Friday, May 30, 2008

Monitoring my gas mileage

I am one of those crazy people who writes down information to figure out miles per gallon (mpg) between fill ups. In fact, I have a notebook in my glove compartment that is dedicated to keeping track of date, gallons, miles, total cost and calculated miles per gallon. My notebook has been keeping track of this very important information since I purchased my car six years ago. Therefore, I have a good sense of the average miles per gallon depending on year, season and month. The number can determine my mood for the day, depending on the number seen. Calculating my mpg tells me if I am doing all I can to keep it high. A low number will cause me to consider my driving behavior or check a maintenance item I may have neglected like the amount of air in my tires.

Since my driving is primarily over 45 mph, I should get the higher mpg rating for my car. A low number (below 25 mpg) will remind me all those cold days or many city miles start to negatively affect my final calculation. A high number (over 29 mpg) tells me I am practicing good driving (smooth, gentle acceleration, coasting down hills and to stop signs, as well as staying at the speed limit). I also like to brag when I hit a rare number.

My car is rated 26 mpg for highway driving according to the EPA revised standards. This is not an impressive number in the face of increased gas prices and getting all the miles one can from a tankful (or half a tank as I prefer to keep mine at least half full). Therefore, a number like 32 mph is wonderful! That is the number I hit in the fill up today. I am thrilled that being more conservative in my driving (and more relaxed when I reach my destination) is good for my bottom line. Do you have any gas mileage benchmarks for yourself and do you calculate mpg every fill up?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Measure local market values using craigslist

One thing I spend my time doing is checking the various postings on craigslist. My current interests include the "Materials", "Farm+Garden" and "Wanted" categories with occasional peeks at the "Free" listing. The postings are updated daily with more new listings than reposts, but if you are a daily checker like myself, you can see who is desperately trying to get rid of something.

Because I have spent so much time on craigslist (it has been over a year I have faithfully checked the listings), I have a sense of what the value of an item is. For example, I purchased a bread maker for $20 from a person posting on craigslist (still use it in fact), but from my hunt for a bread maker and subsequent purchases, I have a better sense of the value of such an item. Therefore, I know that someone asking $50 is less likely to sell it than someone who asks $20. My feeling is $25 is the market limit unless it is a really high-end bread maker and the buyer knows it value. Otherwise, the seller is unlikely to find a buyer.

So what I have I learned about used items other than the market value of a bread maker?

Do some market research
I have wanted an antique wood commode for a while. Using the search function, I found some listings that fit and looked at the items found. Between my mom's suggested value and the items listed on craigslist, a commode, all oak wood, with a decent finish and small amounts of cosmetic damage (e.g., scratches) will go for at least $200. Larger than average pieces or those containing marble are generally higher ($400 or more).

Looking at similar (if not identical) items you are interested in either purchasing or selling will give you a sense of what the local market will price the item. This requires patience and an investment of time unless the item is routinely listed (e.g., dressers).

Find buying opportunities.
If you spend each day on craigslist and see the same item listed for the same price repeatedly, this is a potential buying opportunity for you--but only if you truly need and will use the item. As a regular visitor, you will see these repeated postings and the dresser offered at the same price for the last three weeks is not likely to be more attractive in the 21st posting. However, if that piece is something you have considered, contact the seller and make an offer. Since the dresser has not sold, you have nothing to lose but the time you took to contact the seller. Be serious about your offer (per your market research) and truly intend to follow through, but this may mean you get what you want at a price that is closer to what you can afford and the seller has a success.

Learn to bargain.
I am still trying to implement this concept fully. That is, offering a lower price that is not an insult to the seller. I have offered $25 for a $30 item listing or $45 for a $55 item successfully, but I am not sure where the line between getting a better value and insult is. Trying to buy items from sellers on craigslist offers you the opportunity to practice bargaining. Since most of my contacts occur via e-mail, it eliminates the pressure that can arise in face-to-face transactions.

Start by asking if the seller would be willing to accept $20 for the $25 item and see if it works. If it does not, you save money by not purchasing anything and the seller can move onto the next potential buyer. Each success will make you more confident to try bargaining further, potentially improving your deals in other nontraditional bargaining locations, like the clothing store or a large-chain electronics store. Practice can only build your skills.

Figure out what sells and what does not.
This lesson is best learned when you try to sell something yourself. The market may be too saturated (bread makers) or too specialized (a traverse double rod at a width of 57"), but you will learn what disappears and what lingers. I sold my used RAM less than two hours after I posted it, contrary to my expectations. I thought the market was too limited, but was quickly proved wrong. However, my swag curtain is still in my possession after an interested e-mail that went nowhere.

