Saturday, March 29, 2008

Taking a financial challenge

I have decided April 2008 will be my necessary spending only month. This will be interesting because I do like my trips for chips to the vending machine. In anticipation of this, I am buying birthday presents and birthday cards to cover the next two months, and trying to fit in the somewhat frivolous purchases before March 31. This does not include my car repair (appointment April 2), the replacement windows for my house and my spending for the lawn and garden. I may also give myself a pass for a bicycle helmet purchase since that has been planned, comes from my "spending money from my tax refund and it necessary for me to use my bicycle. My reasoning for challenging myself financally is twofold:

1. Save more more money. While being frugal and saving money is always a good thing, I have a new expense pressing on me: a looming auto purchase. I want to delay trading my car for a new one as long as possible, but I have to start pushing my savings level from an easy $50 per pay period to as much extra money I can find. Getting me closer to a nice auto savings cushion means I can own my replacement car outright instead of paying an auto loan. I have not abandoned adding to my found money account, but it will get the small amounts of money (<$10) while the car will get the larger amounts (>$10).

2. Encourage me to consider the necessity of each purchase. While I can be thoughtful and engaged when thinking about buying an item, I can also be impulsive and stupid, spending when I should not. By deciding "I am not spending for April", I commit myself to an action and make it easier for me to say "no" to a purchase. If getting the item or service is important enough to me, I will still want it in May and can purchase it then, if the spending plan allows.

Regardless of my reasons, I am human. While this challenge gives me an easy out for not spending, temptation is there and I may spend for a few incidentals. I am hard on myself so there will be lots of internal arguing, but I will also try to forgive myself for missing the challenge. This is a 30-day month and that is a long period of time to go without spending any money on fun and unnecessary stuff. Wish me luck and I will keep you apprised of my progress in April.

Friday, March 28, 2008

My money or my (replacement) car

I have been very happy with my car. I bought it used almost six years ago from a man who rebuilds autos. This means my car is more experienced about accidents than I am. As a result, I could purchase a car of its vintage for less than what I found on dealer's lots and with fewer miles. In addition, this guy had been in business for nearly 20 years and if he was no good, I doubt he would still be in business. So my five-year-old car and I were united in human-auto bliss.

Well, not really. Cars in American society are captured by the phrase: cannot live without them and cost you a lot of money. Most people talk about total cost of ownership. I did have to take out an auto loan for the vehicle and paid it off a few months before it was due. Plus there are the issues that come up, oil changes and other maintenance. I just totaled up what my car has cost me over the last six years for oil, parts and repair: $2,600. I may have lost a receipt as I seem to find nothing for repairs in 2003. To add onto my repair bill, let us say it cost me $3,000 over six years. That is $500 per year. Add in car insurance, registration and initial purchase price and that gives me about $2,200 per year I paid for my car. Not a bad TCO (excluding gasoline as I did not have those numbers handy).

However, the story has just changed. The auto shop I visit for my semiannual auto checkup called me after my latest checkup and gave me a list of items to repair and $2,500 estimate for fixing my car. I am used to them telling me $200 or $300 at a time. I choked on the number and was thinking "Crap, I am not prepared to buy a new car." My plan was to drive my car another four or five years, save my money and purchase a newer used car outright. Being the car-ignorant person I am, I called my dad and asked for his opinion. He talked to his mechanic and got some numbers about the items I recalled from my mechanic's conversation and called me back.

I was a bit upset at this point because my dad, while helpful in getting a second opinion and even talking directly with my mechanic, was saying "In your situation, you should consider purchasing a new car where you are covered under a warranty." I completely subscribe to the view that new cars stink, losing value immediately off the lot and depreciating quickly after that. Plus, I could not afford loan payments for a new car. Essentially, I would have to trade saving money for a car payment, not the way I want to go. Needless to say, I was not receptive to Dad's point of view and he ended our conversation on a sour note--at least on my part.

He also encouraged me to add up my repair costs (hence the number above) and talk to him when I got home that evening. I did add up the numbers once I found all my receipts and then called him. I think I will decide to do some of the repairs, which will cost me between $500 and $670 depending on who I choose to do the repair, and still be able to run my car another 20,000 miles or so. This latter number is an assessment from my dad and from my perspective, will give me some time to beef up my car savings account. My found money account may not grow as quickly as I wanted since I have a new savings goal.

Of course, I could be out $600+ in less than a few months if the car just gives it up on me. This is a decision I do not want to make because financially, I am not comfortable taking on a mortgage and a car payment. However, I also do not want my car to fail me. I am quite reliant on it and is my only form of transportation. Well, there is my bicycle, but in my physical condition, a ride would not get me very far. Since I no longer car pool, I really do not have a backup plan.

In an ideal world, I want to pay cash for a newer used car (presumably more reliable), owning it free and clear. In the real world, I may have to consider a new car and the associated loan payment. One advantage to a new car: I can get one with great gas mileage. Right now, I have to decide who will fix my car, my mechanic or my parent's. Then I need to figure out how to increase my contributions to my car savings account. And while I am doing that, I need to research various car models (and years) to find out which might suit me and how having a loan payment will affect me. Just in case my fix is only temporary and the cost to repair exceeds the value, I need to know what to substitute for my current car. Hopefully, I will get the time I need to save the money for my next purchase.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

My adventure in high-yield banking

When I first stepped into the world of online high-yield savings accounts, I chose ING Direct. I had seen the commercials and then when I started reading The Simple Dollar, Trent and other bloggers recommended it. I thought "Hey, good customer service and a higher Annual Percentage Rate than my credit union--sign me up!" I was also saving for my trip to Germany so earning a few extra dollars on my balance to counteract the weakness of the American dollar versus the Euro would not hurt either. So I cheerfully set up the account, waited to get it activated and voila! I was saving big time!

I opened my account in March 2007 and liked the ease of use. I could set up as many subaccounts as I wanted, open CDs and the process was painless. Connecting my ING Direct accounts with my credit union was easy, done with the first account setup. However, as yields started to drop in late summer 2007, I decided to take a look at's list of high-yield savings banks to see if I could find another online bank to put some money in. I chose iGo Banking as it had one of the highest yields and I needed only $1 to open an account.

I found out the hard way I should have done my research better. iGo Banking signup was similar to ING Direct with one glaring exception--I had to wait for my account activation and password via USPS. Nearly two weeks later, I was able to setup my new savings accounts. At this point, the account was 0.5% APY greater than ING so I thought it was worth it.

However, when I went to make a transfer from my credit union to the iGo Banking account, I could not. Why? Unlike ING Direct, which has the transfer to and from the credit union immediately part of the account, iGo Banking had a separate menu for transfers and I had to wait another 3-5 days after I said "Yes, I want to transfer money" to be able to do so. What is the point of an online account that you have to tell it to transfer to and from the bank account the money to start the account was withdrawn from?

Getting statements was the same thing. I was sent to what looked like a third-party web site to set up my ability to look at online statement for the iGo Banking account. This clunky, awkward interface with the third-party hosting made me less-than-happy with my choice. However, iGo Banking does not like people opening and closing accounts at whim. The disclosure on banking fees stated that if an account is closed after less than 180 days, a $10 fee is assessed. Frugal pursuit is cheap so she stuck out the 180 days.

