Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The cost of replacement windows--wood trim

In an earlier post, I discussed the various window treatments I have added to my replacement windows and those purchased in anticipation of replacement windows. Without due consideration, these costs can break many budgets as window coverings are as much about fashion as about functionality, with similar price tags. I chose the latter criterion and my purchases reflected that, but these items can add 10% to the cost of the new window.

However, there is more to window replacement than the coverings--there is also the wood trim and the wood of the window itself. Unless you select vinyl windows, wood or fiberglass windows with wood grain need to be stained. This means that either the color can be added at the factory, a cost in addition to construction of the replacement window, or you can choose to stain the wood or simulated wood grain yourself.

Since my mom is an expert on wood refinishing, I decided to do it myself after asking her what I needed to purchase and how I needed to treat the unfinished wood. The color of the wood trim in my house is quite dark, but I did not want the new windows and trim that color. Based on my mom's recommendation, I tried to get a color that used on the new wood, would get close to the color but be a few shades lighter. The drawback is even if I use the same wood type, color is unlikely to look identical to the wood already in the house.

So I hit the lumberyard in my city for the first time, found that 2" trim is no longer made (the size used in my house), and had 2.5" trim cut to the lengths I wanted, about 6" longer than the area the trim would go around. Since the people installing the windows would cut the trim on mitered corners, they needed extra length to cut those corners correctly. Exact measurements of the current trim would make the trim shorter than the window frame.

Including the cost of supplies (wood trim, wood to finish between windows, varnish, stain, steel wool, sandpaper, foam brushes), I spend another 4% on my replacement windows. This does not include the time it took to put two coats of stain on the bare wood to get the color darker but not too dark, putting one coat of varnish on, staining the windows once installed (damn those tiny corners!) and then applying two coats of varnish. Be prepared to spend a lot of time on this and if you can, recruit some help. It took me over two hours to apply a coat of stain or varnish just on the windows and another 30 minutes or so to get the varnish or stain off the glass each time. (My window is made of four individual units, two casement, two nonfunctional.) My stained windows look great but I was not completely prepared for the time it took to complete the task. Staining the trim is nothing compared to the time invested in the window with its nooks and crannies.

However, one of the windows slated for replacement this year will reuse trim that was removed from my front window. While I have eliminated the cost of the wood, I needed to purchase additional items to remove the old finish (e.g., stripper, stripping gloves, coarse steel wool). In the end, I think the cost is a wash, but I wanted to reuse wood instead of throwing it away. The old trim is several inches larger than the window opening to be trimmed, again, a good thing for cutting mitered corners.

While both stripping, staining and varnishing require a well-ventilated space, stripper can be especially pungent and you may want to perform this task in an area like a garage. For most of the staining and varnishing, two saw horses in my basement with an open window sufficed. A similar setup will likely be useful if you choose to stain your own trim.

As for staining windows in place, open at least one window in the room where the finishing occurs and have a drop cloth on the floor to catch any drips. Believe me, you will have stain or varnish drip on the floor. A rag and some mineral spirits will help, but not so much on wood, laminate or rug.

Budgeting for the cost of replacement windows means more than the purchase price of the windows and paying two or more men to install them. It means debating how much to take on yourself--do you put on stain and varnish or let the factory apply a finish, do you put up new window treatments and then do you buy or make them? These costs can be 15% or more on top of the window purchase price and should be added into the budget when considering replacement windows for your home.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Recipe Monday: Ham Rolls

I first tried ham rolls at a party in graduate school and really liked them. My fellow graduate student was kind enough to share the recipe. I am a huge fan of cream cheese, but liked the slight tanginess of the salad dressing mixed with the ham and green onions--and this was all wrapped together in a tortilla. Simple but delicious fare. It has become one of a few items I create for parties and usually disappears by the end.

8oz cream cheese
3-4 green onions, diced
1 tablespoon salad dressing
8-12oz sliced ham
soft tortillas (10-12" in diameter work great)

Mix together cream cheese, onions and salad dressing. Spread onto tortillas. Add enough ham to cover spread. Roll up tightly. Refrigerate overnight. Slice and serve.

I tend to go heavier on the ham with thinly sliced varieties. A thickly sliced ham you might want to use less. It is a great little finger food and something I like to make every once in a while just for myself.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The cost of replacement windows--window treatments

I just had three more windows in my home measured for replacement. My house came with single-pane windows with the exception of the front window, which while double paned, came with broken seals and were fogging up. In fact, I did not know how badly my view was obstructed until the window was replaced and I noticed it looked a lot different from before, realizing after several minutes that my view was crystal clear!

The windows slated for replacement face the south in my living room and dining area/kitchen. The one in the living room is so damaged, I need a board to prop up the top sash. Both sets of windows are so leaky, a breeze comes through the windows. Yesterday, the wind was strong and cold, and I could clearly feel it in my house.

