Monday, January 26, 2009

Financial Goals for 2009

While thinking about setting financial goals for 2009, I discovered I am focused on saving money. Last year, my goals encompassed net worth, saving and alternative income. This year, it is all about the savings accounts. Yes, I plan on keeping track of my net worth monthly with reports on the blog quarterly, but I will confine my financial goals to saving money.

I fell short of most of my 2008 financial goals due to things outside my control (e.g., my investments in the stock market) and lack of interest and motivation (e.g., starting an alternative income stream). This year I am going to state items I have more control over and get me closer to future plans including a newer vehicle and saving money for my future farm. With the exception of the first, the goals are to be completed by December 31, 2009.

1. Fully fund my 2009 Roth IRA with $5,000.
I am on track to fully fund my 2008 Roth IRA with a little help from my likely tax refunds. However, I had some extra contributions from a life insurance policy I cashed in and the tax rebate. This year, my shortfall will probably be greater, but I also plan on increasing my monthly contributions. Any increase will be based on any merit increases I receive, but is unlikely to be more than another 2% of my gross income. Any potential pay increases will not be known until April 2009.

2. Save $2,500 for purchase of a newer vehicle.
At my current savings rate, I am have a guaranteed savings of $1,860 for 2009. However, extra money from bonuses, unspent gasoline allocation and other sources will add to this amount. I am stretching myself to get to $2,500, but I came close in 2008, saving about $2,200 for my next vehicle.

3. End the year with $1,500 in my farm savings account.
My savings account holds a bit less than $425 right now. That means I need to save over $1,000 to get this goal. While money from my extra checks will partially fund this account, other money sources will need to be found. I want to push myself to get alternative income streams started and this would be one way to counteract my inherent laziness with my future dream of a farm.

These are the goals most closely aligned with my interests and future goals. I may find something else becomes a priority and add to these goals, but these three are currently the most important to me.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Financial rewards of credit card usage

I have been reading in various blogs about credit cards reducing the rewards associated with using their cards or raising the bar for submitting rewards. Others blog about which reward credit cards have the best return on the money you spend. I am a one credit card kind of gal so once I choose a credit card, I keep it in my wallet and use it. (Full disclosure: I do have a second card, but it languishes in a file folder.) My well-used card is a CitiBank Driver's Edge Options credit card, which rewards me with 3% back on purchases at pharmacies, gas stations and grocery stores (6% for the first 12 months), 1% on other purchases and if I submit my mileage, gives me a rebate for the mileage accumulated on my car. I can redeem my rewards for an auto service of at least $25 or for leasing or buying a new or used car. Since I knew I wanted to purchase a newer car in the near future, I thought this rewards card was a good fit for my lifestyle and suited my goals.

Recently, I sent my bill for auto repairs to the Rewards Redemption service for my credit card. If I am enrolled in the mileage rewards, which I am, that bill will also use the mileage noted on the bill to add the Driver's Rebate to my account. When I received my credit card bill about two months after submitting the auto repair bill, I saw I had a credit for my Driver's Edge rewards. I took the credited amount ($105.57) and transferred it to my car savings account. Why? All the other purchases on my credit car were subtracted from my budget, and this money was intended for my future car purchase. I put it in my ING savings account where it currently earns 2.4% APY. This may be a paltry amount, but better than 0% in my reward account.

Using this method of rewards submission, I add to my car savings account and make the rewards I earn by driving my current car more liquid than sitting as a number on my credit card statement. Furthermore, the Driver's Edge rewards must be used within five years so I am ensuring I use the full extent of my rewards without any penalty.

What do you think of my methodology?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The financial consequences of "just in case"

I am a cautious person who believes in being prepared. I save my money and keep some cash in the house and in my wallet. I have at least two weeks worth of food available in my pantry and basement just in case. I rarely let the gas tank gauge in the car fall below half a tank. I take my car to the mechanic twice a year to have it checked over, the oil changed and the tires rotated. I have several CFLs available in various wattages for when the incandescents or other CFLs in my home need replacing. I have at least one replacement for body lotion, shampoo, conditions, soap, razor blades, contact lens solution, cotton balls and Q-tips so I have a ready supply.

