Monday, June 30, 2008

Recipe Monday: Strawberry Freezer Jam

Recently, I have been listening to a song called "Strawberry Street" by Lili Haydn and thoroughly enjoyed it. Nice light summer fare, much like strawberries themselves. Since strawberries are in season, I considered making some strawberry jam. I recalled my grandmother gave me some strawberry jam for my housewarming, loved the jam and called to ask her for the recipe. She informed me "Oh, I used the recipe on the Sure-Jell box." Well, it was the insert inside the box of pectin, but I followed the directions to have the yummiest, freshest, sweetest, most delicious strawberry jam ever! It really does taste better when you pick the strawberries and make it yourself. I have made two batches already and froze the strawberries for a third to make in the future. If only my freezer were larger, I would pick more strawberries to make more jam! Even though this recipe is easily available on the web, I wanted to share it with you and include tips I might have appreciated the first time I made the jam.

2 pints strawberries
1 package fruit pectin (e.g., Sure-Jell or Ball)
4 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
containers (plastic or glass)

  1. Wash and rinse jam containers with tightly fitting lids. Good sizes to use are 1-2 cups.

  2. Wash strawberries and pat dry. Discard stems and crush enough strawberries to measure 2 cups. Use a potato masher and crush one layer of strawberries at a time. Note: Strawberries squirt juice quite readily. Wear an apron or shirt you do not mind getting stained.
    If you use a food processor, pulse to finely chop. Do not puree. The jam should have bits of fruit in it.

  3. Measure exactly 2 cups of strawberries and pour into a large bowl. This bowl should have an 8-cup capacity, better if 10-12 cups.

  4. Measure exactly 4 cups of sugar into a separate bowl.

  5. Stir sugar into crushed strawberries. Mix well. Let stand for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

  6. Stir 1 box of pectin into 3/4 cup of water in a small saucepan. (Pectin may start out lumpy.) Bring to a boil on high heat, stirring constantly. Boil the mixture for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.
    Note: Wait to boil the water and pectin until there is only a minute left with the sugar-strawberry mixture. The pectin goes into solution quickly and boils in only a minute. If you start the pectin mix any sooner, it will boil too long and the pectin can break down when heated for longer than recommended.

  7. Stir the hot pectin mixture into the strawberry-sugar mixture. Stir constantly until the sugar is completely dissolved, ~3 minutes. A few sugar crystals may remain, but the mixture should not be grainy.

  8. Pour the jam mixture into the prepared containers, leaving a 1/2 inch space at the top for freezing expansion. Cover the containers. I used glass jars, 1-pint sizes and 1-cup sizes, which both worked well.

  9. Let the containers with the strawberry jam mixture at room temperature for 24 hours until set. Refrigerate jam for up to 3 weeks. Otherwise, store in the freezer for up to 1 year. Thaw in refrigerator.

Yield: 5 cups
Time investment: 30-45 minutes

I could barely wait until the jam was set, but I toasted some homemade bread, spread on some butter and then slathered on the strawberry jam. Delicious! I have jam and toast for breakfast and dinner every day for the last three days and do not regret it one bit. I estimated my cost for two batches of strawberry jam was $13, and the freshness and the taste are steps above anything purchased from the store.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Update on my savings goals

While I have a general savings account as my emergency fund, I also have several specific savings accounts either for a goal or to hold my money until needed. How am I doing with savings goals and funding future plans?

Auto savings account
Initially, my goal was to save $50 per pay period with five years to accumulate money. This means with my biweekly paycheck, I would save $1,300 per year and $6,500 after five years. With this money, my hope was to buy a newer car for cash. Then a rather large car repair came along with other items that were showing some wear and would definitely cut my comfortable at least five years until replacement to maybe three or so years. It could be longer, but the lifetime of my current car depends on what repairs occur in the next few years.

With the likelihood of replacement looming closer, I decided to save more aggressively for a newer car. I increased my contributions per paycheck to $60 and decided to put any extra money into the car savings account. Before my big car repair, I was on track to save $1,300 for a year (ending August 2008). My current balance is $1,736, well on track to save nearly $2,000 by the end of August. Extra money from refunds, selling items, bonuses and my Flexible Spending Account (if I subtracted the cost from my budget rather than waiting for the FSA reimbursement) were also sent to this account, helping me save more money quicker. I hope to either pay for a newer car in cash or put at least 20% down on a car by the time this money is needed.

Charity account
I have not been as conscientious about putting money toward charitable contributions as my income warrants I should. While I prefer to give at work where my company matches my donations, there are many charitable organizations that are not included in my company's giving campaign. With the money remaining in my former iGo Savings account, I started an ING Direct subaccount labeled "Charity" and have contributed monthly to the fund. So far, I have donated to my local public television station and plan to send a check to my local food pantry this month. I plan a second food pantry donation in December, but I still have money remaining in my projected charity fund for additional contributions. My goal is to keep this account open and to consider what charities I might want to donate to on a regular basis.

