Quantcast Finally Frugal: March 2009

The bumpy road to financial independence. . . .


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.

Monday, March 16, 2009

(Almost) free phone service. . . .

Last month, I happened across the Magic Jack website. Magic Jack is a USB device that, when hooked up to your computer (with your phone cord connected to the other end), will allow you to make and receive local and long-distance phone calls for free. Well, almost free. It costs around $40 for the USB device, and there is a yearly 'licensing' fee of $20.

At the moment, there is a 30-day free trial period, which I've taken advantage of. Magic Jack mailed me (there is a shipping cost, I do believe) my USB device, which has been connected to my computer and cordless phone for several weeks. Although the device does work, in that I am able to make and receive calls with no cost, there are some issues that I dislike about it:

  • My computer has to be on, all the time. I can't even put the computer into 'hibernation' or standby mode. This bugs me, since I like to have my computer OFF (or as close to off as possible) when I'm not using it. If your computer is off, people can still call you---their calls simply go directly to voicemail.
  • The downloaded 'Magic Jack' dialogue box seems clunky and amateur-ish. When I had the USB unit plugged into my laptop, my callers indicated that they could hear beeping noises, as if I were pressing buttons on a phone. This doesn't happen on my desktop computer, but it was annoying.
  • Sometimes when I call out, the person on the other end can't hear me, and I can't hear them. This generally happens once, and then the second time I make the call everything is find. Also, I've found that there is a long delay when the phone call is first connected. So the person I've called is saying "hello? hello?" and I'm doing the same, but it takes more than a few seconds for us to 'hear' each other, if that makes sense.
  • I can't use the second handset on my cordless phone. I like having one phone in the office and a separate handset in the bedroom. With this system, that doesn't seem possible. I believe you can purchase more than one Magic Jack and set it up that way (if you have another computer in the room in which you want your other phone), but it doesn't work with phone systems that have a 'base' and then a separate handset that plugs into the wall (rather than a phone line).
  • My computer seems to run much slower when the Magic Jack is hooked up.
Because of these issues, I've decided to return my Magic Jack USB device before the 30-day trial is up. I am committed to trying another internet phone service (Skype is next on the list, once I've found a Skype-enabled phone that doesn't cost an arm and a leg), but this just isn't the one for me.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Using coupons for frugal savings. . .

Recently, I've been trying my hand at using coupons and rebates to save money on items that I normally use. Although coupons for food are few and far between (unless I want to purchase heavily packaged convenience foods, which I normally don't), I've found some great deals on personal products that I use regularly.

For example, here's my recent haul from Walgreens:

Colgate toothpaste: $3.29 (received $3.50 "Register Rewards")
Blink tears: $7.99 (used $2 manufacturer coupon, and received $8 "Register Rewards")

Paid a total of $9.28 and received a total of $11.50 in return (basically, I "made" money on this transaction).

Then, I turned around and purchased:

Almay makeup: $12.99 (used $3 Walgreens coupon)
Nature Made vitamins: $10.99 (used $1 manufacturer coupon)
Nature Made vitamins: $10.49 (was 'free' as part of buy-one-get-one free promo)
Used $11.50 Register Rewards

So, on this purchase I paid out a total of $8.48.

In the end, I received $45.75 worth of goods (items that I needed to purchase anyway) and paid a total of $17.76 out of pocket!!! I'll also get a free Denise Austin exercise DVD using the Walgreens Easy Saver rebate booklet, because I bought more than $15 in Nature Made products. The bad news here is that Walgreens is apparently phasing out their Easy Saver catalog (which contains high value coupons and rebate offers). That is truly disappointing, since I've just begun to learn the Walgreens system; I'm hopeful that Rite Aid will continue its rebate program, although I've also read recently that Rite Aid is in danger of bankruptcy itself.

In any event, some of the websites I've found to be very helpful in pointing out deals such as the ones I recently got are:

Hot Coupon World
Money Saving Mom

The area where I'll need to be careful is in only purchasing those products that I would have needed anyway, and in continuing to cut coupons from the Sunday paper (I can find these for free at the county library, most weeks) so that my drugstore deals save me even more money. I'll keep you all updated on my progress with this, and I would love to hear your own thoughts on using coupons and rebates as well as suggestions for other websites that might help. . . .

