Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Preparing for garage sale season

With the season now officially labeled as spring and my seedlings breaking soil and presenting cotyledons to the currently meager sunlight, this signals more than green things. It also heralds garage sale season. While I love my local charity thrift shop and the others I stop by occasionally, I really enjoy the variety of items available at garage sales and seeing different areas of my small city. There is one house I have gone to two years in a row and found clothing that I liked and fit me. One purchase in 2008 was a purple chenille sweater I got for only $2. Other items with fond memories: my 5 cent jelly jar, my 25 cent reusable bag with zipper closure and the lovely lotions I picked up for 50 cents a piece. I use all these items regularly and am glad I stopped at each of those three sales.

Garage sales are also my main source of gifts for my nieces and nephews. I have nine to shop for and need all the help I can get buying items for the lot of them. My gift spending account is ready for heavy usage and I am looking forward to finding the next treasures. However, I prefer not go into garage sale season blind. Here are a few ways I get the most of my warm weather weekend entertainment:

Make a list of desired items.
There are things I am interested in finding used before seeking new options. I have already compiled a list of items that want to find. This includes handkerchiefs, kitchen towels, a hoe and a cutting board. I have some specific jelly jars I prefer over others so I will also keep an eye out for these. I will add to this list over the summer season, depending on life circumstances and interests. For the children, I keep an eye out for books in good condition and age appropriate. In fact, I still see toys I purchased at garage sales still being used by the kids and that makes me feel good.

Map out the sales to visit on Saturday.
Even though garage sales are held Thursday, Friday and Saturday, I work during the week so I am limited to garage sales on the weekend only. I prefer to shop on Saturday morning around 8AM and typically visit between 3 and 5 sales, usually for no more than a hour's worth of time. The paper is delivered on Wednesday and I examine the garage sales that are of interest and are held on Saturday. I circle the ones that interest me and give higher priority to the ones that start on Saturday rather than earlier in the week. I then use Google Maps to figure out where the sales are being held and try to create the most sensible route through my city so I am not backtracking. With newspaper ads and maps in hand, I am ready for the road.

Have a variety of bills in my purse.
Having several $1s, a few $5s and some $10s gives me maximum flexibility. I do not need to ask for my $20 to be broken, robbing the seller of his or her change, and I am armed for bargaining. The first point is only polite, but the second gives me an opportunity to save even more. If an item is selling for $5, I can ask if the person will sell it for $4 because I have at least four $1 bills in my wallet. Why would someone agree to $4 and then make change for a $5 bill? Last year, I bargained with a lady to purchase $15 worth of items for $12 because I offered $10 for them and she settled on $12. I agreed because I could pay her in exact bills. I found my collection of smaller bills would disappear quickly during garage sale season so for months, I have been stashing the smaller bills and willingly breaking a $20 just for the change.

Bring my own bags.
As I have written previously, I prefer not to bring home any plastic bags and even refuse bags if I can carry the item in my hands. I keep to this philosophy for garage sales and it benefits both parties. The seller has one less bag he or she has to stash for people who purchase from them and I have fewer stray bits of plastic in my home. Most sellers have been quite happy to put my purchases in the bag I give them and I like the fact that I can carry the bag over my shoulder. In this fashion, I can pick up multiple items without having to juggle them in my hands.

What are your plans for garage sale season?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Roundabout mortgage payment with escrow money

Recently, I received my new mortgage payment coupon booklet that contained an analysis of my past year's escrow. This escrow is collected each month with my mortgage and is used to cover the yearly property tax bill and annual homeowner's insurance premium. There was a statement I read, but did not pay much attention to that said if the remaining money from the 2008 escrow account totaled more than $50, I would receive a refund check.

A couple weeks later, I received a check in the mail from the company that holds my mortgage for $60.11, the amount that was listed as remaining in my escrow account. Aside from being an annoying way to eliminate the excess money (and wasting paper and money to send to me), I had no qualms figuring out how to use the money: add it to my mortgage payment.

Why do I consider this an annoying answer to the solution of excess escrow funds? Why not have the mortgage company automatically add the money to my principle and just send me a statement? You see, I do not have immediate access to my credit union where I live and there is not a branch near my work. This means I have to take extra time and go to the bank to deposit the check. I really like electronic deposits and transfers to get my money to where I want without difficulty, and ATMs are ubiquitious enough I can easily find one to withdraw cash quickly. So an extra trip to my credit union to deposit the check so I can send the money back to the mortgage company seems quite silly. Efficiency at its best!

Still, I am grateful for paying more to my principle (I am only in the third year of a 30-year mortgage), and this was the best use of the money I consider part of my mortgage anyway. Since I used all my tax refund money for my Roth IRA, I was not able to give my mortgage a little boost earlier this year and am not willing to commit more money to such an illiquid account.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

What to do with a surprise bonus

When unexpected money comes into my life, it is easy enough to think "this is outside my usual money so I can treat myself and spend it whatever I want without guilt". I received a bonus in my latest check as a reward for pitching in on a departmental project as well as for an individual project. This was the largest single bonus I have ever received and upon learning of said bonus two days before payday, I became anxious. Despite all my preparations, my saving priorities and all my fiscal awareness, I thought "now what do I do with this?"