Natural gas savings
I have a set amount budgeted each month for my natural gas bill. In the summer months, my water heaters is the only item that requires natural gas and tends to be lower than the winter months when my furnace is used as well. However, since I accumulate extra money during the warmer months, I transfer the excess to a savings subaccount until I need it. Oddly enough, I have ~$100 left after the 2007-2008 winter months. While I have kept the amount allocated in my spending plan the same for natural gas, I have moved the leftover money from my credit union account to an ING Direct account to gain a bit more interest. I have no idea what to do with this money, but if natural gas prices are going up like gasoline prices are, it only helps me to have a hedge on potential 40-50% increases in my natural gas bill during the upcoming winter.

Utility savings
Like the natural gas savings, I have been accumulating money over the winter to use in the some for the increased electricity usage. My water usage has been pretty steady at 1,000 per month, but the electricity fluctuates greatly, depending on what is used or plugged in at my home. Generally, my electrical usage is lower in the winter than the summer. For example, my dehumidifiers have been running well for the last month and been plugged in since May. My air conditioner has been used for about four days so far in 2008 with warmer weather predicted. Being ~15 years old, my central AC unit is an energy hog. However, I plan to use the item until it dies. I have just over $100 accumulated from money I did not spend under the "Utility" allocation and that is likely to be spent by the end of the hot summer weather.

Found money account
This is an account where I placed money from irregular sources to see how it would add up over time. Prior to my push to accumulate car savings as quickly as possible, I had placed money from selling items online, refunds and bonuses in this account. While most of that money is funneled into my cars savings, I still manage to put a few dollars into this account. In fact, some money I received from my workplace to pay for high speed internet access has gone into this account. This is seed money for my next computer purchase, which despite earlier comments, I hope is not for a while.

However, I will be using some of this money in the near future for a chest freezer purchase. While I have tentatively designated this money for a computer, I would rather use money from this account than my general savings account to buy the freezer. This will add to my capacity to buy and store items on sale long term, and will add more to my bottom line than the latest Apple hardware (although more attractive than a big box).

House savings account
I save money specifically earmarked for house purchases. This includes gardening supplies, caulk, paint, snow blowers, lawn mowers, anything that I would use around the house to add to its capacity, usefulness or for maintenance. With warmer weather, the money saved over the wintertime has been depleted with all the projects and items I have been buying. My latest purchase: fencing to keep the rabbits out of my raised garden bed. Because of this savings account, I do not use other saved money for home purchases aside from my replacement windows. Since I have owned my home, this money has been of real value to me, helping me deal with the irregularity of purchases for my house. I do not have to wonder where the money will come from and a set amount is saved regularly from my paycheck. I will continue to add to this fund and prevent "stealing" from my emergency savings account.

Overall, my savings accounts look good. My goals are moving forward and I am generally spending within the goals of the account. Found money savings account may be redefined many times before spending, but with a value over $500, it impresses me how those odd bits of money really add up.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Grab some discounted plants today

Where I live, many of the greenhouses are offering their plants at a discount. Today I bought some annuals at 40% off their original price. Another greenhouse was advertising $10 for a flat of plants, usually anywhere from $15-$20. One of my local hardware stores was offering 35% off trees and 50% off plants. Since I killed my pansies I started from seed, I thought I would buy some annuals to fill in the space around my mailbox. I have tulips and crocuses planted there, but once they bloom and the foliate dies, there is nothing but weeds.

So if you were considering getting plants but wondered how much you could really afford, try your local greenhouses, hardware stores and other plant sellers. Take advantage of the the discount and watch your money go just a bit further for some color around the house. (Note: this is true for me in the midwestern USA. I make no claims about other areas of the country or world.)

How to rollover (or move) your IRA

The ease of rolling over your money from a 401(k), 403(b) or other pretax retirement benefit from an previous job depends on the company holding your money. Let me use my experience as an example.

My first job after graduate school was working in a laboratory at the same university from which I graduated. This new job doubled my income from my graduate stipend and offered me the opportunity to invest in retirement funds via a 403(b), which is a pretax retirement plan for nonprofits or universities. I started investing in 1999 and then 2000-2001 came along, blithely wiping out the value of my account. When I left the university position in late 2001, the retirement account value was ~50% of my contributions.

The company I am with now hired me seven months after I left my university position. While I was fairly pleased with the 401(k) plan my new employer offered, in January 2007, I consulted with a financial advisor about my 403(b) from the university job. I had let the money (and the plan choices I made) sit for six years. In that time, with no new contributions, I had finally gained all the value I had lost in the 2001 stock drop. I was ready to move on and wondered what to do with this money.

My financial advisor recommended Transamerica, which invests in several mutual funds, buying and selling funds to maximize returns. He was invested in the plan, explained it was a front-load fund and I thought the philosophy meshed well with my future goals. Now I realize funds that charge a load really are stealing my money, but I did not really think about it so I paid to join the mutual fund. Actually, I almost broke even for the first year in the fund so that was a plus.

However, it was not easy to retrieve the retirement money from my current 403(b) custodian to rollover into the IRA mutual fund I wanted. First, I had to sign lots of paperwork stating "Yes, I would like all the money invested in Wells Fargo Funds to be liquidated and transfer custody to Transamerica, where it will be invested in new mutual funds." The paperwork did not take long to fill out, but required I identify myself, list the custodian of my current funds including its address and phone number, my account numbers and indicate that all the money would be rolled over. Since I was conducting this rollover with the assistance of a financial advisor, I needed a witness as I signed my papers and noted the amount being transferred. The paperwork was then sent to the current account custodian for processing and transfer to Transamerica.