However, there are more costs than just the windows themselves and the labor to install them. There is also the trim around the window (which needs to be stained and varnished prior to installation), staining and varnishing of the window, and new window treatments. This can add at least 15% cost on top of the cost of the windows alone and depending on your choice, either quite a bit of time on your part or additional expenses. Today, I will cover the issue of window coverings.

When I bought my house, all the windows were covered with neutral-colored blinds--unexciting but functional. However, between the lack of functionality of the windows and the barely adequate window coverings, I had a lot of heat gain in the summer and not enough darkness during the night.

My front replacement window came with a low-emissivity (low-E) coating as I requested. With no tree in front of this East-facing window, my living room heated up quite quickly in the summer. The low-E coating has made a difference, but I also installed thermal-backed curtains as my window covering of choice. They would keep out the unwanted heat in the summer and help protect against cold in the winter. Since my living room also has a South-facing window, I believed the thermal curtains would be useful there even if it was a single pane window.

However, this purchase required me to do more than choose curtains that would work well with the colors in my furniture and that of my wall. I also needed to purchase and install a traverse rod for the curtain. This required a stud finder, measuring tape and a power drill, the most use I have gotten out of my drill since my dad gifted it to me five years ago. This was tougher than I expected, but I did manage to install a large rod spanning a 116" window and one for a 45" window.

With kitchen window replacement looming, I realized I needed to make a decision about with what to replace the cream-colored plastic blinds currently installed. I cringed when I realized the person who installed all these blinds choose to screw them into the wood trim. I refused to damage woodwork in my quest for new window treatments. However, curtains would not work in the space as the window trim is a few inches from a door and from a corner. After a lot of searching on the JCPenney web site, my source for window treatments, I decided on a cordless Roman shade.

I had installed two Roman shades in my bedroom, which really cut down in the light coming into the room. I also knew they did a decent job at insulating the window, but with a cord, it made it difficult to deal with in the tight space I had in the kitchen. The cordless Roman shade seemed like the answer and I chose a light neutral color.

Aside from the time needed to install the new window treatments, there is also the cost associated. If you make curtains or other window treatments, you are likely to save money. As it stands, my window treatments cost between 8-10% of the windows themselves. I chose to buy my window treatments for convenience. Plus, I am not confident in my ability to sew thermal curtains or shades. Window treatments can also be more expensive than what I chose, but I selected items I could afford and fit both my windows and my wall color.

In my second post, I discuss the issues involved with buying new trim (or stripping old trim), staining and varnishing both trim and windows.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

When spending plan hits new reality

Okay, now I am starting to feel pinched financially. First, I overestimated my take-home pay from my raise. Second, at&t increased the cost of my DSL (and my landline). Third, I projected my savings over the next four years as well as estimated home expenses I will likely be paying (e.g., exterior painting, replacement windows and attic insulation). All-in-all, I am feeling like I cannot reach my goals with my current income and expenses.

While the increased costs of a landline and DSL will not kill me, that in combination with my overestimated take-home pay made me cut $15 from my budget. Not a lot really, but with the cost of gas going up, increased cost of phone/DSL service and starting to feel deprived with the categories I had to modify (plus the pressure of my financial challenge this month), it all overwhelmed me.

There are areas I can cut more from my budget but now it is starting to make me wince. I thought I would have a bit more warning that finances need to be revised than this, but I have been wrong before. There really are not a lot of categories for me from which to take money to bulk up other categories. Entertainment and clothing typically have money leftover each month. I cringe because I have cut from them before and while these monies are not in high demand now, I fear that could change. For example, I have been gradually losing weight and at some point, it may just be ridiculous for me to wear the clothing I currently own.

I have been revisiting the roommate possibility as well as brainstorming what other things I can do to generate more income. Each of my ideas may need to be test run first. My attempts at getting a part-time retail job have generated nothing other than indifference. Some ideas may require more resources than I have or finding the right market.

For now, I will finish up my financial challenge, attend the class on wills and trusts for which I registered, and see where my my financial markers leave me May 1. There may be more spending plan alterations and be more stringent cost-benefit analysis of purchases to place me well for now and the future.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Take a bit of time and save a bit of gasoline

Not only does slowing down and observing the 55 mph speed limit help maximize fuel efficiency over speeding at 60, 65, 75 or even more mph, but checking the air in your tires and the air filter in your car are useful as well.

I check the air in my tires at least once a month. Knowing your number, in my case, 32psi, along with owning a tire pressure gauge and knowing which gas stations have free air (Amoco or PDQ in my area) helps keep me well inflated. I usually find at least one tire low so I fill it up and am ready to go.

Also, I cannot argue with the air filter advice. I had my oil changed at one of those quick oil changing places over a year ago, and they showed me my air filter. It was filthy so I agreed to have them change it. My next fill up, my gas mileage increased by over 2 miles per gallon. That is impressive!

Not only do these actions maintain peak fuel efficiency, but they also keep your car in shape for the long haul. Just stop at a gas station in the morning before work, check the air pressure and add air if needed. Most experts recommend checking air pressure when the tire is cold, not warm from miles of driving.

