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Discretionary purchase today--MP3 player

May 20th, 2006 at 01:02 pm

I've been thinking about this for months, and finally took the plunge, for many reasons.

There was a good deal at Staples for the model I'd been thinking about, but with much more storage than I'd ever hoped for. It came to a little over $58. Creative MuVo TX FM with 1GB of storage.(Thank you Fatwallet!)

This model should work with the downloadable audio books they have at the library where I work. (Not all models do.) It has a voice recorder, which I'd thought about buying separately for a long time anyway. You can also store data on it, so it will take the place of a USB thumb drive, which I've thought about too.

It is also a lot cheaper than getting involved with a broadband bill every month, or satellite radio. My dialup is still ok for most things, but lately for downloading radio shows it's been awful. It's supposed to be 56K but often it's been in the 30's or even 20's. This way I'll be able to download podcasts and radio shows on my dinner hour at work, and have enough to listen to for days. It should be quite a time-saver over the way I've been trying to do it.

It also may give me some brownie points at work (which one can always use). Wink My boss is disappointed that not many people are using the audiobook service. But it's hard for us on the staff to talk it up and give people instructions, if we've never used it ourselves. So in a way, I could classify part of the cost as a work expense. Wink

I'm holding off on the leafblower for now, and will use part of the Ace gc for poison ivy killer, which is a necessity right now.

Catching up on odds and ends

May 18th, 2006 at 12:48 pm

Cancelled YourMusic.com. I signed up through Inbox Dollars, and was glad to get a CD that DH wanted, for $5.99. But I don't need to be spending $5.99 every month on a CD right now.

Got $5.99 credited to the Citicard. I'd ordered stuff from Roaman's that turned out to be defective and dirty. Roaman's didn't charge me for the return shipment, but they refused to refund the shipping charge on the original order. I called Citi and said I didn't think I should be stuck with $5.99 when I'd gotten absolutely nothing. They were very nice about crediting my account.

Requested my Citi rewards check for $68.

Decided to lower the amount I'm paying to HSBC from $290 down to $250 a month. I thought I could afford the $290, but now that I figure in the lawn mowing, it's obvious I can't. The account won't quite be paid off by the end of the 0% period, but I don't mind paying $10 or $15 in interest for the final couple of months. Better than feeling strapped for the next 6 months.

Found out how getting a blood test works, under our new insurance.

Subscribed to the other Sunday paper on a half-price subscription sale. Their coupons are much better; it will be well worth it.

Went to Eckerd's last night for bargains; spent $11 after $9 in coupons were taken off.

Ordered another batch of Dealpass gc's. Only have a few more months to take advantage of these; don't want to lose the opportunity.

Almost finished putting our upcoming transactions in Quicken, through the end of the year. It really helps to see our cash flow ahead of time. If we're going to run short, better to see it coming and find a solution early on.

Quandary--how to budget for summer expenses

May 17th, 2006 at 05:25 pm

I have a routine now for expenses that come up once a year, or even 4x a year like our property taxes. Money goes into a specific account monthly or weekly, all year round. I set up the automatic deduction once, and I only have to change the amount if the bill goes up. The beauty of it is, I don't have to remember to do anything, or have the discipline to get the money in there every time.

Looking at our upcoming cash flow, I realized things are going to be tight in our main checking account all summer. Why? Mainly, lawn mowing expenses.

This is a different kind of bill--it's around $80 a month for six months of the year, then there's no bill at all for six months. In addition, the bill hits at just the time of year we'd also like to take care of outside projects and go on day trips.

There's got to be some simple way to even these expenses up throughout the year, but I haven't quite figured it out yet. I DO know I don't want to have to remember to set up automatic deductions for six months, stop them, and restart them again.

$45 more a month, burning a hole in my pocket

April 6th, 2006 at 06:49 am

My 2nd, smaller raise of the year starts this month. It's for "longevity" and starts now because it's my anniversary month. In my last job, we got this kind of bonus in a lump sum once a year. But here, it's just added onto your pay each week. It will come to about $30 a month.

I also found out the budget billing for our electric is going down by $15 a month.

I was >>THIS

Car inspection, and gift cards

April 4th, 2006 at 06:51 am

These are my little money tasks for the day.

I haven't posted about this before, but I'm doing something different with the the PNC account I opened awhile back. I found out I could split the direct deposit of my paycheck, so I now have $140 a week going into the PNC account. That's just enough to cover the Everyday Expenses budget, the newspaper subscription and Netflix.

My current Everyday Expenses cycle is over on April 8, and there isn't much left in the budget. But there IS money left in the PNC account, because part of the spending was from Petsmart gift cards. So I'm using part of the extra cash to buy more discounted gift cards, which will help even more cash build up in the account. Kind of a snowball effect.

It's car inspection month for me, and I think I'll get it done this morning. I'm anxious to do the Netbank checking account offer for $75, but they want you to keep a $500 balance for at least a month. Before I tie up that money, I want to know how much I might have to spend to get the car up to snuff.

Dad's Hidey Hole

March 22nd, 2006 at 10:07 am

I keep running across the idea of having a little secret cash tucked away in the house, in the sugar bowl or whatever. The experts say to have it for emergency preparedness, in case of a hurricane or the bird flu. It was mentioned in the book "How to hide money from your husband," as something wives have done for generations, partly to protect themselves if husbands leave or die. Generally, it seems to be a way of protecting against some dire emergency. A good thing to have, but not a very happy thing, and about as exciting to save for as a root canal. So I haven't done anything about it.