Saving for a newer car is my most immediate savings goal therefore, it should take the majority of my bonus money. However, I found myself baulking at putting the entire amount of my bonus into a single savings account. I can do this for smaller amounts of $30 here, $25 there, but add a zero or two and gut told me no.

So what are my alternatives? There were a few things tugging me in different directions. I have been thinking about my charity savings account and how much I would like to give this year. I would like to match the amount I gave in 2008 and challenge myself to give more. By taking part of this bonus check and funding the charity account, I would still have money leftover from my bonus to fund other accounts.

I have been contemplating the acquisition of a new MacBook Pro. My iBook is still working well but I am considering a replacement in the next year or so. Of course I would like a bigger screen, faster processor, more RAM and hard drive space. However, I am being strict with myself and saving for this purchase. Right now, I have $300 saved for a new computer. Saving all or most of my bonus for this purpose would bring me to nearly 50% of the price of refurbished MacBook Pro in my savings account. While not an immediate gratification of my Apple hardware desire, I would be months closer to buying a new laptop. This is an option I could pair with my charity account funding.

Despite some clear cut priorities for saving, I had to seriously consider what to do with the unexpected money. I thought about paying my mortgage down a bit or buying a nice piece of jewelery, but I prefer keeping my assets liquid. After thinking about it and writing down multiple options for dividing the money, I settled on my final strategy:

  • 18% was earmarked for charity; some of the money was used immediately for a donation

  • 25% was added to my car savings account

  • 25% was saved in my found money account (likely for my future MacBook Pro purchase)

  • 25% was transferred to my farm savings account

  • 7% I could spend how I like

I was able to save for all the items that matter to me, make a donation to my favorite local charity to celebrate my unexpected windfall and spend some on myself for pure indulgences of the food kind. I am pleased with the outcome and am grateful I have money I can both save and spend.

What do you think of my final action plan?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Creative reuses for plastic bags

With all my talk about reducing my use of plastic bags, how do I cope with all of life's messes without a fresh influx of plastic bags? I have found creative ways to reuse plastic bags that are not provided by the grocery store. This may mean more creative thinking later as I try to reduce the total amount of plastic in my life, but for now, these strategies work for me.

I have not purchased plastic bags for my bathroom garbage can for years but still have some garbage liners from that final purchase. To conserve what I have, like most people, I take the plastic bag from my pharmacy and line the rubbish bin with it. With a scarce supply of both plastic and garbage bags, I have found alternatives. The plastic wrapper around my toilet paper now graces the inside of my bathroom garage can. In the basement, I use the plastic bag my softener salt comes in as the liner for that trash can.

The bags that my kitty litter and cocoa bean mulch come in are a nice thick plastic that I reuse to shovel free composted horse manure or free bark mulch into to bring home. The plastic bags that contain potato chips, line cereal boxes or hold bread products end up in the basement for one more use: ferrying cat poop from the basement to the toilet on the main floor. I reuse bags for hot dog and hamburger buns to hold my one pound loaves of homemade bread. Plastic liners from cracker boxes are used to crush crackers. The plastic bags my egg noodles come in are reused for weighing pasta or other items on my food scale. For unmentionable or stinky messes, any of these plastic bags would work well.

All of these items are plastic bags that most people would discard, but I try to get at least one more use out of them before sending them to the landfill. Do you have any creative uses?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Shopping with reusable bags

One green living step that is simple but can be challenging to make a habit is shopping with reusable bags. I have been thrilled to see as grocery stores have made reusable bags available, more people have been purchasing and using them. However, many people have good intentions but forget the bags at home so they never get used or reused. Here I discuss some options for reusable bags and how to integrate them with your life.

While it is nice to have a matching set of reusable bags, buying cloth or recycled plastic bags is not a necessity. While I purchased my cotton and hemp bags and really like them, I also have a free bag made of recycled plastic I always keep in my car. This bag was handed out at my favorite farmer's market by a local bank, and I know that free bags can be picked up at tradeshows or as freebies from vendors advertising their business. The easiest reusable bags are to take the plastic or paper bags you have accumulated and use them again. Prior to ordering my reusable cloth bags, this is what I did. The grocery store bagger had no issue with me bringing in my own bags or reusing paper bags from another store.

If you are creative, sew, knit or crochet your own reusable bags. I think this is more creative and more unique than just buying some. One of my friends is knitting her bags using strips of plastic bags. I have lots of fabric so I intend on sewing a few for family members as gift bags. This way you can customize how large or small you want your bags to be.

The best way to make sure you take the bags with you is to keep a few on your person. For example, I keep at least one reusable bag in my car and carry two with me in my over-the-shoulder bag to work. With my once monthly grocery shopping, I keep my main stash of reusable bags in the house and bring them with me for the grocery trip. If you are reusing plastic bags the store gave you, rolling up a couple and stashing it in your purse or jacket pocket will minimize the "I forgot" excuse. I also keep my reusable bags in the front seat of my car to make it easy for me to use them. Hang the bag of bags next to your coat, purse or wallet. Keep the bag or bags by the door so it is easy to grab and carry with you. Most bags fold flat or small enough, it is not a burden to bring them with you.