Get to know where your local auto parts stores are. Stop by and pick up a new air filter or ask to have your trusted mechanic replace it during an oil change. Some of the auto parts store employees might even replace your filter for you. They replaced my windshield wiper blades when I purchased new ones. And while you are picking up a new air filter, ask the nice gentlemen where the tire pressure gauges are and pick up one for your use. That small purchase will pay you back quickly with peak fuel efficiency.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Recipe Monday: Cheesy Garlic Bread Sticks with Marinara Sauce

This recipe has helped increase my bread consumption, but I find it hard to resist. It combines two of my favorite kinds of food: dairy and crunchy. The flavors are standard but hard to beat and satisfy the hunger without waiting too long.

2-3 slices bread (the heel works well here)
1 tablespoon butter
~4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large garlic clove
3/4 cup mozzarella cheese, grated (~1/4 cup per slice)
3/4 cup marinara sauce (or any tomato-based sauce you enjoy)

Melt the butter in a bowl in the microwave. Mince garlic using a garlic press or similar. Add to butter, add olive oil and heat for a few seconds in the microwave. Using a pastry brush, transfer garlic/butter/oil mixture onto one side of the bread slices. Coat as heavily or lightly as you prefer. Sprinkle mozzarella cheese on top of brushed bread. Bake in oven for 10 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat marinara sauce in microwave as bread bakes. Use a pizza cutter to slice cheesy garlic bread into three pieces. Scoop as much or as little marinara sauce with the sticks as you desire.

The cheese ends up nicely melted and the bread toasted, giving a nice crunch to the simple fare. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Is April still my no-spending month?

Other than two sweet treats indulged on the last day of the work week, yes, I have kept to my no unnecessary spending vow. I had to buy prescription cat food for one of my cats. In addition, I made my planned bike helmet purchase, funded by my extra spending money from my tax refund I received in February. The helmet fits great, looks nice and I received a discount at the bike shop because of where I worked, saving me $5.25. I did buy a used bike rack to strap on my trunk, but it fit into the same money from which the helmet came.

I am also not counting my gardening supply purchases, which come from a separate fund, not my spending plan. I also know this as saving me money in the long run. Whether it is planting a vegetable garden, adding a new raised bed for strawberries or planting new trees around the house, I know these will add value to my property, lower my food bill and save money on cooling in the summer. Plus I really like seeing things green up, produce something and I know this was done with my own labor (with some help like my dad's soil contribution).

Otherwise, I have not gone out to eat, in contrast to earlier in the month, bringing my lunch faithfully to work. Even better--it is a lunch I made, not purchased frozen and microwaved. Right now I am on a honey wheat bread, sliced turkey, cheddar cheese, low-fat mayo and spicy brown mustard sandwich kick and loving it. I have been gobbling down the bread so quickly, it barely lasts three days, which is really unusual for me. I get these cravings for a type or specific item of food and take it until I get tired of it. The sandwich seems to be the current food trend.

My bike purchase and my new helmet came together today as I decided to go just over a block away to a garage sale. Despite earlier complaints, I was able to get on and ride the bicycle with little difficulty. I had a harder time adjusting the helmet to fit me than riding the bike. Even that short ride had the cardio going (not strong, but definitely noticeable), but I am encouraged to try riding again. I think it will be a nice alternate means of transportation in town. I plan on sticking to my neighborhood as I am feeling cautious about the downtown traffic. The sale had ended by the time I got there, but there were a few items on the curb I poked into. Turns out it was a clean-out-Grandma's-house garage sale and the woman informed me that the house was clear. I would call that a success.

While I have not strayed too far from the goal of my no-frivolous spending month, I realize that I do still spend more than I need. Yes, the bike rack fit into the extra spending money fund, but I did not need a bike rack. I bought it for convenience and that I only paid $10 for it. Who is to say I would not find a similar bargain next month. While a bike helmet forwards my green living potential, a chocolate bar from a vending machine does not. I am finding it more difficult than I anticipated to cut spending. This does not bode well for trimming my budget to increase my savings rate.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Update on my pursuit of green living

My red worms are still alive. This is news because they did not seem to be eating and I was not sure I had many of them left. However, the worm sign is still there, they try to escape when the cat poo disappears and there are no funky smells coming from the composting unit. While the worms are not consuming the quantity of my cats' poop as I had hoped, I am glad I have not killed them. The ability to consume can be supplemented with additional purchased red worms. However, the frugal option is to let nature take its course and let the worms reproduce at their own pace. The Pet Poo Converter is not the resounding success I was hoping for (i.e., no more plastic bags!), but it is still functioning. I can only hope that time will tell if I have a really expensive plastic box in my basement or a viable alternative to flushing cat poop down the toilet.

Another green step I have taken--my single rain barrel will soon have a twin. The same organization from which I purchased my first rain barrel (with installation) I have now purchased a second. Since the rain water diverter allows me to have tandem barrels, I wanted to install a second barrel. With three trees planted for less than two years and several plantings around the house plus a small vegetable garden, I can use all the rain water I can store. The most frugal part of this second rain barrel installation: I will be doing it myself. My dad gave me the four cinder blocks required, I will purchase the length of hose to divert the water to the barrel and in just 30 minutes, I can store 110 gallons of water rather than 55 gallons.

