2009

Stimulating student loan debt. . . .

Although generally I attempt to deny the existence of my student loan debt (approaching $60,000), every once in awhile I'll come across an interesting article or opinion piece by or about another Sallie Mae serf. This CNN piece was written by a new college graduate, named Samantha Hillstrom, who now works as a production assistant for CNN.

The title, Student Loan Nightmare: Help Wanted was initially very intriguing. My student loan debt seems to pop up in my nightmares more often than I'd like, and I'd also like some help! The article seemed to be going in the direction of wondering why it is that homeowners are receiving the lions' share of stimulus assistance. This is something I've often wondered myself---if thousands of student loan debtors had some or all of their loan balances forgiven, just think of all that extra money that would go directly into the economy (or in my case, into my savings accounts. . .) Wouldn't that have the effect of stimulating the economy?

Unfortunately, as I continued reading the CNN article, I noticed that the author---rather than focusing on what she could do to encourage lawmakers to throw some stimulus money her way---fell back on moaning about how much money she owes ($115,000) due to her private university degree (in New York City, no less), and how 'uneducated' she was when she signed the paperwork on those loans.

Samantha says:

"Some might say, “Sam, you shouldn’t have gone to a private school in New York City if you wouldn’t be able to pay it off.” Well, I made a lot of mistakes when signing up for my loans, but I was uneducated on the process and on the repayment and now I’m stuck."
(Snarky note: for $115,000, I would expect Samantha to be a better writer, but that's neither here nor there).

I have to say, as someone who owes a seemingly ginormous amount of money to the U.S. government, with only a very small chance of making more than $60,000 a year in my field (I'm not even close to that now), I can relate to Samantha's pain. And I do believe our economy would benefit from a little student loan forgiveness (to err is human, to forgive is divine, right)?

But that might be where the similarities between Samantha and me end. I don't blame anyone other than myself for the mistakes that I made when signing away my life to Sallie Mae. I decided not to consider what my life after graduation would be like, with $50K in debt (the amount as grown over the years rather than decreasing, as you can see). I made that choice.

To sit around and whine about it now makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. Also, while I would love a little student loan stimulus, I really don't think other people should have to pay higher taxes to cover for my mistakes.

Samantha asks:
"I chose to go to a private school and I chose to work in a field where the starting salaries are low. Does that mean that I chose to live a life of struggle, wondering how I am going to pay my rent, afford the basics of living and still stay in my chosen career field…all while putting up with high interest rates and an amount of debt that brings me to tears?"
Well, actually Samantha, the answer to that question is YES. So suck it up and join the club. And maybe consider moving out of pricey Manhattan to someplace like Dubuque, Iowa so you can afford the rent AND your student loan payments.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Kmart deals. . . .

Last week, KMart doubled manufacturer coupons, up to $2.00. What a great deal!! I was able to get a few items for pennies on the dollar, such as:

Formula 409 cleanser: on sale for $2.79

  • minus $1.00 manufacturer coupon, doubled = $2.00 off.
Natural Source bathroom cleanser: on sale for $2.50
  • minus $1.00 manufacturer coupon, doubled = $2.00 off
Dove conditioner: on sale for $3.99
  • minus $1.50 manufacturer coupon, doubled = $3.00 off
I almost picked up some more toothpaste, but I think I'm pretty well stocked for at least six months, so unless I find it somewhere for free, I'm going to pass it up. So far I've not managed to find laundry detergent at a price that makes me happy, so that's my next challenge.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Freecycle frustration. . . .

My clothes dryer is still on the fritz, mostly because I've been unable to find a repairman who will come to my house on a Saturday. I have to admit, I'm not trying very hard, because the longer I can last without my dryer, the more money I'll save on my electric bill (theoretically).

There are literally clothes and linens draped everywhere in the house: in the livingroom, on the dining room chairs, in the bathroom. Although I truly don't mind air-dried clothing, I'm finding that I'm using this damp laundry as justification for turning up the heat. So, the money I save on my electric bill could very well be canceled out by my gas bill!!

In any case, the lack of a dryer has driven me to begin looking for drying racks and clotheslines---I would love to find an umbrella clothesline for the backyard, so I can dry my clothes outdoors when it finally stops raining.

Because I'm on The Compact this year, I've been looking for used items---I only have six 'freebies' (where I get to buy six new items) and I don't want to waste them on laundry paraphernalia! I've been cruising Craigslist and Freecycle for weeks, and actually found a free clothesline listed on Freecycle! I've emailed three or four times, to no avail. The person who listed the clothesline hasn't removed the listing, nor has she responded to my emails!!!