Despite a phone call from my financial advisor to Wells Fargo, it took two or three more phone calls and second round of paperwork to finally get my money transfered to Transamerica. Depending on the customer service agent my advisor spoke with, the paperwork was either adequate, inadequate or unable to be found. However, by April 2007, my 403(b) money was moved to its new custodian, Transamerica and earning back the 5% front-load fee for me.

There are a few options for rolling over money from retirement accounts into IRAs.

Visit a financial advisor.
As my story above illustrates, a financial advisor can help you chose an appropriate mutual fund family for your goals and assist you in taking your money from a retirement benefit plan and placing it into a rollover IRA.

Rollover the money into the new employer's retirement plan.
Many 401(k) plans including my own through Fidelity allow you to take money from a previous job and add it into the new retirement plan. This is not necessary. Money can be left in the previous account until you decide you want to move it, but being able to add it to the new 401(k) or other retirement benefit plan minimizes the accounts you need to keep track of as well as reducing the number of plan statements to review.

Rollover the money yourself.
Many companies like Fidelity, T. Rowe Price and Vanguard would be happy to receive your business (and your money) with a rollover IRA. You can call them via phone or sign up online to open an account. As long as you meet the minimum investment amounts for each fund and fill out the appropriate paperwork for the rollover, you can set up the new IRA yourself. These companies have no-load funds, allowing you to keep more of the money you saved and invested.

Regardless of how you choose to rollover your money, be aware that some custodial companies are more reluctant to release your money than others. Wells Fargo seemed quite tight fisted and required several follow up calls and a second round of paperwork to get my money. Oppenheimer, my Roth IRA custodian, just needed the paperwork I filled out to move my money to T. Rowe Price. If you tackle this job yourself, you may need to spend time coaching the money through the system. However, once the money is in your new IRA account, you can watch it grow (hopefully) and be happy with its new investment home.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Recipe Monday: Turnip Cheese Bake

As I mentioned before, I have signed up for a CSA share and been receiving a box a week since May 21. I have yet to completely use the weekly share, but I keep trying. While the radishes were a failure, I did find a recipe at that I found useful for my spring turnips. I love cheese so how could I resist? The recipe was easy to make and I was able to use the fresh parsley from my CSA box as well!

1 1/2 pounds turnips, pared and sliced (about 4 cups)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste
1 cup milk
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheese
Snipped parsley

Cook turnips in boiling salted water until tender, and drain. In a saucepan, melt the butter, and blend in flour, salt and pepper. Add milk and stir until thickened. Reduce heat, and stir in cheese until melted. Combine cheese sauce and turnips. Turn into a 1 quart casserole dish. Cover and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 20 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and paprika. Serve hot.

My quantity of turnips did not make 4 cups so I sized the recipe accordingly. I think I made more sauce than necessary but as I like cheese (and was not sure about the turnips), it worked out well. I found the turnips palatable and enjoyed trying something new.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Improve your garage sale with these tips

I recently went to some garage sales in my community and noticed some stark contrasts among them. It was not necessarily the presentation or the setup or even how the sale was along the sidewalk rather than in the garage. While I may not know much about hosting a garage sale (last year's attempt was a flop), I do know what I like to see when I attend one. Here are a few points to consider when you have a garage sale.

Be friendly and greet your potential buyers.
When the host or hosts do not even acknowledge me, I start to wonder what kind of situation I have stepped into. Sometimes the people involved in the sale are busy chatting with each other rather than saying "hello" to the person who decided to stop and take a look at the goods. For example, I stopped by a garage sale when I saw a sign by the road. When I stopped, I was mildly concerned about the dog at the end of the driveway as I am not a fan of barking and jumping on people, but hoped the owner would take charge of his pet. While I was grateful he did, the other two people standing at the end of the driveway did not even look at me, make eye contact or otherwise acknowledge my existence. Why would I want to spend money at the sale if the "hosts" are too busy taking a smoking break to say "hello" to me? I felt disrespected and annoyed, and did not end up buying anything from the meager offering.

Have the prices clearly marked, whether on each item or for a group of items (e.g., on a table).
Unfortunately, several garage sales I recently attended violated this rule. I find it frustrating to decide I like an item but then find no tag on it to tell me if I even want to buy it. Is the puzzle map 50 cents or $5? If it is $5, will the seller accept $2? It is hard to decide to buy or bargain on an item if there is no point from which to start. The nature of the host can also influence this aspect. If I did not receive a greeting and do not feel encouraged to talk to the host, I will walk away rather than ask about the price on an item.