Do not get me wrong: the saving rate stayed higher than ING Direct and even Emigrant Direct, my third online bank, but the experience of using iGo Banking stunk. In fact, during the last month, the computer I had used previously to access my iGo Banking account was suddenly unable to. In fact, it either sent the browser into a loop I had to force-quit or the browser would shut down when trying to access my account. When I called iGo Banking, their solution: use Internet Explorer. They did not care that Safari and Firefox on a Mac could not access their server.

I ended up calling their customer service four times in the last month and each interaction left me feeling frustrated. Instead of addressing my problem, I was either directed to try a different browser (IE on a Windows machine finally worked) or to their web site. When I tried to close the account, I found nothing to tell me how to do it. The customer service representative told me in a very bored tone I had to send them an e-mail. Crazy me, I used the eMail function in my iGo Banking account. Then I receive a message two days later telling me I had to send the requestl from my e-mail address on record to close the account. Again, how was I to know? No one told me and I did not see the information.

Good riddance to bad rubbish. My experiences with iGo Banking were not positive except for the slightly higher interest earnings. However, that was not enough to overcome the clunky, nonintuitive interface, the issues with access, and the third-party redirects for functions that should be integrated with the account. I think they were redesigning the interface so these functions would be integrated, but by that time, I was too unhappy with iGo Banking to care.

I still have my ING Direct account and did my research after the iGo Banking experience before opening an Emigrant Direct account. (At the time I opened the account, Emigrant Direct had higher rates than ING Direct.) Emigrant Direct had similar ease-of-use functionality that ING Direct does so I was immediately comfortable using their interface. While I wish interest rates on the savings accounts were higher, I am satisfied with both banks.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Technology, finances and poor decisions

I love my sister even if she is a frustrating individual. She and her husband have three children and income has not always been steady, making finances sometimes precarious. When I purchased my 14" iBook G4 in summer 2005, I rendered my perfectly usable iBook SE Graphite obsolete. Of course I wanted faster, better, shiner hardware! But I still had this iBook I did not know what to do with. Enter my sister and her husband! They did not have a computer and I thought "Hey, I can give them one for free!" They were under no obligation, but I did say if they did not need it anymore, I would take it back.

In preparation for the iBook's new home, I wiped the hard drive, reinstalled the system software, installed Appleworks and Office suite of software and gave them the pristine box complete with everything I had received when I first bought the iBook. Yes, I save my boxes and keep them in good condition. In addition, I offered my sister and brother-in-law free tech support, telling them to call me if they had any questions. They walked away with my iBook and I had one fewer computer in my life.

Fast forward to a month ago. My sister tells me she wants to buy a new MacBook. I was surprised since she already had a Mac laptop (the one I gave them) and I thought their finances were not robust enough to support the purchase of a $1,100 computer. She said they did not use the iBook, that it was packed away. I asked for it back and she seemed amenable to that.

A couple weeks later, my sister and her family came over for our monthly family dinner (switching off homes every month and it was my month to host). They forgot the iBook but my brother-in-law proceeds to tell me that there are keys missing from the keyboard. (They have small children and I guess the iBook was accessible to small fingers.) Well, I was disappointed that the iBook was not usable out of the box as one of the keys missing was the space bar, but was determined to use it anyway.

Unfortunately, I had already purchased an Airport card to install in the machine to add to my wireless network not knowing there were issues with the iBook. I looked up information online and a new keyboard would run me about $70. Not a large sum of money, but bigger than I thought I would need to run the iBook.

On Easter Sunday, I finally get the iBook. My pristine box has a big stain on the bottom and running up the sides by wick action. All the CDs and accessories I gave them were present. However, not only were there keys missing on the keyboard, more were loose and the DVD-ROM drive bezel was gone. I knew there was an issue with the bottom case as some of the vinyl had pulled away when I owned it. Of course it had pulled even further away. I was also unimpressed as the DVD-ROM drive, while functional, does not seem to have clearance from the case, making it hard to eject.

What really irks me about this whole thing? I wish they would have told me the full extent of the damage. I would not have bought the Airport card, an indulgence really. In the face of all that needed be repaired, I realized it was not worth it. However, my anger at the poor treatment of my beloved older iBook nearly drove me to make a poor financial choice. I found a newer 17" MacBook Pro on craigslist at a great price and I thought "I want it". I was going to put another laptop on my network and this was one way to do it, but did I want to spend $1,500 on top of what I already have plus dealing with the old iBook? I regained my senses after sleeping on it and decided to upgrade the RAM in my fully functional (if somewhat slow on certain web sites) iBook G4.

I learned two lessons here. One, do not lend anything to my sister and her brother-in-law if there is any expectation I will get it back. I am disappointed that my generous donation ended up a trashed and barely usable iBook. This machine would have been fine for basic functions like word processing, e-mail and web surfing even now with its older technology. Second, do not let disappointment and hurt feelings drive me to make a purchase that will not serve me well. I would have been happy with a barely used MacBook Pro, but I would not have liked to remove $1,500 from my savings account. I regretted showing interest in the laptop and I truly would have regretted making the purchase with its drain on my finances.

For me, family, technology, emotions and finances do not mix well and I will be more wary if a similar situation arises. Hopefully, I will protect my savings and plan better for a new laptop, however desired.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Recipe Monday: Baked French Toast

My mom serves this as one of the buffet items for Easter brunch. It is a great treat and I (and the rest of my family) always enjoy it. She was kind enough to share this recipe by adding it to the family cookbook.

1lb French bread, cut in 1" slices
6 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
1 cup cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup

Grease two 9" square pans. Arrange bread slices to fill pan. In a medium bowl, combine eggs, milk, cream, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. Mix well and pour over bread slices. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Next day: In a small bowl, add butter, brown sugar and corn syrup. Mix well and spread evenly over bread. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 minutes or until puffed and golden. Serve with maple syrup.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Planning for the future: wills and trusts

One of my goals for this year is to put together a will. An unexpected (but completely treatable) health issue gave me extra prompting to get this done. I got as far as organizing my relevant financial paperwork, completing my taxes and designating beneficiaries for accounts that allow me to do so, but I have no will in place. My plan was to look into doing it myself (I am single and my estate is small), but I began to realize that if I was concerned about how some of my beneficiaries might spend the money, I would have to look into a trust. Now we have reached the end of my knowledge so I need to read more and possibly find a good lawyer to set up my will and trust as I want it.

However, this has prompted me to have a conversation with my mom about the will her and my dad have. I have known since I was young that they have a will and was given some minimal information about the contents (e.g., in case of death, care of all the children would pass to my mom's sister). However, my friend W. has told me some less-than-happy stories about his parent's family fighting over who gets what physical item from a parent's estate (e.g., grandfather clock or antique dresser), the resentment over the share of the estate and anger toward the executor who happens to be a relative.

In thinking about what my parents own, I realize there are several antiques that my mom has bought, refinished and used in their home to great effect. In fact, I keep an eye out for similar items like the antique commode (sans towel bar) for my own use in my home. It is a great piece and I would like to have one in my living room. But when Mom and Dad pass (assuming I still want the item), am I going to be fighting with my siblings over who gets which piece? My friend W. says the distribution of his deceased grandmother's estate has caused such hard feelings, family gatherings are a thing of the past. I do not want to resent my siblings for claiming more of my parent's belongings just because they have kids and have more people that can consume the items (e.g., J. is getting his first apartment and needs the table, chairs, dresser and bed frame). We are all human, we covet things and can be nasty in the pursuit of them.