Well, I finally remembered that my dad kept a little something hidden away, and it was a much more cheerful affair. It was his Hidey Hole. I asked my mother about it recently, and even she never knew where the hiding place was! I'm sure my parents relied on it for little emergencies, unbeknownst to me. But it was also used for treats and unexpected opportunities. If the ice cream truck was coming, Dad might go into the bedroom, shut the door, and retrieve ice cream money from the Hidey Hole. If I had the chance to go somewhere that I couldn't afford on my allowance, I might be handed some money from the Hidey Hole. I have the feeling it was Hidey Hole money he took to rummage sales in case there was a deal too good to pass up. For years, he got a kick out of using an electric frying pan he'd bought for a quarter. Wink In other words, it was a fund for the unexpected, whether good or bad.

I think there's enough extra cash coming in right now that I can start my own Hidey Hole. Just calling it that gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling. And deciding it can also be used for fun things has made it a much more attractive idea, too. Current balance $40; where it is--not telling! Wink

Progress and frustration

January 8th, 2006 at 10:59 am

Have gone an entire week with no credit card purchases.

The HSBC card arrived, as did the balance transfer into our checking. I've scheduled payoffs on the other cards.

DMom gave me my birthday cash, and it was higher than previous years. For once, I don't feel like I need it desperately for anything and am going to put it right into the emergency savings account. I was playing around with the tax estimator thing Baselle posted, and it looks like we might owe this year. It would be nice to know enough money is sitting there, ready.

We're building up quite a credit on our electric co. budget billing. We should have one or two months with no bill this spring, plus the monthly amount after that should go down. A nice surprise.

It's the last week of my 4-week budget, and I still have money for Everyday Expenses. Smile Looks like I might finally come in at or below my 4-week goal for the first time.

Now for the frustrations. I guess I need to develop some philosophy about when to declare an issue dead, and just give up on it. And when to keep pushing so as not to lose money or a service I'm entitled to. Right now, I'm dealing with several ongoing problems that could use up several hours a day, if I let them.

--Pioneer Telephone. Still waiting for long distance service. Called the state board of public utilities, and am playing telephone tag with the person who takes complaints. How much more time should I waste making phone calls that result in nothing? What I'm thinking of doing is this: Use up the

Goals for next four weeks

December 21st, 2005 at 07:08 am

Besides spending a few hours yesterday obsessing about what will happen at the end of the 0% periods on our credit cards, mostly what I've been thinking about on the money front is what my next set of goals should be. Here it is 4 days in, and I still haven't decided.

--For sure, I'll aim to keep our grocery expenses to a minimum, and try again to say within the USDA's Thrifty Plan.

--For sure, I'll try to exercise 8x. And to try and leave enough time for that, I'm going to reduce my reading goal to 6 books over the 4 week period. 1-1/2 books a week is still more than I was doing for a long while.

--I thought I'd say I wanted to do one deal a week, whether it be a bank offer, a rebate or whatever. Then I thought back and realized I'm probably doing more than that now. Just this week, I mailed off two rebates already and am ready to do some bank deals.

I guess what I really want is to try and pace myself on doing them. I want and need to do quite a few, but at a steady pace. I don't want to get overwhelmed. Sometimes I do a flurry of them, which ends up taking more time than it should in one particular week. And following up on them... Maybe what I need to do is LIMIT myself to no more than x number, to force myself to concentrate on the most profitable ones. Maybe what I'll do this 4-week period is just track what I'm doing, to get a baseline figure.

So far:
1--Mailed Mazda test drive form (for $25 Supercertificate)
2--Mailed in Clairol Root Touch-Up rebate ($4.99)

I also want to try and cut down on so many separate shopping trips, but again, I don't know off the top of my head how many is too many. Maybe I can make a count of separate stops, looking back in Quicken.

Happy Winter Solstice to all--what a relief to know the days will start to get longer now. I've had enough of winter, and it's only starting!




2006 Cash Flow Planning

December 4th, 2005 at 08:10 am

While DH slept in this morning, I got the urge to work on our budget while I was fresh and the house was still quiet.

I usually have our usual income and expenses entered a month or so ahead of time in Quicken, just to make sure we aren't going to run short. It was time to do at least January, but since I was in the mood I just kept going. April is going to be our next really tight month--only 2 paychecks each, no interest income, and property taxes due on May 1. So I plotted everything out through the beginning of May.

The main thing I saw was that I wouldn't be able to put as much against our cc debt as I'd hoped. At the end of April, when I transfer the remaining balance on the Discover card over to the Sony, it's still going to leave us with a balance of about $3000. That's still a big improvement, though, and I'll just have to be satisfied with it.

The way paychecks and bills fall, between now and May 1, our checking account balance will range from about $2.50 to $2027.00. So if I pay ahead too much on the cc's when the checking balance looks healthy, I'll end up having to charge things later on, or go into savings. (I've allocated $977 between now and May 1 to go into savings for emergencies.)

The other thing I decided was, starting in 2006 I'm going to stop using the Citi card for groceries and such, just to earn the rewards. It's been a hassle trying to keep track of how much in checking has to be reserved to pay the Citi bill off each month. And the bill often turns out to be higher than I'd planned. I've kept doing it because it was the only rewards option I had. But now I have the PNC account with Visa debit card rewards. I might as well use it. Starting this week, 2 weeks at a time of grocery/gas/pet food money is getting put into PNC, leaving the Commerce account for bill-paying. I feel like I've worked myself free from a trap. Smile

Goals for next four weeks (thru Dec. 17)

November 20th, 2005 at 05:15 am

My debt reduction goals are to get the Discover down to $2124 and the Sony down to $1505. The Citi gets paid off each month anyway, so what the balance happens to be on a certain date doesn't have much meaning.

I want to read 2 books a week, for a total of 8.

I want to do aerobic exercise at least 2x a week, for a total of 8x.

I'd like to try and keep the Groceries part of my Everday Expenses down to $230, based on the USDA Thrifty Plan. Not to say we won't spend money on take-out, but I'd like to see if I can keep the food Must Haves to that basic level. I don't really expect to succeed--but it's a goal to shoot for.

