Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fix it or buy new, that is my choice

I may write about how my savings accounts are growing and that my net worth is up but I still make decisions that may set me back. Recently, I had to decide between fixing my electric lawn mower or repairing the one I have. Let me set up the story:

I was reluctantly mowing my lawn and completed cutting 2/3 of my grassy area when I decided to stop and get a drink of water. After I came out of my house and tried to mow again, absolutely nothing happened. I did the basic troubleshooting: is it the power to the lawn mower? Fuse box was fine. Was it the cord? Second cord (with light on end) lit up but did not move the motor. What did the owner's manual say? Perform the steps I did and if that did not resolve the issue, take the mower to a Black and Decker service provider.

Two weeks later, I get the news that the motor was the problem, a replacement part was $150 and labor would be $60. I was advised to junk my lawn mower and get a new one. My dilemma was do I fix what I have and waste fewer resources or buy a new lawn mower and hope it lasts longer than three years? I was assured that the lawn mower would not simply go into the big garbage hole in the ground so that was one less burden.

After doing some looking around, reading specifications and consumer reviews, I settled on buying a new lawn mower for $205. However, it had been two weeks since I last mowed my lawn and while my neighbor kindly offered his gas-powered lawn mower whenever I needed it, I have not asked him for it. With the necessity of mowing my lawn (some areas definitely needed a trim), I paid extra for two-day shipping bringing my total purchase to $280.

Buying a new lawn mower was not in my sights at all. I was happy with my Black and Decker model--until it quit on me. I am disappointed I received just under three seasons of service before the motor came to the end of its lifetime. I am hoping my new Earthwise 20-inch electric mower has a longer lifespan than my other corded electric model. Luckily, I did have money in my home savings account that easily covered this cost but I did create a greater cost by paying for two-day shipping.

Do you agree with my actions?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Overwhelmed by my garden!

Sometimes the garden bounty is too much. My plans for my cucumbers this year included pickling with some jalapenos to create hot pickles for my brother for Christmas. I have never pickled anything before--a new task for me to try--and an easy way to create a gift. Or so I thought. However, early destruction of half my cucumber plants had me worried that I would not have enough to make pickles.

I also started the Early Jalapeno peppers later than the rest of my seedlings so I had blossoms on my cucumbers while the pepper was still growing. Okay, poor planning on my part but I could still pickle my cucumbers, right? If I catch them in time.

Every time I visit the garden, which is daily with all the green beans coming in, I find another slicing cucumber or two. While this is not bad alone, I wanted pickling cucumbers, which are smaller, and I am only one person. I like cucumbers but not that much! So what do I do? Hope I catch the cucumbers earlier and give away my produce. I would have thought with only two plants, I could keep up with the cucumbers but I have proven that false. The darn things hide, I swear!

Here is hoping I run out of cucumbers before I run out of neighbors and friends!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Trying something new--the shampoo bar

In my quest to reduce my plastic consumption, I have examined my personal care products for ways to improve my environmental footprint. Not only does shampoo, conditioner, body wash and facial cleanser come in plastic bottles, many additives are not great for me or the environment. Down the drain does not mean gone forever as extensive tests and scientific reports have shown.

At the farmers market I visit weekly, one vendor sells homemade soap. While I have the best of intentions to make my own soap with lye, olive oil and a touch of honey, the ingredients are still on my pantry shelves and I remain hopeful I will make it in the future. One item that caught my eye recently at the soap vendor was a shampoo bar. Talk about environmentally friendly packaging and reduced waste! Here was a solid bar for shampooing my hair, the ingredient list was short (and understandable) and the packaging was minimal--just a thin cardboard box.

When I inquired about the item, the seller explained I just had to use on my hair as it lathers up like liquid shampoo and rinse it out. If I felt a residue, more prone to this in hard water than in soft, use some diluted vinegar (~50% solution from what you buy in the grocery store) and spray on my hair to rinse it clean.

I was excited to try my new shampoo bar because it was novel. I wet my hair, easily moved the bar over the hair and lathered well. It felt just like I was using liquid shampoo except I rubbed a bar on my roots. I rinsed it out and while the hair was a bit tackier than normal, it was clean and free of oil and styling products. My hair curled nicely but I did notice the tackiness I felt after shampooing translated to more gunky feeling hair by the end of the second day. Since I wash my hair every two days, this was not awful but I plan on rinsing with some vinegar the next time I use it.

In total, I used the shampoo bar three times and was happy with its performance. The tacky residue was disconcerting but my hair did not seem to act differently than with liquid shampoo. I will definitely keep using the bar and will try the vinegar rinse to see how it affects the tacky feeling and the residue after two days.

