Monday, January 28, 2008

I Need $2,000

Just when I had my budget or 'spending plan' all figured out, I find that I need another $2,000. Actually, I should say I want another $2,000.

A dear cousin recently got engaged and the wedding date will likely be set for the summer. Weddings in my family are a fun and fantastic affair. I will get to see relatives from far and wide and will feel all kinds of joy and mush. Good stuff. The catch is that they live oversees, as does much of my extended family.

Round trip airfare during peak travel season and some (very limited) spending money is going to run me just short of $2,000. Even though that's a pretty hefty price tag, I would like to go very much. I haven't been back for about five years and the timing feels right. This is one of those quality of life things that we earn money for.

What's a girl to do?

  • I have made a commitment to max out my retirement accounts and to retire my consumer debt this year. Those funds are not to be compromised.
  • I will pay for this trip in cash and not credit. (Fortunately I am not in the habit of turning to credit without great deliberation so this won't be a big temptation.)
  • I must have the cash available before the trip- about July 2008
  • I believe in the importance of an emergency fund so I will not drain that account (but using a small portion of it is ok with me).

Possible Sources of Money
  • I wrote about sources of found money recently and discovered that I could easily accumulate about $1,000 this year from random other sources. I think I can reasonably expect to have about $400 of that by July.
  • If things go as scheduled, I might get that economic stimulus package tax rebate by then as well. Funny, I hadn't expected to spend it on consuming "stuff" but I guess airfare falls in that category. A $600 rebate brings my total up to $1000.
  • I could put $500 from my emergency fund towards this bringing the total up to $1500.
  • There is some built-in wiggle room in my budget. I can make a commitment to save an extra $20 each month towards this trip for the next 5 months (=$100) which would bring me up to $1600 by July.

Something's Gotta Give

I am not going to compromise on my savings goals, my debt reduction goals... or my travel desires. According to the numbers above, this isn't going to work. Something's gotta give!

The savings, the debt, or the travel? Oh wait, I forgot to put one more thing into that equation. The Universe. The Universe gives.

Will the Universe give here? Can't say for sure. However, if past experience counts for anything, I know that when I am doggedly (and happily) determined to do or have something, I pretty much always get it.

So, for now at least, the last $400 I need in order to reach the $2000 amount needed to fund my trip, will go under the category of "Generosity of the Universe".

But what happens if the Universe doesn't deliver? Then I won't go.

But the Universe always gives. As long as I know how to joyfully receive it!

I will keep you posted on how this all works out.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

$6 an Hour for Clicking Emails?

One of the ways I accumulate a few extra dollars each year is through online programs such as Inbox Dollars and MyPoints.

These programs seem to be designed mainly to get you to shop through their websites so they can accumulate their own affiliate rewards. The way they entice you is by offering you a share of the rewards by giving you a rebate either in the form of cash back or points. However, the thing that works for us frugal folks is that they also give out small amounts of rewards simply for opening the advertising emails they send you about their affiliates.

I recently mentioned these programs in my post Found Money. Jacob (who has a fantastic blog if you haven't already seen it) wondered if clicking these emails was worth the time it took. I decided to find out.

Here's what I discovered:

It took me just under one minute to go through three emails. This involved opening the message, clicking on the one (or two) required buttons to confirm that I had read it, and then deleting the message. I do use tabbed browsing with Firefox so while the advert was opening in another tab I was easily able to move on to the next message in my inbox.

At Inbox Dollars my earnings seem to be averaging about 3.5 cents per email read.
At the rate of 3 emails per minute, that's 10.5 cents per minute or $6.30 per hour.

At MyPoints each email earns 5 points.
At the rate of 3 emails per minute that's 15 points per minute or 900 points per hour.
What's the dollar value of 900 points? See this discussion at I've Paid For This Twice Already
for some interesting details. If I go with the most expensive redemption value (which means I could earn more) then I can get $1 for every 150 points.
So if I have 900 points, that's worth $6

Isn't that interesting? It looks like my hourly rate for clicking emails is more than the federal minimum wage.

By the way, the Inbox Dollars links here are referral links. You can get $5 for signing up (and after you reach a certain earnings level I will get $5 too... so thank you for joining!)

  • I use a separate email account for these kinds of programs so their emails don't clutter up my regular inbox.
  • I used tabbed browsing with Firefox (I believe the newer versions of IE have that too) which makes it easier to zip through the emails.

  • I'm not a shopaholic so I don't get tempted by the offers. Many of the offers are from your standard retailers and the deals can be pretty good.
  • If you are already planning to buy something and can't get a better rebate froma different program, you may want to shop through these sites and earn rewards a LOT faster than just by clicking their emails.

Who is Responsible for You?

Meg at All Financial Matters does write some wonderfully provocative posts! I just read her article Take Responsibility for Your Money Problems. I agree with almost everything she says.