So, needless to say, I'm in a state of total frustration. I love the concept of Freecycle, but knowing that what I need is out there without being able to access it is driving me a little nuts. I am trying to learn a little frugal patience, while continuing to cruise Craigslist and Freecycle for a clothesline (or even a garment rack with wheels). . . .

Monday, March 30, 2009

April is Financial Literacy Month!

In March of 2004, the U.S. Senate recognized April as Financial Literacy Month in an effort to highlight the importance of financial literacy among adults and youth. In honor of this, Money Management International (a non-profit debt counseling organization) created a website called, appropriately enough, Financial Literacy Month.

In cruising around the Financial Literacy Month website, I found the section entitled 'Tools for Success' to be most useful. On this particular page, there are links to all sorts of helpful spreadsheets and resources, such as:

A big part of financial literacy is taking the time to learn about personal finance, as well as being responsible for that knowledge. Since no one knocked on my door and educated me about how to pay down debt, how to refinance my house, or how to spend my money strategically, I had to go out and find the information myself. I'm only now beginning to emerge from the fog of self-induced financial ignorance, but I've never felt more stable and in-control of my finances.

Each American has the same obligation to find and absorb the information, whether it's at the public library, in the office of a financial advisor, or in the multitude of pages on the internet. Of course, with internet learning, we always have to be careful that the information we're reading is reliable.

In addition to the Financial Literacy Month website, the U.S. government's Financial Literacy and Education commission website is a wonderful resource. There, you'll find all sorts of links concerning financial planning, paying for education, home ownership, and raising financially literate kids.

In my work with college students, "but nobody told me" is never an acceptable excuse for making a mistake. I'd posit that the same holds true of people who are financially under-educated. As I mentioned, no one is going to call you up one day and offer to give you, free of charge, the information you need (and I'd certainly be wary of anyone who did call with that sort of offer!)

Instead, we should all take responsibility for ourselves and our loved ones, with the helping hand of organizations like Money Management International and, yes, even the U.S. government.

Friday, March 27, 2009

CNN's laughable 'budget-friendly' home remodel. . . .

I would love to sell my house at some point in the very near future, but realize that in this market the word 'future' really means a year or more, at best. In looking on the bright side of this, I'm considering cheap, easy ways I can improve the curb appeal of my home now, so that it's easier to sell when the time does come.

So I was intrigued when I saw the following link on CNN's site: Make Over Your House Without Going Broke. Upon clicking this compelling link, I found that CNN's idea of affordable is quite, uh, interesting.

Case in point:

  • The very first example of a 'modest' makeover shows a beautifully redone kitchen, in which the cabinets alone cost a mere $15,000! My first thought was: Are you kidding me? This appears to be the type of kitchen remodel that Americans were doing in droves, courtesy of their home equity lines of credit, a year or two ago before the economy tanked! My idea of a frugal, 'budget friendly' kitchen remodel involves NOT spending $30,000 or more on new cabinets, new countertops, new appliances and new flooring, but instead doing something apparently quite radical---and cheap. Like painting. Or replacing the cabinet hardware. Maybe, maybe, upgrading to an energy efficient refrigerator or a new stove.
  • In the bathroom, CNN's ideas are equally incredible. For example, the article recommends adding a skylight, for a mere $1,500. Granted, a skylight will open up the space and perhaps make the bathroom look a little larger, but with the economy in tatters, doesn't this seem a little, well, superfluous? Again, I'm thinking a little paint and some new towel bars are well within my price range, while the thought of purchasing a "$1,000 mirror" is simply absurd. The suggestion to "add a drain" in the middle of the floor (cost: $1,000) seems unnecessary and overpriced as well.
  • Finally, CNN shares its idea of a 'smart' splurge. This includes $4,800 for a dining room table (no clue whether the chairs are included in this bargain price), almost $2,000 for a custom sofa, and nearly $2,200 for a bed. A BED. That you sleep in. Again, whether the mattress is included in this 'relative bargain' isn't mentioned. I'm going to guess not.
Seriously. What planet do the editors of CNN live on, that they believe people who are interested in a budget remodel would consider shelling out $9,000 on three pieces of furniture??? I'm simply astounded by this article, and it makes me wonder who actually paid CNN to write it. Home Depot? Lowes? Ethan Allen?