While I am happy with the shampoo bar, there are still several bottles of perfectly good shampoo stashed away and even some I really enjoy using. I will not be trading in the plastic bottle for the cardboard box permanently, but as a companion to my current personal care regime. Now if I could only find the perfect facial cleanser for summer and winter...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Latest frugal acquistion

I am a person who can become intently focused on an idea or a plan. To ensure I had enough canning supplies, I recently added more pectin, jars, lids and bands to my collection even though I am not sure how much I will really use for canning jam and tomatoes with my water bath canner. In 2007, I decided I wanted a used bicycle for around $20. It took me a few months but I purchased one for $25 in wintertime. My latest quest: a used tent.

Now, I have never been camping except in a truck-topped camper when I was a young lass. There is no urge to pack up and hit the road with a tent. However, it would be nice to sleep outside when it is warm and see how I might like camping in a tent--at least in my own yard. My first stop was craigslist, and my experience was more interesting than I wanted it to be.

Again, I was setting the threshold for cost low because I did not want to invest much money in something I may or may not be using. So my target cost was $20. Surprisingly, there were more than a few near this mark. Unfortunately, I encountered several issues in seeking a tent to call my own:

  1. I did not contact the seller soon enough and lost out to someone who e-mailed quicker.

  2. My offer was too low for the seller.

  3. I was looking at tents that while in my price range were larger than I needed (and were difficult for one person to assemble).

  4. I was treated to a reprimand on how to do business when the seller was unhappy I chose not to buy his tent.

However, my persistence and desire not to go beyond $25 paid off. I attended a garage sale where a two-person tent was available. It was a dome tent, shorter than me and could be assembled by one person. The price on the item was $20, and the seller was on her third day of the garage sale. I offered $15 and she accepted it.

To prove that even an ignorant person like myself who only saw a single one tent assembled could put one together, I set it up on my lawn--successfully. It was the size, style and ease-of-assembly that I realized I could use. The drawback to my purchase: some transfer of darker color to lighter color on the fabric and an interesting aroma I will try to bake out of the tent. Even if I get only a use or two out of the tent, it will be worth spending $15 to try it out.

What do you think of my tent deal? Was I cheap or was I frugal?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Second quarterly update for my 2009 financial goals

Net worth: Since I last reported in April, I have seen my net worth increase each month. My focus on saving and consistently contributing to both my 401(k) and Roth IRA have given me a 12.6% increase in my net worth since April 1. This is much better than I ever expected especially in the face of losses in late 2008.

1. Fully fund my 2009 Roth IRA with $5,000.
I am 47.7% to my goal. With the 1.9% merit increase in my pay check, I placed most of this new money toward my Roth IRA. With a little help from my regular savings account, I am on track to nearly fully fund my account by the end of the year. Plus it is nice to see the balance this account back above five digits and moving fund worth closer to amount I contributed (although still lagging).

2. Save $2,500 for purchase of a newer vehicle.
I am pleased about my progress towards this goal. To date, I have an additional $1,454 in this account. Much of this increase is due to systematic contributions but leftover money from my gasoline spending category has helped. This month, I will have additional savings from my extra paycheck. With more than halfway to my goal, I am confident I will reach this goal.

3. End the year with $1,500 in my farm savings account.
With monthly transfers to this account, my savings has reached just over $807. I plan to contribute some money from my extra check (three pay periods instead of the usual two this month) so this should push me closer to my goal. This goal seems to be within my reach.

4. Accumulate $800 toward buying a new computer.
Unfortunately, I was unable to hit this goal. With my trusty iBook G4 losing its cooling fan and me being addicted to Apple laptops and surfing the Web, I purchased a refurbished 15" MacBook Pro for $1528.70 with a $262.67 AppleCare Plan, and had to use $1,100 from my regular savings account to fund the purchase. This meant I did have just under $700 saved for the computer purchase. Because I owe myself money, the money I get from selling my iBook G4 and the final installment of my internet funding award in 2010 will go toward mitigating the raid on my savings account.

4. Save $600 by August 2010 for a potential vacation.
This is my replacement goal and one I should be able to fulfill. My monthly contributions will get me to $533 and I had a few dollars extra from my FSA account that I had subtracted from my spending plan. With at least two more pay periods before August that have a bonus check, I should be able to reach my goal with little stress.

Overall, I am doing better than I thought I could be. While a positive trend is nice in the stock market, good old-fashioned savings is also boosting my bottom line. How are you doing financially?

Friday, July 17, 2009

A change in my savings goals

An opportunity to visit a part of the United States I have not see before has arisen. My dad's mother's side of the family whose German relatives hosted the family reunion in Germany in 2007 is now looking to gather in Missouri in September 2010. While I have not committed myself to the trip, I am interested enough that I started looking at where I could save money for this trip. My reasoning is twofold:
  1. Saving money for this trip means it does not come out of my emergency funding nor steals from my other financial goals.

