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Friday, May 30, 2008

I still don't like hidden fees

I really like when sites where you can buy plane tickets list the price with the tax and fees. Then you know exactly what you're going to be paying when you buy the ticket. Which is nice because if you travel and stay in a hotel, your hotel bill is all but guaranteed to be filled with taxes and fees of all sorts.

Hidden fees continue to drive me crazy, and I may have a new favorite hidden fee. And when I say "favorite," I mean "fee I find absolutely ridiculous."

Two friends and I split a room this past weekend for a friend's wedding. We ended up in a "suite" with a pull out couch so no one had to sleep on the floor. We were told the "suite" cost an additional $10 over the price of a standard room with a rollaway.

Fine, no problem.

We were expecting all sorts of taxes and perhaps a few extra fees on our bill, as that seems to be the norm with hotel bills, but I was quite surprised to see this one: extra occupant charge - $20/night.

I know what you're thinking. Three people in a room designed for two (even though there was a pullout couch). So they charged extra for that third person. Prevents college kids from cramming 15 people in a room that sleeps three. Fine.

Except that this extra occupant charge wasn't just for one person. It was charged for the extra TWO people in the room. That's right - the standard room rate was just for one person.

I can't even begin to explain how ridiculous I find that. How much more can it actually cost the hotel for a second person in the room, especially a room with only one bed? I suppose it might be a bit of extra work for housekeeping. And I suppose that's two showers instead of one, and two sets of towels instead of one. But still. $20 for a second person in the room?

Extra occupant charge. Ridiculous.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Can you spend irresponsibly if you're rich?

I have a friend who occasionally comments about how things are expensive and how she is working to pay off her credit cards. This friend also has a tendency to drop $20 on "whatever" around five days a week. In my opinion (and the opinion of some of our other friends), this is a stupid and irresponsible practice. If she would limit her "whatever spending" to once a week (or less!) she could save a significant amount of money. I don't think she even realizes how much she's spending, because it's "only $20."

This got me to thinking. Blowing through money when you're in debt and don't have much savings is clearly irresponsible. But what if my friend were doing quite well for herself? Let's say she's planning properly for retirement, owns her house and her car, has an emergency fund, and has a solid amount of savings. Now what about her tendency to drop at least $100 a week on things like books and knick knacks and coffee and other such things? Is it still irresponsible?

I go back and forth on this, primarily because of how I was raised. I have always believed that no matter whether you have the money or not, you should think about your purchase before you make it. Sure, you can afford those five books at the bookstore. But do you really need them? Do you need them all right now? Can you wait, or buy them online later for less money? Would you be just as happy with two books? If you decide yes, that you want all five right now, fine. But at least you thought about it.

Half of the time I see my grandfather, he's wearing clothes he's had for years, like a shirt from the tee ball team I played on almost 20 years ago or a pair of socks that originally belonged to my other grandfather, who passed away over 23 years ago. Admittedly, the t-shirts have seen better days, but if he's just out doing yard work, who cares what he's wearing, right? He could absolutely afford to buy new shirts and socks. He could buy a truckload of new clothes. But it's not something he needs. I wouldn't say he's excessively frugal - he just thinks about how he spends his money before he does it. He and my grandmother still go on fancy vacations and eat at nice restaurants and go out for ice cream.

I wonder if that's why I think that even if my friend were wealthy, her frivolous spending would still be fairly irresponsible. I tend to feel like her purchases are often wasteful, and I think of all the other things she could do with that money. Even if you're financially well off, even if $100 is just a drop in the bucket, I still think that money shouldn't just be frittered away. It could be saved for larger purchases or gifted to family or donated to charity or randomly handed out to panhandlers on the street.

Of course, I'm not in a position to tell my friend what she should do with her money, and given her spending, I don't think she'll ever get herself to a point where she will actually have an extra $100 to throw around. But it's something to think about.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Saving money but busting the budget

I've been trying to be a smarter grocery shopper. I've shopped with a list for a long time, and am good about not deviating from the list too much, but lately, I've been paying more attention to sales and coupons in an effort to save money. I'm also working on stocking up on groceries a bit more, just to keep the cupboards from getting bare on the off chance I can't get to the store for longer than normal.

For example, today, I discovered that my favorite brand of coffee was on sale. $1.30 off. I needed one bag. But I bought two. I also noticed that Lean Cuisines were marked down to $2.50, so I picked up a few of those as well, even though they weren't on the list at all.

Unfortunately, it's the end of the month. I didn't have enough in my monthly grocery budget to cover all of these extras. I just decided to pull from next month's budget, since I'll be eating most of the food next month anyway, but that's not a trend that can continue from month to month.

I definitely spent more this month on groceries than I have in the past. But I also have more food in my house than I normally do, and even though I've spent more than normal, I've also saved quite a bit by watching for sales. Obviously, saving is good, but spending out of budget is bad.

I hope that in a month or two, this plan will start to pay off in that I will be spending less because I'm buying on sale, and stocking up when things are less expensive. And that the budget busting will end.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jet lagged, but home

I love vacation, but I have this tendency to take vacations that are so busy that I need a vacation when I return! No relaxing spa weeks for me. Though perhaps that's something I should try out one of these days...

I learned on this trip that my attention to personal finance really has changed the way I spend. Normally, on a trip involving the airport, I hit up a store for a magazine or two. This trip, I didn't buy anything but water and food in the airport (yes, I could have brought along all of my food, but it was really more hassle than I was ready to deal with on the way home).

Additionally, I came home with very few souvenirs. Again, in the past, I would have picked up a number of things that caught my eye, but this trip, I was much more choosy. I fell in love with a t-shirt and picked up a great new coffee mug, and also grabbed a gift for a friend, but beyond that, no spending. I entered all of my expenses into YNAB this morning and am quite pleased with how it turned out. I'm going to come in under budget this month!

I'll be catching up for the next few days, I think, but I hope to be back to regular posting soon.

(And on a happy note, I arrived home to find my stimulus check in the mail. Definitely something to brighten the end of vacation!)