Ask a friend or neighbor to help with the garage sale.
I found some rag rugs at a garage sale and was interested in buying them. While I did not need the rugs, I thought I might like to put them on the floor in the basement as a prelude to rendering it more useful than as a refinishing station. However, there were no prices on the rugs nor a sign listing "2 for $5" or something similar. While I did not hold the host's nongreeting against him (he was busy), I did get irritated when he said he would be right back before I had a chance to ask about the rugs. However, I decided I would wait for his return and decide whether I wanted the rugs or not. The host was showing some other customers the stepping stones he was selling, but the stones were in the backyard. Since he was the only one hosting the garage sale, there was no one else to ask question of or help out other customers. When the host did not return after a couple minutes, I decided my time was worth more than waiting around for this man to return and then find out I did not want to buy the rugs at his asking price. Therefore, I left, angry and disappointed. A second person could have taken care of me and the two other people who were interested in buying items, the other two with items to buy in hand.

Label items clearly.
I know it is difficult to price the item, organize the garage space and make each item accessible to potential buyers. However, if there is a label missing inside a garment, please add the size to the price tag or on a separate sticker. I find it annoying to find clothing that looks like it might be in my size but then the tag with the relevant information is cut out of the garment. While the person may not like the tag irritation, having a size, even estimated, would be useful for me to decide if I wanted to buy the item or not.

If pricing items by box or by a quantity, make sure the items are presorted. An open box with jars labeled "$4" does not help me if there are jars outside the box and I do not know if they are included or excluded.

Note for plant sales: Labels apply to these as well. This year, I have gone to three different plant sales in three different communities. The one in my community was an abysmal failure, in my opinion. While the prices were clearly marked, the plants were not. I have no idea what the name of the plant was, what its lighting requirements were, and the hostesses were standing around talking amongst themselves rather than making themselves available to buyers. Frankly, there was not a great variety of plants to choose from so I was disappointed in many ways. The previously visited plant sales had knowledgeable plant sellers with a great selection of well-organized and excellently labeled plants in individual pots.

While my list does not cover how to host a garage sale (good sites are here and here), I hope my list of suggestions helps improve the response to your garage sale. While it is hard to forget poorly serviced garage sales, I have several pleasant memories of friendly women and men who chatted with me briefly and made me feel a bit more connected with my neighbors.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Recipe Monday: Rhubarb Torte

This is a recipe I make every year using the rhubarb from my mom's garden. Even with a rhubarb plant division from my mom in my own garden, it is too young to harvest this year. The recipe is also from the family cookbook and is a treat I look forward to eating (if not making). It is quite yummy and I consume the dessert in a shorter time than I care to admit.

2 cups flour
1 cup margarine
2 tablespoon sugar

Mix ingredients and pat into a greased 9" x 13" pan. Bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

6 egg yolks
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup evaporated milk
6 cups rhubarb pieces, chopped
2 teaspoons tapioca (if fruit is frozen)

Mix all ingredients together and pour over crust. Bake 40-45 minutes.

6 egg whites, stiffly beaten
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla

Make a meringue topping and spread over fruit. Bake 10 minutes.

The torte can be stored at room temperature for a day or two before needing to be refrigerated. I think it tastes best at room temperature. Enjoy!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The expensive reality of homeownership

When I started telling others I was planning on buying a house, I received my share of "You can write it off on your taxes" comments. My perception was my mortgage payment would be subtracted from my taxes, but the reality is the only items I can write off are my mortgage interest and my property taxes, and then only a percentage of these (based on my income tax rate).

When I bought my house, my mother said to me "Congratulations on owning a piece of real estate." However, signing up for paying a mortgage for 30 years did not prepare me for all the costs of homeownership. Here are a few things I knew about but did not truly think through the effect on my finances:

Landscaping and lawn mowing
Among the tree trimming (to keep the lone tree I had in good condition), shrub removal (because I hated what was on the property) and figuring out what plants and shrubs I wanted to install, the costs added up. I paid arborists to take care of my tree and remove unwanted shrubbery. While I may have planted the new landscaping myself, the costs were not cheap whether I purchased a plant, bare-root stock or bulbs. In addition, I had to spend extra money on appropriate amendments or fertilizers plus my time and energy to plant all these things around the house.

In the warmer weather, lawn mowing is one of those neverending chores, and when I first moved into the house, I did not have a lawn mower. My first (and only dip) into the water of hiring a neighbor boy failed badly so I ended up buying my electric mower before I saved the money for it, and mowed the lawn myself. I do not like mowing grass, but am too cheap to hire someone else. This means I have to spend at least 1.5 hours mowing my small lot and grumbling about the work as I bat away insects. This was not highlighted during the home-purchase process.

Home maintenance
Taking care of the home is more than fixing things when they break; it is also preventing catastrophic failure. For example, I am painting the siding on my house because it is starting to crack and peel. While I do not perform the job of professional, I am doing a patch job until I can convince my neighbor, who owns the other half of the duplex, to have the entire structure painted. By painting in between professional repainting, I prevent any damage from occurring to the wood exterior.

I also have to do things like change the furnace filter regularly, add salt to the water softener, empty out the bucket on the dehumidifier and have the furnace and AC unit checked. Again, these are reasonable steps to take to keep the house working well, but not detailed in that homeownership document it took over an hour to sign.

Utility bills
In my apartments, I was responsible for heat, electric and phone. Sometimes heat and electric were the same thing. While I had a number for water, sewer and natural gas from the previous owner, I did not realize how much higher these numbers were until I started paying these bills. In winter, the natural gas-fueled furnace means a high bill; in summer, the electric-powered AC unit means the electric bill reaches untold heights. On average, I pay at least twice as much for utilities (which includes water and sewer) as I did when I was in an apartment.

