Saturday, August 30, 2008

How do I relate to my money?

I apologize for my absence. My mind has been on many things--work around the house, in the garden, in the kitchen and lots of thinking about the future.

Keeping and not spending money is always a battle. Temptation is there whether you expect it or not. For example, I really wanted some chocolate last week. I had even decided to raid the vending machine, but ended up finding a small square of brownie in a nearby counter. I ate that, saving me both money and calories as I satisfied the chocolate craving. Truly, it is the small hand-to-hand combat urges that sabotage my efforts at minimizing spending and saving more. I try to ask myself if I really need that item I want or am craving, and remind myself of my long-term goals.

Although my future plans include buying a small farmette to be as self-sufficient as I can be, I am working with what I currently have to make sure that this sort of living is what I truly want to do. This means I walk around my property with a measuring tape and watch how much sun a particular spot gets during the day. I was committed to my farmette purchase four years from now until my dad tells me of a farm that is on the market--just three miles from him.

You see, this is a real temptation. I wish my dad had not told me of the place because my mind is full of the possibilities with my family nearby to help me out. Now, I have not seen the farm and buildings, and it is likely more than I can handle. The previous owner had been sick for some time and just died, meaning the buildings were neglected for that same period of time, at least two years. But here my dad presented a place, a farm with 10 acres, the minimum size I believe I want at a fairly reasonable price, $250,000. Honestly, I cannot afford this and I am not prepared to buy now, but now I am thinking hard about it. My plans had not included buying a farm in the next year or two. I intended to work at my current job until I found a suitable farm in approximately four years before leaving for my life in the country. Granted, life is not neatly wrapped up in nice packages like that, but four years would give me time to save for the farm. Not only do I have to deal with a mortgage, which means I would have to have an outside job, but I have all the investments to make: renovating buildings, building new facilities, fencing for animals, starting a garden, planting trees, purchasing animals, all things I want to do on my farm. While I may be emotionally prepared for a move, my finances are not.

In fact, I had to perform a reality check, looking at my finances and calculating what four more years at my job would get me. I need to keep working where I am to save the money I need for the farm in the future. Unless a large chunk of money is going to fall in my lap, my plans include the slow and steady course I have steered. My analysis also demonstrated that supplementing my income would help build a larger cushion for the farm purchase and investments.

Generally, I have a good relationship with my money. I may make some compromises with my spending plan that involve borrowing from other categories rather than strictly staying within the allocation. This behavior does shortchange me in the short- and long-term, but if I do not consistently do this every month, I am okay. Then there are the larger temptations. Yes, I can pay $1,400 for a newer laptop, but that would deplete my savings of nearly a month's worth of expenses. The return on investment is important: is this item important enough to sacrifice liquidity to purchase it? And then there is a strong opportunity like this farm. It is a great location, something I can really work with, but not worth throwing over my plans to work and save to do it now.

Therefore, while I live on 40% of my income, save 30% and the rest disappears into taxes, fees and insurance, I still have to be wary of how I spend my money. Sometimes I am less on guard (Oh, it's fine, I'll get that anyway) while other times, I take a harder line (I may want that, but I don't need it). No one can be perfect 100% of the time, that is keeping to the spending plan and not spending money in savings. However, there is always room for improvement. Learning to grow my own food and preserve it eases some of the burden on my grocery allocation even with an initial investment. Breaking sod by hand saves money and gasoline (if not hands or back). I try to make choices based on capability and comfort (e.g., can change an electric outlet but not willing to deal with adding an outlet in a new location) that will help me save money where I can and strategically use the resources I have to increase the value of my property, home and even my savings account.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Recipe Monday: Smoked Gouda Mashed Potatoes

Since I received new red potatoes in my CSA box, I have been obsessed with farmer's market new potatoes. I have tried Yukon Gold, Red Norland, Russet and another potato from my CSA box that was red on the outside with pink-tinted flesh inside. While Yukon Gold is my current favorite, I like them all mashed with (too much) butter. Since I like cheese and had a smoked gouda mashed potato dish once, I thought I might whip something together to tempt my palate.

1 pound new potatoes
1-2 tablespoons margarine or olive oil
1/4 cup onion, chopped
1/2 cup smoked gouda cheese, grated
1/2 cup milk (I used 1% milk)

Boil washed new potatoes in 1 inch of water and let simmer until soft. Cut into smaller pieces only if necessary. Heat olive oil or margarine over medium heat and add onions to cook. When translucent, add 1/2 cup of milk and heat until just boiling. Turn off heat but leave on hot burner as you add grated gouda. Stir until melted. Start to mash potatoes with 1 tablespoon margarine and add the gouda cheese mixture. Add pepper to taste and serve with or without butter.

I enjoyed the creamy goodness of this blend of potato and cheese. Quantities are not exact since more or less milk will be needed for a creamier mashed potato. You can experiment with other cheeses and see what might tempt your taste buds!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Visiting my CSA farm

While I have been trying to deal with my weekly influx of vegetables and herbs from my CSA share, I have also been wondering what the farm looks like, how big his operation is and how he got started farming organically. Seeing my farmer's plot was of special interest to me for two reasons: 1) to compare and contrast with the traditional farm where I grew up and 2) to get ideas for my own future gardening endeavors. One part of the CSA experience is touring the farm so I asked my farmer if I could see his place and he gladly set aside some time for me.