The only thing I can surmise from this ridiculous 'article' is that either the people who regularly cruise CNN's site are doing a heck of a lot better than the vast majority of Americans, or the editors at CNN have their heads screwed on backwards.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Frugal laundry. . . .

So, my dryer died a few weeks ago. Well, I suppose to be honest it didn't really die, it's just very, very ill. It will spin all day long if I let it, but it won't heat up at all---which is not very helpful when one's laundry is cold and wet! I have the money in my emergency fund to have the dryer fixed (or even to purchase a new one, if need be) but my first thought when it stopped working was "how much money can I save by NOT using my dryer"?

According to the site CarbonRally:

"By line-drying 1 laundry load per week, you will reduce your CO2 emissions by 18.8 lbs and your energy cost by $1.40 after one month."
I have a couple of friends who dry their laundry the 'old fashioned' way---that is, they hang them up either outside in good weather, or in the basement in bad weather. I don't have a basement, but I do have a spare bedroom that could work. I've been cruising both Craigslist and Freecycle for the Portland area, trying to see if I could get a cheap (or free) drying rack, garment rack, or clothesline, and haven't had much luck. These items have been posted, but for whatever reason, their owners don't respond to my emails expressing interest! It's strange.

I did find a rather rickety drying rack at the Goodwill (remember, I'm on The Compact this year, and am trying NOT to purchase new) which is currently residing in my living room. To be honest, it's such a poorly made product (Target's 'Home' series---stay away, stay very far away from this brand) that I could have saved my $4.99 and done without it entirely by using hangers and the bar that holds my shower curtain in the bathroom.

In any case, since I keep my heat at a relatively low setting (58 degrees most days when I'm home, although sometimes I'll bump it up to 62 or 64 if I'm feeling really chilled) it takes about a week for most items to dry. Can I live with this? I'm not sure! I wish my dryer had chosen to break down in the summer, I can tell you that right now! It would be so much more convenient to hang some wet clothing outdoors in the morning and come home to find it dry in the afternoon.

I've also struggled with the extremely CRUNCHY feel of some items when they're air-dried, such as towels. I'm trying to look on the bright side, by telling myself that the extra roughness is contributing to the exfoliation of my skin! I've done some web research on this topic (of course!) and have heard that a 1/4 cup of vinegar in the wash load will help with this, which I plan to try with my next load.

I would love to hear from you all on this topic: do you use a dryer? A hybrid dryer-air-dry system? Or are you all air-dry, all the time? Do you have any tips for me? Suggestions and encouragement are most welcome! In the meantime, here are some of the sites I came across in my internet searches looking for information about life without a dryer:
  • Hillbilly Housewife challenged her readers to go without their dryers for a week; read the comments section for their reflections on this!
  • FIMBY (which stands for 'Fun In My Backyard') wrote a post about her family of five and their life without a dryer.
  • Life, in a Nutshell has a wonderful post about building her own clothesline! I'm not sure I'm that handy, but I'd love to find some cheap or free way to set up my own outdoor clothesline for when the weather improves. . .
  • According to this article in the Minnesota Star Tribune, 'public opinion' regarding outdoor clotheslines is changing. Apparently, some people would rather not see their neighbors' unmentionables hanging outside, for all the world to see!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Frugal energy use. . .

I've been toying with the idea of getting one of those 'Kill-A-Watt' devices, that you can hook up to various electronic appliances to see how much electricity they're using. However, since I'm on The Compact this year, this purchase would eat into my six 'freebies' (six items that I can purchase new, so I don't go completely crazy) unless I could find a used one.

When I was using the MagicJack phone system a few weeks ago, I had to keep my computer on all the time. It really bothered me! In fact, it bothered me so much that I sent it back with a 'thanks very much but I want a refund' message. I wondered how much electricity my computer was using just being on but idle during the evening or day when I was sleeping or at work. Of course I turned to the trusty internet to answer my questions. . .

First, I found this article on the green section of Yahoo that discussed the facts and myths surrounding standby electricity use. I was surprised to learn that set-top cable boxes and DVR machines are the worst offenders as far as drawing power even though they're technically not in use! Although these items can't really be shut off (the whole idea of a DVR is to work when you're not around, after all!) there are other ways consumers can reduce their utility 'footprint' around the house.

Probably the most helpful resource for consumers wanting to decrease their utility bills is this comprehensive list from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Researchers actually tested and measured the energy usage of a variety of products---when they were on, when they were in 'sleep' mode (as with a computer), and when they were off but still using power for some reason (such as the coffee maker with a clock). The results are pretty fascinating (and maybe the fact that I'm so interested in this has just exposed my inner nerd, but I don't care).