Mortgage and property taxes
I did make sure I could afford my house with the escrow included. My monthly payment came in just under what I felt comfortable paying. However, my mortgage (plus escrow and PMI) was more than my rent and with the increase in my utility bills, I found more of my income was committed to fixed expenses. While I can pay my mortgage and other bills with nary a wince, I realize that with so much of my money dedicated to these expenses, I have fewer resources to save.

While property taxes can be subtracted from a tax bill, they can also be raised in a dramatic fashion. While the payment on my house will never change since I chose a 30-year-fixed-rate mortgage, the property taxes do vary from year to year. Depending on the assessment or the financial strength of the city I live in, my monthly payment may be more than I wanted to pay and pinch the spending plan even more.

While I am happy to have a home and be able to decorate and customize as I would like, I did not weigh all the financial consequences of the purchase. I had taken into account what I could afford and knew my utilities would be higher, but the more irregular maintenance and replacement expenses were not considered. Many people consider a home an asset, but it has great expense associated with its use and maintenance even when divided over time. Truly look at yourself and your finances before diving into homeownership. It is a tough (and expensive) job, but you may find such challenges rewarding.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Recipe Monday: Veggie Dill Dip

With spring veggies appearing in farmer's markets (and CSA boxes) everywhere, I thought I would offer at least one recipe that may complement them. I am not sure where my mom found this recipe, but I do enjoy the dip with raw carrots. Maybe I should make this and see if it works with my radishes. Hmm...

1 cup sour cream
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1 1/2 teaspoon dill weed
1/4 teaspoon Lawry's seasoned salt

Mix sour cream and mayonnaise together. Sprinkle seasonings on top and stir in. Refrigerate for several hours and taste; add more seasonings if necessary.

Be cautious with the seasoning salt. Too much and the sodium comes through more than the other flavors. While not the healthiest accompaniment to veggies, I have enjoyed many a bag of baby carrots with this dip.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Small (and large) ways I disrupt my spending plan

As I wrote last week, I had purchased several personal care items from since they were cheaper than I could find locally. Combined with a virtual coupon and the ability to submit part of my purchase to a Flexible Spending plan, I could save nearly $50 versus locally purchasing these same items at the same quantity. However, this purchase took more money than the category "Personal" had allocated. This means I have to borrow from my savings account to pay the credit card bill when it arrives. In this fashion, I have blown my budget out of the water in a big way. Yes, this savings will show itself over the long run, but in the short term, it is a large chunk that needs to come out of savings rather than my spending plan.

Smaller ways I disturb the ordered nature of my spending plan: using other categories. For example, I visited a friend in a nearby city where they were having a city-wide garage sale. It was a nice way to spend time together, find some good deals and visit the local plant sale that was happening that same day. I purchased $0.70 worth of children's books to give to a friend's baby (subtracted from my "Gift" category), spent $1.00 on four pieces of women's clothing (easily part of the "Clothing" allocation), four tomato cages for $1.00 (subtracted from my "Miscellaneous" category) and a $2.00 book on quilting (from my "Entertainment" allocation). I did not need another book on quilting since I have not been doing much to pursue this craft recently, but decided to get the book anyway since it had both techniques and patterns. Subtracting $2 for a book from "Entertainment" may or may not be what others consider entertainment, but my "Miscellaneous" category does not have much left this month.

In addition, I purchased ten wooden hangers for $5.00, a pretty good deal. However, from what category do I subtract this amount? As I just mentioned, "Miscellaneous" does not have much funding left in it ($4.81 before visiting the garage sales). Because hangers are used to hang clothing, I decided to subtract the $5 from my "Clothing" spending. It is related and some might argue this is the correct use of my "Clothing" money, but the money in the "Clothing" category is just for clothing. So, rather than owing myself money or borrowing from savings, I chose to execute some category slight-of-hand and remove the money from my "Clothing" allocation.

Doing creative accounting like this may not seem bad, but performing this recategorization on a regular basis with $5 here and $10 there can really add up to overspending. My spending plan helps keep me on track, but using other categories like this indicates I am not living within my means, even if it is just in a single category, and the excess money in another category is spent rather than saved for the future. This analysis points out a flaw in my plans and reminds me to ask myself "Do I really need this item?" before purchasing it.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Vacation fantasy and money reality

One of my cousins announced that he and his fiancée were planning on getting married in Jamaica in April 2009, and we (his extended family) were all invited. With the magical e-mail address, information would be passed to us and we could learn all about the location and the expense for joining him and his future wife at this location. I have not been to Jamaica but it would be something different under the guise of attending a wedding. Therefore, I shared my e-mail address and waited for the information to arrive.

About a month later, an e-mail from an unknown person came to my inbox. Once I figured out the strange name was my cousin's fiancée, I clicked the link, waited forever for the image-heavy web page to load and then scrolled for what seemed like several minutes to get to the details. Turns out, there were no details and I had to submit information on the web page to get a quote for airfare and hotel, a couple's resort.