Farmer K. welcomed my curiosity and was happy to show me around his farm. The first time I met him, he completely disrupted my expectations. I thought I would meet a farmer, older than me. Turns out K. is younger than me, nearly a decade younger. Oddly, that made me more interested in finding out why he farms organically. Not many younger people are thinking "Hm, I want to farm" as a career option.

The farm was small and quaint. The some of the buildings were original to the farm, which was established in the late 1800s. K. was quite proud of his farm's history even if he was a new farmer. (This was his second year farming.) However, he had worked on other organic farms in the area so had some idea what was involved with organic farming and the issues (and promises) of certified organic produce. One thing I can say: organic or traditional farming, there are many regulations involved especially if the organic farmer wants to be certified!

Farmer K. farms about one acre, tucked along one side of his property perpendicular to the road with a large hoop house right next to the farmed land,and a second section next to and behind the hill barn and shed. This back part was previously used by cows and horses so it had some decent fertility. Other parts needed more compost to supplement the soil. I was amazed by all the plants he fit in the space and by all the trellising for the tomatoes. He ran twine between tall metal posts and then down to each tomato plant. I would rather have tomato cages seeing the length of string or twine needed, but less storage space required for the twine certainly. He was planning for his fall plantings with some space cleared out for winter squash as well as second planting of broccoli, lettuce and root vegetables. He was also growing many things I had never encountered like fennel and chocolate peppers.

Farmer K. was very friendly and did not mind all questions I asked. When asked why organic farming, he said he was raised with mindfulness of food and how it was grown, and enjoyed cooking. He was raised in a less traditional fashion, homeschooled, then attended college for breadth of classwork (he mentioned no degree but focused on biology) before starting a coop in the town I currently live, buying food in bulk for its members. He worked on a local organic farm before striking out on his own. Farmer K. also discussed his plans for the future, namely being certified organic for the area CSA organization, getting into the big (and well-attended) farmer's market in the state, expanding his operation to at least 10 more acres (with additional employees), and renovating the hill barn for a store to directly sell to customers. One thing you can say about my CSA farmer: he does not lack ambition.

I was glad to see a larger scale organic farm in action. Since I only deal with ~100 square feet, anything is larger to me. His farm was a quiet country retreat and a nice place to raise children. (He has a two-year-old daughter.) I have a better appreciation for the space in which my CSA produce is grown and the producer that brings it to me. With his energy, enthusiasm and drive, I am sure Farmer K. will be doing well for years. He is forming connections in his immediate community as well in the community of certified organic farmers. I appreciated the time he took to give me the tour as well as answering all my questions.

Will you visit your CSA farm?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Planning for Christmas gift giving

Gift giving around the big holidays in December is a large portion of the gift allocation in my spending plan. While our family exchanges names of the adults for Christmas gifts, the number of nieces and nephews in the family keeps rising (seven with two due to arrive by December). Additionally, I try to be thoughtful about the gifts I request on my Christmas list. Is this something I need? Will I use it regularly? For example, I requested a book on native plants for my state. I ended up with two gardening books, both of which I used heavily this spring and summer as I chose plants for my front yard, consulted for information about the crops I chose to grow in my vegetable garden and as I plan for the future of my food-growing endeavors. These two books are proving to be excellent references, and I imagine I will continue to use them for years.

Why am I thinking about Christmas now? I want to avoid the frenzy of shopping that occurs between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the United States. I am not a fan of crowded stores and with my goals of sustainability, I would prefer to give good used items as gifts or make something to give away rather than buying new plastic items that will end up being regifted or discreetly donated to the local charity thrift store.

In addition, I want to save money. By shopping for gifts secondhand, I can keep within my target ranges, $10 per niece/nephew, $20 per adult. During the 2007 holiday season, I managed to keep my total for the season at $100. With my current nieces and nephews covered with all the clothing, books and games I have purchased for them, I only need to worry about the adults in my life. Since I have discovered the joys of freezer jam, this may factor greatly in some Christmas gifts. I also have many gifts I can construct (I sew and quilt) or bake. Keeping an eye out for that one thing that a friend may be able to use or searching through items in my home that can be regifted are also strategies I will employ.

Two nieces and one nephew are receiving clothing in the next size for Christmas. While I have not sorted through the games, puzzles and books I have purchased over the summer from garage sales, I should have the rest of the children covered. In addition, I also need to have my gift stash carry me through until next summer when garage season starts up again. I have three nieces with birthdays in the winter and early spring (with two more due in December) so planning ahead is easier on me, my time and my spending plan.

While I think about what to put on my Christmas list in July or August, this exercise also makes me consider what gifts to give friends and neighbors. I will likely bake for a few gifts. If I am truly ambitious, I may using my sewing and quilting skills for a gift or two. Planning now for the holidays makes it less stressful. It is one fewer task I need to accomplish and can focus on keeping my house and life in order rather than the gifts I have to buy in the next two days before I have no time.