This is all just speculation and maybe we would be a cooperative family and have few to no conflicts when deciding which items to choose. Plus, I am likely to be in my 60s when my parents pass and what I want now and what I want then are two different things. But talking to my mom and telling her my concerns for possessions did make me feel better. I know my parents have to update their will as my brother will be buying the farm from them in the future, thus needing to figure out how to distribute a liquid estate when much of the wealth is tied to land, buildings and machinery. In addition, there were no grandchildren when the last will was written over ten years ago. Therefore, an update would be prudent.

Mom explained that distribution of physical items on an item-by-item basis was not the function of a will, but I thought she said that their could be conditions or a listing that would be opened at the same time the will is read to deal with furniture disputes, for example. I hope our discussion prompts Mom and Dad to think about this and plan for it so the single person does not feel like she loses in the face of her siblings' families just by sheer numbers.

There is a class I plan to take at the local university that will get me started on my will and trust planning. I am looking forward to getting my estate in order and setting up the legal documents I need to take care of my family and any charitable donations in the future. I certainly need more information before moving forward, but I should have a will and even a trust in place by the end of this year.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

My favorite clothing store: my local thrift shop!

I was surprised by the comments to this post by Free Money Finance on shopping for clothing at thrift stores. One person stated "Wearin used clothes is gross." and another said "... the experience of shopping at a second hand store just plain sucks. There is no organization, it's cluttered and you have to dig through mismatched items to find anything good."

In my recent trips to the thrift store in my small town, I have found four handkerchiefs at 50 cents a piece and two pairs of jeans in my size for $11. I am happy to have cotton hankies so I can use fewer disposable tissues and I only spent $2 plus tax. I needed new jeans as the inside seams were showing wear on the ones I have. Since I am in the plus-size range, I was thrilled to find two jeans, barely worn that fit me at the thrift store. I saved myself over $30 on those two pairs of pants because I would have bought new if I had not found these jeans.

I am not sure why one person would say used clothes are gross. In the old days, clothes were worn until they were scraps and even the scraps were reused for rags, floor coverings and quilts. I wore hand-me-downs from my aunts when I lived with my parents and thought it was wonderful. My siblings wore clothing from older siblings and cousins. Just wash used clothing once and they are clean for your use. Washing before wearing is recommended for new clothing as well with all the chemicals and treatments (and who knows how many people fingered or tried on the clothing before you). I am disappointed some people have this attitude, but it leaves more goodies for me to find!

As for poor shopping experiences, I disagree. Yes, you may have to dig a bit more or have more patience going to thrift stores. While I like my new jeans, I did have to look for two months before I found something in my size I liked and fit me. However, the handkerchiefs were a surprise and I did have to dig. Granted, I am not the most patient person and was just about done with digging through the linens before I found the hankies I bought, but I like finding these little treasures. Items are organized on shelves in general groupings, clothing by size and shoes same. I can usually find what I am looking for if the store has it. Otherwise, I look over the containers, decide they are not the right type and move on.

Here is another secret: I do not have to buy anything in the store. I have looked through the store and did not find anything I wanted or needed and walked out empty handed. I have also walked out with an item I certainly did not need but decided to buy anyway. I like my waffle iron, but I am glad I bought it used not new. I may end up giving it to my sister who really enjoyed the waffles we made when she visited.

In addition, I shop for a reason. My sister recently rented her first solo apartment and needed items to fill in her kitchen. I found tongs and a pizza cutter for her use. I keep an eye out for solid wood end tables and a nice rocking chair for my home. I want to add to my stock of small plastic containers to hold food, but am particular about which I will buy. If I do not find these items, I wait until next time. Knowing what you want makes it easy to go through the store, check out the relevant sections and survey the territory for items to match your need.

Despite the negative comments from a couple Free Money Finance reviewers, most were glad thrift stores are an option. I may be a more recent convert to shopping secondhand, but I have been pleasantly surprised at the variety of clothing I liked and fit me at the thrift store. In fact, I found clothing in near-new condition for me and my niece (her birthday gift) at my favorite local thrift store. Now that I know I have this store as an option, it is my first choice for clothing before I shop new. Fewer resources are consumed when purchasing used (my green living aim!) and I save some money on my clothing. I hope you consider thrift stores and garage sales as a great opportunity to find clothing to add to your wardrobe at a great price.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Simplify my existence!

I have written on my efforts to live more sustainably and frugally, but not so much on simplifying my life. Living frugally and green has simplification incorporated into it, but it does deserve to have time devoted to its own discussion.

I have been selling items I no longer use, or purchased and just have not used. My primary motivation for going through my possessions and trying to sell them is to bring in a bit more money to add to my found money savings account. However, the side effect of this behavior is to simplify my life. I am choosing to humanely dispose of items that no longer bring me joy or are useful in my day-to-day life by finding a home somewhere else. Sometimes people pay me for the privilege of taking my stuff; sometimes I have to give them away. Either way, my house is a bit lighter for the removal.

To that end, I have been looking over the various items I own and wondering what else I could do away with. Getting some monetary compensation is nice, but I am realizing that getting rid of stuff is its own reward. My jaundiced eye is even considering getting rid of books, an item I am particularly possessive of as I have spent time collecting novels by authors I enjoy. However, I am one of those people that once I start a collection, I have a hard time stopping even if it is no longer worth my effort (and money). Therefore, it is time to cull the book collection. My goal: reduce my need for a bookshelf by one unit. Granted, it is a small, three-shelf unit (and not full), but one step is better than none!

I have also cast my eye on my CD and DVD collection. I have goals for these as well, but is more challenging because I have CDs from a subscription and record my own (to archive downloaded music) as well as purchasing new albums. I also find myself emotionally attached to my DVD collection so I will have to work hard on these too. While some people have found satisfaction selling DVDs on or, I do not see enough money to make it worth my effort.

Clothing is also tough for me to reduce. I do not need ten sweaters, but darn if I like them all and do not want to eliminate any of them. Being ruthless is not in my personality, but my wardrobe is one place I can do it productively. My closet and my dressers will thank me for the breathing space. Yes, I do have two dressers for one person. My excuse: I have no linen closet and need to store clothing in the off season. Do not even get me started on my pantyhose collection!

I start thinking about all the things I no longer need or use and the list just keeps getting longer. There is old software, stashed magazines I have not looked at in years, videotapes I have recorded but sit collecting dust and even items in the kitchen. Many of these will need to be purged not sold for money. Regardless, it is a task will need to be done. Fewer items in my home means less time dedicated to storing and cleaning them. The time for purging will be difficult to find as spring means planting, mowing and cleaning up the yard, not to mention home maintenance (I am painting part of my siding this summer).

Writing this post reminds me that I need to make lists and organize my time to get some of these new tasks done. I spend time balancing my checkbook, subtracting money spent from my spending plan and ensuring my automatic transfers are where they are supposed to be, but need to set aside time for other more financially indirect tasks as well. Here is to purging stuff and simplifying my life!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Recession and me: how will my behavior change

At Consumerism Commentary, there was a posting about how people were cutting back on their food expenditures substituting chicken for steak as an example. Sasha then asked readers what they were doing to cut back on expenditures. I commented I was reconsidering purchasing as much meat as I did before and buying block cheese rather than grated. I saved some money as I am not paying for the convenience of someone else grating my cheese for me. However, I really could not think of anything else other than buying fewer convenience items.