Otherwise, repeated listings of an item may give you some insight into how well that item moves. Craigslist is a great local resource for buying and selling items (and even requesting wanted items). Utilize it to your benefit and you may find some great bargains as well as tips on how to sell items more quickly.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

I received my first CSA box

Spring is here with summer just around the corner. You know what that means--since I signed up for a CSA share, I received my first harvest of the season. I ended up with some red kale, two bags of spring green mixes for salad and stir frying and a bag of mixed herbs. What do I know about chives, anise hyssop or Mesclun salad mixes? Absolutely nothing.

I was raised on iceberg lettuce salads and dried herbs in a glass (now plastic) jar. It has only been recently I have branched out to romaine lettuce, but still like the crunch of iceberg in the mix. Frankly, this variety of salad greens and fresh herbs has me a bit intimidated. So how am I handling my first box of greens?

Red Russian kale is a bit beyond me at the moment--the scent reminds me of broccoli (not unexpected as they are relatives)--and I am not a fan of broccoli except cooked and smothered in cheese. One of my colleagues has two bunnies and they need more greens so the bunch of kale went home with her. One set of greens to be consumed by rabbits--check!

I have no idea how Mesclun versus stir fry salad mixes differ so I chose a bag and unloaded some for a quick salad. While there was quite a variety of greens in the bag (and one with an interesting flavor I had no clue about but liked), the mix had entirely too many stems for me to like eating them. Poor critique I know, but I am a farm girl. Many of the things I was trying to eat looked like weeds not food. Fresh salad plans abandoned, I washed off the dressing and put the remainder in the refrigerator.

My first success was reading various recipes for cooking greens and finding a couple ideas I liked. Therefore, I heated up some olive oil in a pan, chopped some white onions and cooked them in the olive oil, put in freshly washed (and stems removed) greens, sprinkled garlic powder on top and cooked for a minute or two. Served with a slice of warm, buttered bread and it worked well together. I knew greens cooked down easily, but was still surprised at the low volume of food I had at the end. This may be my recipe of choice to deal with all the salad greens. Of course, to consume the volume I have, I will need to have greens at least once a day. This may be a challenge, but as long as I can find new recipes to try, I will keep at it.

As for the chives and oregano, they may end up on some pizza. I still need to identify who is who (is it anise hyssop or oregano) and then plan accordingly. In the end, the herbs may prove more of a challenge than the salad mixes, but I can report back in a week. Lest my tale scare you, the CSA farm had some serving suggestions for oregano (pasta tossed with olive oil and fresh oregano), anise hyssop (use leaves for tea) and chives (add to cream cheese as a dip).

Still, I am not sure I will be looking forward to curly garden cress or radishes, but I may find new recipes to explore as I try various seasonal produce. If only the farm offered some asparagus...

Saturday, May 24, 2008

How I use credit cards and not carry a balance

In an earlier posting, I shared my debt numbers. College left me with a legacy of over $2,000 in credit card debt and $11,000 of student loan debt, modest numbers by most standards. While in graduate school, I could postpone paying my student loan but not my credit card. I spent many years paying little more than the minimum on my credit card until I had my first job, and then with the increased income, it took me about a year to pay it off. So, how have I stayed debt free since then?

Now consumer-debt free, I was determined never to carry a credit card balance again. I hated seeing the finance charges for items I did not remember or, upon later reflection, did not need. I had a written budget for nearly six years at this point so I decided on a new course: subtract all purchases made by credit card from the spending plan.

I kept track of my credit card purchases for the month. My spending plan is on paper so I wrote a heading of "Credit Card" and started listing the store and the amount spent. For example, if I spent $34.49 at the Mobil gasoline station, I wrote down "Mobil $34.49". Then I subtracted the amount spent from my allocation for Gas and placed a check mark next to the $34.49 total. This would remind me when the credit card bill arrived that I had taken that money out of my spending plan and did not need to "steal" money from my savings account.

Using this method, my credit card balance was accounted for in my spending plan so all I had to do was write a check for the total amount and send it back to the credit card company. The money was removed from the spending plan once spent even if I did not actually debit it from my checking account until I received a credit card bill. However, there are some expenses that I did not place a check mark next to or subtract out of my spending plan. Why did I do this and how did I handle it?

I have several savings subaccounts with my credit union and ING Direct. These accounts hold money for house spending, car savings, charity giving or other items I am holding money for or saving toward a goal. If I spend money at the hardware store for exterior house paint, wood trim for replacement windows, tomato cages and a hose nozzle, I place it on a credit card and mark the total in my credit card charges listing as such: "Ace Hardware $37.43" but do not place a check mark after the entry. This reminds me that I have not subtracted the amount from my budget. However, all these items are grouped as "house spending" so when the credit card bill arrives, I then transfer money from my "House" savings account into my checking account, thus paying the credit card balance.