Why am I telling you all this? While you may be wondering why this strange, obsessive woman is roaming free in the upper Midwest, I will demonstrate the benefits to my behavior. The first reason: I like to have backups. I feel more secure that when that light bulb goes out I can change it, or the winter weather prevents me from going anywhere, I can survive on my backup water supply and full pantry for however long my life is disrupted. I find it gratifying to turn to my cabinet, pantry or basement storage and grab the next bottle of contact lens solution or container of deodorant without cursing that I forgot it on my last shopping trip. This means I do not have to make a single trip for one item and then end up buying six other things I do not need but decided I wanted.

Being American, I am dependent on my car for getting me to and from work. If I need to buy items or visit my family, I need to drive my car. For these reasons, I schedule semiannual maintenance of my car to ensure all systems are working well. This saves me time, money and aggravation. Why? By having my car looked over regularly, I am able to fix items before they become critical and leave me stranded somewhere. Regular maintenance is likely to reduce the total cost of ownership by anticipating problems before they become catastrophic.

However, this "just in case" mentality can also have its downside. I need sufficient space to store these extra items, which can add clutter to the house. This need for storage may increase spending because now I require another shelf in the basement to store all my back up items. Deciding to get an item may lead to buying more than needed. While I am thinking "just in case" as I buy my third wool blanket from the thrift shop, do I really need three wool blankets with one down blanket and three cotton blankets at home? I blame reading Sharon's blog for this particular weakness.

Whether being prepared and doing preventative maintenance balances out the expenses associated with greater storage needs depends on execution. Living in an area where severe winter weather can mean impassable roads and loss of power, and summer brings severe thunderstorms with a chance of tornadoes, stocking up seems prudent. I am shielded from temporary disruptions in food supplies with my pantry stockpile and can keep myself warm without power under all the layers of blankets I have. This security is worth more to me than a few extra dollars in my savings account.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A difference in philosophy

I am a pretty frugal gal. I buy used rather than new, try to figure out how to reuse an item, follow a spending plan that allows me to save for immediate and long-term goals, and live a more sustainable life. Other than a weakness for buying items to stockpile and occasionally drooling over Apple hardware, I stay on the frugal and greener path I have chosen.

This means instead of buying a new television for the age of digital signals, I signed up for the $40 converter box coupon back in December 2007 and was one of the first people to receive the coupon in February 2008. My modest 19-inch television was purchased new at Best Buy in 2000 after my 13-inch TV (new in 1994) stopped working. I found it ironic that the larger TV weighed less than the smaller one.

Recently, one of my friends commented I needed a larger television as we were watching a widescreen DVD. I will admit, more screen real estate would be nice. However, most of my viewing is for broadcast shows and rarely for widescreen movies. What I have suits my viewing needs, and the set is small enough to fit in the corner of my living room on top of my free entertainment center. My plan is to replace my television with a used one when it decides it no longer wants to present pictures to me.

My friend understood my refusal to get a larger television, but his comment reflects a difference in our philosophies. What I have is adequate to serve my needs and I will wait until the item breaks before considering replacement versus his assertion that bigger is better. I am satisfied with what I have. This makes it easier to live a more frugal and sustainable life.

Have you recently come under peer pressure to update electronics? How did you handle it?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The consequences of using homemade laundry detergent

In 2008, I waxed poetic about making my own laundry detergent and loving the smell of line-dried clothes. That first batch of homemade laundry detergent has lasted me over eight months, a good bargain in my book.

When I first returned to using my dryer rather than my clothesline after winter weather struck, I reluctantly added a dryer sheet when tumble drying my clothing. Why was I so hesitant? Because when I used nearly scentless laundry detergent, vinegar in the rinse cycle and outdoor drying, I had become used to the low-key natural scent of clothing dried outdoors. The artificial scent saturated in the dryer sheet not only softened my clothing, but to my sensitive nose, added lots of offensive chemical odor.