Friday, May 23, 2008


I discovered Ebates.com in January of this year and have made a few purchases here and there, picking up things that I planned to buy. Not only do they have coupon codes, but they offer cash back on purchases made when you click through their site. The percentage varies, but it adds up. During the first quarter of 2008, I received over $15 in cash back and another $10 for referrals. I was scheduled to receive my first "Big Fat Check" in the form of a PayPal deposit on May 15th (unfortunately, there is a delay between the end of the quarter and the check's deposit). By 4:00 that afternoon, I had received a notification that I now had an additional $26.02 in my PayPal account. Ebates came through!

So if you haven't already, check it out! I know I'll continue starting my online shopping through their portal. I realize I'm starting to sound like an advertisement, but seriously, it was exciting to suddenly discover that I had an extra $26, especially after saving on the purchases to begin with.

Have a great Friday, and a safe holiday weekend to all those celebrating Memorial Day.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Continuing to Simplify

A place for everything and everything in its place.

The above is a saying that I have always loved. That doesn’t mean that I’ve always been organized, but I like the idea of having a designated place for things and keeping the things in that place so they are not only out of the way, but so that they are also easily located.

I am like a kid in a candy store when it comes to giant organization stores like The Container Store and even IKEA to some extent. I’ve always had a slight obsession with bags and baskets and boxes and have to repeatedly convince myself that no, I do not actually need that shiny new organization tool.

One thing I have noticed, though, is that the saying “Out of sight, out of mind” is slowly starting to come true as well, partly because I do have specified places for things. For example, all my shoes are stored either in their original boxes or in clear Rubbermaid containers. They are all neatly stacked on shelves in my closet so I can walk in, look at the boxes, pull the one I want, and be done with it. A few weeks ago, I realized that my work appropriate shoes were all on their last legs, worn beyond repair, and that it was time to look for a new pair of shoes or two. So I bought some new shoes, came home, went to put them in the closet, and found another pair of work appropriate shoes that I had forgotten I owned.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with having multiple pairs of shoes that I can wear to work, so I didn’t return my purchased shoes, but it was like finding treasure in my closet.

This find makes me wonder what else I have that I have forgotten that I own. My apartment is not that big, but I do have very nice closets, and when I moved, I paid the movers to pack and load, and my mother helped me unpack and put things away. I had just finished the bar exam and while I cleaned out some things before packing, I also told myself that was something I could do after I moved, since I was paying the same amount no matter what the movers moved.

I’m continually working on weeding out my clothes. I was going through photographs this weekend and realized I still owned an outfit that I wore for Christmas when I was 19. Now, that wasn’t even ten years ago, and I realize that many people still own and wear clothing that’s ten years old, but I shouldn’t be wearing clothes I wore at 19. Nor could I tell you the last time I wore that skirt or top. So those got put into the donation pile (which has grown quite large and I really should find the local Goodwill).

I’m also trying to pare down my bookshelves. I have a number of books that were given to me by previous owners that I have yet to read. I’m working through those and then listing them on one of the various book swap sites.

While neither of these tasks is particularly frugal (though I do get credits towards other books by swapping my read books), it has led to re-discovering things that I forgot I had. I don’t need anything new, when I have all of these things right here, like the shoes that I re-discovered or the multitude of books that I have kept and want to read again.

Plus it’s just nice to open my closet and not feel like it is a mess of things crammed together. I often feel like I own too much stuff. This is just another step on working towards simplifying and keeping only what I need and what I truly want to keep.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Snowflaking your life

If you've been reading finance blogs for a while, you know about the idea of debt snowflaking, and probably about its younger cousin, savings snowflaking. The theory behind the snowflaking method is that no amount is too small. Find a dollar on the floor? Put it towards your debt. Make $3 doing online surveys? Put it towards your debt. Every little bit counts. And once you've paid off your debt, build up your savings in the same way.

This morning (note: this entry was written last week), as I was standing in my kitchen waiting for the coffee to finish brewing, I thought about how the concept of snowflaking can apply to the rest of your life. This, of course, is nothing new - we all know about the idea of baby steps, and FlyLady touts her 15 minute cleaning plans. But can it work? Can you snowflake other things as well?

As my coffee brewed, probably no more than two or three minutes, I took the time to wipe down the kitchen counters with a damp cloth. Something simple, and sure, it could wait until I got home after work, but that was one less thing I would have to do.

I'm working on cleaning out my closets. It always seems like such a huge task, as I like to pull all of the clothes off the rack and go through them one by one to decide whether it's something I will ever wear again, and then try it on to be sure it fits, and then decide whether it's going to Goodwill or back into the closet. But I could snowflake this task. When I pick out my clothing in the evening, I can pull five things off the rack. Or two things. Or maybe just one extra thing, and make a decision there. Quick and painless.

Got a big project to get done at work that keeps getting pushed aside because it's not top priority? Every time you find a few minutes, try to get a little bit done. Desk a bit too messy? Straighten up a small part of it while you're on hold or while you're waiting for something to print, or, if your office is like mine, while you're waiting for your computer to complete the log-in process.

What are some other ideas of how to use snowflaking?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Taking time to save money

I admit that I'm not the smartest shopper when it comes to groceries and other household items. Sure, if I happen to catch a sale, I might stock up slightly. But note the words: "happen to catch." That's right, I very rarely look for sales. It's just not something I do. But it's something I need to start doing.

For the first time in a long time, I clipped coupons last weekend. I made a point to go to the store, pick up a paper (for $1.50 - but I plan to subscribe in the upcoming weeks), clip the coupons, and then, because I'm a bit obsessive, I started a spreadsheet with the coupon data. The theory there is that I can watch for expiring coupons, and I can have all my coupons listed on one page rather than just stuck in my coupon organizer. Having already done the major grocery shop for the week, I decided to look at the CVS circular to see what was on sale and if anything matched up with my coupons.

Lo and behold, I found a number of deals! Items already on sale that I also had coupons for! Items that I use all the time with ECBs offered this week! I'm trying to do my best and only buy things that I would normally buy - because otherwise, am I really saving any money at all? I realize that's not always the way to play the drugstore game, but I think that's how I'm going to play my version for now. Realizing how productive this trip was, I decided that I also needed to start looking at the grocery store circular every week.