Speaking of food costs, there's a cookbook I'd like to get hold of again--my public library had a copy years ago, but weeded it. Frown It's called Good Recipes for Hard Times, by Louise Newton. I've searched online, and there are only a few copies available, ranging from about $35 to nearly $100. (I know price on used books is largely based on rarity, but gee--if the book is geared toward people having hard times, how much are they going to be able to pay for it?) She has shopping lists and menus designed to keep you fed for *less* than the cheapest USDA food plan. There are some interesting blog entries about the book here: http://mungooftheshire.blogspot.com/2005_06_01_mungooftheshire_archive.html and here: http://mungooftheshire.blogspot.com/2005/06/grocery-bills-redux.html

I guess another goal in the back of my mind is to get my hands on that book. I wonder if any booksellers who have it would take another valuable old book or two in trade...

Two monkeys off my back

November 16th, 2005 at 07:46 am

I just took some money out of savings, and scheduled payments to pay off the homeowner's insurance I've been paying in installments, and the Firestone bill. I also cancelled $70 worth of automatic monthly savings deposits into ING. This still leaves me with $1500 in what was our "new car account," that can actually be used for emergencies if need be.

To get our debts paid off, I now realize that I simply can't afford to sock away as much into goal savings as I was trying to. If I continued doing that, I'd keep being short on cash to pay current expenses and emergencies, and I'd keep charging them. Paying off our debts completely is one of the few ways I can adjust our All Your Worth "must haves" category so I'm more motivated than ever to get them paid off. (They count minimum payments on ccs as a must have.)

It's like Frugal Laura In Texas just said--it makes you feel good to see that money sitting in ING, but if your cc balance is going up, too, you are just fooling yourself about getting ahead.

All Your Worth

November 15th, 2005 at 05:20 am

Somebody - Jorge? - mentioned a book I hadn't heard of, "All Your Worth" by Warren and Tyagi. I found it at my library, and boy is it an eye-opener. I've been through it 3 times so far--Skimmed it while half-asleep, before bed one night. Read through it thoroughly, taking notes, another day. Now I'm using the index to try and find answers to questions I've had while starting to do their calculations. I can definitely second the recommendation that it's a good read.

To sum up, they recommend no more than 50% of your income on must-haves, 20% towards a combination of savings and debt repayment, and 30% on wants. I found a nice little Excel spreadsheet to download that calculates your percentage of Must Haves. It's about 3/4 of the page down, here: http://www.mdmproofing.com/iym/BMF.shtml

Obviously, food is a Must Have. But they say to allocate only a small, basic amount for food in the must-have category, because a lot of what we normally buy is really non-essential, or bought in a form that's more expensive than it needs to be. But they didn't really give much of a guideline, like a percentage of income. So I pulled my food figure from the USDA guidelines for the lowest budget for a 2-person household. You can find guidelines for various budget levels and household sizes here: http://www.usda.gov/cnpp/FoodPlans/Updates/foodnov04.pdf

They include predictable household, medical and transportation costs in Must Haves, but it looks like they mean for emergencies like car repairs and such to be handled out of the 20% savings. So my must-have figure below doesn't count any of the $461 a month we've been hit with recently for various repairs.

Our current Must Haves are at 65.2% of our income. That falls into their Must-Have Crash Zone--the absolute worst category. Their description of our situation is accurate: "Even the smallest hiccup can seem like a major disaster because there is no extra money to handle anything that goes wrong. You shot through the Danger Zone many warning lights ago, and now you are deep in the highest risk area--the Crash Zone."

Now I did figure in a few things that some people wouldn't call Must Haves. DH and I cannot physically mow our own lawn anymore, so I included the expenses for our lawn guy. I also included our Virgin Mobile cell phones, because we both drive old cars, and I drive home from work several nights a week. I'm just not going to put myself in a position where I have to walk to a call-box along a highway at night, where people are driving 65 mph. It's the cheapest cell option I could find, and I consider it a necessity. OTOH, I also included every bit of income we've been getting, such as rebates, cash gifts. Amazon sales, and so forth. So I think overall the 65.2% gives a pretty accurate, if dismal, picture of where we are.


Misc. updates

November 13th, 2005 at 10:27 am

Thanks for the good wishes for our cat. Smile He's doing much better. He's still eating nothing but "people" salmon and some Nutrical goo if I put it on his paw, but I can tell when I pick him up that he's put some weight back on already. We have to get more blood work on Monday, to see if his liver is getting back to normal now that he's eating well. But the way he is acting and looking, I'm not expecting bad news. He wanted to jump out of my arms today and chase a bird--big improvement!

The only down side is that I've got so many opened packages of foods he won't eat. So the dog is getting some sardines and Sheba today, and I had a tuna sandwich for lunch. The older stuff will just have to be tossed.

With this latest vet bill, I decided to add up how much we've spent on emergencies since I starting using Quicken again back in May. It's over $3000. I figured on $2500 for an entire year's worth, based on the past couple of years' totals. That would have been $1354 in 6-1/2 months, instead of $3000. Or to look at it monthly, our emergencies have been costing $461 a month instead of $208.

I thought we were going to get away with the 10% increase on natural gas that went through month or so ago. But now the gas company is asking for an additional 30% increase, which will come to about $47 more a month year round on our budget billing. That's another $564 a year.

I just ran a cash flow report, which shows we are only in the black by $160-some dollars over the past 6 months--meaning every penny received as gifts, on rebates, from cc rewards, from surveys, and from selling books online has been absolutely necessary. It can't be thought of as "extra" income right now.

Well, it could be worse. At least we aren't in the red. And I'm not even counting what goes into DH's 401K plan, or the fact that our mortgage is getting paid down a bit each month, so really we are ahead by more than $160. But it's not good, and it's getting kind of scary.

I've got to find some more ways to cut our spending, and/or bring in more cash. Simple as that. Only, how.