Friday, March 13, 2009

Holy tax cut, Batman!

Well, the latest Stimulus Plan appears to be on its way to becoming reality, which means that most Americans will see some extra moolah in their paychecks come April or May. But how much? Technically, individuals will see up to $400 more over the course of the year, while couples will receive up to $800.

I've just discovered that one of my favorite online calculators, at Paycheck City, actually has a pre- and post- 2009 Stimulus Bill calculation. Using this, I was able to see that I'll receive $35 more in each paycheck (I'm paid monthly) after the tax cuts go into effect. This is about what I expected. In fact, before the November 2008 election, a page at Alchemy Today had a tax calculator, so we could see how much tax savings we'd have under an Obama presidency, versus a McCain presidency. Now, I have no idea whether this calculator is truly accurate (especially on the McCain side). However, the results show that I would receive approximately $468 under Obama.

Well, $468 over 12 months is $39! So it wasn't far off from the Paycheck City calculator (and I'm assuming that Paycheck City is using actual figures from the text of the Stimulus Bill. . . .)

Not bad. Now all I have to do is figure out how to ensure that I plug that money into savings before I ever see it, rather than frittering it away on useless items I don't need. . . .

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Finding a part-time job. . . .

People often ask me how I found my (wonderful) second job, which allows me to work part-time from home. With this job, I was able to pay off my credit cards last year, and am now contributing almost 25% of my take-home pay to various savings accounts. I no longer have to worry about only having $8.13 in my checking account at the end of the month. Although my social life has been affected more than I'd like, the financial freedom it allows me is invaluable.

Recently, I came across another part time employment opportunity, one that has flexible hours, which I can work from home. Although my time is already pretty squeezed, with the two jobs and graduate school, this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. So, I applied and am now in the assessment period, which takes several weeks apparently. If I am hired, I'll try to fit in from 10 - 20 hours per week (although likely on the lower end of that estimate). I anticipate having more time in the summer, when school is (mostly) out---so I wanted to get set up with this job sooner rather than later. . . Am I a little nuts to be considering a THIRD job, on top of my already full life? A little.

Perhaps more importantly, am I taking a job that someone else could use (maybe someone who needs it more than I do?) Possibly. My response to the guilt factor of "taking" someone else's job is that I did the legwork of applying for and getting the job in the first place. How do I know whether someone else who really needs employment is willing or able to commit to it as I have?

In any case, here are some of the things I do to make sure I'm catching those rare opportunities for legitimate work-from-home or other part-time employment:

  • Always keep your resume updated. When positions come up, they often have thousands of people applying for them---why waste a week or more getting your resume polished, while other people are already in the interviewing process? Have it ready to go at all times.
  • Use free sites like Craigslist. Every once in awhile I'll do a basic search on jobs that allow 'telecommuting', just to see what's out there. Positions are posted and disappear within days. It pays to check sites like this frequently, just as you would visit a thrift store again and again to catch the 'good deals' before someone else does.
  • Haunt some of the other websites that discuss work-from-home jobs---there may not be listings on these sites, but some of the other forum users might let information drop that will allow you to research those positions on your own. One of my favorites is Work At Home Moms (WAHM).
  • Talk to your friends, family, and neighbors. Although I don't forward resumes for people I don't know, if I'm familiar with someone and their work ethic (or lack thereof), I'm willing to send a resume to the supervisors of my part-time job, to let them know I have a friend looking for work. Someone you know may already be working the kind of job you want, and you'll never know unless you ask. . .
  • Finally, be persistent, and be careful. It's not easy to find legitimate work-from-home jobs. Never, EVER send a business money so they can send you the equipment you need to be set up as an employee for them. More often than not, these are scams.
I feel incredibly lucky to have found my part-time work. If I'm able to add a third job, that's just icing on the cake for me---I'd love to keep putting money in savings so that next year, when my income from my full-time job declines, I feel that much safer. If it doesn't work out, well that's okay too---at least I tried. In the end, though, luck can only account for a small percentage of what happens "to" us. The rest of it is hard work, perseverance, and creativity. Do any of you work a second job? If so, what's your 'secret' to making it work for you?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Frugal Family Guide. . . .

Hey all, this is a late-day post to turn you on to a wonderful article I just discovered, in the online version of Newsweek. It's called The Frugal Family Guide, and although it's not really a 'guide' per se, it's a rather funny essay by a writer named Steve Tuttle.