I have been doing a lot of weed pulling. While I try to be green and mostly organic, for the truly difficult and stubborn weeds, I have a small spray bottle of Roundup (my full disclosure statement). I have noticed that spring is a really good time for removing weeds since the freeze/thaw of the ground plus warm weather is just starting means it is easier to remove unwanted plants. I will still have to spend additional time this spring, summer and fall staying ahead of the weeds, but more preventative work now means less work later.

I have not purchased plants, seeds, soil amendments or trees for my property yet, but that is on my list of things to do. My outdoor composter has not progressed much, but more items are added every week and with the warmer weather, the possibility I might have self-generated compost grows. I have decided to skip the corn gluten treatment for my lawn this spring, but have not gotten around to the soil aeration. This project may be pushed into May or June, depending how the possible rain gardens shape up. I need to select and order the native plants for my front yard and for my planned rain gardens. This is all new to me so I may be taking on more than I can handle.

This weekend may not be too green. While I hope to reuse the trim taken from my front window, the first one to be replaced on my house, the chemicals involved in stripping the finish from the wood are distinctly unfriendly. Still, I am interested in trying to strip and refinish my first bits of wood, and if that works, two wood tables (one solid, one veneer) are next on my list.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Recipe Monday: Carrie's Honey Wheat Bread

This is an Oster bread machine recipe that I have come to enjoy tremendously. The bread is not too crumbly, works well for both turkey sandwiches and garlic bread with cheese (and dunked in spaghetti or marinara sauce).

9-10 ounces water
1.5 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons butter, softened
3 tablespoons honey
3.5 cups bread flour
1 cup wheat flakes
2 tablespoons wheat bran (I substituted whole wheat flour)
2 teaspoons active dry yeast

All ingredients should be at room temperature (70-80 degrees Fahrenheit/21-27 degrees Celsius). Measure all ingredients in the order listed above. Select Whole Wheat setting (I used Basic and had no problems). Select crust setting if other than "Medium". Press the "Start/Stop" button to begin the breadmaking process. Remove bread when the cycle is complete and let cool. Makes a 2-pound loaf.

The bread tastes wonderful when still warm and spread with butter. I use half the amount of ingredients for a 1-pound loaf and that gives a nice size for a sandwich. I also use up the wheat flake cereal I do not like. Butter and crystalized honey were heated briefly in the microwave and that worked well in the bread.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Temptation, desire, and the spending war with myself

As I noted at the start of April, I challenged myself not to spend money on unnecessary expenses. This turned into quite a battle for me. I paid for a few lunches with friends, something I did not anticipate, I forgot to purchase my annual theater tickets before April and indulged in a couple luxury bath items since the store is located in a place I rarely visit. I have been feeling like a failure because I could not control these spending impulses. The time spent with friends is valuable and the bath items I will enjoy and use. However, because of these choices, I will have less money at the end of the month to save. Granted, this is money above and beyond my usual levels, but I still feel like I have not really lived up to the challenge. I did figure April would be easier to not spend than May when garage sale season would really start up and there would be lots of things to do and purchase for the house. Frankly, the easiest way for me to meet this no-spending challenge would be in the wintertime when I do not feel much like getting out anyway, thus reducing the opportunities for me to spend money.

However, there is one battle I have been fighting fiercely--the desire for a 15" MacBook Pro with ambient-light-sensing keyboard, MagSafe Power Adaptor, excellent speakers, nice 15" screen and faster than my current iBook G4. I have been haunting craigslist for such an item especially after brokering the purchase of a 17" MacBook Pro for my mom via the same classifieds. I have been looking at Apple, and some resellers as well, looking for a good deal, examining the specifications of the models available, and really, really, really wanting to have one for myself. Despite subjecting myself to the very epitome of temptation (for me at this juncture), I have not yet succumbed. Again, I do not need a new shiny bit of Apple hardware, but I desire it tremendously.

Frankly, it comes down to one thing: do I want the gorgeous 15" MacBook Pro (even if the previous model or two) or would I rather have the financial cushion in my bank? I would have to sacrifice ~$1,500 to get the computer I covet, but that means I no longer have $1,500 of liquidity. With a $1,400 car repair to pay for and pending window purchases, I do not feel like I can give up that much money for a frivolous purchase. My iBook functions more than adequately and other than technolust, I have no reason to buy a new computer.

To help me reach this decision, I have given myself one year to buy a new machine. I applied for an internet subsidy through my workplace and if granted, I will put that money toward purchasing a new computer since the high-speed internet is already in my spending plan. In addition, the current account I have labeled as "found money" will also go toward purchasing a new (to me but less than a year old) MacBook Pro in a year. I am weak enough that if a good deal falls into my lap around a month where I am paid an extra check, I may succumb. Otherwise, about April 2009, I will likely purchase a new MacBook Pro. This is the best compromise between keeping more money in reserve and buying the much-desired MacBook Pro. Hopefully, I can resist the impulsive buy before I am financially prepared.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Doing laundry can be fun (and smell good too!)