So what happens when I overspend? Yes, there have been more than a few times that I have spent more money than was in the budget and the items charged were not a house expenditure. While these are only occasional lapses, I do work within the framework of my spending plan and try not to spend more than a particular allocation. For those times I either have little control over the amount spent or I abuse a spending category, I use my savings account. For example, my spending at the veterinarian for one of my cat's exceeded the "Cat care" allocation in the spending plan. I do not have separate savings account for cat care, but when the bill was $283, I paid the balance not covered by my spending plan from money stashed in my savings account.

However, using the savings account to plug the hole in a spending plan can be a slippery slope. While it is true that the credit card balance is paid off each month, there are fewer dollars left in savings to help in a real crunch (e.g., necessary car repair or emergency water heater replacement). Use the savings account sparingly and always add more money into this account than is taken out. The best rule of thumb: replace the money taken from the savings account.

By removing money spent by cash, credit or debit from my spending plan, I can comfortably write that check for the entire balance of my credit card and prevent any finance charges being added to my account. This has kept me debt free for over six years and counting.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Recipe Monday: Cheesy Stuffed Burgers

This is a dish I have on and off, depending on how much I crave the reverse hamburger and cheese. When I make it, I cannot eat just one and it heats up nicely the next day for a nice lunch. This is based on a recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens Ground Meat Cook Book page 24, but with my own variation on it. This recipe can be used for casual dining, and the burgers can be made ahead of time and heated just before dinner.

4 ounces sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup onions, chopped (split)
2 tablespoons margarine
1 cup bread cubes (2 slices cut into 1/2 inch cubes)
3/4 teaspoon salt (split)
dash pepper
1 pound hamburger
1 can Cheddar Cheese soup
1 can + 1/3 cup milk

Drain mushrooms and save liquid. Cook 2 tablespoons onion in margarine. Combine cooked onion with 1/4 cup of mushrooms, bread cubes, 1/4 teaspoon of salt and pepper. Toss mixture with 2-3 tablespoons of mushroom liquid until moist. Mix hamburger with 1/3 cup of milk, 1 tablespoon onion and 1/2 teaspoon salt. On waxed paper, shape meat into 5 circles approximately 6 inches in diameter. Spoon ~1/4 cup of stuffing into each 6" meat circle. Pull up edges of meat over the stuffing and seal. Place stuffed burgers into a 1.5 quart casserole dish uncovered or 8 x 11.5 inch rectangular pan. Mix Cheddar Cheese soup, 1 can milk and remaining mushrooms in same pan used to create stuffing. Pour cheese mixture over the burgers and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes. Serves 5.

This dish comes out hot and bubbly, the meat flavor blending quite nicely with the cheese. This satisfies most meat cravings and the recipe is easily scaled for your situation. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Gas prices and the American farmer

I grew up in the Midwest on a farm that has been in our family for five generations, working on six. When I still lived on the farm, it was a combination ~80 head Holstein dairy operation and crop farming (corn, soybeans, oats, barley, alfalfa). In the early 1990s, my dad converted to solely crop farming as he dreaded the neverending job of milking cows (even if the steady milk check was nice). In fact, my dad currently farms all his acreage, owned and rented ~1,000 acres, as a no-till farmer. If you want to talk about keeping carbon locked up, talk to my dad.

For a crop farmer like my dad, there are several pieces of machinery needed to keep the operation going. There is at least one tractor needed to pull the chopper, baler, gravity box, bale wagon, planter and, if a more traditional farmer, plow and cultivator plus a combine. Many farmers have at least two tractors, depending on the horsepower needed for a particular job. While my dad only uses one pass across the field to plant his crops, imagine covering all those acres in large horsepower machines (remember, my dad farms ~1,000 acres of his own per year plus he plants and harvests for other farmers). Now imagine the diesel it takes to power the tractor to cover all those acres--big engines are not fuel efficient.

Not only does the price of diesel affect farmer's bottom line, but fertilizer is made from petroleum as well. Farmers need seed, herbicide and fertilizer to plant all those crops that feed us, the animals we eat and the animal byproducts we consume (e.g., milk). Therefore, the farmer's operating profit, what he makes from selling his crop minus expenses like fuel, fertilizer and maintenance, shrinks dramatically in the face of escalating petroleum prices and commodity prices that may or may not compensate the farmer for all his efforts. How would you like your earnings dependent on the cost of fuel, the vagaries of weather, the yield per acre, machinery breaking down, and selling your product at a price you hope makes a profit at and varies day to day? My dad can sell corn now that he has not harvested (or even planted), betting that he can fulfill the contract and make a profit.