Mr. Tuttle writes about his parents (who are in their late 60's, early 70's) and their lifelong commitment to frugality. For the senior Tuttles, frugality isn't just a reaction to the latest grim economic news. No, living thriftily (is that a word?) is just a state of mind, something that comes naturally, and has allowed them to send two kids to college, pay off their house (that they built themselves), and amass a rather large savings account.

THIS is what I aspire to. To live frugally not because I have to, but because it's the right thing to do. Mr. Tuttle's parents remind me of my grandparents (now in their 90's) whom I used to think of as 'miserly' but who re-used anything they could rather than replacing with a shiny new 'thing' (my grandmother still had her 50 year old working toaster when we moved her into an independent living facility). My grandmother can afford to live in a nice apartment with good nursing care and in close proximity to her children because she and my grandpa lived like the Tuttles.

Anyhow, this post was supposed to be a few lines intended only to introduce you to this article, but I'm so blown away by the simplicity and common-sense approach of it that I seem to have lost control a bit. . . . Enjoy!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Frugal shame. . .

The other night, I was watching TV with some friends (friends with cable are a wonderful thing!) and a commercial for a new car lease came on. For only $2,500 down and $199 a month, I could be driving a brand new car!!! Ironically, the brand of car that was being advertised is the same brand as the 14 year old beater I drive now. For free. As in, no car payments.

As I was silently contemplating this, and also feeling a little bit ashamed at the way my car looks (it's not shiny, someone stole a hubcap a few months ago, and the electronic locks no longer work, among other failures) my friend turned to me and said: "When are YOU going to get a new car"? I looked around the room and realized that with one exception, the friends I was hanging out with all drove newer cars.

I laughed it off by saying: "I'll drive a new car in about 15 years, when my student loans are paid off". The subject soon changed, but my mind stayed with the topic of cars. Three of the people in that room are living on student loans and part-time work, and the fourth is a stay-at-home mom whose husband makes a healthy salary.

Although one of my friends paid cash for her car, that $15,000 of her now-depleted savings could have been used to live on while she's finishing school, rather than taking out more student loans! Sure, I'd love to have a beautiful car. But if I had the choice between taking out student loans to help make my car payment, or driving a beater to avoid the debt, I'd choose the latter, every time. That doesn't help with the shame I sometimes feel at my old, beat up car, or the fantasies I have about walking onto an car lot and picking out the prettiest car there.

Luckily, my friend Dave Ramsey has a wonderful video on his website that deals with the very issue I struggle with: wanting (and not being able to afford) a new car. He calls it Drive Free. Retire Rich. I highly recommend it if you need a pick-me-up and some additional motivation after watching TV commercials that pressure you to get into a lease or to finance a new car. . .

Friday, March 6, 2009

More ways to save. . .

A week or two ago, I noticed that my ING Direct interest rate had decreased from 2.2% to 1.85%! Still better than the almost zero percent I receive on other accounts, but discouraging all the same. There are other online and bricks and mortar banks with whom I could stash my slowly growing savings accounts, but I really do love the online environment at ING.

This did, however, start me thinking about other ways I could save money. One way is with 'rewards' credit cards. Since I'm pretty sure I've kicked the credit card habit. I pay my balance as soon as I possibly can---in full. Sometimes this takes a couple of months, but I've now come to a point where even having a $100 balance on my credit card makes me uncomfortable. Unless some huge tragedy occurs that forces me to put my LIFE on credit I don't foresee running a monthly balance regularly.

With that in mind, the rewards credit cards seem to be a nice deal---provided you use your credit card a LOT, AND pay it off every month. Here are three programs I recently came across on a CNN Money blog.