This past weekend was one of the first truly warm weekends since winter hit with full force and everyone took advantage of it. I characterized all my fellow suburban and city dwellers as exploding out of their houses. I have not seen that many walkers, bikers and people about for many months. I spent my time pulling weeds (I had given up doing that last fall), talking to the worms I turned up (quite a few are active), reassembling the snowplow-ruined sod, seeding bare patches of lawn, making laundry detergent and hanging out my laundry to dry outside. It was sunny with a brisk wind, thus allowing the clothes to dry well.

The outdoor drying really had me excited. Why? I had forgotten what outdoor-scented laundry smelled like. In the winter, clothes hung in the basement smell a bit like damp places (i.e., the basement). Laundry dried in a dryer smells like chemicals as I use a scented dryer sheet. The good old-fashioned outdoor smell was forever banished from my life--so I thought. Would you believe I tried to hang out all the laundry I could reasonably put together in a load during the weekend? I had forgotten how much I missed the smell of outdoor-dried laundry.

To top off my experience, I made my own laundry detergent using the recipe from The Simple Dollar. I have not bought detergent in over six months and I had about an inch left in the bottom of my liquid detergent bottle. Between my front-loading, high-efficiency washer and the three detergents I use for various purposes, I do not use much each time, about a 1/4 cup. I had planned on making detergent for a while, already having purchased a bar of soap, 20 Mule Team Borax and Arm and Hammer Washing Soda, but the items sat in the basement until I finally decided to make the detergent.

The first decision I made was using up the soap remnants I had. I still had soap left from hotels and slivers of bars that I had used and then put aside. Unlike others, I seem soap-bar-fusion defective so only use brand new bars without the addition of the old sliver. Armed with a variety of five soaps, I warmed water and started shaving with a knife. It takes some time for the bar soap to dissolve in the hot water, probably about 30 minutes in my case, and I did not count on that. That is my impatience showing through so make sure to leave yourself plenty of time to make the laundry soap if you try it.

Once the soap was dissolved, the other steps went smoothly. I added the soap mixture to three gallons of hot water, mixed, added 1 cup of washing soda, mixed ~one minute, added 1/2 cup of borax, mixed about a minute and let sit overnight. The end result looked a lot like Trent's recent post except more slimy and less gloppy. Of course, I had to try it right away and everything came out clean. Since the homemade laundry detergent does not suds up like the store purchased, I added a whole cup to my high-efficiency washer. I am not sure this much is needed, but I will experiment with this. The glops of soap make it difficult to measure easily so I have currently compromised on 1/2 cup homemade laundry detergent.

Since I had saved the previous container of laundry detergent when I emptied it, I transferred some of the homemade detergent into the bottle. This way, I did not change the storage-space needs for my laundry detergent and can use the cap for measuring the correct volume. However, I have to wait until the second bottle is empty before refilling it. In addition, I still have a five-gallon bucket with more laundry detergent. I recommend reusing detergent bottle with screw-on caps. Because the detergent is so gloppy, I am concerned the slimy chunks might clog a spigot-dispensed container.

As for hanging the laundry outdoors, it did not matter which detergent was used. The end result smelled the same--fresh and outdoorsy. I love my umbrella clothesline and do not care who knows it! So I am pleased with my first shot at homemade laundry detergent and am glad the outdoor laundry-drying season is back!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Trying to remove spending temptation

With my challenge not to spend this month, one of the better strategies I can implement is not to go places that would encourage me to spend. That means as the garage sale season begins, I cannot go. I have to skip my weekly thrift store trip and minimize haunting craigslist in search of that deal.

Friday concluded the week with a trip to the grocery store but I only purchased needed items like milk and pizza sauce, both of which ended up being on sale. I managed to get in and out of the store with only the items I intended on purchasing and manage not to indulge in junk food (e.g., potato chips and soda).

Saturday and Sunday I was free and clear of spending opportunities. I tried to visit the bike shop in town but it was not open in its new location. Otherwise, I occupied myself with cleaning, pulling weeds and reassembling the ripped up sod that is my lawn. (With the record snowfall, a good chunk of the winter snow ended up on my lot along with the blade of the snowplow.)

Monday I went to work and then went home. Today I am planning on spending $10 to purchase a bike rack for my car. I do not want to delay especially as hauling the bike in the trunk of my car when it was purchased was an uncomfortable experience. At this point, I am getting the rack before the bike helmet.

In addition, I have lunch plans with a friend I have not seen in over a month and that means eating out. While we do not need to go out to eat, it is more convenient and typically what we do the few times we have had lunch together. However, I was looking forward to having a nice turkey sandwich for lunch with homemade bread and a slice of cheddar in the middle, mustard, spices... There is always dinner, but I am spending money I should be saving.