One thing I managed the other day was cut my membership costs at Passport To Fun, the discount gift certificate program. Over on fatwallet, they were talking about being offered one year for $9.95 or $14.95 when they tried to cancel one of the programs. It sounded like you'd get an automated thing, and it was luck of the draw. However, I got a live person and was really unsure of what to say. Luckily, the rep offered me the option without my having to ask. One more payment of $9.95 and I'll be a member for one full year.

Allowance refinements

November 1st, 2005 at 04:02 pm

I started out this morning thinking it would be nice to have a special bright-colored checkbook cover for the separate checking account, so it would be obvious which account it was for, and easy to find in my purse. I figured the debit card for the account could be tucked inside too.

I surfed around on Ebay for awhile, and as often happens, ideas start occuring to me. Kind of like when you're very relaxed in the shower, or driving smoothly along a highway. Smile Ideas like, I also need to have part of my allowance in cash, which means two different types of items, bills and coins. Then there are gift cards that are specifically for me, like for Dress Barn. I started wondering whether I wanted a whole separate wallet for "me" things, but two wallets in my purse would be awfully thick and bulky.

I finally settled on getting an oblong cosmetics type bag, not too thick, long enough for the checkbook, with a zipper on top. It finally occured to me that I already had an old one I could try out. It's a little worn and I'm no longer wild about the color, but it will do the job til I can find something cute for a reasonable price. I used it today, and found it's also a good place for corralling receipts. I think this just might work!

I've also decided on $100 a month, $25 in cash and $75 to the new account. I don't know whether that sounds like a lot, or not much. I can say it's 6.5% of my take-home pay, and much less than what DH gets to play with per month.

So far, what I've spent on me:

$1.25 for paperbacks off the booksale rack at work, that I can trade for ones I want through frugalreader.com and paperbackswap.com
$.20 for some photocopies
$4.13 mailing books out for swaps, also a CD that sold on Amazon
$9.90 checks for the new account

I've got to get things switched at Amazon so sale proceeds will go into the new account. It didn't work when I tried, they couldn't confirm the account number or something. So I have to fax some info to a toll-free number. Have to remember to do it before my next payment is due to come through.

For the first time in months, I drove by a Joann's store today and felt like I'd be able to go in and actually buy something there soon. It was a nice feeling.

Allowance account for me?

October 20th, 2005 at 07:23 am

With all the new-account offers out there, I want to be careful and not let things get out of hand. Keeping on top of paperwork is not my strong point. But now I'm thinking of opening a checking account in just my name, because a local bank is offering $35 in gift cards to open one.

Link for PNC bank offer -- http://pncbank.com/offers/0,3810,7723,00.html

Here's the thing. DH gets a set amount of cash every two weeks that is his to spend. Neither of us needs to account for where it goes, because "DH Cash" is already a budget entry of its own. It's simple and it works because 99% of his purchases are with cash. Also, it helps that he's not buying anything for the household out of it. It's all his money and that's that.

Now with me, I'm buying things in stores and online. I'm buying things with cash, credit cards and a debit card. I'm spending money on household things, and for myself, and sometimes picking things up for DMom. It gets really confusing. For years, I haven't been sure how much I could claim for just me, or how to manage it. I get cash out that's supposed to be for me, and it ends up getting spent on groceries, dry cleaning and the post office. Whenever I spend money for something I want, whether with credit cards or cash, I end up wondering if I should have.

Inspired by Jorge, I did just rename an ING savings account for Concerts and Events, but that's really for things DH and I would do as a couple. Concerts, air shows, class reunions, etc. That still doesn't cover things for just me.

I figure a separate checking account would be better than a savings account or a cash envelope, because I'll be able to spend money directly from it with a check or debit card. (And this debit card even has a rewards feature.) When the balance gets toward zero, I'll know my personal spending for the month is done. Much easier than running budget reports in Quicken all the time. I just have to figure out how much can go into my little account, and remember to have my stuff rung up separately from household stuff.

I wonder how other people manage their personal allowances, vs. the houshold money they are handling.

Another car repair--glad yesterday is over.

October 13th, 2005 at 05:20 am

For the past few weeks, something in my car hadn't been right. Some kind of loose feeling in the front end, and a vibration coming up through the steering wheel. At first it only happened at higher speeds, then it kept getting worse. It got to the point I was avoiding the freeway I usually use, and driving on slower local roads instead, because I was afraid of what might happen. I was trying to avoid a car repair until I had more emergency money saved up. But I got to work late a couple of times because of taking the longer route, and the problem just kept getting worse, so I figured I'd better not wait anymore.

Yesterday I spent the best part of 5 hours getting to and from the car repair place, and waiting for it. The repair cost $508 and there was only $80 available in the emergency account I opened awhile ago. So onto the 0% Sony cc it went. Part of the job was an alignment, and when I drove it out it was pulling to the side--the alignment was worse coming out than it went in! In addition, I discovered that the fan for the heater and a/c now only works on high. It worked yesterday. I was extremely suspicious that they either bumped something by accident, causing the fan problem, or caused the problem deliberately, to create more work for themselves. Especially because I also didn't have this front end problem until just after they did the timing belt a few weeks ago.

(I did some research online, though, and discovered that the blower resistor, which controls the fan speed, is a weak point on my car. One poor guy on a message board is replacing his 3 or 4 times a year!)

I was already on edge because of PMS (thank goodness that's over!). Burger King kept about 6 people waiting in the drive-up line before taking anyone's order, and then they messed up my order. The receptionist at AAA told me to go the wrong desk to pick up the Entertainment Book, which used up more time. My day was so messed up I didn't eat lunch til 2 p.m. or dinner til 8 p.m. (Cold BK, warmed over.)

By the time I had the chance to call the car repair place back and complain, I was not a happy camper. I'm afraid my Inner *itch took over; now I feel kind of badly. I think when I take the car back in on Friday, I'd better take them an Entenmann's coffee cake or something.