But then again, I am a firm believer in the concept of choice, and that we all have it in spades. Every moment of every day, I am making a choice. I can choose to act a certain way, to react a certain way, or to not act at all. The more conscious I am of the choices I am making, the more I am able to control my 'destiny'.

Who is responsible for my destiny? My parents? My employer? The government? The markets? Luck? Is that what I want?

Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice;
it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.
William Jennings Bryan

Who's responsible for your destiny?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What Can I Buy With a $200 per Month Grocery Budget?

I have mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I plan on a grocery budget of $200/month this year. This budget needs to fit the following parameters:
  • It is for one person only (I am not trying to feed a family on this budget)
  • It must include as many whole foods as possible and minimize prepackaged "food products"
  • It must include funds for household supplies (toilet paper) and toiletries (shampoo etc.)
  • It must include funds for occasionally eating out.
Is that a tall order? I don't think so. I have come across a number of posts and forums where people claim to feed a family of 4 on under $200/month (I'll have to hunt around for those links and get back to you). Some resources that have been recommended are the Grocery Game and Coupon Mom. I haven't used either of the services so I can't say how useful they are.

So how do I intend to pull this off?

  1. I know my eating habits and preferences.
  2. I am willing to put in the time to prepare my food at home (I think!)
  3. I am not an impulse snack shopper; I shop with a list.
Here's the breakdown for the month:


Meats: $50
Chicken/red meat: $20
Fish: $30

Vegetables: $40
Salad greens: $15
Onions: $5
Tomatoes: $5
Potatoes: $5
Misc. Seasonal Vegetables: $10

Grains/Beans/Lentils: $15 (super cheap stuff and can provide the bulk of your calories)
Rice: $5
Lentils and beans: $5
Oatmeal (old fashioned): $5

Fruits: $20
Berries: $10
Seasonal fruit: $10

Dairy: $30
Cottage cheese: $15
Plain yogurt: $15

Desserts: $10

Oil/Condiments/Spices: $10

Household Supplies: $10

Dining Out: $20

No alcohol, cigarettes, or recreational drugs needed.

When I lay out the numbers like that, it doesn't look like that's a lot of food. However, these numbers are based on actual prices from my local grocery store, and a skeleton menu plan. I didn't do any comparison shopping to find these prices.


I find a skeleton menu plan very handy. I decide how to balance my meals and then just do slight variations over the weeks. Here's what a typical day would be like for me:

I cup slow cooked oatmeal (takes 5 min in the microwave)
I cup cottage cheese
I cup chopped berries

3-4oz meat/chicken/fish (takes 5 minutes to grill in the toaster over, or I can stew up enough for the week)
salad greens
cooked vegetables (spinach or potatoes etc.)

3-4 oz chicken/meat/fish
rice (bless the rice cooker)
a spicy condiment

Ice cream or a piece of chocolate

There are usually some left-overs from the meals so I can have a couple of snacks during the day as well.

Possible Hurdles
  1. Laziness (ahem!). If I'm not careful about planning sufficient time to prep my meals, then I will be sorely tempted to resort to using prepackaged items.
  2. I may want to hang out with friends at restaurants more often than I am planning. I will have to come up with strategies to deal with that.
  3. I've been reading The China Study and am wondering if I need to rethink the amount of animal protein that I have in my daily diet. After I spend some time mulling that over, this whole menu might change. Hmmm.
Household supplies
I am not a big consumer of household products. My biggest expense in this category is toilet paper. I don't use use chemical cleaners or paper towels. Shampoo and toothpaste last quite a long time. I really don't have to lather, rinse, and repeat. Laundry detergent also lasts a long time. Which TV ad convinced moms in the 1950s that you can't wear your clothes a few times before you wash them? How absurdly wasteful!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Being Organized Can Save You Money

I admit, I enjoy organizing. I like things to look neat and orderly, I put things away and my home is beautiful (to me anyway). But I wasn't always like this. In fact, I was quite a slob. Too much clutter, too much paper, too much stuff, and not enough getting done.

When I first started working, I made very little money. I had to learn to live on a small income really fast. Getting organized, and learning to love it, was one of the best things I did.

Here are some of the ways that being organized saves me money:

No Late Charges $$
I don't lose bills and statements in a pile of mail and forget payments. I never have to pay late charges, overdraft fees, or ATM fees. I know how much money is going into and out of my checking account, and when.

Quick tip on how to handle mail: when you pick up the mail, walk directly to your recycling bin (with a table next to it). Open each piece of mail, tear up junk or useless items and toss them in the bin right away. Save only the one or two sheets needed from your statements or other important mail. With a highlighter mark the due date and put it on your desk for bill-paying day. Don't have an intermediate holding place for all your mail between your mailbox and your desk unless you religiously schedule in time to deal with mail.

No Unnecessary Shopping $$$$
A good storage system saves tons of money by eliminating unnecessary spending. I know a lot of people who simply toss a new purchase into a catch-all closet or drawer because they found it on sale, or it looked good... and then completely forget about it and go out and buy another one.