My food budget has remained unchanged for nearly two years. My last change: I increased my monthly grocery allotment by $10. Since I cook my own meals and buy fewer convenience foods, I have been able to purchase more than other people who buy frozen pizzas, Easy Mac, presliced cheese and frozen dinners. I still buy granola bars, soups and even four frozen entrees, but mostly I buy items I have to assemble and cook myself. Homemade dinners bring the cost per serving down dramatically even if Lean Cuisine is on sale.

Other than the category "gas" and "car insurance", I have not increased the amount in my spending plan for any other item. I take care of my car, generally drive the speed limit (rarely more than 5 mph over when I do speed), and plan errands in clusters to minimize gas usage and car wear and tear. While I live about 14 miles from work, most of those miles are driven at 45 mph or greater, a 20-minute commute in good weather.

My automatic transfers into various savings accounts have remained unchanged and I do not anticipate decreasing my contributions. While I could lose my job dramatically affecting my financial state, at this particular point, I believe the likelihood is small. Even if I do not get a raise, I would survive an economic downturn with most of my finances intact. I doubt I will remain unscathed, but for the moment I have needed to make few changes.

One thing I am more conscious of (and that was even before the "R" word was spoken) is my total savings accumulation. I could afford to buy many items without losing much of my savings, but I am extremely reluctant to touch more than $200 for anything. That money is my safety net and I want it there for emergencies, not there for me to spend. While I might fritter away small amounts of money, for larger items, I really think about if I want it and what it will do for me. For example, I would love to buy a 17" MacBook Pro for my own use. Do I need one? No, I have a perfectly usable iBook G4, a bit older but quite functional. Something shiny and new would be faster (and bigger), but a frivolous purchase I do not need. Want, yes. Need, no. (Technoenvy is not pretty but I still lust after shiny new Apple Computer hardware.)

While I sound confident, I cannot predict what the future will hold. Any number of things (injury, sickness, totaled car, fire, etc.) can change my financial state from secure to precarious. I do the best I can, save my money, continue to invest in my retirement vehicles every month, eat better, consider the balance of items coming in and out of my life and hope it brings me to a better financial situation. Any safety net is better than none and I have family close enough to help if I am in real trouble. I hope the doom and gloom talk is just that, but I have prepared the best I can just living frugally and saving as I have for the past few years. These strategies should help me weather this storm and get me to the other side safely. What do you think?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Buying a car can help you pay debt!

I was taken aback by a recent Hyundai commercial. A young man in his late twenties was driving one of the SUVs like the 2008 Hyundai Tucson with the salesperson in the back. (I cannot tell one SUV from another. To me, they all look the same--big!) The young man was enjoying his test drive as the salesperson was highlighting the vehicle's features. One of the last points made by the sales guy was the Hyundai model was less than another brand's comparable and along with the $2,000 cash back, the young man could pay down his debts.

Okay, you are telling a guy to buy a large, expensive SUV so he can pay down credit card debt? Nothing ringing a bell here? I know price point is part of a sales pitch for a car. It typically is price point and features (including safety ratings) that buyers pay attention to. However, the commercial was jarring because if a young man is debt, he is likely financing the SUV, not buying it outright. That means the "cash back" is a gimmick and the buyer goes further into debt, not paying down debt as the salesperson (and commercial) would have you believe.

I know that commercials are disingenuous and want to sell you something thereby adding to the company's bottom line. But in this time of credit crunches, tight finances and concerns about the markets, telling people to buy a new car to save some money is ridiculous. And in this case, save money as you drive a gas-guzzling vehicle--doubly disingenuous. I have only seen the commercial once so maybe Hyundai pulled it, but I was appalled nonetheless.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Recipe Monday: Country Supper

This is one of my favorite meals in semi-monthly rotation. Warning: content is high in fat (but yummy!) This recipe comes from my mom's cookbook which she has kindly photocopied and shared with her daughters and daughters-in-law. For a single person, I have one meal and five-seven additional leftovers for lunches and dinner (depends on how much I crave the cheese). I do use two pots and a frying pan so there is some kitchen coordination involved, but in less than an hour, I have a satisfying meal that gives me a week's worth of lunches.

2 cups elbow macaroni, cooked
1 lb smoked sausage, cut in 1/2" pieces (I get smoked sausage with cheese in it)
4 tablespoons margarine
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1/2 cup green pepper, chopped (I skip the green pepper and double the onion)
1/8 teaspoon minced garlic (I use one small clove fresh garlic)
3 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups milk
8 oz Velveeta, shredded (I use up to 12 oz)

Lightly brown sausage, and boil noodles. In medium saucepan, cook onion, green pepper, and garlic in margarine until tender (do no brown). Stir in flour, salt, dry mustard, and pepper. Cook for 1 minute. Add milk and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, add cheese, and stir until melted. Add cooked macaroni. Serves 6-8.

Tips: I usually cook the sausage and noodles at the same time as I create the sauce. Since I use a 4 or 5 quart saucepan for the noodles, I put the cooked macaroni back in the pan, add the sausage and pour the sauce over when it is finished.

There is usually a good ratio of cheese to sausage to onions in this dish. However, I do cut the sausage pieces into quarters to get a better ratio. I love onions but dislike green pepper so I usually substitute more onion for the pepper. It is a hearty meal that satisfies the dairy craving and the sausage is a nice change from beef, chicken and fish. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Planning for my garden and outdoor space

With the snow receding from my lawn, my thoughts have turned to gardening. My raised bed is now free of snow and the smaller bed has crocuses appearing. I am excited that green is appearing but that means if I want to grow something, I have to start planning now.

My first attempt at growing a garden ended in disappointment. My corn and pumpkins were stunted, my rhubarb and garlic did not grow at all, and my onions were small. However, my volunteer tomatoes did fairly well. I did a soil test in autumn and found I was low on nitrogen, a definite drawback to growing anything. I added composted manure and granulated nitrogen supplement to 1/4 of my 9' x 9' garden bed and planted onion seed in September.

Although the Canada Red rhubarb I purchased did not sprout, my mom was separating out the rhubarb in her over 30-year-old bed last year and I took a chunk. I am looking forward to seeing the rhubarb come up this year. It has a good history so I have hope I will see it this year.

Since I have purchased a share in a CSA, I have been considering what to plant. I choose the vegetables based on what I like to eat. Since I have a free packet of tomato seeds from last year's seed purchase and I liked picking my own tomatoes, I started four seeds today for transfer to the garden bed when warmer.

I have recently discovered I like cucumbers so I am looking at a small bush cucumber to plant as well. This would involve me purchasing more seeds, but that is fine. Even though I was not enthusiastic about the earwigs that nested in the romaine and iceberg lettuce I planted last year, I may try again this year with some treatments that may help.

However, I really like strawberries, but my raised garden bed needs to be all strawberry plants or I need more space to put it. I like looking over the Jung's catalog and found they have a pyramid raised bed that they say is perfect for planting 50 strawberry plants. This purchase would get me space for strawberries and a second gardening bed if the strawberries are not successful. I am still debating this expense and I would be depending on my dad to bring me the one cubic yard of soil needed, but this may be possible for this year.