I tend to do my shopping early in the morning on Saturdays or Sundays, and my store's circular goes online on Fridays. Perfect! I can browse through the circular, figure out what's on sale that I use and compare that to my coupon list. This should also help my plan to have more of a stock of food around the house, in case of emergencies (and let's be honest, also in case of "too lazy to go to the store").

I'm not sure why I haven't done this before. It didn't take long to go through the paper on Sunday morning, and I did it while catching up on some tv. I know some people spend hours planning their shopping, but for me, that just doesn't make sense. I shop at one particular grocery store (plus Whole Foods on occasion) and I go to CVS. That's what's within walking distance for me - anything else requires getting in my car, and that's when it becomes too much of a hassle in my mind. So I just need to block out a little bit of time every week for couponing. Shouldn't be hard at all.

Yet another money saving plan to implement when I get home from vacation.

Monday, May 19, 2008

What to stimulate

Last week, I got the notice in the mail that I would be receiving my stimulus check soon. I mentally plugged the extra $600 into my budget and pondered what I would do with the money.

Sadly, I don't have anything exciting planned. I didn't budget well this month for my upcoming vacation and all the associated expenses, so in YNAB, I'm already a bit over budget. Not a big deal, since I live off of last month's income, but it just meant that things would be a little tight again next month. I can't say I was worried, seeing as June is a 3 paycheck month. Of course, one of my plans for 2008 is to bank the "extra" paycheck in all 3 paycheck months, but to cover my overages this month, I was going to bank most of it, put the rest toward the budget overages, and then attempt to make it up throughout the year by putting a bit more into savings than planned.

Thanks to the stimulus check, I might still be able to bank that entire paycheck. Of course, I'm not expecting to be $600 overbudget. I considered putting the rest into savings, but I looked at some of my upcoming expenses and instead decided to plug the rest into my various budget categories for future expenses. Some will go into the grocery budget, some into car expenses, some towards my upcoming renters insurance payment, and then as a treat, a little bit into my wishlist fund and maybe a little into my restaurant category.

Nothing too exciting, but it will free up the budget a bit. Ideally, I'd like to be padding each of my budget categories every month so that I do end the month with a bit of a cushion. So far, that's not working so well, but maybe the stimulus will do just that - stimulate my budget to work even better for me.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

YF&B Update

So the original plan was to have two more chapter reviews in the queue for posting while I was on vacation.

Obviously, since you're reading this, that didn't happen. But I do have entries written and scheduled to post while I'm gone. I'll be back after Memorial Day, and chapter reviews will resume on May 31st.

Best laid plans...

Friday, May 16, 2008

Cheap or expensive? Depends on how you look at it.

I'm headed on vacation on Saturday, and returning on Memorial Day (I still can't believe I agreed to travel on Memorial Day). One of the things on my "to do before vacation" list was to find someone to take care of my cats while I'm gone. I'm lucky in that they're fairly independent and are incredibly happy to be left with the automatic feeder so they can gorge themselves to their heart's content, so when I'm gone for a long weekend, they're ok without anyone checking in on them.

This trip is over a week long, however, and I'm not comfortable leaving them completely alone for that long. First and foremost, they would get lonely. Plus it's just nice to have someone check in on them and make sure that they have plenty of food and fresh water and haven't destroyed the apartment while I'm gone.

At Christmas, I found a wonderful woman to take care of them. She's a licensed and bonded pet sitter, and not only was she a cat lover, but she also didn't believe in upping her rates during the holiday season, so for her to check in on my two cats only cost me $18 for each time she checked in on them. I was delighted to find someone so cheap!

I was looking at this upcoming vacation, however, and really didn't want to be paying quite that much money for someone to watch the cats. $18 a day really adds up quickly. Somehow, the rate that was perfectly acceptable during the holiday season seemed a bit much outside of the holidays. Thankfully, I found a friend who is happy to take care of them for nothing (though I promised to take her to lunch or dinner as thanks). And while my friend isn't licensed or bonded like the professional I hired, she is someone I've known for 8 years, and someone I completely trust in my home and with my pets.

Of course, when the holidays roll around again, I will likely be hiring someone to come take care of the cats. Maybe it's just because the holidays are a time of spending money, but I'm sure that come December, I won't be upset at all about paying close to $20 a day for pet care.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Festival's up!

The 125th Edition of the Festival of Frugality is up, and my article on Couponing is included. If you don't visit the festivals and carnivals that go through the blogging world every week, you really should, and you should also really consider submitting. It's a great way to find new blogs and to bring new readers to your site as well.

And here are some of the articles that I enjoyed:

  • Frugal or Cheap - Here's a Test - I got 22. I'm happy with that, but I think I could be more frugal... I do love my cable though!
  • When are you a brand name shopper? - If it's a consumable, I'm more willing to try a generic brand, on the theory that if it's not great, I'll just use it up and buy a different brand the next time. Except, like Kyle, with beer. And perhaps a few other things.
  • Why I Like Being Frugal - I really like this idea. Living a simple, grounded life is a good feeling. And it's nice to have that chunk of cash set aside thanks to your frugal ways, so if you decide to take a less than frugal vacation, for example, you can do that. At least in my opinion.
  • Jump Start Your Frugality - Good ideas here. Little things add up!
  • Renters Insurance Basics - It amazes me how many people don't have renter's insurance. Also, for condo owners - do you have extra insurance for your possessions? Don't just rely on the insurance on the building - frequently that's just the building structure, not always even including interior walls.
  • Top 5 Ways to Trim Our Grocery Bills - I am constantly amazed with how much I spend on groceries, and I don't feel like I buy a lot of splurge items. Once I'm back from vacation, I'm going to really try to step up the savings.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Wish Lists

One of my guilty pleasures is "online window shopping." No, not looking to buy windows, but rather, browsing websites just to look at things that I know I can't afford and don't need - at least not right now. Sometimes I look at furniture, other times it's fun jewelry, sometimes it's art, and sometimes it's just anything at all.

This week, I discovered the website Kaboodle, a site where you can make your own wishlists from any shopping site around the web. You can visit others' wishlists as well, if you want, but I admit that's a feature that I haven't checked out yet. One thing that I like about the site is that you can set up multiple lists, and you can make them public or private. So I can make a list of things that I would like for Christmas (a requirement in my family). But I can also make a private list of books I'd like to check out at the library or on one of the bookswap sites, which has been fairly useful when I'm spending a few minutes browsing through Amazon.