Many people make noises about how all the corn going to ethanol is driving up the price of corn, which then affects the price we pay in the grocery store for all those foods that use corn in one way or another (e.g., Corn Flakes and corn-fed beef). However, other factors are involved including developing countries converting from more vegetarian diets to greater meat demand, poor crop yields in South America, and generally higher demand world wide.

So forgive me if I get tired of people whining about how awful it is to pay for gas at the prices we see now days and how compromised their lives are. I do not like paying the prices either, but I do not have to weigh the cost of fuel against my profitability like my dad. Being a farmer is tough business--and they cannot reduce their use of fuel while they work. Let us cut them a break and honor them for working hard in the face of factors they cannot control: petroleum prices, weather, and global demand.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My priorities for car shopping

Since I have some inkling my vehicle is not going to last as long as I would like, it behooves me to start looking sooner rather than later. My goal is to keep using my car until the repairs are cost prohibitive or I am concerned about its reliability. Currently, reliability is not an issue nor are repairs pressing. However, I cannot predict the future so I have decided to do my research now to be better prepared if my situation changes quickly.

What important features am I looking for?
My primary consideration is low gasoline consumption so I am looking for vehicles that rank in the top 10 of its model year for fuel efficiency. Since I use cruise control to help me maintain a steady speed, I require this in any new vehicle I purchase. While I might like the additional hauling capacity of a van or SUV, a car suits me better because the possibility of me hauling large pieces of furniture or drywall is low. I would prefer to purchase a two- to three-year-old used vehicle with low miles (50,000 or less) under warranty if possible. This way, I do not have the sharp depreciation of a new car, but still have many good years left in the vehicle.

What features add value to a vehicle purchase for me?
Both of the cars I have owned (and the car my parents let me borrow in college) had power windows and locks. I find these features convenient and useful since it is easy to raise and lower a window at the touch of a button even while driving. The Autostick ability (as Chrysler calls it) allows me to up- and downshift without a clutch, but my primary driving mode is automatic. The shifting is nice in winter or to lower my momentum down a hill as I head to a stop sign. As a shorter-than-average woman, power-adjustable seats work in my favor and can be changed at a touch of a button while driving if I need to move forward or back a bit. I lived without an inside trunk release with my previous car and did not like it so I would like my next car to have this feature.

What might I like to have if the option is available?
I would love to have a moon- or sunroof on my next car. Even a year ago, I was considering the power and sleekness of a Dodge Charger, but the gas mileage stinks on the modernized muscle car. A sunroof would be a bit of sportiness in an otherwise staid sedan. If possible, I would like to drive a green or blue car. My previous car was white and my current car is red, but I have wanted a blue- or green-colored vehicle for years. Purchasing a used vehicle means the car color depends on the previous owner so my options are more limited. A few more nice features: a place to put my iPod that does not take up a cup holder, leather interior and some nice tire rims.

Considering my lifestyle, my needs and my desires, I have come up with the above list of features for my next car. With fuel efficiency as the number one consideration, the Toyota Corolla and Volkswagon Jetta come up as top picks. Despite the items on my list, I still have to like how my car looks, hence the two models mentioned. I would prefer domestic cars, but Toyota, Honda and Volkswagon rank in the top five for fuel efficiency per I still need to research total cost of ownership (I was told VWs tend to cost more to fix as parts are more expensive), but with these basic features, I am ready to move on to the next step--driving the likely choices.

A Toyota Corolla may hit all my important features and even some of my desired ones, but if it makes me feel squished or I do not like the road noise, this is not a model I will consider for purchase. I realize compromises will need to be made when I buy my next car. Test driving some of the likely candidates will give me real-world experience and help solidify my decision or introduce me to new possibilities.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The price of gasoline and my behavioral changes

I was a bit nervous at my last gas fill up. The price of gasoline has been increasing with leaps and bounds, jumping 14 cents in one day, 5 cents another with little breathing room to get comfortable at a number before it increases yet again. In my area, the only gas over $4 a gallon is premium with diesel ahead of it. Seeing $3.89 per gallon in some cities I was driving through put me in sticker shock as just two days earlier, my city had $3.69 per gallon whereas my last fill up, I paid $3.57 a gallon a week earlier. So there I was driving, watching the numbers increase nearly every place I drove through, knowing I would need to fill my tank at the end of the trip. I hit a new milestone when I did succumb to necessity: over $40 for the partial tank of gas.

