Quantcast Finally Frugal: May 2009

The bumpy road to financial independence. . . .


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


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!

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