It's also a good tool if you're thinking about buying something slightly more expensive. Make it sit there for a while. I'm always surprised at how quickly something that I thought I had to have becomes something that might be nice to have but that I don't really need at all.

My favorite list though, is called "If I Had a Million Dollars," one of the default Kaboodle lists. Of course, my list isn't really what I'd buy if I had that much money, but it's just pricier items that I like but can't afford or don't need - a pretty barrister's bookcase and an Amazon Kindle, among other things. Sometimes it's fun to just look at those things that are out of reach right now, and think about how my frugal living and money saving tactics might mean that sometime in the future, I will be able to afford those things.

What would you put on your "If I Had a Million Dollars" list?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Carnival #152 is up!

This week's Carnival of Personal Finance is hosted by Money Under 30. My post on disaster readiness was featured as an Editor's Pick. Thanks!

Here are some of the posts that caught my eye:
  • The Personal Financier writes on accounting for cash expenses. I sort of do a combination of his first three steps. I have a budget category called "cash," and it is a very small category, and is most often used for drinks out with friends and purchases at the Farmer's Market.
  • Can I Get Rich on a Salary puts together a lot of generalizations about Generation Y's financial habits. It's an interesting read, regardless of whether or not you're in Gen Y.
  • Christian Finances writes about minimalist living. I spent some time this weekend going through my closet and getting rid of a chunk of clothes that either didn't fit or that I never wore. It's silly to hang on to a shirt for the memories.
  • Mighty Bargain Hunter points out the great food selections on Amazon. I think it's no secret that I love Amazon.
  • Feminist Finance writes a great post about marrying into debt. Yet another reminder that you should probably talk exact numbers before getting hitched, just so everyone's got all the facts.
  • Chief Family Officer talks some more about the drugstore game. That reminds me that I need to hit up CVS for a few things.

Check out the post for many many more great links.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Shopping is hard

While I would like to call myself a bargain hunter, I freely admit that I am really bad at it. When big department stores have sales where there are a bunch of sale racks pushed together with many different types of clothing, often arranged by size rather than by style, I can't cope. I try to pull out things to try on, and always end up getting frustrated and giving up.

Thanks to What Not to Wear (a guilty pleasure), I realize that I am not unique in this. I very much prefer stores that don't have quite as much to offer. If I have fewer things to look at, and items are grouped together in terms of style rather than size, I function so much better. I think part of this is because I'm picky and part is because I'm hard to fit. I have clothing in at least three different sizes in my closet. And no, those aren't "fat clothes" and "skinny clothes." All those clothes fit me. So when I find something I like, I often take two different sizes to the dressing room to try them on. Group things by size and I have to hit multiple racks to try to find things. Yes, I realize that doesn't seem like a big deal, but I just find it overwhelming.

I think this is part of the reason that I find shopping for clothes so difficult. I very quickly get frustrated and give up. And then I end up going elsewhere and paying full price for something when I could have very easily picked up something on sale.

In terms of my budget, it's a good thing that I sort of hate the mall. Oh, I like going and looking at things, but actually going and trying to buy clothing? Torture. But in terms of my work wardrobe, this is a problem.

My goal over the next few months is to learn how to shop - not only how to bargain hunt but how to buy good quality pieces that fit me well, even if that means taking them to a tailor. I'm tired of opening my closet before work and realizing that I have very limited options of what to wear if I want to be professional and not wear the same thing I wore three days ago.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Book Review - The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, & Broke (Part 1)

I'm always looking for new things to blog about, and while rearranging some shelves last night, I decided that perhaps some personal finance book reviews might be a nice addition. If nothing else, it never hurts me to go back through these books in detail.

The first book to be reviewed is The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke by Suze Orman. As you may have noticed, I've listed YF&B as one of my favorite PF books over on my sidebar. This was really the first PF book I read, upon suggestion of a friend. She raved about the advice contained within, so I decided it was time to check it out.

As can be gleaned from the title, the book is aimed at what is being termed "Generation Debt," those of us between 25 and 35. Do you need to be broke for this book to work for you? I don't think so. I wasn't even in credit card debt when I picked up the book, and I already had an emergency fund in place. Sounds like I was in a great financial position, right? Well, not really. I didn't know how to plan ahead. I didn't know anything about Roth IRAs, and I wasn't sure how to best look at retirement, when it's decades away. I don't know enough about mortgages or investing. This book explains all of that and more. Sure, there are sections that perhaps don't apply to me, but I still recommend this book to all of my friends. It answers questions for people just starting out, and for those who have been working for a while, but feel like they're not working towards a goal.

This book is arranged very simply, with a new topic each chapter. Each chapter starts with The Lowdown. This section features very clearly presented information about what you need to know about that chapter's topics. Some of these sections are more detailed than others, and I found myself reading and re-reading the section on investing, just to be sure that I understood every bit of it. The next section is called Strategy Sessions. These are set up in question/answer style, with a problem, a solution, and then details on how to actually achieve the solution. Finally, the chapters end with the Playback section. This is a bulleted recap of what you need to do for the topic discussed in that chapter.

The book includes a code that you can use to sign up for the YF&B section of Suze's website. I think this is a really great feature of this book and of many other of her books. The website features a number of resources designed to work with the YF&B book. The first is an action plan. For many YF&Bers, being faced with all these things that they need to do in regards to their finances can be overwhelming. In her book, Suze breaks these things into Action Steps, but if you read the book in one sitting, you will find yourself faced with a number of Action Steps. That's where the website comes in. You answer a few questions about your current situation and the site sets out Action Steps for you. You can't move to the next one until you complete the one before. This is an easy and simple way to prioritize.

The site also features book updates, which I find crucial for personal finance books. Things change! The site currently only has three additions/corrections to the book, but I still feel much more comfortable knowing that someone is tracking the book for changes.

Throughout the book, you will find references to Resources available online. The resources section covers information on student loans, retirement and Roth IRA information (including suggestions on where to open and what to invest in), funds and ETFs, home buying, and much more. I found this section very helpful when looking at opening a Roth IRA. I knew that I should be looking for a discount broker or no-load funds, and that at least for now, I wanted to invest in index funds. But even knowing that, I still didn't know where to go. Suze doesn't tell you where to go. But she does provide a list of discount brokers and no-load fund companies. It was a great place to start.