It has taken another five months, but I finally received the numbers involved in this destination wedding. From my location to the resort and back, including airfare, I could pay $3,400 to $4,000 per couple (depending on if the room has a garden view, ocean view or beach-side placement) or $1,700 to $2,000 per person. This may not seem like much, but does not include incidentals and spending money. Taking the larger number ($2,000) and dividing it by the number of pay periods between now and the wedding, I came up with the magical number of $85. This means I have to save $85 per paycheck between now and April 2009 to pay for this trip.

Broken down into the small number $85, this does not seem too intimidating. However, even if I gave up my entertainment money, my eating out allocation and most of my miscellaneous money, I would not fund even half this vacation. To fully fund this trip, I would need to cut my spending plan quite thin and steal money that I was sending to various savings accounts (general, house and car). Not only would I not be able to enjoy a meal with a friend without having to borrow against savings, but I would compromise my current savings goals. This seems quite short-sighted: make me feel pinched immediately and decrease funding of other items.

The $2,000 I could save for the vacation could also fund replacement windows or attic insulation, an investment in making my house more comfortable and energy efficient, something I could enjoy every day rather than once. I was really excited (and anxious) about my first overseas trip to Germany last year. I saved for 15 months and had more than enough money for my trip. I am glad I went and enjoyed the experience. This trip to Jamaica has not generated the same amount of excitement, and I have mixed feelings about weddings and family. The fantasy of a tropical trip is lovely but the financial realities are I am better off staying home and saving my money for other long-term goals.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The foibles of saving money

I did a good or a bad thing, depending on your view: I signed up for Amazon Prime and then went looking for bargains. This was not my original intention. Initially, I signed up for Amazon Prime because I needed to ensure the books I ordered for my nephew's birthday arrived before the party. I did not find anything at garage sales that would work for a four-year-old boy so I fell back to my default position: books. More specifically, Transformer books since he was well into Transformers. There were two "I Can Read" Transformer books on Amazon so I ordered them and signed up for a free trial of Amazon Prime. (I also ordered some olive oil since I was running low and the price seemed better than what I paid for my last bottle.)

As advertised, the books arrived in plenty of time for me to sew a reusable gift bag and give it to my nephew for his birthday. (In contrast, I did not finish sewing and clothing the doll that was a gift for my godson, born one week and two years after his brother and shared the same birthday party.) I was thrilled that my nephew liked the books so much, he paged through them after opening then had one of his aunts read one to him.

Since I had just gone grocery shopping two days ago, I decided to comparison shop for toilet paper on Amazon. Whether I divided the price per sheet or per roll, the toilet paper I purchased locally was a better deal than online. However, I decided to try a few more items I buy regularly. I figured I may as well use the Amazon Prime membership to full advantage and get items shipped to me quickly.

I have worn contact lenses for the last 18 years. While I love them, I was recently switched to the Acuvue Hydroclear lenses to supply more oxygen to the eyes and to help with the end-of-day dryness issues I had. My favorite brand of cleaning/disinfecting solution is Alcon's Opti-Free Replenish Multipurpose Disinfecting Solution, and I had just purchased a pack of two new bottles as I was running low. Amazon had the same solution available in a package of four at $2.24 less than I would have paid in store for the same quantity. This savings does not seem impressive, but since contact lens solution is covered under my Flexible Spending Account, money taken from me pretax, I calculated I saved nearly $10. That was enough to make me purchase a year's supply!

After further exploration, I found that Amazon carries the Gillette for Women Sensor Excel replacement cartridges. For $2 more than I paid for five replacement cartridges locally, I could purchase 10 replacement blades. In addition, there was a special that if I purchased $39 or more of Gillette products, I could use a code to get $10 off my purchase. Therefore, I ordered four razor replacement cartridges and bought four boxes for a bit more than the price of three.

However, I plan on discontinuing my Amazon Prime account after receiving my shipment since I use Amazon only occasionally. While I liked saving some money, I was required to pay a large sum up front. My total was just under $100 after the virtual coupon was applied, a big bill for items that I will use over the course of a year (or longer for the razor blades). This large purchase does give me some price protection and means I can apply money I would have spent on these for a different area, such as gasoline or savings. Since this purchase was outside my spending plan, I will borrow from savings to pay the credit card bill with the intention I will pay myself back using money from the spending plan. Planning and execution are two different things and I am guilty of not paying myself back for purchases like this.

Do you spend a large sum of money to save over the long run?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Repurposing items for the garden

To keep with my theme of gardening, I have a few ideas for repurposing disposable items for the outdoors.

Plastic one-gallon jugs
Every month, I purchase at least two gallons of distilled water for my cats to drink. With my consumption of milk, this means I generate at least six gallons worth of plastic waste. I do put these containers in the recycling bin and save the milk caps for schools to redeem for money, but it would be better if I could reuse the items.

Last year, I saw a large bag sitting around newly planted trees at my workplace. When I did some research, I found the Treegator(R) is a drip irrigation system for watering trees. I did not want to pay $25 a piece for this item, but I really liked this idea for watering trees.