Quick tip for organizing storage: Use plastic drawers- they are easily stackable yet keep contents easily accessible. If my things aren't easily accessible, I tend to avoid using them. If I have to move two or three items out of the way to get to them, forget it. In your closet, hang up as many of your clothes as you can- this is easier to maintain than folding, and keeps clothes visible. I like having a visual reminder of how many things I have- cuts down on the urge to buy more stuff!

No Wasted Food $$$
Menu planning and using a price book are fantastic ways to slash your grocery budget. Menu planning eliminates impulse buys, unhealthy snack purchases, and wasted food. Maintaining a price book keeps you on track with getting the best prices for your regular purchases. Check out Organized Home for more details on how to make and use a price book.

No Last-Minute Expensive Gifts $$$
This one used to be a killer for me. Rushing out to buy someone a gift at the last minute is a sure0fire way of busting your budget. I now keep a gift box which I stock throughout the year with items I find on sale. If I were a dedicated gift-giver (which I am not), I would probably make a list of all the people I buy gifts for and note down things they would be interested in. then I would keep an eye out for those items and buy them when I found them at a good price. There is a good collection of gift giving tips at The Dollar Stretcher.

No Stressed-Out Urge to Spend $$
I do believe that over-spending is often a mechanism we use to cope with stress, much like over-eating. The problem is, it's a vicious cycle and ends up causing more stress. I also think clutter is an insidious source of stress. Read more about stress and clutter here. So, maintaining an organized home is a very good way to reduce stress and spending.

The Dollar Stretcher has a great set of articles on how to get organized on a budget. Check it out!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Brief Thoughts About the Stimulus Package

I am a little conflicted about this talk of a stimulus package. I am no economist, and actually know very little about the broad implications of federal economic decisions so I could be way off base here. However, the idea that we need to give out a rebate to people so they can start spending more makes me pause.

So, our whole economy is based on spending. How much spending? From what I have seen, things get pretty crazy when spending gets out of control. That's what's gotten us in this mess in the first place.

Maybe I just need to re-frame the issue for myself so I can feel more comfortable with this. Perhaps the idea is to get money back into circulation.

I will have to ponder this more.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

More on How to Live on Minimum Wage

My Minimum Wage post is by far the most visited page on my blog. I guess a lot of people are interested in this topic. I decided to do a little search and gather together some of my favorite posts on the net about minimum wage living.

Please add your favorite links so we can get a good list going! Keep them positive though. We're looking for things that will provide encouragement and ideas for handling a budget (or ideas for getting out of min. wage)

Ten Steps to Financial Success for a Minimum Wage Earner at the Simple Dollar
How to Live on Minimum Wage by Exjackly
How to Get Wealthy on Minimum Wage at Early Retirement Extreme
Saving on Minimum Wage at Tight Fisted Miser
Breaking the Shackles: How to Escape From Minimum Wage at Get Rich Slowly
Minimum Wage Challenge series of posts by L R Johnson
Can You Live off Minimum Wage in Los Angeles? at

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Moment of Gratitude

I am feeling incredulous. Incredulous that in the last ten days my non-retirement portfolio has lost all the gains it had made in the past three years.

I am feeling grateful. Grateful that seventeen days ago I made the decision to use the money in my portfolio to pay off my debts and start a Roth IRA. Grateful that twelve days ago I liquidated my portfolio.

How did I get that lucky?!

Ever heard the quote "...the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too...."?

I made a commitment to get rid of my debt and max out my retirement. I started writing a blog. I talked to the folks at work and made arrangements for my retirement deductions. I made a decision to liquidate my non-retirement portfolio in order to help me do that. I made that commitment. But did providence move and help me act just in the nick of time?

Whether it did or it didn't, I am grateful!

Here's the rest of that quote (from

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness concerning all acts of initiative and creation. There is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen events, meetings and material assistance which no one could have dreamed would have come their way.

I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now!"

-W.H. Murray

Monday, January 14, 2008

Saving on Heating Costs

I've been doing some research to figure out how to bring down my heating costs. See the collection of links at the end of the post for some good ideas.

For those who have read my previous posts, you know by now that I live in a place that gets a decent amount of snow. Even with our unseasonably warm (and whacky) weather this year, this town gets cold. And I don't like being cold.

I recently got on the budget plan with my utility company so I have a consistent payment every month. However, I have been keeping an eye on the details of the bill anyway to compare my usage this year to last. I would ideally like to bring it down, not just to deal with the rising cost of fuel but also to be a little kinder to the environment.

So, what do I already do, and what can I improve?

Programmable Thermostat
Thankfully my house has one... and I know how to use it! I used to keep the temperature at 68+ degrees when I was at home but this year I seem to be managing just fine with 66 degrees in the evenings. Here's my temperature schedule:
5am-8am 68 degrees (I hate getting out of bed into cold air, the warmer the better)
8am- 7pm 59 degrees (this is the time I am at work or running errands etc.)
7pm - 10pm 66 degrees
10pm-5am 62 degrees

Wear Warmer Clothes in the House
You'd think this was a no-brainer. I didn't like doing it because the clothes felt so restrictive. But I got a couple of large roomy sweatshirts that I now love bumming around in. I also started wearing socks around the house. What a difference that made. Can you tell I wasn't raised in a cold climate? The things one learns.