Additionally, there are a number of PF calculators and a forum for questions. I admit that I haven't really used either of these features, but it's nice to know they're there.

So that's the intro to YF&B. Next week, I'll start my discussion of Chapter 1.

Friday, May 9, 2008

YNAB - A Review

I started using YNAB a few months ago and have sporadically updated my progress, but after a comment, decided it was time to do a true review and update.

I am using YNAB for Excel, meaning that it's a spreadsheet. It's not as fancy as YNAB Pro, the standalone program, but it's exactly what I need. First off, I love spreadsheets. I love that I can edit this as I please (of course, for fear of screwing things up, all I edit is a bit of the formatting). I especially love that I can use it at work or at home. I keep the official copy of my budget on my computer at home, but in my GMail Drafts folder is an e-mail with a draft copy of the budget. That way, I can update it on my lunch hour, or check to see what kind of money I have left in my dining out budget before going out for drinks. Plus it's just a second backup of the file - if something should happen to my computer at home and my external hard drive, I've still got a copy in my e-mail.

I'm not sure what I like the best about YNAB. I love the general method of living on last month's income. It's nice to have a bit of padding and know that if something comes up and I overspend by $100 this month, I have the money for it, I just have to spend less next month. I love that I can make up whatever categories I want. I love that I can change my budget month to month with no difficulty.

Perhaps this is not kosher on the YNAB plan, but I love that I can make a budget on the 1st of the month and then on the 15th, move things around so the budget reflects my actual spending. Yes, I realize that defeats the idea of the budget, but I have created for myself an "other" category. Some things just automatically go in there, like items I will be reimbursed for. But for the most part, that money gets moved around. Grocery budget falls short? Pull from the other category. Decide to spend more on someone's gift? Other category. I treat it as a flexible spending category - the money I can spend on whatever. And at the end of the month, if there's something left, it goes into the "Wishlist" category. I have this short list of things that I want to buy - books, movies, electronics, other non-necessities - and the more money that I can get into my wishlist budget category, the closer I am to buying one of those items.

I like that it tells me how much I've spent in each category so far for the year, and I like that I can very easily see where I've gone overbudget. Those bright red numbers really do help curb my spending.

I think my favorite thing is the ease in planning ahead. I know that my bi-annual car insurance payment is coming up in a few months. I have been budgeting 1/6th of that amount for the past few months so that when the payment comes due, I will have all that money set aside. Yes, I realize I could do this without YNAB, but I like that the spreadsheet carries the amount over for me. It has really made saving for big purchases much easier.

Some people don't like the idea of YNAB because they think it will be time consuming. Making my monthly budget takes maybe 15 minutes. I like to enter my expenses every few days, and I do so by saving receipts in my wallet. I also do most of my spending by credit card (and I don't track my cash, just record a "cash" expense) so it's easy to pick up any expenses I might miss. This can easily be done on a weekly basis, and really doesn't take that long.

I've never had a problem with credit card debt or not having money to pay my bills, but I really never had a good idea where my money was going. I knew that I had enough money in my bank account to cover the bills, and that meant that some months I spent less than I made and some months I spent more than I made, but it all evened out.

I really like knowing where my money is going. Am I saving more? I think so, especially in the months where the big expenses (like insurance payments) hit. Before YNAB, I would just pay the entire bill and then have to really scrimp with the rest of my spending. Now that month will be just like every other month. I'm slowly trying to build up money in a number of categories as well, so that I can have a bit of a buffer in my grocery budget if I want to splurge, or in my clothing budget if I find a great pair of shoes on sale.

While I highly recommend YNAB for anyone looking for a budget, I understand that it's not for everyone. I do recommend some method of tracking where your money goes each month. You might be surprised.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Getting sucked in

I think I've been on a tight budget a bit too long. I'm finding myself wanting to buy things that I've already decided aren't things I need, at least not at this point. Thankfully, my budget will loosen up a bit after this month (too many weddings and family vacations crammed together), but I still don't plan to be spending just because I feel like it.

The latest draw is Netflix. I've never been a Netflix subscriber. I do like movies though, and I especially like watching movies at home. For the most part, I tend to wait until a movie is available on DVD before seeing it, unless it's something I really want to see or a friend suggests we make an evening of it. I think this year, I've seen Under the Same Moon and The Other Boelyn Girl. That's it. (And I highly recommend Under the Same Moon - excellent movie.) I'll probably go see the upcoming X-Files movie in the theaters, just because that seems to be the sort of movie that would be best on a big screen, plus I was an XF fan for so many years that it seems appropriate.

So I seem like the type of person who Netflix would be great for. I love the idea of being able to create a queue. I love the idea that I don't have to go anywhere to get my movies. I don't love the idea of spending $20 a month for this service. While I like movies, do I actually rent them all that often? No. Maybe twice a month, and as of late, I've been using Redbox and getting them free. InsideRedbox has a list of free rental codes that you can use at Redbox locations. Even if you don't use a code, a rental is only $1 a day. Yes, the selection is limited. But it's $1 a day, or even free! You can't beat that.

I have a fairly sizeable collection of movies and tv on dvd at home, some of which I haven't watched in years. I'm embarassed to admit I even own dvds I've never watched, things that were gifts or picked up on sale. Rather than go the Netflix route, I think I'm going to make it a point to watch every single dvd I own - both tv and movies. Once I do that, then I can consider a Netflix subscription. Or maybe suggest it as a Christmas gift.

It's easy to hear about great products and think "Oh, that's perfect for me!" because you hear the good points and how other people use the product and don't think about how it's going to work for you. I just need to continue to think through my purchases. I think we could all save a lot of money if we just slept on it. 24 hours later, would you still think it was a good idea?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


When I lived in St. Louis, I was obsessive about coupon clipping. Mainly because I subscribed to the Sunday paper. But I quickly realized that while I was using the paper for coupons, I was never actually reading the paper, so it started to feel like a waste. The papers would start to pile up because I spent my Sundays preparing for class the next day, and then throughout the summer, studying for the bar exam.