This may not seem like much, but the largest number I had seen at that point was $35. Strangely, I handled that number with equanimity, but not the $41 charge--and I was only filling a partial tank, my gauge just under 1/2 a tank. For a while, I had been entertaining the thought to work from home two days a month, but this sudden run up in fuel costs finally got me to talk with my boss. She seemed amenable, but did say "let's see how it works out" so it may not be a permanent arrangement. However, she verbally agreed to allowing me to work at home every other Monday starting next week. That is one fewer trip to work and ~1 gallon of gas saved.

On top of this change, I was approved for the internet connectivity subsidy through my workplace. I have to prove I have internet access at home and if I leave my place of employment within the next year, I will have to pay the money back. However, I plan on saving the extra money and spending only my salary. This gives me a bit of cushion, earns a bit of passive interest income and can be used for anything I need. My current plan is to put it towards a new computer, but plans can change. I feel more comfortable saving it than spending it so to ING Direct it will go.

Although I have not recently pursued it, I will also try finding someone with which to carpool to work. This would also ease some of the pressure on my spending plan as I struggle to keep up with the increasing cost of gas. Right now, I have just over $25 left to get me through the end of the month. As it stands, that is maybe a quarter tank of gas and I usually fill at approximately half. I have a small amount of money stashed in my savings account that is a bit of extra gas money, but $40 will only get me one more tank of gas at these prices.

I have already rethought one trip to the city and I was concerned about the trip to see the family. Driving 150 miles once a month for family dinner is not too much, but usually consumes ~1/4 a tank. I am certainly more sensitive to consumption than I was especially as my last fill up told me I only had 26 mpg. I like to be up at 30 mpg and I did not like seeing the number I received. I did haul lots of mulch and other gardening supplies at city speeds so I hope keeping it to the highway will help increase my miles per gallon.

Unfortunately, my private car is my only mode of transportation. There are no buses or trains to get me the 14 miles to work. I never expected the price of gas to make me so conscious of my consumption. I wish others were sensitive to consumption as well, but I am still passed when I drive the speed limit. By working from home, keeping my car in good shape and seeking someone to carpool with, I should be able to maintain my gas budget even with the increasing cost of gasoline.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Recipe Monday: Overnight Tuna Casserole

This was another recipe I tried from the school fundraiser cookbook. The overnight part appealed to me so I thought "why not?" It works out quite nicely and with a few modifications, I tailored it to my palate. Plus, I am a big fan of casseroles--throwing things together and baking it to hot, bubbly goodness. This can be put together the night before or the morning of for dinner that evening, making it convenient for families or individuals on the go. The leftovers microwave quite nicely for lunch the next day.

1 2/3 cup (7 oz) uncooked elbow macaroni
2-6 1/8 ounce cans flaked tuna, drained
1/2 cup finely chopped green pepper
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
2 eggs, hard-cooked and chopped
1 tablespoon pimiento
2 cans cream of mushroom soup
2 cups milk
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Grease a 3-quart casserole dish. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients. Spoon into casserole dish. Cover and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight. Allow casserole to stand at room temperature for 15 minutes. Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit uncovered for 60-70 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Makes 7 1-cup servings.

My modifications:
1. I do not like pimiento so I do not add this ingredient.
2. I do not like green peppers so I added 1 cup of chopped onions, which I do love.
3. This is a great place to use reconstituted dry milk rather than from a purchased gallon or half gallon of milk.
4. I use the hard-boiled egg whites but leave out the yolk as I am not a fan of cooked eggs except for scrambled.

I have made this recipe for various people who have all enjoyed the meal. Casseroles (or hot dish in other parts of the US) are a great means to get food on the table in front of demanding family members. I hope you like this one too!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Fun in the garden

This past weekend, I took another step closer to food independence in my suburban lot of ~1,700 square feet--I installed a small terraced pyramid and planted 50 everbearing strawberries in the new raised garden bed. This may not seem like much but for me, it is quite a bit. In fact, as I write this a day after this adventure, I am still sore from pulling up sod by hand (over two hours of work), putting in soil, mixing in composted manure and peat moss (another hour with two people's help), and planting 50 plants (nearly an hour by myself).

Most of my out-of-pocket expenses came from buying the strawberry plants and the metal that made up the walls of the pyramidal raised bed. I took the advice of my earlier post and found a horse farm giving away composted manure. Since my father is a farmer, he has access to some topsoil, some of which is just sitting in a pile waiting for his daughter to ask "Dad, can you bring me some soil?" In this case, it pays to know someone, and my father was not too busy on the farm so he could take time to bring the soil to me.

On top of the soil was fermented, chopped hay (haylage). It is a bit stinky, usually used for cattle feed but works well as mulch. This also comes from being a farmer's daughter, and I appreciate this using this as the mulch since the free bark mulch would be too heavy for small tender plants. My rain water, collected in the conveniently placed rain barrels, supplied the water for the new plantings.