After thinking for a bit, I realized I had all these gallon containers that used to hold water--why not use them to water trees? To create my own drip irrigation system, I take the empty gallon jugs, put some small rocks in the bottom to keep them upright (especially when empty), poke 3-5 holes in the bottom with an ice pick, fill with water from the rain barrel, tie loosely around the tree with string (so they do not blow away when empty) and let them sit on the mulch. The water drips from the containers, provided the cap is not on too tightly, and the trees are watered. I use 1-4 containers around my trees, depending on size and fill them twice weekly to provide supplemental watering especially in dry conditions. The half-gallon containers might be nice for using in the garden next to tomatoes or cucumbers, plants that need more water to grow well.

Washing machine hoses or old watering hoses
I love my rain barrels, but when the water levels get low, the water pressure stinks. Since most rain barrels let the water drain by gravity, less water means lower pressure and more time spent waiting for the container to fill with water before use. I was trying to figure out a way to get around this waiting problem. If I could do something while I was waiting for my gallon jug to fill with water, I could be more productive. That is, pull weeds or put down additional mulch as the container fills with water or switch out for the next container as I use the full one. However, the spout for the rain barrel is more than 12 inches above the mouth of the gallon jug when placed on the ground.

As a new homeowner, I do not have lots of old bits and pieces of items laying around. However, a previous owner switched out the washing machine hoses when a new washing machine was installed, but left the old hoses in the basement. The spigot on my rain barrel is standard sized connection, which matches nicely with the old washing machine hoses. By cutting off one end of the hose and leaving ~18 inches of hose with the female end intact, I can screw the threaded end onto the rain barrel spigot and put the open hose end into my container. I can walk away as the container fills with water and no rain water on the ground. This idea also works with old garden hoses provided at least 18 inches of hose from the female end is intact.

Plastic containers and bags
This is not an uncommon idea: save the containers from a flat of flowers or four-pack of tomatoes and use them to start your own seeds. However, you may be like me and have no waterproof container to put these containers in to protect your furniture. In fact, I need a tray that is smaller than the dimensions of my plastic milk crates, which cover my plants so the cats cannot munch on the seedlings.

Both my cats are on a prescription diet, and the dry food comes in plastic bags. The bottoms form a rectanglar box shape and are Ziplocked closed on the top. I felt bad throwing these bags away as the plastic is quite sturdy, moreso than any bags from the grocery store. When I transplanted my pansy seedlings in larger, square containers, they did not fit well in the Pyrex dish I was using as a waterproof tray. In fact, I had five containers and could only fit two in the Pyrex dish. However, if I cut the bottom off my saved four-pound cat food bags, I found two seedling pots fit well (if a bit tightly) into the bag bottom. This protected the furniture and gave me more room to get the plants under the milk crate.

For the four-pack container of tomato seedlings, I found another tray to use: the plastic portion of the 500-pack of Q-tips. I just finished a box and while the cardboard was recyclable, the plastic was not. On a whim, I put the four-pack of tomatoes into the plastic lid and voila! Instant waterproof tray that fit the container perfectly! I repurposed an item and had more flexibility in situating the tomato seedlings as this tray was smaller than the Pyrex dish I had been using.

What creative reuse or repurposing ideas do you have?

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Spring means working outdoors

Now that spring has established itself (and summer is rapidly approaching), I have been spending much of my free time outdoors. This time investment has included mowing lawn (not my favorite homeowner's chore), landscaping and gardening. This is my third year in my house so I am still getting the greenscape up and running. What have I been doing?

Planting trees.
When I purchased my home, there was only one tree in the yard, shading the southwestern portion of the house. The summer sun is hot and I have no shade anywhere else. I planted one tree in autumn 2006 for more south shade, two in spring 2007 (for the east and west shade), lost the eastern tree and decided to plant two more trees. One tree would replace the eastern tree (the exact same species I planted before and lost) and one tree would be planted between the sidewalk and the street. Trees add value to the property so the more the merrier, in my opinion. Five trees reach the limit for my lot. Any more and I would really tangle up the cord for my electric mower.

Digging holes in suburban lots after a dry spell is no picnic, but I did work hard for the holes and both trees are planted.

Landscaping around the foundation and the front yard.
When I first moved into my home, the foundation plantings were the first things I worked on. In late summer/autumn 2006, I removed the unwanted juniper bushes and cotoneaster from the front yard, added some red and purple daylilies to the already present orange and Stella d'Oro daylilies around the house and put in five hostas around the foundation. In spring 2007, I gave away the Korean boxwood bushes along my driveway (they just broke under the weight of shoveled snow so really needed to go) and replaced them with plants that die back: two hostas and a bleeding heart.

However, the front yard had bare dirt where I had bushes removed. Spring 2007 saw me planting two wild rose bushes and two blueberry bushes in the vacant area, but these would not be enough to fill in the exposed dirt. I had plans to add more native plants, but did not get around to it. In fact, I was fighting bunnies for my plants (they liked chewing on the blueberries) and only planted some petunias at the perimeter to disguise the empty space.

Now I have covered the bare dirt with free bark mulch, helping keep the weeds down, and have slowly been accumulating native plants to put in the front. Right now, I have columbine, nodding onion and butterfly weed planted with some black-eyed susans waiting to go into the ground. I have determined I do not need to have all the space filled right now especially if I intend on putting in a rain garden this year. Future plans include filling in the remaining space, determining the outline of the garden space (the shape is quite irregular and not in a good-looking way), and growing some of the plants for the native garden.