If not for the PMS--If not for the day being so rushed--If I'd had time to come home, do an aerobics tape and take another shower before work--If I'd had a chance to eat right--If I'd had time to be online a little while and chill out. And most importantly--IF I'D HAD THE $508 READY AND WAITING IN THE SAVINGS ACCOUNT--I don't think I would have snapped. You can't control everything, but if just one or two things had been different about the day, it would have made a world of difference. And one thing I can control is having money socked away.

After this, I think I'm ready to start throwing all extra money into the Emergency Account, until it's built up to a comfortable level. Rebate checks, coins, etc. There are things I've been starting to hanker for, like those nicer razor blades, a gym membership, and so forth. But if using money on that stuff means continuing to deal with emergencies in such a stressful way, it's just not worth it.


Yikes! September numbers

September 30th, 2005 at 04:21 am

Yesterday I caught up on recording my spending, and was finally able to run my September Everyday Expenses report in Quicken. (My September ran through September 24.) It was painful to see--I was $281 over what I'd planned.

OK, maybe the gas and food expenses for our day trip to the shore shouldn't be in there. Subtract $50. Maybe the money I spent on haircolor for the P&G rebate shouldn't be counted under groceries. Subtract $10. And maybe subtract the amount of money I'll be getting back on all the rebates I did, $68. That still leaves me $158 over budget. Not good.

Looking back, I know exactly why it happened. It's the same old reason--responding to marketing ploys that appeal to my bargain-hunter side.

I won that $100 in groceries, which sounds great. But I usually spend no more than $25 a week at that store because that's all the good deals I can usually find. I was forced to use the money in no more than two trips--they don't use plastic gift cards that get swiped, they'd have to rewrite a gift certificate each time you used a little. So I ended up buying things we didn't need yet, and things that weren't that great a deal, just to get the money spent. So I spent more than I normally would have.

Same problem with Stop and Shop. I had these $5 off $50 coupons--too good to pass up, right? But what if you have to stretch to find things that add up to that $50. I know I spent more there than I really needed to.

Rebates. If I ever mention doing rebates again, please somebody reach through the computer screen and give me a virtual whack on the head. It's just not worth the effort, compared to something like staying home and opening a bank account to get a bonus. Plus it makes me spend money on things I don't need yet, or things that aren't a great price, just to complete the rebate.

Entertainment Book coupons. They run out November 1, so I've been trying to get use out of them. But it's made me spent more money on take-out that I normally would have.

I'm revising my next two months' budgets to be $140 lower, to make up for the $280. It shouldn't be too bad considering what all we already have on hand.

Heating season

September 29th, 2005 at 05:26 am

I've been hearing a lot about home heating prices going up this winter--the worst I heard was this past Saturday, when I listened to a local talk show about finances. The host suggested that whatever your usual winter natural gas bill was, add $400--a month!

What I heard on the news yesterday, however, was very reassuring. While across the river in Philly, the gas company is asking for a 20% increase (over another increase they just got), over here our gas company thinks it is well set for the winter. They have enough lower-priced gas on hand or under contract to get through the winter on the relatively small increase they got in August--provided it's an average winter. If it's extremely cold, it would probably spike up. But that probably wouldn't happen til late in the winter, after they've seen what the weather's been like. I feel like we've dodged a bullet.

But before I heard that news, I already spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to conserve, keep the bill down and still be relatively comfortable. There were things we tried when we first bought the house that I decided I'm just not going to try again, no matter where natural gas prices go:

Plastic on the windows that you tighten up by blowing the hairdryer on it. (You can't open the windows all winter, and the cat tries to shred it.)

Rope caulk around window cracks. (Unless you paint over it, it's unsightly. And when some came loose, the dog tried to eat it. It's nontoxic, but not easy to clean off a dog's teeth. Think gray chewing gum.)

Insulated draperies. (Made the house feel heavy, closed in and depressing.)

Treated film that goes directly on the window glass, that's supposed to keep energy in or out in winter and summer. A temporary substitute for getting new windows with low-e glass. (Again, made the house dark and takes away the pleasure of looking out into the yard.)

Also, I've seen a lot of new products that are supposed to save energy, like portable solar heating panels that go on your windows with suction cups. But based on my past experiences, I have my doubts as to whether they'd actually do much, or be so much of a hassle we don't continue using them.

I mean, what would really make a difference would be a new water heater, new front door, new windows, and more insulation in our walls if we were putting up new drywall. Spending more money on energy saving gadgets just means less money to put toward the big stuff that will really have an effect. It's always worth trying to conserve, but I don't want to waste my time and effort, either.

So here's my plan for this winter:

Get a maintenance check-up/tune-up for the heater
Make a couple of draft-dodger things for the bottoms of our doors
Make or buy some sort of inside cover for the window a/c upstairs
Keep the thermostat low (so, dress warmly and get 1 or 2 space heaters to use in rooms we're actually using)
Remember to open window blinds and shades on sunny days, and close them at night

Juggling

September 9th, 2005 at 07:51 am

The $660 car repair went on the Firestone cc. If paid within 90 days, no interest and we get a rebate of at least 2%. Better than the 1% would have been on the regular cc.

I was going to pay our homeowner's policy in one payment. But to keep some extra cash on hand for the other bills, I'm going to split it up. I should be able to pay it off over 3 months, which will save most of the installment fees that would be charged if I spread it out over a whole year. But it will still be $9 extra. I think it's worth it, because now I won't have to take money out of our "new car" savings. I know how hard it is to pay that savings account back, so I'd rather just not take anything out.