Sealing Windows and Doors
The previous owner left a cute "draft dodger" for the front door. But the back door sure lets a lot of air through. On a particularly windy day I can have quite a bit of snow inside my back door. I need to get proper weather stripping there. Newer windows throughout the house so their weather stripping is pretty good. I just need to make sure they are closed and locked properly.

Hot Water Heater
I can turn down the temperature on my hot water heater. I can also shorten my showers and use cold water in my washing machine.

I will make sure to check/replace my filter every 2-3 months.

I will add more insulation to my attic.

That's the list I can handle right now. When I feel a little more adventurous I shall tackle a few more of the suggestions that can be found in the following links:

12 Simple Ways to Save Money on Utilities (and the Planet) at Fivecentnickel

Save Money on Heating Costs at

Home heating tips to save fuel and money

Saving Money on Home Heating
at Pioneer Thinking

Eleven Ways We are Going to Save Money on Heating Costs This Winter at Blogging Away Debt

And this huge archive at The Dollar Stretcher

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Simplify Your Finances

I want money management to be easy. Yes, I like organizing and planning and reviewing... but I don't want to do it for the same subject forever.

Below are the steps I am either taking now or plan to take very soon to simplify my finances. If you scroll down to the end of the article you can find some links to other writers who have some great suggestions.

Direct Deposit
Oh the joys of not having to get myself to the bank and deposit my paycheck! Now I just need to find a way to automatically deposit the rent from my tenants. Ideas anyone?

Automatic Retirement Deductions
This is taken out of my paycheck and sent directly to the 403b brokerage account. No muss, no fuss.

One Checking Account
Everything comes into and goes out of the same account

The Orange Savings Account by ING

Maybe if I did more research I could find a simpler way to manage savings.. but I'd be surprised. I love how ING lets me have as many savings accounts as I want (there may be a limit but I haven't come close) and lets me transfer money between them instantly. And I can close them and rename them with just a few clicks as well if I start feeling overwhelmed. I have brought my savings accounts down to four:
  1. Financial Freedom: this also serves as my emergency fund. Any amount above a certain level will go into a mutual fund.
  2. Save to Spend: Here I save for quarterly or annual bills, upcoming vacations, irregular bills, etc.
  3. Rental: All funds related to my rental account get transferred to and from here
  4. Interest Income: this is a just-for-fun account so I can see how much interest I have been accumulating over the year.

Consolidate Debts

After I purchased my house I did some remodeling (definitely worth it) on 0% credit cards. But now I have 6 credit cards and too many due dates, which is a pain. Plus it hasn't been good for my credit score to have so many maxed out cards. My wonderful sister has offered to be my next 0% balance transfer offer (gotta love family). I am using her to consolidate my credit card debts and cashing out some old investments to pay off the remainder. Now I make one simple monthly electronic transfer to her bank account instead of paying 6 credit cards.

Online Bill Pay
I love online bill pay and have been using it for years. Organized as I am, putting a stamp on an envelope and putting it in the mailbox is one of the hardest things for me. Go figure. The first time I get a bill from a vendor, I quickly input their info into my account and from then on it's two clicks and we're done!

Automatic Payments
I do this in two ways:
  1. On my credit card: This is my first choice. If a vendor will accept an automatic credit card payment I add 'em on and rack up the cash-back rewards.
  2. Through my bank: Some vendors will automatically deduct payments from my back account on the due date. This saves me from having to send them a check through bill pay.

One Rewards Credit Card for all Purchases
Using a credit card isn't recommended for people who have problems with over-spending. I don't have that problem so this system works amazingly well for me. I put all of my purchases on my credit card- from the smallest to the largest. This gives me a nicely organized and categorized statement of all my spending on a monthly and yearly basis. It also gives me rewards for purchases I would have made anyway. Using a credit card over a debit card also has the advantage of giving me some float time and simplifies my bill paying.

I have been using Discover Card for about ten years but I am going to switch this year for two main reasons. Discover still isn't accepted as ubiquitously as Visa/Mastercard and there a couple of places I frequent that don't take it. I don't want to miss out on the cash-back by having to use my check-card. I can also find a card that gives me a higher cash-back percentage. I will keep you posted on which card I decide to go with. (And obviously, I won't be closing my very old Discover account with the perfect payment history or my credit score will likely plummet).

Having a Schedule
I keep a master schedule (which has been so regular for so long now that I just keep it in my head) of when I get paid and which bills come out of which paycheck. Most of my bills are automatic so I don't have to do anything. The only ones I pay are my monthly credit card bill, the transfer to my sister, and the transfer to my savings accounts. My bank doesn't allow me to automate a payment to another account holder (and my sister doesn't want me to send her a bill-pay check because she dislikes lines at the bank as much as I do). The other two I like to do manually because they are irregular amounts and I like to check them over before I send the payment.