I started to routinely add add vinegar to the wash cycle to help rinse away detergent and soften my clothing when dried outdoors. I had also read that vinegar would continue to soften clothing when a dryer was used. In fact, I discovered that vinegar alone does work well. There is no need for a dryer sheet. Bonus points for no additional chemical softeners and artificial scents that I can no longer tolerate. My clothing smells clean and nothing else.

Who know I would no longer tolerate artificial scents in dryer sheets when I started with my homemade detergent and outdoor drying?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Celebrate the new year with challenges!

Looking to a fresh new year means setting up new challenges for myself. While I am not ready to tackle a No Plastics Month, there are a few things I am going to try this year.

Buy Nothing Month
While there is no such thing as buying nothing, I plan to tackle February 2009 as no frivolous spending month. That means groceries and other necessities are allowed, but that cute sweater at the thrift store is not. While I may be selecting the shortest month of the year to do this, I am considering a second month this year to buy nothing. However, I will have to see how successful I am at saving money and keeping my spending to a minimum. I am not sure I can ignore craigslist and the thrift store for an entire month. Oh dear, I do have that hair appointment scheduled for February...

How Does Your Garden Grow?
I will be the first to admit my inherent laziness. In fact, I tend to work in bursts of activity, usually when the situation is so bad I have to do something or the thought of someone else seeing the messiness of my house spurs me to action. However, I want to keep track of the foodstuffs I grow and use in 2009. For example, I will note I planted five potato plants, three made it to maturity and I harvested five pounds of potatoes at the end of the season. I also plan on visiting the u-pick farm for strawberries and red raspberries as I did in 2008. Keeping track of how many quarts of berries I pick and how many jars of jam I make (and how long they last) will help me figure out if I need more or less, especially since I plan on giving away more jars of freezer jam. So, at least once a month during the growing season, I will be tallying what is growing, what I harvested and how it was stored.

Keep the Furnace Off
In 2008, my goal was to keep the furnace off until November 1. Due to a warm weather spell, I was able to hold off turning on the furnace until November 7 even if I had to suffer through 53 degrees Fahrenheit while showering in late October 2008. My new goal will be to beat that date and not turn on the furnace until November 8, 2009. Depending on how the autumn shapes up, this could be easy or difficult. It is hard to tell in the upper Midwest what type of weather to which we will be subjected since rain, snow, ice and flooding all occurred around Christmas 2008.

The reverse challenge, when to shut off the furnace, will come when I note the last time I use the furnace this spring. I assume that will be by April 1, 2009 but who knows what the weather will be like. By the time March comes around, I will pay closer attention to my furnace usage.

Are there any self-imposed challenges you are contemplating this year?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Analyzing my goals and finances for 2008

While my December 2008 net worth increased compared to November 2008, my first full year of net worth calculations demonstrated I was down 6.2% for 2008. I will not belabor the point that the stock market drop for 2008, ~38% overall, meant my investments took a major hit. Instead, I will do my year-end review of my goals and see where I stand there.

1. To reach a net worth of six figures ($100,000).
I looked to be on track to reach this goal until June 2008 where there was some downward market changes. However, I nearly recovered my May 2008 position in August 2008 before the market truly plummeted. In fact, I have ended the year with a net worth less than $80,000. I plan to keep this goal for next year and hope the market performs better and I save even more money to make this happen. Hitting the six-digit figure would be a great psychological boost for me.

2. To have $15,000 in liquid savings for emergency expenses.
I fell short of this goal by $1,300. I did not think I was too ambitious, but I had a major car expense in April that was large factor in holding up this goal. I also had several veterinary bills that caused me to dip into savings several times this year. Smaller, less necessary expenses did not forward my bottom line either. However, I ended the year with $3,760 more in my savings accounts (including Certificates of Deposit) compared to December 2007. This is an accomplishment well worth the time (and money) invested in it.