I put all those transactions into our check register in Quicken, to see how the cash flow works out. Looks OK--the lowest balance I'm left with over the next 6 weeks is over $200. When we get into November and December, there are more paychecks than usual in the month, and some interest checks coming in, so things should be easier. We should be caught up by the end of the year, barring any more emergencies this big. But who knows! Wink

To give or not to give--and how much

September 3rd, 2005 at 04:46 pm

It may not seem like it from my past few entries, but I have been following Hurricane Katrina's aftermath like everyone else, probably too much. Even without having the cable channels we used to have, I've gotten plenty of news through the regular channels, CSPAN, and radio. The past few days I haven't gotten much else done. It's been so frustrating watching those poor people just waiting for help. And so maddening to hear things like the Red Cross being there early on, but being turned away by FEMA because they wanted to force people to leave, not give them a haven. Ham radio operators, who could have helped with the communication problems, were apparently also turned away. But I digress.

I was the most upset at the point where I felt equally pulled by wanting to help and being afraid for our own financial security. How far are gas and other prices going to go up? How much can I donate so I don't feel cheap and ashamed, and still make sure we'll be able to handle what might be coming up in our own lives.

It made me realize how the traditional advice to save 10% and give 10% makes good sense. It must be a very freeing feeling. You are saving a good amount against disasters in your own life, but you also know you're doing your part to help others. Then if disaster strikes you, you don't need to blame yourself for bad planning or feel guilty accepting help.

10% for saving OR giving is out of the question for us right now, but I did finally decide to donate $25 now and more later, probably once a month for awhile. I know it won't make much of a difference, but it sure makes me feel a whole lot better.

Energy crisis--where have I been?

September 1st, 2005 at 10:25 am

I got stuck on C-SPAN and C-SPAN2 this morning, lots of interesting stuff about the economy and especially energy costs. One show that was especially interesting was a news conference by the Consumers Federation of America about how energy prices are affecting consumers; another one featured guys from the Petroleum Institute.

I guess I'd been aware that energy costs had been creeping up over the past few years, but I didn't think about it too much. Just adjust the budget, and go on with life. I didn't bother to look at how much of a jump it's been, from 2000 to now. I didn't realize that our refineries were already working at 95% capacity, so there wasn't any wiggle room built in for disasters like hurricanes. I didn't realize the industry was still recovering from Hurricane Ivan.

In other words, there's been an energy crisis going on from way before Hurricane Katrina, and I seem to have totally missed it.

If you want to see the figures, here's a link to a report from one of the guys who was on from the Consumers Federation: http://www.consumersunion.org/pub/0929%20price%20report.pdf

The graphs really show what's been going on, as far as the % of income people have been paying for energy, and how much it's gone up over the past few years.

The scary thing is, the Consumers Federation people this morning said because of the additional strain of the hurricane, households will have to pay about $600 more over the coming year, in gasoline costs. But gasoline represents only about 1/3 of the products we get out of petroleum. So if you also count increased costs for home heating, airplane fuel, plastics, etc. it will be costing each household about $1800 (3 x $600). Scary stuff, especially for low-income people (who according to those charts are already paying over 20% of their incomes on energy costs.)






Tightening our belts the next four months

August 20th, 2005 at 08:00 am

Hopefully as in clothes, too, but I mean financially Wink

I don't know if everybody's finances have so many ups and downs, or if we're just going through an unusual period. I've read a lot about money management over the years, and always got the impression that you set up a budget and then things just kind of go along for the next year. But since I've been watching things more carefully over the past couple of months, it seems like prices are changing all the time, and I'm constantly fiddling to keep our cash flow positive.

DH's paychecks will be about $30 less a month Sept-Dec because we keep the traditional health insurance until January 1, and the price has gone up.

Natural gas for the house looks like it will be going up $13 a month. We did the "energy choice" option a few years back, where you could save money by choosing one company to supply the gas and another company to deliver it. Just got a letter from the supplier that they can't afford to offer the low price anymore, and we'll be getting our gas from the delivering gas company. Also, the delivering company's price is going up 4.4%. Together, it adds up to an increase of over 9%.

I've had to face facts and budget more for gas for the cars. Between DH and I, we need an additional $40+ a month for gas as prices stand now. There's only so far we can cut down our driving.

So that's another $83 a month I need to find, in addition to dealing with the $100 a month hit I'm taking on my paycheck by having more withholding taken out. And the $20 a month on higher property taxes. Where is it all supposed to come from? Judging from the past few months, the extra money does come in, whether from Amazon sales, rebate money, surveys, or whatever. I'd worry a little less if it were more predictable, though.

Our checking account doesn't have much of a cushion to begin with. First, I bought a lot of those gift cards at discount. They've all been paid for, and I feel good about doing it. But having so much tied up in the gift cards leaves us shorter of actual cash for the moment. Also, we've been hit with some unexpected repairs.

We already paid $64 for two trips to diagnose the washer problem. The plumbing problem we discovered while trying to figure out the washer came to $80. Now we know the washer definitely needs a part, which will come to $126 installed, next week. That's $370 on emergencies this month--$270 to solve the current problem, and $100 for the minimum balance in the new emergency savings account I opened.

I'm just waiting to see what the new car insurance bill will be, then I'll have a better idea where we stand, at least through December.



Budgeting lesson from the 1950's

August 16th, 2005 at 06:35 am

Last week DMom and I were discussing money and budgeting methods, and she pulled out a ledger book from when she and DDad were first married--1952 to 1956! We got a good laugh at some of the prices, believe me. Wink

DMom is Mrs. Moneybags at this point, but as she pointed out, back then it felt like they were living from paycheck to paycheck. And actually that wasn't such a bad thing for them back then. The first few years they were living in an apartment and didn't own a car. So there weren't surprise car and appliance repairs or large car insurance and property tax bills to plan for. They kept track of things as small as 47 cents for an electric socket, but my dad managed to buy a slide projector for $185. That's $185 in 1950's money--equivalent to several month's rent.