Going Paperless
My life changed after I decided to stop receiving paper statements. Now I no longer fret about mounds of paper I should keep or shred. Online statements are all I need.

Online Account Aggregation
There are many services that will gather data from all your financial accounts into one place for you. I do this through my bank and I highly recommend it to everyone. This process allows me to see all of my accounts at a glance with the most up-to-date information. It keeps old but unused accounts on my radar for suspicious activity. And it calculates my net worth for me as well. Wonderful stuff.

Below are what some other folks have said:

How to Automate Your Personal Finances at Get rich Slowly
17 Ways To Simplify Your Personal Finances at Your Credit Advisor
6 Easy Ways to Simplify Your Finances at Moolanomy
4 Ways to Simplify Your Finances Where Possible at Consumerism Commentary
Simplify Your Finances at the Motley Fool
10 Ways to Organize and Simplify Your Finances at The Digerati Life

What are your best tips for simplifying your finances?

Retirement Planning- The Forgotten Component

As I hunker down this year and focus in on retirement planning, I am learning that I will really need to pay attention to health-care costs when I am older. Prescription medications, special procedures, chronic problems, long term care... the list is long.

So what are the things I can do right now to prepare for that?

Obviously, the first thing about retirement planning is saving money right now, investing it and letting it grow.

But the forgotten thing about retirement planning is investing in your health right now. Preventative measures taken early and sustained throughout life will reap huge dividends in old age- in terms of quality of life and significantly reduced health-care costs.

Ramen noodles may be cheap now but eat them long term and you'll be paying big. Avoiding fresh fruits and vegetables may be easier on your wallet and your tastebuds (for some) but eat them anyway! Living on preservative-laden boxed and canned food products because you can get them practically for free with double coupons and sales may bring your grocery budget down to a fraction of what it was... but be careful! Working long hours so you can bring in more money at the expense of your mental and physical health may be a huge source of regret later.

So when you're tempted to save a few bucks by short-changing your health, don't do it!

Make time and room in your budget for:
  • healthful foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, lean proteins (and supplements if you want)
  • menu planning and meal preparation so you're not tempted to buy and eat the easy but not-so-healthful prepackaged or fast food meals
  • daily exercise where you break a sweat and provide resistance to your muscles
  • relaxation and mental health
  • quitting addictions such as smoking, drinking, drugs, and sugar (mine!)
What would you add to that list?

Found Money

I'm usually pretty good about making a budget with my regular income sources and sticking to it but I've never sat down to account for all the little bits of money that happen to come my way from other sources.

Based on my activities over the past few years and some new stuff I have recently begun, here's what I can reasonably expect over the year:

Credit card cash back: $100
(for living expense purchases I would make anyway)

Mypoints: $50
(just for clicking emails, no shopping. I will get this in the form of a gift card to a store I regularly shop at for living expenses)

Inbox Dollars (referral link): $50
(just for clicking emails, no shopping; you can get $5 just for signing up)

Bond Rewards: $100
(online shopping for some of my living expenses- but this money is in the form of US savings bonds that will mature at a later date)

ING savings account interest: $150
(after accounting for taxes and even if I end up spending some of my emergency fund )

Health Insurance Rebate for Gym Membership : $300
I would maintain my gym membership regardless of the rebate, so this really is a bonus.

Property Tax Rebate: $250

That's an extra $1000 over the year. Not too shabby!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Loving Your Job

I just read a great post by Meg at All Financial Matters entitled Loving Your Job is Overrated. She points out that "it’s not wise to endlessly encourage and promise today’s youth that they can and should LOVE their jobs. They might, and that’s great, but they don’t have to."
"We’ve been taught since we were toddlers that we can be anything we want to be, that we should always be happy, that we can and should find a fulfilling job that entwines all of our talents and interests. Those promises bring extraordinary pressure and set expectations that frankly, not many people can or will ever realize."
The thing is, I love my job. Actually, I LOVE my job. Did I get lucky?

In some ways yes, I got lucky. When I was 6 I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up... and that's the job I got. Most people don't know what they want to be when they grow up. Or they do, but then realize that they should find a more practical job because they won't make much money in their dream field unless they're the best of the best.

In other ways, luck had nothing to do with it. I made some pretty critical choices.

Choice #1: I chose life over money

I was willing to earn very little money as long as I got to spend most of my waking hours doing the things that I love to do.

Choice #2: I chose to minimize societal influences that push me towards valuing money over life

Hello.. TV and magazines anyone? Once you go on a media fast you begin to realize just how strongly you are pulled by the messages around you that make your life suddenly feel inadequate. So when Meg says the promises of a fulfilling and passionately loved job puts extraordinary pressure and sets expectations, she's right. It's because the fulfilling job is in direct conflict with the ubiquitous societal norms of having certain things and looking a certain way; norms that we're not even consciously aware of.