Well, my student days are thankfully over, but when I moved to Washington, D.C., I didn't bother to subscribe to the Sunday paper. I figured I wouldn't end up reading it, and the environmentalist in me struggled with the idea of having all that extra paper (even though I recycle, of course). It seemed like a cost that I didn't really need.

But I wasn't thinking about the coupons. (I also wasn't thinking about the money I would save by always using the comics to wrap presents.) Given the rising food prices, I think this is an idea I should revisit.

I often struggle with whether or not coupons are really worth it. I've always believed that you should only use a coupon on something you would buy anyway - don't think of it as a "deal" on something new. Unfortunately, it seems like most coupons out there are for new products hitting the shelves. Of course, there's nothing wrong with trying new products, especially if it's a type of food you consume regularly. For example, if you eat a granola bar for lunch every day and the paper has a coupon for a new kind of granola bar, it doesn't hurt to check it out - provided that with the coupon, the new granola bar is cheaper than your old standard.

(This is probably a given, but be sure to watch your base price. How much is in that package? What are you paying per base unit? I'm lucky enough to shop at a store that lists the unit price on the shelf tags so I can determine which item is the best buy, but if you don't, be sure to do the math in your head or carry a calculator. Trust me, it's worth it.)

The other thing is that I'm always trying to eat healthier, and it seems like so often, coupons are for processed foods. I'm not going to find a coupon for apples or other produce. But even though I do try to be healthy, I admit that I'm still stuck on a number of processed foods, and there are coupons on things I use, such as various canned soups and vegetables, and occasionally rice and other grains as well. Besides, I need things like detergent and toothpaste too, and there are often coupons for those products.

You can also print coupons online, though I have sporadic luck with those. Sometimes it's products I use, but most of the time, it's nothing I want. Conveniently, I don't have to print those. The big sites are SmartSource and CoolSavings.

The CouponMom is a highly touted resource for coupon usage. The site has a database of coupons from the Sunday paper (you do still have to buy a paper) to help you figure out what's on sale and when you'll get the best deal combining coupons with a sale.

A number of bloggers have been talking about The Grocery Game. This is a subscription based site ($1 for a 4 week trial, then $5 a month). Every week, you get a list of the lowest priced products at your supermarket matched with coupons and specials. Of course, to do this, you need to stock up on the coupons, as frequently, the coupons in this Sunday's circular will be best used in a few weeks to match up with sales. I haven't tried this yet, but I think that I will sign up after I return from vacation. A summer experiment of sorts.

I also read a lot about the Drugstore Game on various blogs. This is played at CVS or Walgreens, though I admit, I only pay attention to the CVS discussions, as that's what's nearest to me. The theory is that by combining coupons and products with ECBs (Extra Care Bucks - basically coupons for $X off your next purchase, no matter what it is), you can save hundreds of dollars. This oftentimes means buying products you wouldn't normally buy, just to get the ECBs. I see the point - an example would be if I buy this shampoo with this coupon, I spend $2.00, but I get $3.00 in ECBs. So I technically got a dollar for the purchase. It's just hard for me to make that expenditure, especially if it's something I don't normally buy. I'll have to look into it further though, especially since I work within walking distance of a CVS - I could play on my lunch break!

Don't forget coupon codes for online shopping! I've mentioned Ebates here before - it's where I start when I'm shopping online. Not only do you get cash back, but they often have some great coupon codes as well. And of course, before you submit an order, do a quick Google search for StoreName Coupons. Who knows what you might find!

Want more info? Check out these links:
The Zen and Art of Coupon Clipping
Coupon Tips and Tricks That Can Cut Your Grocery Bill By 80% (some great ideas here!)

Rising Food Prices and Free Lunch Programs

I think by now, we've all noticed the increase in food prices. I hadn’t realized just how much it affected me until I continually struggled to meet my monthly food budget, and I just didn’t feel like I was buying any “extras,” things that the budget normally had at least a little room for.

I thought about the effect this would have on the restaurant industry, especially following the discussions of rice hoarding. I figured it would mean an increase in prices when dining out. I can’t say that’s unexpected or unfair – these places need to stay in business.

I have to admit though, I hadn’t thought about how it would affect school lunch programs. Both public and private schools have lunch programs subsidized by the government, but until I read this article, I didn’t think about the fact that while the subsidy wouldn’t change, the schools would be paying more for food. When you’re feeding that many people, you really start to feel the pinch. Creating school lunches that meet federal nutrition standards and still stay within a very tight budget has to be a challenge. And it doesn’t seem like it’s a challenge that will ease up anytime soon.

If food prices continue to rise, should the government increase the subsidy amounts to the schools to keep them in the red? Should prices for school lunches be passed onto the students, as they would be in a restaurant? Maybe a combination of the two? But what about the kids who are part of a free lunch (and oftentimes, free breakfast) program? Unfortunately, if asked to pay, a lot of those kids would just end up going without. Clearly, that isn’t a solution.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Are you ready?

Over the past week, I spent some time talking with a coworker about disaster preparation. We got on the topic while discussing rising food costs. He commented that he and his wife have around a 3 month supply of food and water stocked up in their basement because they're a little bit afraid of living in D.C.

At first, I laughed. And then I started thinking. Growing up, my friends joked that my parents' basement was like a bomb shelter. No, not because of excessively thick walls, but because my mom kept a huge amount of food in the basement. I don't think it was a security thing - it was more a practicality thing. We had one decent grocery store in town, and she bought a lot of things in bulk from Sam's Club. She also was great at stocking up. If something was on sale and she used it regularly, she might buy 20 when she only needed 1. They had an extra fridge and freezer down there as well, so there was always room for an extra gallon of milk or two as well as produce. In grad school, it was a great deal as she encouraged me to "shop" in the basement for anything I might need, from canned soups to paper products.

When I first moved out, I started doing similar things. I wasn't used to running out of something, so I always tried to have two of everything on hand. While this worked well, it meant that I was forgetting what I had, partially due to a very poorly shaped pantry.

I was lucky enough to find a place in D.C. with a grocery store within easy walking distance, so just popping by the store to pick something up is incredibly easy. Because of this, my stocking up has stopped quite a bit. I still stock up on items from Trader Joe's, as it's more of a trek, but it's not uncommon for me to run out of everyday items. I don't worry about it.