The rest of the cost of establishing a new garden bed (and adding a bit more soil and organic matter to the current one) was the cost of some gas to get the composted horse manure and treating my parents to dinner for all their hard work in helping me set up my garden bed. Plus my dad was a great sport and helped with a few household chores that I am unequipped to do (e.g., no ladder to remove leaves from the gutters).

Although I have removed the juniper bushes and a cotoneaster from the front of my yard in autumn 2006, I only have a few plants to replace them: two blueberry bushes and two Rosa blanda bushes. These do not take up nearly the space the juniper bushes did so I am still looking to add plants to the space. Until I do, it is open soil that weeds like to take over. To prevent the constant weed pulling, I finally decided to visit the piles of free bark mulch and use that to cover the space until I am ready to plant whatever it is I choose. My inclination is to put in native plants, but I may change my mind.

As a bonus, my boss just gave me a gift certificate to a local greenhouse. I intend on visiting the greenhouse to see what sort of plants are available (including any native plants), figuring out how many I need and starting on the nearly empty bed in front of my house. I do not want more lawn so that is not an option. My supervisor's generosity means if I find items I like, I do not have to pay out of my pocket.

My growing-my-own-food plans also include a small cucumber bush, three tomato plants (if I do not kill them moving them to larger pots since I started them from seed), some lettuce and hopefully, some onions. The raised vegetable garden bed is 9 feet by 9 feet, not a lot of space, and the soil needs some heavy amendments since it is nitrogen deficient and low in phosphorus. I paid some money for the vegetable seeds, but it does not add a lot to the cost of gardening. Typically composted manure, topsoil and mulch take a larger bite out of my gardening budget.

Finally, I am glad to say that my strawberry plants, even in the two days since being installed in the garden pyramid, are already showing signs of life. It is supposed to rain overnight so hopefully, all will progress well and I will be eating some of the fruits of my labor come August!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Update on my financial goals for 2008

Like many who blog about finances, I set up five financial goals on January 1, 2008. My first update in March was a mixed bag of results. How have I progressed so far this year?

1. To reach a net worth of six figures ($100,000).
For the first four months of 2008, my net worth increased 5.2%, bringing me to just over $89,000. This is a greater increase than seen earlier this year, reflecting the market improvements in the last month or two plus the additional cash investments made to my Roth IRA. I am also putting as much additional money into my car savings account as I am feeling the pressure of a looming car purchase. These actions in addition to the passive interest income help inch my net worth higher. I am feeling more optimistic about reaching this goal, but only the end of year will tell if I can gain another $11,000 to hit my mark.

2. To have $15,000 in liquid savings for emergency expenses.
The number has decreased slightly from the last update to $11,100. This is primarily due to a large unexpected car repair bill. Additional money will be withdrawn from the house savings account and charity but are not currently reflected in the total, due to being paid for by credit card. However, I am still confident I can meet this goal by December 31, 2008 even with larger home improvements on the horizon. Bonuses and other unexpected money will help bolster my savings, helping to keep me on track to this goal.

3. To have $500 in my "found money" account.
My current balance is $289 and change that should be closer to $294 by the time a deposit goes through. I also used some of this money to pay for a seminar on wills and other important documents so the gross amount is closer to $328. I am more than halfway to this goal, but with the bulk of my extra money going into my car savings account, I am uncertain if I truly will reach to my goal. However, I continue to add little bits of money and the balance is continuing to accrue interest at 3% APY.

4. To increase my contributions to my Roth IRA to $3,000.
With my raise, my monthly contributions have increased by over $90 to my Roth IRA. For 2008, I already have added $1,700 to the Roth account, with another $500 pending from my yet-to-be-received tax rebate. My future contributions will add another $2,000 so I am well on my way to to exceed this goal. For the rest of the year, I will modify this goal to read:
4. To fully fund Roth IRA for 2008 at $5,500. This is a big challenge that I will carry into next year since I can add funds through April 15, 2009 for 2008.

5. To generate $2,000 from an alternative income source.
My only current alternative income is from selling unwanted items. My gross income is $453.79, which is more than I anticipated, but my net income is only $316.24. Darn ebay and PayPal fees (and shipping)! I am still debating about what I can do to boost my alternative income totals, but nothing has been pursued, much less implemented.

Overall, I think this assessment looks good, more promising than earlier in the year. I really need to work on my alternative income and start trying various ideas I have jotted down to see if I can generate income other than just selling my unwanted things.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Do you feel economically stimulated?