I always work better with a plan even as I revise it. To help me organize my thoughts and keep track of ideas, I create a list with the giftee's name and write down what I am thinking of getting them. If the item is something I need to create from scratch, I am aware of the time I need to invest in making it. If it is something I can watch for in thrift store or at a garage sale, I do that as well. Believe me, many items can be found in great condition (unused in box or barely used and unblemished) at both secondhand venues. No one will know you only paid a fraction of retail for that gift at Christmas--unless you tell them.

Be thoughtful about the gifts you give and have a plan for Christmas shopping. These two points (plus a list!) help me keep my gift spending low and my joy high at Christmas time!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Visit the Carnival of Money Stories #71

The Carnival of Money Stories #71-Wander Around the World with Me is now posted at Value for Your Life. There are 28 great stories including mine on Dealing with a monthly paycheck.

My picks:

Monday, August 4, 2008

Visit the Carnival of Personal Finance: City Slickers Edition

The The 164th Carnival of Personal Finance: City Slickers Edition is now available. The host, Squawkfox was kind enough to include my article on Managing my income. There are some great articles there including the following postings about saving money:

Wide Open Wallet discusses Five Easy Ways to Increase Your Savings.
Single Guy Money says Invest in Your 401k-NOW.
Beyond Paycheck to Paycheck answers a question about Saving on one income.

Recipe Monday: Tacos

It was always a treat when Mom made tacos for the family. Yes, we had to assemble the tacos ourselves, but I loved the crunch of tacos (my brother preferred soft-shelled tacos). I have been making my tacos recently with TVP (texturized vegetable protein) based on this recipe. No taco seasoning packet required.

1 pound hamburger
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup onions, chopped
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/8 teaspoon garlic, instant minced
shredded Cheddar cheese
shredded lettuce
hard or soft taco shells

Brown hamburger in a large skillet. Stir in water, onions and seasonings. Heat to boiling then reduce heat. Simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serves 4.

Note: Mom's taco mix was always a bit wet so be aware your hard-shelled tacos may get soggy. Otherwise, yummy!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Referral Love for July 2008

I appreciate all my visitors, however briefly my blog is touched, and my RSS subscribers. You make me feel good every time you take the time to read an article or my RSS feed. Thanks to you all, I have broken the four digit barrier and now have over 1,100 total visitors to this site! Your interest in my various ramblings encourages me to continue.

Top Five Referrers:
1. Frugal for Life
2. Financial Ramblings [Thanks for the ranking of pfbloggers by number of postings. Where will I end up this time?]
3. The Festival of Frugality
4. ohjoy1187 on
5. The Simple Dollar

Top Five Articles in July
1. Once monthly grocery list My earlier once-a-month grocery shopping entries were popular and this newer article will likely match them.
2. My regrettable chest freezer purchase
3. Update on my vermiculture experiment Hey, worms know how to have fun!
4. The advantages of electronic bill pay
5. Managing my income A Google search inspiration.

I welcome suggestions for entries as well as any comments you might have.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Analyzing my net worth for July 2008

It's that time of the month again, to look back at the just-completed month and see how my finances held up. As I am sure you have hear around the web, the stock market has been a bit rough on finances. My rollover IRA is down 11%, my 401(k) down 11.7% and my Roth IRA has lost 4%. Since these stock-driven vehicles are a good share of my net worth, it is no surprise I lost another 1% of my net worth over the last month.

Will I change my investments? No, I am holding tight, letting my monthly or biweekly investments move forward and letting time (and my money) work for me. A down market is good for dollar-cost averaging. Stocks (and mutual funds) are on sale, meaning the more shares I buy now, the greater my gain in the future when the stock market moves upward again.

Notables in my net worth analysis:

I received a midyear statement and learned my mortgage calculator (in a spreadsheet) was off by two cents. Those extra decimal places really add up. Still, the amount owed on my mortgage is getting smaller and I plan on continuing this trend. On the other hand, paying off my mortgage is not eminent, but certainly manageable on the 30-year basis my mortgage repayment is based on.

Retirement funds
While my 401(k) is down (even as it is the largest pool of my retirement money), my Roth IRA gained. Granted, it only gained the amount of my contribution for July, but at least its total value is holding for the moment. Since the Roth IRA is made up of two index funds and my 401(k) of six managed funds, I find this month's snapshot interesting, but ultimately an atypical blip as the two investment vehicles usually have the same reflection, not opposite ones.

Larger expenses
I bought a chest freezer, had a large bill for the veterinarian and my electric usage is climbing for the summertime. I could be better at saving than I am, but both large and small expenses are bleeding off some of the money I could stash away.

I am feeling less controlled in my life, which stems from many things. Automated savings will get me part of the way there, but I need to take a more active role in managing my income. August is an extra paycheck month so I should have more in my savings account at the end of August, boosting my net worth. I will have to see the results in 30 days to find out if this extra savings is enough to bring me back to positive territory.