Unfortunately, I am still open to other temptation, technology specifically. I found a potential MacBook Pro on craigslist I am contemplating buying. After finding the great deal on a MacBook Pro for my mom, it has only made me more open to finding one of my own. Getting over that last hurdle to spending the money is still a great one. Thinking and doing are two different things, but I am leaving myself vulnerable to potentially spending more money than I consider safe.

So, with only the beginning of Tuesday in play as of writing this post, I have spent unnecessarily for four days out of the first eight of April. Fifty percent is not bad. At this point, I am hoping I can make it one week without spending money. Maybe exploring additional earning opportunities is really the way to go. If I am too busy earning money, it makes it more difficult to spend. It is a possibility...

Monday, April 7, 2008

Recipe Monday: Crispy Baked Bar-B-Que Chicken

This is one of my favorite baked chicken recipes. My mom made this for family dinner about a year ago, and she told me the recipe was in the family cookbook. Since I enjoyed it so much, I added it to my rotation of dinner recipes to cook.

1/2 cup dry bread crumbs (dried bread pieces can be made into crumbs using a blender)
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1 chicken, cut up (I use a four-piece package of chicken thighs)
1/4 cup margarine, melted

Combine crumbs, brown sugar, chili powder, garlic and mustard. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Brush each piece with margarine. Roll in crumb mixture. Place skin side up; do not let pieces touch. Sprinkle with remaining crumbs. Bake uncovered at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 50 minutes. Do not turn pieces.

The chicken comes out crispy with the bread crumb coat and just a bit sweet and spicy with the sugar and seasonings. I tend not to like all the bones leftover from a whole chicken so I use chicken thighs, which have a lot of meat per pound. If you have a preference for a chicken part, I suggest using that in place of a whole chicken. This is a nice meal for a person or two or an entire family as this recipe is quite scalable. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

How I will manage my increased income

No, I do not have a new income stream. I am still clueless when it comes to alternative income, old boy-band records for sale on ebay notwithstanding. Frankly, there is only so much stuff I can sell either locally or on ebay and then what? Today I am discussing the merit increase I will receive starting with my first paycheck this month. In my company, the average increase is ~3% so I was glad my supervisor rewarded me with 4% salary increase. What does a person trying fund her Roth IRA and save money for a new car do? Calculate how much the raise will translate to net income increase and figure out what to do with the money.

Ironically, in doing this calculation, I found an error in how I was calculating my Roth IRA contribution in 2007. When I took 6% of my gross salary and then calculated the net number, I used a percentage that included not only taxes but my 401(k) contribution, fees for disability, medical and dental insurance as well as my F.S.A. I lost just over 1% of my possible contribution to this error. However, I corrected it for the new calculation and it looks like I can contribute ~7.5% of my gross income to my Roth IRA. After calculating taxes, I will contribute just over $3,100 per year. This is a 150% increase over the year before and brings me closer to making the maximum $5,000 contribution for 2008. Since I already have an extra $500 in the account this year and my tax rebate check will give me another $500 to add to the account, my planned Roth contributions are over $4,000. After figuring my 2008 taxes, I will likely have another $500 to add to the fund bringing me close to the maximum. These numbers make me think I can max out my Roth IRA two years in a row, pending no big financial blow up.

Between a share of the money I was contributing to a charity organization through work (I just reached my contribution goal) and my raise, I will be able to contribute an extra $10 every paycheck toward purchasing a new car. This is an important goal for me and every little bit brings me closer to buying a newer car without financing.

According to my calculations, there are still a few dollars left from my raise and they will be added to my prescription/medical copay allocation and my cat care fund. My cats are 14 and 12 so the expenses (visits, food, medication) add up quickly. They are fairly healthy, but I have been dealing with some chronic issues that are not easily resolved and office visits are not cheap.

These plans do not involve lifestyle increases. In fact, my net savings will increase to 34% of my annual income without further changes to my spending plan. This is good news for increasing savings as a percent of my income, but still a ways to go to reach the 40% savings rate at which I would like to be.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Analysis of my net worth for March 2008

I was surprised at my numbers in March. The volatility of the stock market made me fear I would have a losing month overall since a good portion of my net worth is determined by the mutual funds in which I have my retirement invested. In the end, my net worth increased 1.16%. This is not a dramatic increase and certainly not as good as February, but a few factors helped me stay positive in March.

Cashed out term life insurance
I have term life insurance through work for three times my salary so I thought having a separate policy was unnecessary. Other than my cats, I have no dependents so the need for this insurance is reduced. The future may show this was a poor choice, but I think investing in my Roth IRA was important. As a result, the cash value allowed me to fully fund my Roth IRA for 2007 and still had money to contribute in 2008. My purchases in the index fund that comprises my Roth IRA were also made when the market had some of its worst days in March. I did not time the market at all, but knew that I would get good value over the long term with the mostly downward volatility the stock market has been experiencing.

Gained some value in the stock market by the end of the month
My 401(k) has not been performing very well and while March was not an exception, I did come out higher than I started the month. A gain of $800 does not seem much, but since it is more than my contribution for that month, I will take it. This is where I hope the dollar-cost averaging will show its strength in a few years when I imagine the market will have gained value relative to my purchase price.