Well, I had a nice surprise in my savings account this morning--an extra $600 that was not there yesterday afternoon. Yes, the federal government decided to give me money to spend. As a single taxpayer, I was eligible to receive $600 and the full amount was deposited into my savings account. So, what will I do with this money?

The current setup in my T. Rowe Price Roth IRA account is all my shares are in the Extended Equity Market Index fund (PEXMEX). This is a nice fund for me to invest in, but I am exposed only to domestic funds. Therefore, I decided with $500 of the extra money I received, I would begin investing in the International Equity Index fund (PIEQX) as well. My portfolio would then have international and domestic stock fund exposure, giving me more diversity in my investments. Since I am also increasing my Roth IRA contributions, I can divide the monthly contributions between the two funds with a small decrease in the contribution to the Extended Equity Market Index fund. I am very excited about this change and thrilled to be getting closer to fully funding my Roth IRA for 2008.

With my replacement car fund receiving more money each month and my determination to send as much extra money as I can to increase my numbers, I chose to add another $50 to this account from the economic stimulus check. I will likely have two or three years before I have to replace my 11-year-old car, but I am trying to save as much as I can if circumstances change. Retirement account funding was my first priority with this extra money, but the auto savings account reminded me I needed to give it a boost as well.

Finally, I am allowing myself to spend the remaining $50 as I choose. Purchases I am considering: getting my feather pillows restuffed or using the money to host a party at my home. I have not done the latter in a while and it would be fun to gather my friends together and enjoy the outdoors now that spring is really here. The $50 also leaves me room to be more spontaneous that my monthly budgeting does not really allow me.

Have you gotten your money electronically and how are you planning on using it?

Visit the Festival of Frugality

I decided to take the plunge and submit an entry to the Festival of Frugality 124 hosted by Frugal for Life. Dawn was kind enough to accept my entry so please head on over to read all the wonderful frugal posts hosted on her blog!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Recipe Monday: Seafood Fettuccini

I found this recipe in a local school fundraiser cookbook and decided to try it when in a mood to expand my recipe horizon. The meal was a success, and I ended up eating this meal several times in the last few years. Leftovers microwave well, thus rendering it a good lunch as well as dinner for the single person. This meal is fairly quick to prepare, ~30 minutes from start to finish, using two burners on the stove. The few times I have made it for others, they have liked it as well so I felt safe sharing it.

2 tablespoons butter or margarine
4 teaspoons flour
1 1/2 cups half&half
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1 package Louis Kemp Crab Delights
6 ounces cooked fettuccini
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

Melt butter, stir in flour. Gradually add half&half and stir until thickened. Add Parmesan cheese; cook and stir until smooth. Fold in Crab Delights and heat for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Toss fettuccini with sauce and sprinkle with parsley. Serve immediately.

1. I love cheese so I add nearly a cup of Parmesan cheese to the recipe.
2. Make sure you only add 4 TEASPOONS flour. I have added a couple tablespoons before I realized and that makes a very thick sauce.
3. I generally skip the parsley and I still enjoy the dish.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Analyzing my net worth for April 2008

I was surprised that my net worth goes up with all the volatility in the stock market and the rumblings in the economy. Still, I was pleased to find in April, I increased my net worth by 1.5% from the previous month. This was greater than I expected with the various pressures on my money.

An unexpected car repair
Emergency funds are for just such an event and I was glad I could pay for this without issue. Still, losing over $1,400 in my liquid assets is no fun--and not the direction I want my savings to go.

Revised home assessment
Yes, I received one of these in the mail and the number went down 1.5%. The assessed value did not go down as much as it could have since I did do a window replacement, but it was not enough to counterbalance the market trends.

The stock market and its effects on my retirement funds
While my 401k and Roth IRA gained in value above the contributions made, my rollover IRA lost value. Since the rollover IRA was a front-load fund, I was not happy to see the low numbers. Since this news was from the first quarter of 2008, the loss may moderate and I may end the year ahead. Time will tell.

In addition, I received a statement from a university pension fund. Since I worked for a state university for 2.5 years, there is money invested in my name. I have let the money sit in the account as the fund is well-managed. In fact, I gained nearly $1,000 in value from the year before. This was as of January 1, 2008, the date of the statement, but an impressive number since the account gained 11.6% in value.

I am happy to see my net worth go up, but I expect May will not look as good. I have spent a lot on gardening supplies and home improvement, and the bill comes due this month. However, I will likely stay on a positive trend unless the stock market heads on a downward trend.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Evaluation of my no-spending month

Bottom line: I spent a lot of money, but most was not from my spending plan. I bought stuff using money earmarked from my tax refund for spending, from savings accounts and even from my found money account all in the name of house, garden and bettering myself. These are not poor reasons or bad choices, but in the end, reflect badly on the spirit of the challenge. For example, I gave myself an out when buying new window treatments. I will be replacing my windows within a month and intended on replacing the current blinds. I saw JCPenney had the items I was interested in on sale, I saw what I wanted and ordered it so I could have the replacement Roman shades in hand before the windows were installed.