After talking to my coworker, however, I realized that this trend has led to me being woefully unprepared for any sort of a disaster. While I choose to live my life not worried about disaster around every corner (otherwise, I'd be living in a bunker in South Dakota), it's not a good idea to be prepared, just in case. And in the case of food, it's never bad to have extra supplies around, especially if I rotate things in and out. I spent some time perusing ready.gov and decided that I should try to put together some sort of a disaster kit. I'm putting it together in bits and pieces, and I'm not going to just put together one big box of everything, but rather two or three containers located sporadically throughout the apartment.

What kinds of things am I stocking up on? Well, I've decided to pick up a few gallons of drinking water. It's about $1 a gallon (ironic, since a 12 ounce bottle of water runs around $1.50). I don't know why I didn't think about it before. I grew up in an area where boil orders weren't uncommon. For those of you who don't know, a boil order is when residents of an area are told to boil their water before drinking it due to possible contamination. Not a huge deal. But what happens if there's a bad storm that leads to a boil order and a power outage? Makes it a bit harder to boil the water, doesn't it.

I don't own a radio. That's a problem. I'm looking into getting a NOAA Weather radio, perhaps one of those all-in-one emergency kits that you plug in and it lights up when the power goes out so you can find it, and it's got a radio and a flashlight right there ready to go.

I'm working on redoing my First Aid kit as well. I have a basic first aid kit, plus products I use more often (extra bandaids, Advil, Neosporin, etc). But when I opened up the kit, I realized a number of things inside were expired. Great. I stopped by the store to pick up a new pre-created kit, and discovered that the expiration dates on the kits at the store were 12/2008! So I'm slowly adding to the kit I have with full sized products rather than single use.

I always keep an extra month of my prescriptions on hand, so I will simply start putting the most recently purchased container into my emergency box, and I'll also throw a spare pair of contacts in the box.

In the kitchen, I've decided to put together a box in a cabinet with "extras." An extra bag of cat food (what, you think I wasn't including them in my emergency plan?) and extra canned goods, preferably the sort with pull tabs. I keep a stash of Clif bars at all times, so I think I'll just start keeping that stash in the emergency box. Same goes with the extra box of cereal I like to have on hand as well. This way, I can be prepared without too much extra work or extra expense. I'm just slowly buying more of what I have.

The one thing I know that I need to do is put together an envelope of cash. I have all my important documents in an easily carried fire safe, and I should add at least $100 in cash to that box as well. In an emergency, the spare $20 I always keep in my wallet isn't going to get me far.

I think this is where a chunk of my economic stimulus is going to go. To preparations for the unknown. Maybe it seems silly, but I figure that it can't hurt to be prepared.

Are you prepared for the unknown?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Retirement funds - DCA or no?

Thanks to a generous family member, I came into a bit of money in the past week. It was enough to fund my Roth IRA for the year with a bit leftover. So of course, step one was funding my Roth. I couldn't decide whether dollar cost averaging was the way to go or not. I did know that I wanted to add a fund to my IRA - a fund tracking the international markets - and at the financial institution I use, that required a minimum of $3000 to open. So that was an easy decision. I decided to just use the additional $2000 to purchase additional shares in a fund I already own. I thought about it for a while and decided to just drop all $2000 at once rather than do dollar cost averaging. Basically, I just wanted to have it done and not worry about it anymore.

With the market fluctuating as it has the past few months, I've really been ignoring a lot of my investment accounts. I know that I have chosen good funds for my Roth IRA. I know that I've chosen good funds for my TSP (not that there are a lot of options). The market is what is is, and I can't change it, so I might as well not worry about it. Besides, these are retirement accounts. I'm 27. I won't need them for quite some time.

When the market is good, it's fun to check in on retirement accounts and see how they are growing. But when the market is not so good, it can simply be added stress to log-in to an account and see how much money you've lost in the past few days. I've decided that's not added stress I need.

I do check my retirement accounts every month when I calculate my net worth for the month. And when the value is up, I'm happy, and when it's down, I just shrug and know that things will get better.

So that's why I decided against dollar cost averaging for the last $2000. I don't want to have to worry about it. There's no way to predict which method is better, though my hope is that the market is on a rebound and will keep bouncing back. But for my mental health, it was the right choice.

(Of course, what to do with the rest of the money is another story for another post.)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Sunday Link Roundup

Just a few posts from around the blogosphere that caught my eye over the past few days.
  • Networth and Sidebar Updates - I really like that asgreen has put together a number of different funds with goal amounts for each. I'm considering doing the same. I like the idea of a travel fund!
  • Time to stock up on those Forever Stamps - As J. Savings points out, stamp prices are going up again, so if you're looking to buy stamps, it makes sense to get the Forever Stamps before May 12. Personally, I use so few stamps that I'm not going to bother. I mail birthday cards and the occasional letter. Were I making a trip to the post office or even walking near one, I'd probably pop in and grab a booklet of 20, but I'm not sure it's worth it to me to go significantly out of my way for a savings of 20 cents at this point. I still don't get why people are stocking up SO much. I suppose if you use a lot of stamps, but really? Is it worth it?
  • Cheap, Green, and Clean Tips - Great ways to clean with just vinegar, baking soda, and water. I'm always looking for healthier ways to clean my home, and I already use vinegar in a lot of ways, but I think that once I use up some of the supplies I have, I might see if I can switch over to vinegar, baking soda, and water.
  • Making and Maintaining a Master Information Document - This is really something that I need to do. I hate to think about the "just in case" possibilities, but the reality is, it's best to be prepared.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

April Net Worth Update (+2.14%)

April was the best month for me financially. My net worth increased 2.14%. Again, the majority of this increase was due to investments continuing to bounce back, but my cash accounts also showed an increase - which tells me that I'm saving more than I'm spending. The YNAB plan is clearly working as it should.

For the year, I'm still below where I started - but by only about half a percent. I'm getting close, and I'm confident that if the markets either stay where they are or continue to rise and I just watch my spending, I'll finally be showing growth for 2008.