What I found really interesting was that although they had a budget, they were always going over. (I think I found one month where they were under!) And yet, over that 4-year period, things worked out just fine overall.

The key seemed to be their systematic savings, along with an artificially low, slightly tight budget. (To paraphrase The Millionaire Next Door, "they created an artificial economic environment of scarcity for themselves.")

DMom said she had a nice cushion of "war bonds" she'd bought during WW2. And I could see in the ledger book they were still buying more savings bonds, $37.50 a month for a $50 bond, through payroll deductions. If they went over budget by $10 each month, they were still $27.50 ahead because of that payroll deduction. When the checking account got too low, or they had something unusual to spend money on, they just cashed in some bonds--as opposed to the modern way of using plastic. Wink

It left me feeling a little better about making mistakes and not managing to stay within a budget all the time. I tend to worry and feel guilty--like if every financial move I make isn't exactly right, we'll end up bankrupt and it will have been my fault. But maybe the important thing is just to make sure we're moving in the right direction even if it's only by $27.50 a month. Once again, remembering to look at the big picture and not letting myself get so riled up.

In a little less limbo

August 14th, 2005 at 04:48 am

But not much.

We finally received the annual health insurance packet from DH's job. They've not only switched to a different insurance company again, now they are also offering a high-deductible plan with a health savings account (HSA) starting in January. This is something completely new and different for us, and we can use all the info we can get. I think it's supposed to be a good thing, because you can put pretax money into the health savings account (saving on taxes) and take it with you if you leave the job. But there is practically nothing in the packet to explain it!

Current HMO coverage, $109 per pay x 2.15 pays a month = $234 a month
New equivalent coverage as of next January, $171 per pay x 2.15 pays a month = $368 a month
High deductible/HSA plan, $43 (base - ?) per pay x 2.15 pays a month = $92 a month

So if we stay with the traditional insurance, we'll have $134 a month less in our pockets. And nothing to show for it.

If we go with the new kind of plan, we'll have $142 a month more in our pockets. Part of which, if I understand right, could go into the health savings account and build up if we spend less on medical expenses than we put in. On the down side, it will may affect our car insurance rates if this new kind of policy isn't considered primary in the case of car accident injuries. (It says "subject to co-insurance," and I'm not sure what that means.)

They are supposed to be mailing out more info, and are having meetings about it in November and December. But DH has to pick one or the other and mail this form in within one week, before having any of that extra info. Aggravating. But I'm trying to see the big picture. We can't afford to put out $134 more a month for insurance anyway, so the decision is a no brainer. We'll just have to learn about the new thing as we go along, and deal with it.

Gave in to a positive compulsion today

August 10th, 2005 at 12:06 pm

I opened a new savings account! It's at the local bank where we have our checking account, and pays practically no interest. But I think it will serve its purpose.

We had another little emergency this past week, involving both an applicance repair guy and a plumber. The appliance guy was here first, and always wants to be paid by check right away. Then the plumber was here; this one bills you later, but another plumber we've used wants immediate payment and I don't remember him taking credit cards. It just so happens that our checking balance is on the low side this week, and if we'd had to pay the plumber right away too, it would have been a problem.

There's plenty of money in the ING accounts, but it takes a couple of days for transfers to show up back in our checking account. Besides, all the accounts I have there are for specific purposes, not general emergencies.

Supposedly some of the money sitting in checking is for emergencies, but if there's money for different things in one account, it's always hard for me to really "see" how much is for what. So I've been trying to figure out for awhile where to put emergency money--an extra checking account, a money market, a savings account? But today I felt like I just had to do something even if it wasn't perfect.

I just couldn't stand not having an official emergency fund one more minute!

This account is linked to our checking account and my ATM card, and I'll be able to access it online. So I'll be able to get cash out quickly at an ATM, or do transfers any time I need to. One thing that won't work is using the savings as overdraft protection, where if a check was going to bounce they'd just take it from savings--they want you to apply for a credit line for that. (I said no.) I think what I'll do is, as soon as I know there's an emergency, I'll transfer some money to checking just in case. If it doesn't all get used, it can go right back into savings. (I REALLY don't want to bounce any checks.)

My year now has 13 months

August 6th, 2005 at 05:24 am

Hi, back again. I've taken some time off from thinking about money (and other things) so much. I've read lots of books, watched lots of videos, got to a park by a river, and planted some flowers. Our budget situation is still in limbo, but I'm not so tied up in knots about it now. Keeping busy to keep my mind occupied seems to be working, just like you might try to keep busy while waiting for news about a job or medical test results. I just wish I could remember that and start in sooner each time a situation like this comes up, before my mood starts to slip. Thanks for your kind comments last week.

Now about my 13 month year. I'm tired of situations like last weekend. It was the end of July, and I had enough grocery money left in the budget to pick up a few things like bread and milk. I would have succeeded in making it through the end of July on budget, but to keep strictly to it I'd have to wait til August 1, a Monday, to do a normal weekly shopping. But that would have been darned inconvenient because of my work schedule on Mondays.

It felt like a lose-lose situation. If I did a week's worth of shopping on Saturday, I'd have done something wrong because I went over budget for July. But if I didn't, I'd have done something wrong because I messed up my schedule and menus for the coming week.

I'm tired of trying to stretch the same amount of money during 31-day months as 28-day months. I'm tired of having to refigure my gas money because I have to buy it 5 times instead of 4. I'm tired of having to figure out if it's a month I need to go to Petsmart 3 times instead of 2. Then there's our take-out budget. We get pizzas on Tuesdays because they're only $6 that day. What if there are 5 Tuesdays in a month? It's driving me bonkers!

So from now on, I'm going to figure my Everyday Expenses budget for a 4-week "month" no matter what the calendar says. It will always start on a Sunday and end on a Saturday. So my "August" is running from July 31 to August 27. 52 weeks in a year, divided into 4-week segments--and Voila! there are 13 "months." That way I'll be able to do my main shopping on the same day each week, and have the same amount to spend each and every week and "month." I really want more predictability and routine in my financial life, and I think this will help.