Other outdoor activities include planting two more trees for the house, aerating the lawn and planning my first rain garden. I have the trees picked out but need a permit from the city for one since I would like to install it in my park row (the lawn space between the sidewalk and the street). I plan on outsourcing the lawn aeration (and possibly overseeding the lawn as well), but the rain garden I am still considering what plants and seeds to purchase. Since I will start out with the smaller section of the lawn and the space in front of my house, I have nearly 200 square feet to consider. This will be a challenge of arrangement, serial blooming and appropriate height.

Spring is definitely around the corner and planning for growing things is always exciting and keeps me busy. What are your gardening plans?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

My Roth IRA is fully funded

For the first time since I opened my Roth IRA in March 2001 as a contribution for 2000, I have contributed the maximum to the account. Granted it is $4,000 for 2007, but I am proud of making it to this point. I managed to get to this point by making monthly contributions as well as using lump sums from tax refunds and the term life insurance cash out.

When my Roth IRA was first opened, it was during the tech stock bust, and my financial advisor suggested a Oppenheimer blend fund. I contributed $500 followed by a $200 contribution in 2001 and promptly lost half the value of the mutual fund. One of the finance seminars I attended at my credit union explained the various retirement vehicles including a Roth IRA. I considered it a way to get me closer to buying my own home as well as a retirement fund. However, $700 does not go far and I neglected my Roth IRA after the two contributions. By the time the fund came near the value I initially contributed (@ mid year 2006), I was tired of the small gains the fund made and the fees that would mitigate the gain.

In looking at my options, I read about index funds, what they are and why financial experts of various stripes recommended them. This sounded interesting and I decided I wanted to move my Roth IRA money into an index fund. Oppenheimer did not have any index funds so I had to look for a new option. My new financial advisor said I had to pursue the index fund option myself rather than having him take care of the money transfer. My 401(k) plan was with Fidelity, but I wanted to have some variety so I looked for other fund family options. Vanguard had a steep initial investment of $3,000. Since my Roth IRA was only worth $700, this was a problem. I chose T. Rowe Price since I could open with $1,000 as long as I invested at least $50 a month. So I rolled my Oppenheimer blend fund into the T. Rowe Price Equity Index 500. I managed to break even December 31, 2007. This meant my shares purchased over nine months were worth what I had contributed over the year.

With my lump-sum contributions to my Roth IRA giving me my first maximum contribution year, I have crossed the threshold of over $5,000 in my T. Rowe Price account. This means I can shed half the fees being charged to my account because my balance was less than $5,000. This means more of my money can grow.

I also wanted have a broader portfolio so I decided to convert my T. Rowe Price Equity Index 500 to the T. Rowe Price Extended Equity Market Index , a new index fund. It was probably not the best move to make after two lump sum investments and a 0.5% penalty for shares owned less than 90 days, but it is done. The new fund has an expense ratio of 0.4%, less than managed funds but a bit more than similar Vanguard funds. However, the difference was not enough to drive me to Vanguard so I will likely keep my Roth IRA with T. Rowe Price.

My next Roth IRA goals are to 1) contribute the maximum for 2008, which is $5,000, and 2) consider broadening my market exposure even further by purchasing an international index fund. The first goal will need more contributions than I am currently making and the second will require some research for the best plan. I will have to see how things go this year and what sort of tax refund I get as that is a substantial share of the money that funds my Roth IRA. I am confident that since I fully funded my Roth IRA once, I can do it again!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Getting rid of stuff: exploring the wanted section

I have been getting rid of items no longer needed in my life like a second yogurt maker that never saw any use. To unburden myself, I have been listing items on craigslist or other local bulletin boards. Getting a customer is hit or miss as there are lots of items for sale and I have to find that person that is interested enough to actually meet me. However, I have sold two items recently from a different section that I had not looked at before: the wanted section.

On craigslist, there is a section labeled "wanted" in the larger "for sale" section. Usually I am looking to buy something and explore various other categories. However, I found this wanted section is a good place to look to sell items as well.

For example, I found someone interested in buying a yogurt maker of the type I have (five individual serving containers in the incubator). I contacted her despite the price being lower than I wanted to sell it. We negotiated, settled on a price and made the exchange in a public place. I moved one idle piece of equipment out of my home (with a small cash bonus) and she got a yogurt maker she wanted.

I purchased an Entertainment Book as part of fundraiser and regretted it almost immediately. It had lots of coupons, but few I would use. I do not eat out much and not many of the services applied to me. When I saw a listing asking for an Entertainment Book, I offered her mine for more than she was asking. We settled on a price that allowed me to break about even on the cost (I had used a few coupons) and she received the book at a discount.

Now I haunt the wanted listings to help me get rid of unwanted clutter that might be beneficial to another person in addition to listing my own items on craigslist. This is a hit-or-miss method, but so is an electronic classified ad. Having more than one opportunity to find a potential customer increases my chances of selling an item at I a price I can live with--even if it is free. Have you looked at the wanted list lately?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

My new venture: vermiculture or worm farming

After some runaround and voicemail messages expressing my dissatisfaction about receiving the worms before their home, I finally have the Tumbleweed Pet Poo Converter and 1 pound of red worms to live and work in it. I made the decision to get the Pet Poo Converter to eliminate a heavy use of plastic bags in my home: ferrying cat poop from the basement to the toilet on the main floor for flushing. It has worked all right, but if I really want to cut down on my plastic bag use, figuring out a way to eliminate the ferrying (forgive the pun) would be wonderful. I was looking at and found the Pet Poo Converter. Although many do not recommend composting cat poop for the possible infectious diseases, I have had my cats for over a decade without problems and to prevent issues with toxoplasmosis, I will use the composted poop on nonedible plants.

The Pet Poo Converter would supplement the action of my standard composting unit, which is currently frozen in the back of my house. I have been adding to it, but not much is happening over winter and I do not think I have reached critical mass for really cooking. This way, my plants and trees will have fertilizer and I only need to buy compost for the vegetable garden.

While the Pet Poo Converter is itself a large box of plastic, it is a one-time purchase that should yield many worm castings and compost tea. (Do they call it tea because it steeps?) Both liquid and solid can be used for fertilize. The red worms mailed to me were alive after their five-day trip so I expect some action in the little farm I started. However, it will not happen quickly. Therefore, I will still have to ferry solid waste to the toilet, but hope that the worms will adapt to their new home and take on their task with gusto.

For more information on vermiculture, getting started with indoor (or outdoor) worm composting or to order a Pet Poo Converter yourself, visit the following web sites:

I will report on my progress to get the worms and cat poop to work together in harmony and see how this whole process comes together. (And maybe get over my girly reaction not to touch the worms.)

Monday, March 10, 2008

Monday Recipe: "Fried" Fish Fillets

This recipe is quite yummy with or without tartar sauce (recipe not included). I do like a bit of sauce with the fish but limited the amount to less than a teaspoon per serving. Since I am trying to watch the amount of fat in my diet, tartar sauce, my love, will be sidelined in favor of other condiments. This recipe is brought to you from the cookbook Cooking for Good Health by Gloria Rose (page 184).