I am anticipating May to be a high spending month, however. I'm going on vacation this month and still owe my parents for part of my portion of the trip, and at the end of vacation, I'm jetting off to a friend's wedding, which will mean a hotel bill, and unfortunately, a lot of eating out. I've been planning for it in the budget, so I'm not too worried, but it will be interesting to see if I can still show some positive growth in my net worth anyway.

Friday, May 2, 2008

A Dollar a Day April Update

After four months, my Dollar a Day account is up to $121.46. It doesn't seem like much, but it's not felt like much while I was putting it away either - so it's been a pretty easy way to build up a little savings account.

Still debating what, if anything, is going to happen to the funds at the end of the year.

April Referrals

Thanks to everyone who has linked here over the past month. The top referrers for April are:
  1. BeachGirl's Budget Blog
  2. Consumerism Commentary
  3. Budgets Are Sexy
  4. WiseBread
  5. Paid Twice

Visiting Washington D.C. (Part 2)

To continue my guide to Washington, D.C. for the frugal traveler, I thought I would list some very basic tips for getting around D.C.

The Metro
I am a huge fan of the Metro system in D.C. Sure, it has it's problems, and for a while, I was cursing the red line daily, but all in all, it's a great way to get around. But I do have a few tips for using the Metro.

First - D.C. residents know this quite well, but when using the escalators at the Metro, you should stand right and walk left. If you want a leisurely ride down, stand on the right. Don't block those in a hurry and stand on the left or in the middle. It sounds silly, but I think this is one of the biggest pet peeves locals have about tourists. Along those lines, don't cluster at the bottom of the escalator either. I thought that was common sense, but last week, I careened into a group of tourists when I got to the end of the escalator.

The Metro will be the most crowded and the most expensive during rush hour. That's right - the regular rates are only during rush hour. Metro charges a "reduced rate" the rest of the time - including on the weekends and federal holidays. If you really want to save money, you might want to check out the fare schedule on the Metro website and figure out when you want to ride, but if you just want to avoid the crowds, I would recommend not leaving your hotel until around 9, and avoiding the metro from 5-6ish in the afternoon. Of course, your mileage may vary, but in my experience, those are the times when the metro is the busiest, meaning that you might get packed in. Of course, if you don't care about being pressed up against strangers, by all means, go for it. It can be a little bit intimidating for small children, however, if they're forced to stand on a very crowded metro train. Don't expect anyone to give up their seat for you either. If you have a physical need for a seat, don't be afraid to ask, of course.

You can pick up a free Metro map at any station, but I would also recommend getting a D.C. map with the metro stations marked on it. The Metro map is absolutely not to scale, and frequently, it can be just as easy to walk as to ride the Metro. And walking is free. I have seen a number of tourists get on the metro and ride two stops to get somewhere when they could have simply walked four or five blocks and passed a number of attractions on the way. You're always welcome to ride, but if you're looking to save money and it's a nice day, why not walk and see the sights while you do so?

D.C. also has a bus system that I admit I am not too familiar with. It can also be a good way to get around, but I find the Metro much simpler. Additionally, while the Metro can get off schedule, I have found that the busses are even much more so, simply due to the unpredictability of traffic patterns. The one site that comes to mind as not being accessible by Metro is the National Cathedral. It's a beautiful site, and worth the visit, but you will either have to take a cab, drive, or take a bus. You can walk it, but it's a hike.

You can buy Metro passes at any station, and the machines will take both cash and credit cards. You can also buy day passes, but unless you plan to do a significant amount of traveling, I think it's easier to just pay per trip.

You will need a separate pass for every traveler - you can't just put a lot of money on one pass and then share it among your group. You need to insert your pass both to enter and to exit the metro (as you are charged by your trip, not by a flat rate), so sharing won't work. Additionally, that means that when you get to your destination, you will need your pass again, so don't put it safely away at the very bottom of your bag while you're riding. Wait until after you leave the station.

The Circulator
The Circulator is sort of an extension of the metro system. It is a bus, much cleaner than most Metro busses I've been on, that goes to a few specific places. I find that it's a great way to get to Georgetown, for example. It costs $1 to ride. Might be worth checking out before your trip.

The Blue Signs
D.C. is a tourist city. And to help the tourists get around, on many street corners around the "touristy" areas of the city, you will see blue signs with arrows pointing you towards various attractions and towards the nearest Metro stops. Not only is this a great way to help you get around on foot, but it can help you figure out where you are and compare to your map.

Most importantly, if you get turned around, don't be afraid to look for a friendly looking person and ask for directions. You might get blown off, but I'd say most people are pretty nice about those sorts of things. A lot of people in the city didn't grow up here, so we were all newcomers at some point.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Maximizing rewards

Over on The Simple Dollar, there is a post about using a portfolio of credit cards for specific purchases, a way to try to maximize rewards and benefits on cards.

The "ideal" portfolio described seems like a lot of work to me - not in remembering to pay the bills, but simply in remembering which card to use when.

I currently use two main cards - an Amazon Visa from Chase and a Discover card. I use the Amazon Visa for most of my purchases - I get 3% back on Amazon.com purchases and 1% on other purchases. Everytime my rewards hit $25, I get an Amazon.com gift certificate in the mail. Given the myriad of things you can buy on Amazon.com, this has been a great rewards program for me.

I only use the Discover card for their 5% cash back bonus offers - every quarter, Discover sets up a few categories where all your purchases in that category gets you 5% cash back. Last quarter, it included things like travel and hotels. This quarter includes clothing and department stores. Take note people - next quarter includes gas purchases. To keep track of which things I should buy with the Discover card, I put a Post-It note on the card with the categories very clearly listed. Discover allows you to take your rewards as cash back or in the form of gift cards, and you often get a little bonus if you take the gift card - $20 will get you a $25 gift card from certain stores, for example.

I also have a few store credit cards, mainly because of the coupons provided. These are stores I shop at regularly, so the rewards and coupons are worth it. They don't get much use though.
Again, I never carry a balance on any of my cards, which makes the rewards worth it. And also makes me a drain on the credit card companies, if you think about it! I'm happy with my current use of credit cards. I'm careful to keep track of what I've charged on each of them, and I can't say that I've spent more just because I'm using multiple cards. Over all, it's a good system that works for me. Of course, as with everything, your mileage may vary.