Growing my own fruits and vegetables
I mentioned I have blueberry bushes and a raised strawberry bed, installed in 2007 and 2008 respectively. The blueberries will not be allowed to produce berries until the third year and the strawberries I might get this year in the later part of summer. With only 13 plants alive of the 50 planted, I am not sure how many strawberries to expect. However, the house came with a 9' x 9' raised garden bed on the southwestern portion of the property. It was a tired, unproductive thing I ignored the first year and started planting the second. My first try at gardening was not very successful. My stunted corn had smut on it, my pumkins were small and my onions from seed tiny. The volunteer tomatoes were good and the lettuce was fine if earwig-infested.

While things did grow, I tested the soil fertility and it was extremely low on nitrogen and moderately low on phosphorus, two elements needed for healthy plants. This year, I supplemented the poor dirt with composted manure, dried blood, good topsoil and any organic material remaining on the bed (read: weeds). I have started onion from seed, lettuce, cucumbers and planted tomato plants. I intend on adding green beans to the raised bed. I started tomato plants started from seed indoors with only two surviving. My current plan is to install them in a five-gallon bucket and add to the bounty. I would like to can tomatoes this year, making my own ketchup and sauce. My mom has a hot water bath canner and I bought pint-sized canning jars at a garage sale last fall. The green beans will be frozen, the lettuce and onions consumed (I love onions!), and the cucumbers both eaten and grated (and frozen). I do not have a chest freezer, but should have enough room for the small harvest from my garden.

What I keep on forgetting until I am in the middle of a project is how much time it takes. The soil amendments, the turning and digging of dirt, the planting, the watering and all the physical labor are strenuous. I could use a good workout and my outdoor work is giving me that. In the end, I am rewarded with food, shade and beauty even if the gratification is delayed. Of course, when there is nothing left to do around the house, then I should really be worried. Does this mean I need to find a new home?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Recipe Monday: Oatmeal Muffins

These slightly sweet muffins are great fresh out of the oven (mmm, melted butter) or cooled and eaten with or without butter. Since the muffins are more modest in size than that found in most bakeries, I usually have two for breakfast or as a starch accompaniment for dinner. The muffins can been made quickly and I have the ingredients on hand so it does not require me to go to the grocery store to make them unlike some fruit muffins.

1 egg
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup margarine
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Grease the bottom of 16 muffin cups. Beat egg then stir in buttermilk, brown sugar and margarine. Mix in remaining ingredients just until flour is moistened. Fill muffins cups 2/3 full. Bake at 400 Fahrenheit for 20-25 minutes or until light brown.

Note: I only have a 12-muffin tin so I have to bake in two batches. If you use a similar setup, let the muffins cool, remove from tin and grease the cups again before dispensing the remaining batter.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Analyzing my net worth for May 2008

Yes, it is the beginning of a new month and thus, I reflect on the finances of the previous one. When I did my final calculation, I was surprised at the gain during May. I had a net worth gain of 2.61%, the highest I had seen since February 2008. How did I fare so much better than the last few months?

Economic stimulus e-check
As a single person with my AGI, I received $600 as an electronic deposit. Most of it ($500) was used to open a T. Rowe Price international index fund as part of my Roth IRA. Another $50 was deposited in my car savings fund and the remainder is available for spending. This was unexpected money I used to further my retirement fund and future car purchase. Both of these allocations and the currently unspent $50 all add to the amount of money on hand that are part of my assets.

Quarterly or annual statements
Since some of my retirement funds are in a rollover IRA or a pension plan, I receive the statements either quarterly or yearly. This means the change affects my net worth calculation only occasionally. Since I received my statements for the IRA and pension plan last month, the greatest effect is when the number changes. For the next few months, the IRA numbers will be unchanged and minimize any negative effect on my bottom line. The pension plan, while a positive increase, will only be reported once a year.

This is also true for my home assessment. This changes only once a year and is the number I use as the value of my home. The decrease had the greatest effect last month and will not change in my calculations until April 2009.

Cash reserves
The money I have in checking, savings, and CDs did decrease as I paid for some replacement windows and other house-related items. However, despite this decrease in available money, I did come out with an overall increase in my assets (0.11%). A greater share of my savings is in higher yielding savings accounts and CDs so I receive 2.5-3% APY versus 0.5% APY. I have a one-year CD at a 5.25% rate that is due in June, the last of the good rates we enjoyed such a short time ago.

Retirement accounts
Excluding the assessed worth of my house, my retirement funds have the most money in my portfolio. With my increased contributions to my Roth IRA, the extra $500 contribution from my stimulus check and the continued 10% contribution to my 401(k) plus modest market gains, I was able to counteract the decrease in my cash position.

I had a net worth gain of ~$2,400 from the month before, surprising despite my small increase in asset value. I continue to plug away at my mortgage with a small $42 additional payment to principle, and this will make incremental decreases to my mortgage. If these gains and contributions keep up, I will likely meet my $100,000 net worth goal before December 31, 2008.