4 4oz fresh fish fillets (I substituted frozen cod)
3/4 cup dried bread crumbs or matzo meal (I used the former)
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley (I used dried)
1 teaspoon paprika
2 egg whites, lightly beaten

1. Rinse fish and pat dry.
2. Blend bread crumbs with cheese, parsley and paprika in a flat dish.
3. Dip fillets into beaten egg whites then bread crumb mixture.
4. Place in a single layer on wax paper and place in freezer for 1 hour.
5. Spray large skillet with no-stick cooking spray (I lightly sprayed vegetable oil). Place skillet over medium-high heat (I moderated to medium heat; use your judgement). Add fillets. Cook, carefully turning once until coating is brown and fish turn from translucent to opaque.

Makes 4 servings.

I liked the flavor of the coating. Between the Parmesan and the paprika, it was a nice accent to the cod I used. I did find I had cook the cod fillets a bit longer in the microwave to get the fish completely cooked. The slightly burnt flavor of the coating was a nice flavoring as well. My sister had some was well and enjoyed it so I thought I would share this recipe since at least one other person vouched for it.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

I became a CSA member

In an effort to eat healthier, I decided to buy a share in a local CSA, Community-Supported Agriculture. This is the first time I acted on the thought to join a CSA and my recent health scare was the impetuous to truly think about what I am eating and how it affects me. Still, there are many reasons why I decided buying a part share in a CSA:

I only have a small garden plot.
My house came with a single 9' x 9' raised garden bed for growing fruits and vegetables. As I realized too late to correct, the soil was in poor condition and was not suitable for growing much of anything. I plan to correct that this year, but it does not leave me much space for growing my own veggies. I have to plan carefully and consider what I want to eat before planting. If I want more produce, I will need to buy it.

I am buying locally grown produce
The farm I chose is within 25 minutes of my home and delivers to the farmer's market close to where I work. I know my own limitations and making it easy for me to pick up my vegetables is a good thing. With my participation, I am helping an organic farmer stay in business, he gives me produce weekly and I eat better and lessen my harm to the environment when trucking the veggies for my table because he is local.

I will improve my diet and my heath by consuming organic produce.
By paying for the privilege of having fresh produce delivered to me at work and then bringing it home weekly, I will have to eat the food. I cannot let money go to waste and it will introduce me to new veggies that I had not considered before. Otherwise, I am going to have really expensive compost!

My insurance company gives me a rebate for healthier eating.
To lessen the cost of investment in a CSA, my insurance company will pay half the cost of a share up to $100. That is, if I pay $350 for my share, I will get a $100 rebate. This lowers the price of my veggie investment as I figure out if I can handle having a weekly delivery of produce. I may find that this is all too much, but I may also thrive and enjoy it.

When I chose the CSA farm I did, I shopped around to find the lowest cost share that had a delivery close to work or home. The latter part would be my greatest obstacle even if I did not want to pay a lot of money upfront. This is an investment in my health and after dealing with the effects of mismanagement of my eating habits, this is well worth money spent if I can eat better and live healthier.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Financial goals for the next five years

I have been considering how I want to push some of my financial goals. I have mentioned what my goals are for this year. However, I would like to add more challenges to get me closer to a lifestyle I will enjoy. Suburban living is really not for me and I want to get back to the country. This move necessitates many things including additional savings I do not have. What can I do to get myself closer to my dream living situation?

Save 40% of my gross income.
Right now, I save just over 30% of my gross income. My retirement accounts, my targeted savings (e.g., to purchase a new auto), and my regular savings accounts bring me to this point. However, I would like to increase that by 2-3% a year to reach 40% in 5 years. This is quite ambitious as I am not sure what I need to cut in order to get to this point. Likely my spending plan cuts would include entertainment, eating out, personal care and utilities. The latter is tough, but I could be more miserly when it comes to using energy. A 2% savings increase would require me to save over $100 a month. I have a lot of work ahead of me to make this goal a reality.

Generate additional income to save more.
This is a great if cliched statement. If frugal living is not enough to get the desired result, find a way to get more money. Potentially, I have a raise coming up, but I will not count on such a factor. So that means a source other than my biweekly paycheck. Currently, I am selling unwanted items, but this is hit or miss. Someone might be interested or may not be. I lose some potential money to haggling, but that is part of business. But in the end, there is a finite amount of stuff I am willing to sell. That means I need to find other methods to generate income.

I have considered the possibility of having a roommate. Despite my loud protests over the loss of privacy and the concerns about sharing my space, this idea has not disappeared. It ends up in my head at least once a day so my revisiting of this idea may not be too far in the future.

I could also leverage skills I have to generate income. I can sew and quilt items to sell or ask for commission. I think the former is what I will do first if I intend to pursue this path. Basically, I am not excited about this because I have not sewed things I need or wait until the last minute to make. Would I really sew for someone else even if it is for money? I could also use my work skills for possible income, but my thoughts are limited as to how to do this.

Use my money to generate more money.
I have much of my savings in high-yield interest-bearing accounts. The rates are nothing to write home about (my highest is 3.6%), but this is more than my credit union pays. The more money I have in savings and Certificates of Deposit, the more passive income I earn. The numbers are not spectacular, but it is more money than I had when I first deposited it. Since the money in these savings accounts are for emergency use, I do not feel comfortable investing in stocks. However, this is a path I will explore further as my savings becomes more robust. Past my $15,000 threshold, I might investigate a bond or a stock mutual fund. These potentially have greater return but also greater risk. I will need to do a gut check to make sure this is okay before deciding to pursue this path.

I have no plans to buy additional real estate as an investment property to rent. I am comfortable with my mortgage and do not feel the need to take on a second. Contemplating a roommate is difficult enough. A full-blown landlord situation--that is scary.

These are the various idea that drive my financial goals which basically comes down to saving more money to give me the freedom to do what I want. I have learned so much more now than I knew even before I bought my house. While I would not trade the personal gain in having my own home for the apartment I was living in, it does mean I have committed a good portion of my income to fixed expenses associated with homeownership. I would like to find a place to live for the rest of my life, but it is hard to predict where life may take me. I will save money and keep an open mind and see where I end up.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Considering a roommate

I sat down during my convalescence and considered my financial situation. I am good financial shape with a decent total of liquid assets, nearly maxing my Roth IRA, keeping up with my mortgage, paying off my credit card bill immediately and keeping within my spending plan. However, there does not seem to be a lot of room to save more money. I could eat out even less, not spend money on clothing, not spend any money on entertainment and end my nearly nine-year relationship with my stylist, but these moves would make me feel deprived. I like having lunch with a friend once a week. I like having the option of saying "Damnit! I am tired of this lunch!" and buying something else. I could give up some entertainment funding, but to let my wonderful stylist go? I do not think so!

So, with a vow to try not spending for one month on items other than necessities, I looked for other ways to save. I could cancel my cell phone contract but I would get charged a fee. I would have to explore this topic more deeply, but I do not use my phone that often so I am considering when my contract is up to get a prepaid cell phone plan. That would save me about $20 month and that is decent money.

I also decided to look at going to basic coverage on my car. It does not save me a lot to drop comprehensive coverage, but it is a modest savings. I did look around a bit but should more aggressively pursue alternative insurance providers. The one company I queried had no savings for me at all.