One day, I stopped watching TV. I didn't set out on an intentional media fast, I just didn't get cable. I didn't even bother to get rabbit-ears. And then it became very easy to never turn on the tube. I didn't turn it on for four years. I also stopped buying magazines. I'd walk into the grocery store and flip through a magazine at the checkout counter but have to put it down within 30 seconds because of stimulation overload.

The other thing I did was to move away from the community I grew up in. Don't get me wrong, there are many wonderful things about my community and I go back and hang out with them occasionally. But most of the people I grew up with are upper-middle class. That's pretty rich in my book. They live in fancy new houses, have fancy new furniture and fancy new cars. They look at my fancy degree (which I happen to have) and can't understand why I didn't pick a fancy career to go with it. I don't need that. I chose not to surround myself with that.

Choice #3: I chose to reflect carefully on my work and recognize what it is that I love.
This is one of the more enlightening things I have done in my life. For someone who has known what she wanted to be since she was 6, it was quite a surprise to learn that I didn't need a specific job title to get the same joy from my work. I was able to distill out the features of the work that really rocked my world. I will probably write a dedicated post about this in the near future. But for now, suffice it to say that if we can get over the hump of thinking that it's only be being a writer/actor/chef/artist/athlete/politician/(fill in the blank) can we LOVE our jobs, then maybe we can actually begin to find fulfillment and joy in the work we actually do.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Quality of Life... Now and Forever!

All this talk and thought of money brings up the subject of quality of life. After all, why do I want money anyway? So I can live a certain way.

Beyond the basics of having enough to eat and a safe home etc. what are the things I need in my life to feel that sense of "Yeah! Can life get any better?!" ? I actually know the answer to this because I said that very thing one morning and managed to sustain that feeling for a few years.

So here goes...

When my weight is low, my muscles are lean and toned, when I can sprint up and down steps without getting winded, and can lift boxes and move furniture without help... I look good and I feel good. I don't get headaches or backaches or grumpy aches. When I eat leafy greens and berries and veggies the colors of the rainbow, when I eat brown rice and slow cooked oatmeal and indulge in wild salmon once in a while... my hair and my skin and my smile glow. Oh yes, I need my health.

I am a very visual person. The forms and shapes and colors around me can turn me off or turn me on. I need beauty in my home. The intensity of the light, the harmony of the colors, the balance of the forms, the exquisite beauty in the order of things. I can sit for two hours on my living room couch completely blissed out by the arrangement of the things around me. An no, none of them were at all expensive. So, surrounding myself with beauty is lovely. It's like those auditory musician types listening to a symphony or gustatory wine connoisseurs on a winery tour.

Meaningful Work
How I spend my time is extremely important to me. I have found that I need the following components in my work in order to feel that odd and perfect mixture of contentment and exhilaration.
Optimal level of intellectual challenge: When my skills and the demands of the task at hand are perfectly matched about half the time. The other half of the time the demands should be just a little beyond my reach so I have to learn, stretch, and grow.
Service or contribution: I need my work to make a difference in the wider world. It doesn't have to make a huge difference, just as long as it goes beyond me and my small circle.

Alone Time
Yes, I am an introvert. Not excessively so, but enough that the constant company of others begins to rattle my brain a little. I need quiet time alone to reflect on my day or to simply not think at all. Some people call it meditation. I have never engaged in formal meditation but I naturally find myself slipping into a still, restful state of awareness when I give myself the time and remove myself from the buzz of activity. This means I have to make sure I don't over-schedule my day.

Can't live without love. Life without love is a deathly life. So say I. I need a certain level of love in my relationships but to reach the state I mentioned at the beginning of this post I need something special. This is the kind of love that feels so big no hole can empty it. Children often make one feel this way. Some people experience it with their pets. Occasionally we find a friend or lover who falls (or rises?) into that state with us. And sometimes it just wells up from within. However I can get it, I'll take it.

I need a certain level of autonomy in my life. I consider choice to be my birthright. I need then to be able to recognize my choices, to act on them and to experience the consequences. Granted the consequences aren't always what I expect, but the fact that I have the opportunity to make those mistakes is more valuable to me. The trick to this lies at the recognition stage. I've had enough experiences in my life to now recognize that I always have a choice. When I'm stuck between that rock and the hard place and the samurai warrior and the poisonous snake and the government and the media and the terrorists.... I still have a choice. It's a state of mind and if I lose that... then I won't be able to go bounding out into the sunshine on a balmy day in May and holler "Yeah! Does life get any better?!"

Sunshine on a Balmy Day in May
'nuf said.

And ohhhh look! None of these things require a whole lot of money. Good thing too because I'm just now starting to make what some would call a decent wage.

Here's hoping for health, beauty, meaningful work, alone time, love, independence, and occasional warm and sunny days - now and forever. Now that is a quality life.

Monday, January 7, 2008

That's My Budget And I'm Stickin' To It!