3. To have $500 in my "found money" account.
I have ended 2008 with $261 in this account, failing my goal. However, if all the deposits were totaled for the year, I would have nearly reached the $500 goal. When creating this goal, I wanted to see how small amounts of money (odd numbers from bonus paychecks, money from items sold on ebay and craigslist, and rebate checks) would add up over the year. These contributions alone netted almost $250. I paid for a Wills and Trust class and my chest freezer from this account. I will continue to add odds and ends of money into this account in hopes that I will save enough to buy a new (or nearly new) MacBook Pro in the future. I may modify this goal, but need to think about it more.

4. To fully fund Roth IRA for 2008 at $5,000.
My current contributions stand at $3,900, more than twice what I had at the end of 2007. However, I am still $1,100 short. To be honest, I plan on contributing my tax refunds to this account, which should get me to my goal. If I fall short, I will use some money from savings to bring me up to the full contribution. I will keep this goal on my mind (if not listed on my blog) and will joyously celebrate when this is fully funded.

5. To generate $2,000 from an alternative income source.
May I just pretend this goal does not exist? I really did not work hard on this and my final tally of less than $400 shows it. To be honest, I just pulled a number out of the air, but I also wanted to push myself with an ambitious goal. My lack of accomplishment reflects my indecisiveness on how to generate this income and that my sole idea (selling stuff on craigslist) got lost in the sudden increase of postings on craigslist this year. Having an alternative income stream (or two or more) makes me less dependent on my job and increases my ability to fund all my savings goals. I need to reflect on how to better reach this goal in 2009 and will do so in January.

Overall, I did well for my first year of goal setting. No, I did not reach any of my goals, but my financial position is better than it was last year. While my net worth does not reflect that, I am happy the liquid savings is greater than the year before and I will be able to fully fund my Roth IRA for the second year in a row (even if I need more than 12 months to do it). My hope is that in 2009, I will meet or exceed at least two of the goals I set.

How did you fare for 2008?

Self-sufficiency satisfaction

One of my personal goals is be increasingly self-sufficient. My love of gardening is more than growing my own organic produce, but also a source of food that is not heavily dependent on petroleum. This year, I discovered I like making freezer jam for my own consumption and to give as gifts. While I do use a bread machine, I love my loaves of honey wheat bread produced on demand. Each of these things brings me closer to my ideal of food self-sufficiency.

In fact, one of my friends asked how much a loaf of my honey wheat bread costs me. Using my most recent prices (September-October 2008), I calculated the ingredient costs to be $0.80 for a 1 pound loaf. That is certainly less than most purchased loaves and freshly baked with near instant gratification (well, after 3 hours with my bread machine).

However, my independent streak does affect my bottom line and involves more than food. In my efforts at self-sufficiency, I have taken on replacing a headlight on my car. Removing the burned-out bulb as not as easy as I thought, but I felt quite accomplished to have replaced the bulb myself. While having someone else change the bulb would have reduced my frustration, having successfully completed the task myself means I saved some money (only the cost of the bulb and not of labor) and gained some pride in a new skill.

I have many projects on my long list of good intentions. Being a homeowner of a 30+ year old home that had been rented for a time, I have replaced damaged standard standard outlets in the house. However, I also installed a GFCI outlet in the garage since it is a place that gets wet (both rain and melted snow). Again, just the cost of the outlet (~$15) and my time for a new undamaged GFCI outlet I can use.

To add to my growing space around the suburban lot, I scavenged wood boards, had my dad cut some of them to length and screwed them all together to construct three raised garden beds for another 80 square feet of growing space in 2009. I plan on growing another fruit (a bed of black raspberries) and expanding the number of vegetable crops I can grow

I have much to learn and do including repairing outdoor electrical extension cords. (My dad fixed my not-so-little oopsie with the extension cord.) I just purchased a greenhouse to get a jump start on my garden for 2009, a definite learning experience, and Christmas gave me a food mill to nearly complete my own water-bath canning setup (just lacking a jar holder).

I am excited about all that I can accomplish as well as what I can add to my skill set. Figuring out what I can do myself and being able to build something useful or grow something for future consumption means I am that much closer to being self-sufficient. And I like the satisfaction I feel about completing such endeavors.