I may try this financial challenge again, but in the winter months when I have less of a tendency to spend money. This strategy might be considered cheating, but choosing a month as gardening season is gearing up and the homeowner's mind turns to "now what should I fix/repair/maintain on my house" prevented me from taking full advantage of the savings boost I could incur from not using money within my spending plan. Saving money is a bonus whether it is easier in the winter or not.

In total, I was able to put away $64.35 in my savings accounts. This was split between my car savings ($60) and my found money ($4.35). This is just over 25% of what I could have potentially saved, but again, I foiled myself with some once-a-year expenses (e.g., tickets to see an outdoor play with a friend), laziness (i.e., paid for four lunches and two snacks) and yielding to cravings (e.g., chocolate).

However, I managed to resist the temptation of new computer hardware, a new MacBook Pro, and applied for a stipend at work that would go toward the cost of my high-speed internet. This decreases the burden on my spending plan and increases the possibility for me to save money. While I am still waiting to hear about the latter, I consider this money challenge a success since I could have shortchanged myself and bought a high-priced item that I desired but did not need.

As for the other items I did buy, I believe the gardening supplies are an expansion of my growing opportunities; the bicycle helmet, another step closer to being more fit; and the window treatments, a small house improvement that does not break the bank. While they all cost money, they have the potential to save me money in the long run.

While my no-spending month was a challenge with mixed results, I come out on the plus side with a bit extra money going to savings. My hope is the future will yield more for my bottom line and I reflect if I truly need an item before purchasing it.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Minimizing gardening costs

I have talked various times about my gardening plans, from landscaping to edibles. However, buying all the mulch, topsoil, compost, seeds and plants for gardening can get expensive. I love cocoa bean mulch, but it tends to be more expensive than other choices. What are some ways to trim startup and maintenance costs?

Find a source of free or low-cost compost.
One easy source of free compost: start your own compost pile. The rich soil additive will not be available right away, but once started, is a continuous source of compost.

If self-generated compost is not enough for your needs, consult with your local city or county. My county has two composting sites available where residents can fill up small and large receptacles for free (unscreened compost) or a small fee (screened compost). The added advantage is the compost is generated locally so fees for fuel and shipping are not added to the price (or the environment).

I have also found listings on craigslist for free composted manure. My weekend will be spent visiting a local farm to remove some composted horse manure to use in my new raised garden pyramid for strawberries.

Locate a source of free or low-cost mulch.
Many cities including my own collect tree branches and bush trimmings at curbside. Ever wonder where this material goes? If you are lucky, your municipality makes it available to interested citizens. I can go to five locations around the larger city I work in and shovel free shredded bark mulch into containers or my trunk for use at home. Free is great, just some time and fuel on my part, but the locations may or may not be stocked.

Another possibility is a tree-removal company or homeowner that had several large woody items removed from his property. I have seen postings on craigslist for free shredded mulch, sometimes with delivery included. Many tree removal companies take tree limbs and other bits they trim and shred it, removing it as part of their service. However, that means they have to dispose of all the plant material they collect. The company may be amenable to having you pick some up from them for a minimal fee.

Find free or low-cost plants.
Ask neighbors or people at work or church if they are dividing plants. Perennials tend to grow and divide until they exceed their space. Many people are glad to have someone take their excess hostas, daylilies and other plants for cheap or free. I posted on the free section of craigslist for someone to dig up my unwanted irises and excess daylilies. I had three people interested and coming over and digging in my yard.

Craigslist is another source where people give away or sell their plants. This could be from mature landscaping (e.g., someone does not want the landscaping in their yard anymore) or started plants from seed and cannot use all of them so they sell the excess.

I have seen some pretty flowers blooming next to fields and intend on asking the owners if I can dig them up. I would recommend asking for permission before taking plants or seeds from an area.

To buy plants at a reduced costs, wait until later in the growing season, August and September in the Midwest. Many garden centers put their remaining stock on sale since it is the end of the gardening season and you may find good deals on plants you want.

Regardless of what you choose to do in your garden, there are sources of each item that can reduce the out-of-pocket costs. It may take a bit of effort, but you can be proud of the produce from your garden and lovely plants in your yard. Happy gardening!

Update: Welcome to those of you who took the link from the Festival! If you enjoyed my post, consider exploring the rest of my blog or subscribing to my RSS feed.