Now that I'm done with my minimum wage dreams post, let's get down to my actual real-life budget.

Job 1 $1500/month after taxes and maxing out the 403b (woohoo!)
Job 2 $500
Total $2000

Housing $365/month
Utilities $0 (gas, electric, internet, laundry included above)
Gym $45 (I love my gym and I will get $300 of this reimbursed over the year)
Health Insurance $0
Transportation $80 (for gas)
Groceries $200
Save to spend $100 (includes savings for annual/quarterly payments like car insurance, car registration, home maintenance etc.)
Student loans $85
Other debt $1,000
Wiggle room $125
Total $2,000

By the end of the month I will have moved some money out of old investments to fully fund a Roth IRA.

I already have $4K in my emergency fund.

By December all of my non-mortgage debts should be paid off if I stick to this budget. I mean, they will be paid off because I will stick to this budget!

How Would I Live on a Minimum Wage Income?

I recently read a post entitled How to Get Wealthy on Minimum Wage by Jacob over on the Early Retirement Extreme blog.

I am all inspired to try to tackle life with a minimum wage income. I have no intention of actually earning that little, but I wonder if I could handle it if I did.

The minimum wage in my state is $7.15/hr. Using the hourly paycheck calculator at paycycle it looks like I could bring home about $219/week after taxes if I work 38hrs/wk. If I figure I won't work for about 3 weeks of the year for sick/personal days my average monthly take-home would be about $900. Ohkaay... can my living expenses fit within that? Let's find out.


I am single so I only have to cover my own expenses. If I had someone else to take care of I would definitely be working a lot more hours.

Health Insurance
I will assume that health insurance is not provided. My employers have intentionally kept my hours below 40hrs/week so that I wouldn't be considered full time.

Location Exactly where I am living right now. I know the cost of living here.

Debt I will assume that I am carrying some consumer debt. I don't know much about how minimum payments are calculated at different interest rate levels so I will leave this part fuzzy until I do some further research.


Rent This is easy. I actually own my house and rent out one bedroom for $325/month which includes all utilities, wireless internet, and laundry. My roommate has free use of the rest of the house as well. If she could find this deal, then I will assume that I would be able to as well!

Utilities Included in the rent.

Health Insurance I have pretty low risk tolerance so the thought of going without health insurance would be a huge source of stress for me. I would sign up for a high deductible health plan. I can find a state sponsored plan administered by Blue Cross & Blue Shield for $115/month without Rx drugs. I very rarely get sick so I would be willing to accept that risk. I would also budget another $35/month to put into the attached Health Savings Account (HSA) to use towards the deductible if necessary. The great thing about an HSA is that even though it is tax deductible like an FSA, you don't lose it at the end of the year if it is unused. You can withdraw any unused money at retirement age for any purpose without penalties (but it will be taxed at that point). So $35 out of my monthly budget would actually mean that more is deposited into the HSA.

Transportation I imagine that if I made minimum wage I wouldn't own a car like I actually do. My current gas budget is just over $75/month so I will use that for bus fare. I live within safe and easy walking distance to two grocery stores which will even help with comparison shopping. Bonus! I would also look around for a used or freecycled bike that I could use during the summer months.

Groceries I have lived on a $1/meal budget before and I could definitely do it again. However, I do believe strongly in the importance of good nutrition so I would make sure to include sufficient fresh fruits and vegetables which can raise the cost per meal significantly. I would budget $200/month for groceries. This would have to include toiletries and supplies etc.

Debt I could budget $100/month to pay my debts.

Retirement I would sign up for an automatic investment plan for a Roth IRA and deposit $50/month. Earnings on a Roth IRA grow tax free but I can withdraw my actual contribution any time I want without paying penalties. I like this option if I am earning such little money in case I need to tap this money for an emergency.

So where does this leave me?

Rent $325
Utilities $0
Health Insurance $150
Transportation $75
Groceries $200
Debt $100
Retirement $50

Total Expenses $900
Total Income $900

The fact that this budget leaves me no wiggle room is unacceptable.

Must...have...wiggle room!

One thing I won't compromise on is taking three weeks off from work. No human being should have to 'work' all 52 weeks of the year. I like my personal time. Time to stare at the wall, time to walk in the grass, time to visit friends and family. Not giving that up!

I am, however, happy to work a lot more hours per week. In fact, as a salaried person I currently work an average of 50-60 hours every week... and love it.

If I want wiggle room in my budget, I would add an extra 10 hours of work each week. This would pump up my take-home pay by about $260 each month.

Where would I spend my second-job wiggle-room money?

Debt I would add another $100 to snowball debt repayments.

Emergency Fund Another $100/month would go to an emergency fund

Wiggle Room $60/month... just in case! If I don't use it up one month, it goes into the emergency fund.

Once the emergency fund is fully loaded, I would focus in on eliminating debt. (f I wanted to get serious about blasting that debt I would be working an additional 10 hours a week.) Once the debt is eliminated I would put all of those payments now totaling $300/month towards the retirement fund or towards improving my education if I wanted to move up the earnings ladder.