I was particularly interested in the results for a desktop computer (which I was using with the MagicJack). For example:

  • The average watts consumed by a computer that is on, but idle: 73.97
  • The average watts consumed by a computer that is off: 2.84
  • The average watts consumed by a computer that is in sleep mode: 21.13
Since it's impossible to put the computer 'to sleep' with the MagicJack, my computer was consuming quite a bit of energy while I was at work or asleep, just to keep my "free" phone service working! Not worth it from a financial standpoint, or from an environmental standpoint, in my opinion.

It's also important to point out that while none of the individual products on the Lawrence Lab table was a huge energy 'vampire', when the energy use of those appliances are taken as a whole, you can see how decreasing the standby power of just a few (or all) would make a difference.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Walgreens deals. . . .

I'm continuing to hone my coupon and rebate-abilities, so today I went to Walgreens for a mini shopping trip for a few things I use regularly, and for which I had either single or double coupons (I consider anything a 'double' when there's a coupon in the Walgreens Easy Saver booklet, along with a manufacturer coupon from the Sunday newspaper).

Here's how I did:

Colgate Total toothpaste: $3.49

  • minus $2.50 Easy Saver coupon and
  • minus $.75 manufacturer coupon
Jergens lotion: on sale for $4.59
  • minus $1.50 Easy Saver coupon and
  • minus $1.00 manufacturer coupon
Playtex tampons (36 ct): on sale for $6.99
  • minus $2.00 Easy Saver coupon and
  • minus $1.50 Walgreens register coupon
Wrigley Big Red gum: $1.29
  • minus $1.29 manufacturer coupon
So I spent $5.92 and saved $10.54 using coupons. I really am kind of disappointed that Walgreens is planning to phase out the Easy Saver booklet, because if you're willing to match up manufacturer coupons with the Easy Saver coupons, you can make out like a bandit at the cash register! I also made a trip to KMart, which is currently doubling manufacturer coupons, and picked up cleaning products, shampoo and conditioner, and facial cleanser and spent much less than I normally would have.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Coupon giveaway. . .

Apropos of my latest experiment in couponing, I've been considering how the heck people get so many coupons that they can "stack" (or is it "piggyback") them and get $100 of groceries for $3.49.

I know that some couponers actually purchase their coupons online, and although I came across one of these sites recently, I didn't make a note of it. I don't see myself needing to purchase ten tubes of toothpaste anytime soon---although true coupon fanatics would say that having multiple coupons increases the odds that I could get those ten tubes of toothpaste for free!

Anyhow, I did recently stumble across a site that has a coupon 'giveaway' from time to time. Saving Our Cents will send three lucky readers $200 worth of coupons---and all you need to do is comment on her post! On March 31, she will use something called random.org to choose the winners. Head on over and leave your comment! You never know; it might be your lucky day!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why I (still) love Virgin Mobile. . .

I switched from Verizon to Virgin Mobile about a year ago. I'm now on a 'pay as you go' plan, in which I only pay for the minutes I use (or the text messages I send or receive). Since I don't use my cellphone as my primary phone---and since I'm not fond of chatting on the phone---this plan is saving me lots of money. With the Pay-as-you-Go plan, I also don't have to pay those pesky monthly tax and service fees that inevitably increased my monthly payment from the 'Great Deal' of $29.99 to an amount closer to $40. When I add $20 to my account, all of that money goes toward the minutes I use.

Recently, I came across a blog comment from someone who also uses Virgin Mobile. In the comment, the woman mentioned that her husband earns free minutes on a monthly basis, simply by watching commercials on the Virgin Mobile site! She indicated that he earns up to 75 FREE minutes each month! I was stunned by this, but was skeptical enough that I didn't look into this myself until very recently.

I'm happy to report that Virgin Mobile does offer up to 75 free minutes through a program called 'Sugar Mama'. I log into my Virgin Mobile account, watch up to five short commercials (so far they've been heavy on Navy recruitment, TV commercials, and sports products). Afterward, I'm usually asked to rate the video ('Phenomenal', 'Sweet', 'OK', etc). Then on to the next video. I 'watch' the videos with the sound turned down---they're less annoying that way.

For five to ten minutes of my time online, I 'earn' five minutes each day (equal to $1.00 of talk time). The minutes don't expire, and roll over from one month to the next. This is just one more way I can save a few more dollars on a service that I rarely use, but which I don't want to cancel because it does come in very handy from time to time.

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