  2. If I decide against the trip, the money can be redistributed or used for other purposes.

The drawback to my savings plans: I have no idea how much I need for the trip. My mother suggested I aim for $500. Starting with that number, I carefully analyzed my spending plan and my current savings amounts. This is what I have decided:
$10 from my monthly cat care allocation (I have only one cat to care for)
$10 from my personal care allocation (my spending has decreased in this category)
$1 from my gift spending account (buying secondhand and making items has given me more breathing room here)
$10 from savings (I reduce the amount to savings by this amount every month)
$10 from house savings (I decrease my contributions by this amount each month)
$41 total

Since there are 13 months between now and September 2010, I estimate that I can save $533. That does not include money from extra checks (there are three between now and then) or any other sources. This is a good start for my vacation fund and an extra cushion if something else arises. I may change my mind after I see the estimated price tag for the family reunion but more savings will help fund my other financial goals.

What do you think of my changed plans?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Summer garden update

My garden and its harvest is keeping me busier than I anticipated. With sparse rain, I have to water the garden using captured rain water. Weeds seem to have gotten away from me and my asparagus trench needs to be filled in. Too bad I lack enough dirt to do so. (Can you help, Dad?) And my future plans include converting more of my lawn to grow food. Is putting in a garden and laboring over it worth my time?

This is all part of my learning process. Just because I grew up on a farm and my mom had a large garden does not translate into instant ability to grow things. I have lost corn seeds, corn seedlings, herbs, cucumbers, carrots and beans to various predators of the insect or mammalian variety. I am still uncertain what was attacking my beans but have accepted the loss as part of vagaries of gardening.

So far I have harvested 70 ounces of strawberries, two garlic scapes, 25 ounces of peas (includes the pod) and 8 cups of rhubarb from my garden. I purchased ~35 pounds of strawberries either at a u-pick farm or from the farmer's market, and I picked 14 cups of rhubarb from a friend's house.

My own strawberry harvest took at least a 25% hit from insect damage and ~25 ounces of pea pods has given me about a cup and a quarter of peas. Since picking peas is still new to me, I harvested pods before the peas had matured. The garlic scapes are too new for me to incorporate them easily into my diet but part of the reason I put in a garden was to try new things, both growing and eating them.

I estimate my 3.3 pounds of strawberries was worth ~$13 at a farmer's market.
My 8 cup rhubarb harvest is worth ~$6.50 at the farmer's market.
The garlic scapes are worth less than $1 since I saw one vender at my regular farmer's market selling garlic scapes for $2.50 for 1/2 pound.
The 21 ounces of Romaine-type lettuce was worth ~$3.50
My current 12 ounce pea harvest is worth ~$5.00 with more on the vine.

My garden is in a holding pattern between the early and midseason crops. The garlic and onions are nearly ready and blossoming potatoes means I can harvest small ones while the beans and solo pepper plant have only started blooming. My corn has tassels and silks, my plants are loading up with green tomatoes, the carrots seem healthy and the cucumbers are tiny. I am hoping to plant some broccoli and carrots for the fall. My herbs are still in small pots and need to be transplanted. I plan on getting around to it before cooler weather settles in--permanently. Surveying the garden, picking wild black raspberries and fighting Japanese beetles are taking a goodly share of my time. My next post will address some changes to saving my money.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Being safe in a turbulent world

During a recent family gathering, my siblings and I were discussing crimes. I mentioned that a couple years ago, my city had a rash of home break ins where teenagers were getting into homes through unlocked sliding glass doors and taking purses from kitchen tables. Since I emphasized the unlocked doors, my brother commented "So are you saying they asked for it?" My response: "No one asks for that but I believe in being cautious."

What do I mean by being cautious? For example, placing a sturdy piece of wood or length of metal pipe to prevent the sliding door from opening more than a few inches is a good precaution to take to deter intruders and still get the air circulating in the home. If a person might be looking for a crime of opportunity (e.g., unlocked door and visible purse), making it more difficult to get access to the home may help prevent your home from being invaded.

What does this have to do with money aside from the obvious? Having a savings account and spending less than you earn is one way to be safer in a world determined to part you from your money. By playing defense with your earnings, putting away the extra and accumulating a stash of money over time, you can reduce and eliminate debt, cover unexpected emergency expenses and even support yourself in case of job loss or injury.

No one likes to consider the worst case scenario. Despite my own health scare a year ago, I still have not put together a will. However, I could cover my living expenses for at least 10 months if I became sick and unable to work. I also have disability insurance through my workplace that would cover part of my salary during my illness or injury.

By earning more than I spend and saving what I can, I have built up a cushion of money that can help me through many obstacles. While contemplating the loss of a job is no fun, I know I have some time before money gets critical, which is better than losing my job and wondering how I will pay all my bills next month.

Like keeping a length of wood in a sliding door to deter thieves, a savings account can alleviate some of the anxiety of financial emergencies or job loss. The risk is not eliminated as I could be searching for a job longer than my 10 months worth of savings, but I can minimize the effects of a turbulent job market (and reduce my stress) by having money to help me through any rough spots I encounter.