  • Wells Fargo: My mortgage (well, the first mortgage, anyway) is held through Wells Fargo, which has a rewards credit card with which I could earn 1% of my purchases, to go toward my mortgage payment. Of course, even if I spend $200 a month using my credit card, that's only $2 extra toward my mortgage---I suppose every little bit helps, though! Also, it occurs to me that I'd be 'earning' around 6.9% on that $2, since that's what my interest rate is on my mortgage.
  • Fidelity: Fidelity Investments has a program in which credit card holders can earn 2% of your purchases, which can then be added to an IRA, a 539 (college savings) account, or any other Fidelity investment vehicle. This means I'd be earning $4 a month on my $200 of purchases, which could then in turn earn interest.
  • Schwab: Perhaps the best deal is on Schwab's 'Invest First' credit card, in which 2% of your purchases is deposited into a Schwab investment brokerage account. There are no fees, no minimums, no caps, AND you can either choose to access the cash directly, or use it to make trades (there are trading fees, of course)! This seems to have the most flexibility, in my opinion.
Of course, the key to any of this is that you pay your balance off each month---if you don't, the interest rates (between 10-22% according to the blog article) will destroy any potential rewards. Note that I'm not suggesting that anyone apply for a credit card and use it regularly, unless they have self-control and won't get into trouble. Research does show that we spend more money when we use credit cards, and this is what these companies are counting on. I'm not sure yet that I'll take advantage of these rewards deals, but they're in the back of my mind----an extra four or five dollars a month might not be worth it----but the more my ING Direct interest rates drop, the more likely I'll be looking for other ways to 'earn' interest within the parameters of my budget.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A frugal surprise. . .

I submitted my taxes last week, and found that my federal refund will be much, much higher than I originally anticipated. I had assumed (and my hand-done estimate confirmed) that my refund would be in the $200 range, due to the extra income from my second job. It turns out that I was off---way off---on this. Part of the issue has to do with one of my credits that is actually much higher than it should have been (due to timing---this will need to be adjusted next year), but even with that taken into account, my refund would have been quite healthy.

On the other hand, I've had to pay Oregon taxes for the first time ever. Granted, it's less than $50, but it's kind of a bummer anyway. The reason for this is that the organization I work for part time (from home, in the evenings) is based in another state. Due to this, there is no state tax withheld from that paycheck---meaning that the additional $8,000 or so I earned was basically state-tax free! What I need to do is have my Oregon employer withhold an additional amount each month to make up for this--maybe $15 or so, just to be safe.

The good news remains, though, that my federal refund was a nice surprise. I was able to put most of it into my 'internship year' savings account, which now has a higher balance than my emergency fund account! I'm feeling pretty good about this, although I'm going to continue to send as much money as I can to this account, 'just in case'. Because of the current anxiety about the state budget---and therefore the budget of the institution that I work for---I'd like to have as much money in that account as possible, just in case I'm not able to go back to full time status after my 2009-2010 internship ends. Who knows what the budget will look like in mid 2010, but at this point I don't want to take any chances!!

What are your refunds looking like this year (if you're lucky enough to receive one), and what do you plan to do with the money?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Another free giveaway. . . .

The Thrifty Chicks is having a March 'Thrift-Ya-Away', in which Ms. Shopping Golightly and her thrifty partners post a daily thriftstore find, to be given away at the end of the week. All you need to do is post a comment on the post with the item you like.

At the end of the week, Ms. Golightly's daughter will pick a number out of a (likely thrift-store) hat and voila! You are the proud owner of a lovely thrift store item. I will admit that I commented on yesterday's post---I love the color red AND cashmere, so I couldn't resist!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Frugal Focus community portal launch!

I'm pleased to announce the 'birth' of Frugal Focus, a new community portal site that combines content from yours truly as well as seven other frugal bloggers.


With the explosion of blogging---especially on the topic of frugal living, paying off debt, and living within one's means---it can be difficult and time-consuming to surf the web looking for just the right information or advice you need. I know that I can spend literally hours a day jumping from one site to the next following this link and that, all in the name of learning more about frugality.

Frugal Focus is a site that promises to compile the most recent, relevant blog posts in one spot, making it easier to find what you're looking for. If you don't feel comfortable subscribing to several different blogs, you may want to consider bookmarking this new site (or you can click on the link in the frame to the right of this post) for one-stop shopping, so to speak.

My fellow bloggers in this Frugal Focus endeavor are:

Bargain Babe

Bargain Briana

Frugal Green Girl

Frugal Plus

Not Made of Money

The Frugal Duchess

The Frugal Girl

I hope you'll find the time to visit Frugal Focus, as well as the partner sites that are also included on the site. I've already got it bookmarked so I can check back each day and see what's going on in the frugal blogosphere without having to visit a thousand random sites. . . .

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