What about entertainment and special toys and luxuries? If I want anything that doesn't fit into the budget, I'm going to have to go hunting for more hours or get some entrepreneurial juices flowing.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Of Renting and Ranting

I am very excited. I found a tenant who has signed a lease for my rental house. This means I can talk to my 403b administrator this week and make the necessary payroll adjustments so that they take out $1290 from my paycheck each month.

I've been having a funky vibe about this tenant :( One of my goals (not mentioned on this blog yet) is to simplify my life and this tenant looks like he might be high maintenance.

Okay, so that wasn't technically a rant. Oh well. I'm going to keep a positive attitude about this and not worry unless something actually happens.

Yay! 403b here I come!

Friday, January 4, 2008

Saving on Gas

I am planning a budget of $80/month for my gasoline expenses this year. This will roughly fill up my tank twice. I am going to try to incorporate the following strategies to stretch my gas milage. That should free up a few extra dollars each month that I can put towards extra savings goals, or give me some breathing room as gas prices climb.

  1. Check my tire pressure every two weeks
  2. Be diligent about car maintenance. I sold my previous car at 207K miles and it would have lasted longer if I had been more careful about certain maintenance tasks.
  3. Carpool with my roommate to work at least two days a week (every day will be tricky since our schedules can vary wildly).
  4. Pay off the 0% balance transfer debt on my Chase credit card by Jan 31 so I can start accumulating 3% cash-back for gas purchases.
  5. Use my Price Chopper grocery store membership card to collect points that will get me a discount at the Sunoco gas station.
  6. Compare that discount to local gas prices on sites such as
  7. Be conscientious about planning my errands to minimize miles driven.
  8. Eliminate my occasional habit of "driving around" just so I can listen to music loudly and get some vibration going in my body. Maybe I'll get headphones and dance around my room. heh.

Things I already do:
  1. Live within 5-7 miles of work, the grocery store, major shopping, and the gym- all places that I need to go to regularly.

Other strategies that would be great for some, but won't work for me:
  1. Replace driving with biking/walking. Even though I live within just 5 miles of places I frequently travel to, I consider the road conditions relatively unsafe and I'd much rather be in my car.
  2. Buy a more fuel efficient car. I have a paid-for 7-yr-old Honda CRV. I am not willing to give up all-wheel-drive as long as I live in a part of the country that receives snow for 6-8 months of the year. I am also not willing to give up the easily accessible trunk space of my CRV since I regularly need to transport fairly large items.

Looking forward to bringing that $80/month down a bit!

The Beginning

New year's resolutions, goals, commitments... I find the whole business exhilarating. In fact, I probably like the idea of having a goal and accomplishing it more than the goal itself. The challenge keeps me motivated. So this year, I am embarking on the self designed Great Money Challenge.

The Great Money Challenge

  1. I will contribute the maximum allowed to my 403b plan (I have never done that before, and over the past 6 years haven't been contributing anything)= $15,500
  2. I will contribute the maximum allowed to a Roth IRA (don't have one yet, will need to open one)= $5,000
  3. I will pay off all of my non-mortgage debt= $17,843 (all of it, except for $916 in student loans, is at 0%)

  1. I got a raise last month! woohoo! My full time job finally pays me $40K (should I be keeping that private? I'm going to start out with some level of transparency though so that the numbers make sense to people who may be reading). Over my ten year earning history my average annual income has been about $28K so this new number looks really good to me.
  2. My health insurance premiums are completely paid for by my employer (nice perk). In addition, I just switched over to the health plan that will reimburse me up to $300/yr for my gym membership (which I have had for years and which I use 4-6 days a week). I also have a very sparse history of illness.
  3. I bought a house last year and managed to find two great roommates to share it with. With their help, my housing expenses including utilities and high-speed internet is $365/month (which I think is fantastic for any part of the country and especially for my beloved adorable little house).
  4. I do some part time work for a friend which brings in an extra $500/month after taxes (if I choose to put in the hours).
  5. My car is fully paid for. A 2000 Honda with 83K miles.
  6. I have $4K in my cash savings or emergency fund.
  7. I have $10K from some old investments that I will put towards debt repayment and the Roth.
  8. I am single so I don't have expenses for kids or a spouse.
  9. I am a pretty organized person.

Monthly expenses to be grateful for:
Health insurance: $0
Car payments: $0
Child care etc: $0
Housing: $365
Gym membership: $20 (after the reimbursement)

Monthly income to be grateful for:
Full time job that I love: $3334 (before taxes)
Part time job that is flexible: $500(after taxes)

Possible Hurdles
  1. I bought a rental property a year ago but I've been having trouble finding reliable long term tenants. If the house stays vacant for too many months it'll seriously impact my ability to contribute to my retirement plans. I don't plan to use any income from the rental property for living expenses until I have a good cushion saved for surprise expenses.