Added a few extra dollars toward my mortgage principle
My escrow fell from the year before so more of the money I allocated for paying my mortgage goes to principle. I doubt I will contribute a whole extra payment over the year, but I am happy another $7 that will decrease my principle. Again, I am starting my third year of a 30-year mortgage so interest is quite a bit of my payment, but every dollar counts, working to decrease my debt. I will take an extra 0.01% more of my mortgage paid!

Received interest income
Despite the lower rates even on the high-yield savings accounts, I still have interest compounding on top of interest and the additional contributions. This interest is money I did not have before and I will take it! It is a small bit of passive income and at today's inflation and interest rates, not keeping me above inflation, but is slowing my money's erosion.

April will be an interesting month. I have a large car repair bill and the purchase of replacement windows that will draw down my cash reserves. While the windows will add value to my home, it is no longer liquid and involves a long-term investment that I may not fully realize. Since the no-spending vow is a bit iffy right now, I do not know if the extra saved money will be exist or not. Stay tuned for next month's analysis!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Three days into my no-spending month

This no-spending experiment really is a challenge for me. While I will not count the necessary car repairs (at greater cost than I expected) and the replacement hard drive for my iBook (covered under my AppleCare plan with only the cost of time, gas and wear and tear on my car), I also had unprecedented opportunity to spend money even in these first three days. The Apple Store is in a mall and I pass the the Bath and Body Works store on the way. Therefore, I purchased lotion as I knew I was running low and am partial to some of their products since I rarely go to the mall. In addition, I shipped items to my winning ebay bidders from the post office so I bought a book of Forever stamps to beat the price increase in May.

Furthermore, I spent money on eating out for lunch Wednesday as a farewell to a friend leaving for a new position in another company. So much for a no-spending challenge; I am 0 for 3. I can say opportunities that arose under atypical circumstances, but I still spent money.

However, I have made my monthly grocery run and that should help keep me from being as tempted to buy my lunch or snacks. The vending machine typically satisfies the crunchy snack craving while the coffee shop has yummy scones. Pending cat health issues, car or home emergencies, or other unplanned spending, the rest of month is looking better. The only expense that I had not considered before (and did not take care of in March) is ordering tickets to an outdoor theater in the area. It is an annual ritual with my friend W. and I am responsible for getting the tickets.

Unfortunately, technology envy has reared its ugly head and temptation is strong to get a 15" MacBook Pro of my very own. Despite the impressive screen size of the 17" MacBook Pro I bought for my mom, I decided it is just not quite portable enough for me. The 15" screen is bigger than my 14" iBook G4, has the cool new features like the back-lit keyboard, which I completely fell in love with when activated, and would be shiny and new with Leopard, the Mac OS. As argued previously, I do not need it, but I am finding hard to fight want. After dealing with car and iBook troubles, a brand-new piece of hardware is guaranteed to make me forget all my problems. Hence, I am more susceptible than I have been especially after experiencing a MacBook Pro personally. After my car repair bill, I doubt I will be buying such an item, but it is a desirable bit of Apple hardware.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Have gas prices affected driving behavior?

I have read articles that note people have been driving less, combining errands and even forgoing trips because the gas prices have increased over 25% since the same month the year before. However, my experience has shown that people, while combining trips and carpooling more often, still speed. Since the faster the car goes over 55mph, the greater the decrease in gas mileage, this seems an easy way to cut consumption. Even I, who never likes to go more than 5mph over the speed limit anyway, am hitting that 55 mark when the sign says 55mph, rather than 58mph. My payoff? I hit 30mpg my last fuel fill up. I was happy to see that number as winter has had me in the low- to mid-20s.

My car is a 1997 Dodge Stratus and the revised government estimates state that I can expect 26mpg at highway speeds. Since I mainly drive between 45-55mph, that is the number I use as my benchmark. Hence, my 30mpg looks very good in comparison to the rating for the car.

Yet, if people are concerned about the price of gas, I could not tell on my commute yesterday morning. I took a different route than I normally do and ended up on a two-lane 55mph highway. I was passed by no fewer than five vehicles when I had my cruise control set at 55. As it was a two-lane highway, they could only pass me if there was no oncoming traffic. Once I was passed, they definitely kept their higher rate of speed as the vehicles got further ahead of me.

When I turned onto a second highway, I knew the speed limit went from 55 to 65mph. However, I wait until I see that 65mph sign before accelerating (~2 miles). This behavior was in direct contrast to many other vehicles that eagerly anticipated the speed increase well before the sign. Since I set my cruise control for 65mph, I observed that over 90% of the vehicles passed me as I drove in the right lane of the four-lane split highway. These vehicles were a mix of minivans, cars, SUVs and trucks, many of which get poorer gas mileage than I do. Plus, I found when I speed, I tend to be more impatient and more easily angered by people on the road than if I just set my mind on the speed limit and let them pass me.