Sunday blues

July 24th, 2005 at 08:37 am

I don't like being in limbo. I know how much I have to adjust our budget to make up for the withholding increase, and that's bad enough. But there's no point in overhauling the whole budget again until I find out two more things. In August every year, we find out what's changing with the health insurance we get through DH's job. Usually the deductions go up, often the co-pays go up, sometimes they even switch to a different insurance company for a year and then switch back. Also, at the end of August/early September we'll find out how much our new homeowner's and car insurance policies will cost. I already made some changes that have saved us money on the policies that are about to end. But I'm still waiting to hear what next year's bills are going to be.

It's hard to feel happy and successful about staying within this month's budget when I know it's still probably way higher than what it needs to be from here on. It feels like all my figuring and work and attempts at self-control were almost pointless.

It's frustrating just not knowing what we can afford. While I'm in this limbo period, I'm literally afraid to spend on anything extra at all, whether it's movie tickets or gas and tolls for a trip to the shore. I'd like to clean out our flowerbeds and plant something, but I'm reluctant to spend money on unnecessary things like plants or mulch. So I might as well leave the weeds as "groundcover." I can't face two more months of no fun or extras at all, and having our house and yard continue to look like c**p while the rest of the neighborhood is getting "gentrified". But how much on extras is too much right now? I haven't the vaguest idea.

It seems like the only things I can and should be doing today are things that I don't especially want to do. More errands that have to do with saving or managing money. Kitchen work, like cutting up raw veggies for the week and getting the rest of the meat off a cooked chicken. Coloring my hair at home with Free After Rebate dye.

There are a lot of things I'd like to do online, things that could even make or save us money. But I'm down to just a few hours for the rest of the month, and the library is closed, so I can't even do that today.

I'm determined to find a way to get over this pity-party. Without spending any money. Will report back tomorrow.

Mom money issues

July 21st, 2005 at 06:45 am

DMom, who for years has given us an annual chunk of money for our IRAs, mentioned she *might* not be able to do it this year because she *might* be getting some work done on her house. We really do refrain from spending any of this; it goes right into our IRAs. So it might not sound like it should affect our budget.

However, what we're doing are traditional IRAs to save on current taxes. I haven't thought of the situation as using a "Mom gift" for living expenses. Since it seemed like something we could count on, long ago I adjusted my withholding lower at work. I'd rather have a smooth income all year long, instead of scrimping and then getting a big tax refund. But that means the tax savings we've been using for living expenses is actually the result of a gift from DMom, even though the money doesn't come directly from her. It's a tax break we wouldn't get on our own, since we couldn't afford to put that much away ourselves.

The result is, if DMom doesn't do it this year and I leave the withholding the same, we'll owe a big chunk on taxes in the spring, maybe even a penalty for not having enough withheld. So I just upped my withholding and now have to figure out where to find another $100 a month to keep our budget in the black.

Now, my mom's "mights" don't often come to fruition. I'll be really surprised if she actually moves ahead with the home improvement projects. Even if she does, she's apt to give us the IRA funds anyway. Although it might be next April 14--I think she likes to keep us guessing. Wink But preparing for the worst seems like the safest course.

It comes in and it goes out...

July 13th, 2005 at 09:18 am

First of all, thanks for the recent comments and making me feel better about not chucking everything to start a business. Wink

Things had been looking good, good enough to start spending a little. I'd downgraded our phone service, cable tv, internet service and car insurance, if you remember. Things are selling on Amazon. I got an interest check recently that was higher than I'd expected. After the new bills came in and I plugged the new figures into my spreadsheet, it looked like we'd have a few hundred dollars extra, even after allowing for $200 a month in emergencies like car repairs.

I sent in a nice extra chunk to the Discover card, and started spending a little here and there to kind of spruce things up a little--
$2 for some extra washcloths so we wouldn't run out before laundry day
$7 for a lamp to replace one that stopped working
$24 for a new TV remote (Had to get the exact kind that came with the TV, because the regular universal remotes don't work with TV/VCR combo units. At least I found it slightly used on Ebay, which saved a little.)
Plus the clothes I'd started buying with the discounted gift cards from Galleria

I even figured out we could continue with DVD rentals through the mail, after our trial period ran out.

Now I just got our new property tax bill, which comes to $256 more a year. Not a very big jump, but it just about eats up our overage. Sigh. Well, we'll have enough to cover this first quarter, and I've upped the amount going into the special ING savings account I have set up for the taxes.

Figuring out how to cut down on food spending

July 5th, 2005 at 06:20 am

I thought I'd look at the past week's grocery shopping to see where that extra $10 or so is going every week. My theory was that I'm spending too much on groceries, and DH and I are overweight, so therefore I must be spending too much on junk food. But when I looked through my receipts, that didn't seem to be the main problem--at least for this past week.

Here's some stuff I think I could save on, without too much extra work.

--Buying ground beef in bulk, maybe even at Aldi's, instead of $1 a burger for preformed 80% lean burgers at Pathmark's meat counter. (The cheap frozen ones haven't worked out for us because it's hard to pry just 2 burgers off at a time.)

--Buying Aldi's vegetable soup again for 1/5 the regular price of Campbell's Chunky. (Maybe get Campbell's as a treat when it's on sale and I have a coupon.)

--Buying Aldi or Save A Lot packaged cold cuts instead of Oscar Mayer bologna for $2.89. I need something on hand for when the fresh-sliced deli stuff runs out, but it could be a lot cheaper. I can't imagine the OM bologna is any healthier than the store-brand stuff, especially something like turkey.

In other words, I've got to work on buying cheaper alternatives to basically the same thing. At least that's my lession from this past week.






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