So then I came to getting a roommate. There is so much wrong with this idea aside from the possible monetary gain. I like my privacy, running from the bathroom to my bedroom without clothing, getting up when I want, going to bed when I want, silence when I want it and my space arranged how I want it. This is my home and I should be able to do what I want! How would I feel sharing my space? I worry that I would consider my roommate an invader. I would have to give up kitchen cabinet space, refrigerator space, bathroom space, closet space, items all at a premium. The room I would rent out is quite small and I am uncertain if anyone would want to share a two-bedroom, one bath half duplex.

In addition, how quiet would he or she be? Would they snore? Would they keep the TV after I go to bed? Would our schedules clash? Would I need to go to the bathroom while he or she is in it? What to do then? Is this hassle worthwhile? I would miss my freedom, my default sloppiness and the privacy that goes with living alone. However, weighing additional money and potential labor saving (I would give him or her a break on rent for lawn mowing or snow shoveling), I still come down on keeping my living situation as is. If the basement was refinished, I think I could deal with having someone in my home easier. I really need to change my mindset before having a roommate is possible.

Still, I am keeping it in the back of my mind because if I do get into a financial bind, I think a roommate would be quite useful to have. I am likely to revisit this topic again and may have more roommate-favorable results.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Progress on my 2008 financial goals

I had five goals I decided to challenge myself with January 1, 2008. How have I measured up?

1. To reach a net worth of six figures ($100,000).
Despite the stock market, I have gained almost $1,400 of net worth since January 1. This really is not promising to keeping me on target for six figures, but I continue to invest and save so I will have to see where I am in June or September before really saying "no, I am not going to make this goal."

2. To have $15,000 in liquid savings for emergency expenses.
I started with just over $9,000 at the beginning of the year and I now have nearly $12,000. It seems like I will surpass this, right? However, some of this money will go to home improvements, some to charity and some to my vet since my cats are having more health issues now they are 12 and 14 years old. I think I will meet my target, but uncertain if I will exceed it.

3. To have $500 in my "found money" account.
This is doing pretty well. I was not sure how irregular bonuses, rebates and odd money would add up, but right now I am up to $220. I received a $100 from my mom's dad and put that in this account, boosting my total. I cannot count on that much money being deposited again, but I am over 40% of my target with only two months of year behind me. My starting total was $81, but I am still happy with my numbers.

4. To increase my contributions to my Roth IRA to $3,000.
I am definitely on track to exceed this. Between $500 of my tax rebate and another $500 from the term life insurance policy, I will definitely contribute $3,000 this year. I also did not expect to max out my 2007 contributions, but I am on target for that as well. Even if the life insurance money does not get into my hands before April 15, I plan on making the maximum contribution using money in savings. I will keep evaluating my 2008 contributions and see if I should put my target to $4,000 or even greater this year.

5. To generate $2,000 from an alternative income source.
This is still undefined. Right now, I have some alternative income generated from selling unwanted items. My current net total: $100.40 (gross = $127.50). I used some of the money to buy my bicycle, and eBay and shipping fees ate profit on some items I sold. I may have to revise this number to $1,000 if this pace stays the same. I am afraid $2,000 was too ambitious, but maybe I will find alternative income in a place I did not expect.

My report is mixed, but I know where to focus my attention. Now if only people would buy more of my stuff...

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

What my parents taught me about money

Money is not a subject I find comfortable discussing with people. Oh, I can converse about investments, mutual funds, thrift stores and similar frugal living topics, but to talk actually numbers, ask for a raise or even consider negotiating for money and Frugal pursuit cringes inside. Part of my attitude comes from my parents who did not talk numbers in front of their children so I only had the vaguest sense that money might be tight or not. I cannot blame it all on them, but it took me some time to work up the nerve to ask them to help me with a down payment on my house. My dad said yes and I was grateful, but in the end, I did not need their assistance and was happier for that I think.

My dad is a farmer and my mom kept track of the farming books so they knew they lived on irregular income however regularly the milk check came. Their finances depended on how healthy the cows were, how much milk they gave, how well the weather cooperated, how good the harvest was and how high the prices were when the crops were sold. I never felt deprived (even though I really wanted that fancy dress or that boom box), but I knew that times were tighter than others. Farmers always talk about the crops, the futures prices, the weather and the price of seed, fertilizer and other necessaries--and in the 1980s, whose farm was being auctioned off.

Despite my mom taking care of the books, she never sat me down and told me how to budget. When I earned money, she encouraged me to save. Once I had my first part-time after-school job, she told me to save 2/3 and spend 1/3. I wanted to go to college and she was telling me to save for my education. It ended up I likely saved closer to 50% but you cannot blame a mom for trying and a teen for wanting to buy those teen magazines. However, I did save money and even had a few Certificates of Deposits by the time I graduated high school. These did go to help me pay for college at one of my state's universities.

I was also responsible for buying most of my own clothing. Mom would have a designated amount to spend on clothing, but anything above and beyond that, I would have to pay for. I had hand-me-downs from a couple aunts and also sewed about 50% of my wardrobe in high school so I spent less on clothing than many others especially as name brands were not a high priority.

Since I used the family car, I was charged per mile for usage which included gas, wear and tear, and insurance. My parents were even-handed about this as my brothers and sisters were allowed the car under the same circumstances. It helps a teenager get a better sense about what a car costs even if I did not always like paying Mom and Dad.

My mom also showed me I could do my own taxes. As young as I was, the taxes were straightforward and only required the EZ form. I am pretty sure Mom did some of my taxes when I was in college, but most of my adult life, I have done my own. I was concerned when I made the step into homeownership that my taxes would be so complex, but web sites or software packages make it more approachable.

I thought this post would show how my parents did not help me learn about money, but I see that they gave me a good foundation. However, I had to find the nuts and bolts myself. College I was not wise with money, used a credit card and ended up with debt when I went to graduate school. With a stipend paid monthly, I knew how much money I would receive and distributed money into spending categories accordingly. I paid more for housing as I lived by myself (I was tired of communal living at that point), but took the bus to and from work. The only money I saved during this time was for paying taxes, and I never really got ahead on my credit card bills.

Graduate school was the first time I explicitly wrote down a budget and I continue to have a spending plan to this day. With more income comes more responsibility to keep spending under control and to save well. I also took my first auto loan from First National Mom and Dad and was charged interest until I made my last payment. After graduate school, I also learned to save for a larger ticket item like an Apple computer. It was nice paying off the credit card bill when it came in the mail.

My mom is a practical person with common sense and that has been fostered in me. I still bounce ideas and thoughts off my mom when I am looking for another perspective. My approach to frugality has been multifold: I want to save money, I want to live a greener, more sustainable life and I do not want to throw something away just because it can be. I have grown into a generally responsible adult and while some of this can be attributed to my personality, if my mom and dad did not raise me right, it would be a steeper uphill battle. So thanks Mom and Dad for helping me be a more fiscally responsible person!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Recipe for Bananas and Cream Bread

I am starting a new series of posts every Monday containing recipes I enjoy and have mentioned in previous postings. This first one involves a book I acquired, The Best Bread Machine Cookbook Ever by Madge Rosenberg, and a recipe I have enjoyed since I purchased the book in a used bookstore. My quest started with some overripe bananas and seeking a way to use them. I found the recipe in this cookbook (page 47) and thought I would try it. I generally make a 1-pound loaf so the recipe reflects this. For a 1.5-pound loaf, I put the quantities in parantheses next to item name.