The danger is I also get tailgated (or vehicles are closer than I am comfortable with), but I want to maximize the use of my gas rather than get to work two minutes earlier as others seem intent on doing. I cannot change their behavior but I can do my best to be a good citizen of the road. Other drivers would disagree on how good a citizen I am since I do occasionally let loose my contempt for their tailgating or passing me while I drive the speed limit.

I could speculate people are not passing me at quite the same fast clip nor am I passed by every vehicle, but I am not seeing a dramatic effect of rising gas prices on speeding although morning rush hour was more competitive than an hour after the evening commute. My perspective reflects that people are unhappy with gas prices but still enjoy speeding around town and country. Just relax and drive the speed limit. You will get where you want to go and preserve a bit of cash. Is it truly worth the possible few minutes gained by speeding if it costs extra money every day?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Making my Driver's Edge Citibank Rewards Card work for me

For the last seven years, I paid off my credit card bill whenever it arrived, I thought I would look at possibility of rewards credit cards. After doing some research, I ended debating between one that would help me pay for a car and one that would help me pay for my mortgage. (Now that I am looking at a shorter timeline for car replacement, I am glad I chose the former.) Once the decision was made, I applied for and received a Citibank Driver's Edge Platinum Rewards card.

As many financial people tell you, even if you no longer use a credit card, do not close the account. (This keeps the amount of available credit versus credit card balance higher as well as giving a longer credit history as I understand it.) Therefore, my other credit card was retired but not closed, and I solely use the Driver's Edge Rewards card. I am a one-credit-card gal and it keeps my life simple.

However, I neglected to take advantage of all the perks provided by the rewards card. Not only did I receive an introductory 5% back on my purchases at grocery and pharmacy stores and gas stations when I used my card (drops to 3% after six months), but I could get additional rebates on my accumulating mileage and submit my car repair bills for credit. Unfortunately, while I did read the booklet detailing my rewards, I retained only that I needed to submit evidence of my odometer reading. As a result, I waited until I finally had my oil change before filling out the form.

Turns out, I could have applied for the mileage program, but it would only be counted when I submitted a receipt with the odometer reading on it. Basically, I cheated myself out of five months worth of mileage. With my potential car purchase closer than I would like, every little penny helps!

I did not delay any longer. I sent out my enrollment form for the mileage program and then submitted my bill for the oil change and small car repair at the same time. I will take the extra $2 toward a car purchase any time. I can only accumulate up to $5,000 in five years before having to use my rewards, but that time frame works for me. Right now my potential reward stands at $50, but with a big repair and increased gas costs (plus all the miles I put on my car), this number should increase at a faster rate.

Currently, my auto savings account is around $1,000. With more of my rebates, refunds, extra money, unexpected bonuses and cash for selling stuff going to this account, I think I could get to $2,000 by September 2008, one year after I started saving for a car. I also intend to automatically save more money for a newer car and that will add up even if the interest rate on my ING Direct account is not impressive.

Hopefully, my car will last another three to four years so I can accumulate more money to get myself a newer car. While I was aiming for a newer used vehicle around 50,000 miles for ~$6,000, I may have to set my sights higher especially as more fuel-efficient models around three years old seem to be priced ~$10,000. At least I should have a decent down payment on a newer car if the time frame is shorter than I hope for.

Edit: As it turns out, I misunderstood the rewards program. When I sent in my car repair bills, Citibank redeemed some of my rewards dollars against the repairs. Only purchases and mileage add to the total; car purchases and fixes decrease the total.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

First day of my fiscal challenge--not very successful

Well, I have already fallen off the nonspending wagon on the first day of April. Yes, I bought some Forever stamps at the Post Office when mailing items sold on ebay. While I was glad to make some money especially as I am trying to save more for a new car, I still had to spend for shipping (even if built into the price of the ebay item). I tend to discount my ebay shipping fees as spending since I was selling unneeded items and making money versus taking the money out of my budget, which is where the money for the stamps comes from.

I will also confess I am buying a computer, but as it is for my mom and she will be paying me back, this is neutral spending proposition. At least I can "test" my mom's new computer when I bring it home!

Speaking of computers, my iBook G4 is on the fritz. After spending three days backing up the hard drive (did this twice after the first back up failed), reinstalling the system software three times and finally retrieving my back up, I can say that this time I spent accomplished nothing, and I have to talk to an Apple Genius anyway. A colleague suggested a hard drive failure, which would be the first time for me. I have owned seven differnt Macs over the last 13 years, none of which ever had a hard drive fail until now (if the Apple Genius agrees). I am still covered under AppleCare so this should be of no cost to me (other than time and gas). However, I feel bereft, stressed and uncreative; hence the lack of posts. I am way too attached to my iBook, I know.

Please visit the Festival of Frugality #119 hosted by Consumerism Commentary for frugal tips since I am not in the mindset.

Update: Since I was at the mall getting my iBook fixed, I also spent money at the Bath and Body Works store. I do not like going to the mall (especially just for one thing) and I am running low on lotion so extra money was spent. I may have to exempt this week from my spending challenge.