1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (2 tsp)
2 cups bread flour (3 c)
2 tablespoons wheat germ (3 T)
2 tablespoons powdered milk (3 T)
1 tablespoon sugar (1.5 tsp)
1 teaspoon salt (1.5 tsp)
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg (3/4 tsp)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (1.5 T)
3/4 cup mashed ripe banana (1 c + 2 T)
1/2 cup sour cream or plain yogurt (3/4 c)
1/4 cup water (1/4 c + 1 tsp)
1/2 cup raisins or chopped nuts--optional (3/4 c)

1. I generally omit the water unless the dough needs it. Once kneaded, the dough should be slightly tacky. Too tacky--add more flour. Not tacky--add some water. My dough tends to be more wet so I preemptively add an additional 1/2 cup bread flour.
2. I have made the bread with chopped walnuts with great results.
3. I substitute 2 tablespoons of whole wheat flour for wheat germ as I do not have the latter.
4. I have used both overripe bananas at room temperature and thawed frozen bananas. The latter have a lot of excess liquid and generally require more flour. The recipe requires at least a banana and a half to reach 3/4 cup.

1. Add all the ingredients except the optional raisins or nuts in the order suggested by your bread machine manual and process on the basic bread cycle according to the manufacturer's directions.
Frugal pursuit's usage notes: I have made this bread in a Toastmaster Bread Box bread machine model #TBR2, which bakes a horizontal loaf. My directions suggest adding the liquid ingredients first followed by the dry ingredients. I choose to bake the bread with a light crust on Basic program 1 so the cycle time is 2 hours 50 minutes.

2. At the beeper (or at the end of the first kneading in the Panasonic or National), add the raisins or nuts.

The finished product, once cooled, is placed in a reused plastic hot dog or hamburger bun bag. I find that standard bread bags are too small for the bread-maker loaves but have had good luck getting the 1-pound loaves in bun bags or 1-gallon-sized zip-sealed bags. If the loaf is too big for the bag, cutting the bread in half generally solves the issue. My mom keeps bun bags for me and I get a fresh infusion every month or so. Since I do not always finish bread I bake before mold appears, I can throw away the reused bags with few qualms after depositing the moldy bread into the composter.

I usually toast two slices of the Bananas and Cream Bread, butter them fresh from the toaster and sprinkle a mix of cinnamon and sugar on the melted butter. With a glass of milk, I have a very satisfying breakfast. Generally, one loaf lasts me at least five days depending on how thick my slices are. This is one loaf of bread I have never let reach the moldy point and I even eat the bread heels! It bakes up fairly dense and does not generate as many crumbs as other breads I have made.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Analysis of my February 2008 net worth

As mentioned in an earlier post, I calculate my net worth monthly to see how I am faring financially. I have only been calculating this number since midOctober 2007, but was pleasantly surprised what happened this past month. January 2008 was my first negative net worth month and I was not looking forward to repeating it. However, February proved far more positive than any previous month: I increased my net worth by 2.68%. This number may not seem impressive, but that beat the previous measure by a whole percentage point! How did I do this?

Tax rebates
I contributed extra money to my mortgage payment, reducing my debt by 0.27%, my greatest number yet. I also saved a portion of the tax rebate, but the greatest effect on my net worth were two lump sum contributions to my Roth IRA. I am no good at timing the market, but even I know the markets are not gaining, generally falling thus stocks are on sale. The markets are likely to fall even further but I am betting the market will rebound and give me more value for my index fund than the prices at which I purchased my fund shares. I am pleased I could make these contributions for 2007 and give my index fund a boost in value.

Saved money
Not only did I save a portion of my tax rebates but my attempts at finding additional income by selling stuff I no longer need bore some fruit. I was also paid to work the primary polling place in my state (went to savings) and saved the money I received from my Flexible Spending Account (FSA) that I had subtracted from my spending plan. This gave me over $80 more than I usually receive in the month. Couple this with my extra paycheck and I had more money to save than I normally do.

Excess from spending plan
Hand-in-hand with saving money from alternate sources, I was also able to save money from leftovers in my spending plan. The categories "gas" and "eating out" were the main contributors, but I expect this trend to continue for at least the next month if not more.

The extra money to save and invest gave me a 1% boost in my assets. Again, does not seem impressive but between this and reducing my debt, I have a net worth of more than 2.5% over the previous month! I am exciting by this increase especially as my 401(k) has barely budged despite three infusions of cash in February compared to January's value. My pretax retirement savings is the main driver in my asset gains so it was a real accomplishment to post the numbers that I have.

What will I do for the future? Look for further ways to save. I have the cash from my life insurance to allocate into my Roth IRA, which will definitely increase my net worth. There will be a spending plan category or two to put extra cash into savings. I have a small expected bonus next month to distribute to various savings accounts and look to selling more of my unused stuff that someone else might enjoy. Right now, one of my yogurt makers will end up in a new home and I get a bit of cash!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Some unusual frugal tips

The following is a random collection of frugal tips I practice in my life. While my blog reading is hardly extensive, I have not seen these particular ones mentioned so I thought I would compile my unique set for your enjoyment (laughter and comments are welcome).

I have seen many people comment on what to do with bread heels. My mom likes to eat them for toast but with the exception of my Banana Cream Bread, I really do not. One option is to make croutons, but I prefer to let the heels dry out and then store them in an empty plastic bread bag. Next time a recipe calls for dry bread crumbs, I go to the dry bread in my bag, take out a few heels to add to a blender and make crumbs. No toasting and waiting, and no waste of bread I typically do not eat.

To keep my secondhand metal snow shovel in the best condition possible, I occasionally spray the bottom edge and scoop surface with WD-40. This helps keep the snow from sticking when shoveling and inhibits rust between seasons. If the shovel is plastic, rusting is less likely, but treat any metal areas with WD-40 at the end of winter to prevent rust.

Plastic dishes are not recommended for cat use. For example, cats with plastic dishes are more prone to acne on the chin. For both my cats, I have purchased glass or Corelle bowls brand new either on sale or from outlet stores. Now that I frequent thrift stores, I know there are plenty of used Corelle bowls in great shape. I have only replaced one set of bowls for my older cat (I dropped something heavy on them and broke the bowls) and my younger cat has the same green glass bowls since I adopted her (ten years).

I have stood up in several weddings and some have used artificial flower arrangements. However, once the ceremony is done, what to do with the flowers? If you have children, I suggest giving it to them to play dress up. For a single woman like me, having children over does not happen often. Instead, I display the artificial bouquets depending on the time of year. One is red and white (I display it in the spring and summer) and the other has orange, yellow and maroon flowers (I display it in the fall and winter). This way I have a seasonal decoration in a vase and use the bouquets.

There are high-drain battery-operated devices and there are low-drain devices. When I had a CD player, the AA batteries would wear out so the CD no longer spun, but there was still juice left in the battery. Therefore, I implemented a staggered AA battery usage. I would save the batteries that no longer run the CD player and when electronics remotes or my battery-operated clocks needed a boost, I placed the used batteries in these low-draw devices. Yes, I had to replace clock batteries more often than using a fresh one, but this way, I used the batteries until they were truly dead and saved a few dollars. Caveat: the used and new batteries had to be sorted and stored but I found this method worked for me for years.