Learning how to make reusing bags an integral part of your life is not without its challenges. It took me months to get my system in place. While I bought my cotton and hemp bags for grocery shopping, I realized I still stopped by my pharmacy or thrift store where I ended up with another plastic bag. My solution was keeping at least one bag on me and one in my car which helped me keep my vow of nearly eliminating plastic bags from my life. Now the only way I accumulate plastic bags is when someone else gives them to me. I either have a reusable bag to hold my purchases or refuse a bag completely.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Getting my bicycle in gear

Newer readers may not know, but just over a year ago I was on a quest to find a used bicycle. The reasons for this were twofold: 1) reduce the use of my car in my suburban neighborhood and 2) get some exercise. While I was thrilled to finally find a bike in the style I wanted at a modest price, I did incur further expenses for the bicycle. I paid $30 for a new bicycle helmet, $10 for a bicycle rack for my car, 25 cents for a cable with which I could lock my bike and recently, $13 for a folding bike rack to store the bike in my garage. In the scheme of things, paying ~$80 for a bike and accessories is not bad. However, I really only used my bike three times last year and the third time, I lost a gear. Since I only have three gears, this is a problem. Plus my physical condition was less than ideal for going very far on the bicycle.

Well, my bicycle has been sitting in the garage for several months, but I finally took it to the local bike shop. I thought the bicycle I had found was a good deal and the gentleman who looked over it for me confirmed it. He said everything looked good on it, no bent rims, the chain was fine, tires looked good and no issues with brakes or steering. He estimated the tune up damages for the gear shift to be ~$50. I told him the greater adventure was getting the bike rack onto my car, a 15-minute job sorting out direction and straps.

So, in two weeks, I will have my revitalized bike back in my life and no excuse not to use it. Except in rainy weather, worrying about my neighbors staring at me or being too tired to go around the block. One step at a time--a bike in good shape will get me started and eliminate a portion of my excuses. I will give bicycling another shot and see where it gets me. If it does not work out, I can always sell it on craigslist.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How green can you go?

Treading lighter on this singular planet of ours is a personal challenge of mine. While I am doing things that I had never conceived of before (e.g., bringing my own towel to work to dry my hands), I am looking for the next step to take. One of my most problematic areas is petroleum consumption. For me, this is more than just the gasoline in my car and the natural gas heating my home and my water; it includes all the plastic holding and wrapping my food. Learning ways to reduce my consumption is important to me, but this is a difficult thing in our oil-based society. (Challenge: think of one thing not touched by oil or oil-based products. Hint: clothing is not one of them.)

What about if you are just getting started? You would like to live greener, but do not know where to get started. There are many posts out there that give you hints, usually along the lines of:
  • Turn off the faucet when brushing your teeth.

  • Change your incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescents.

  • Wash your laundry in cold water.

  • Turn down your water heater to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • Take showers rather than baths.

  • Insulate your water heater and your exterior electrical outlets.

These are easy things, the low-hanging fruit as many people say. However, I am not sure how many people really do these naughty things like let the water run while brushing teeth. This was never advice I had to take because my mom told me run the water only when I needed to wet the toothbrush, rinse the toothbrush and fill the cup to rinse my mouth.

The greatest advice that few people really emphasize is reduce the amount you use. This may be as simple as using a pea-sized amount of toothpaste on your toothbrush rather than the inch suggested by the toothpaste manufacturer or as large as letting your car sit in the garage at least one day a week. If you usually take the car out every day of the week and sometimes multiple times a day to run errands, driving less has a greater effect than changing light bulbs (but CFLs help too).

Generate less garbage by using handkerchiefs, towels and napkins rather than using the disposable paper equivalents. Start composting rather than throwing away food. Think about not only the food but how it is packaged. Buying food with fewer wrappings and boxes means less to throw away or recycle.

Get at your ick factor. I am sure that the "if it's yellow, let it mellow" philosophy would not go down well in some households. Challenge yourself to try it anyway. How about cloth wipes rather than paper? For some people, that is too much, but urine is not dangerous and in fact, makes a great fertilizer. Just use cloth for urine wiping only and see how you like it. If I have offended your sensibilities, purchase toilet paper with the highest post-consumer recycled paper content you can find. Fewer trees will be cut down to wipe your bum.

Go old fashioned. Whether you use a drying rack or a clothesline, hang out your cold-wash-and-rinse laundry. If you mow your lawn, try a reel mower powered by human rather than gasoline or electric engine. I hear it is great exercise and nearly noiseless. Collect rain water and use it to wash your hair (so says my grandmother) or water the new shade trees you planted around the house. Shade is great for keeping the house cool in the summer. Bonus points for planting trees that produce something edible.

Get dirty. Who says you need a lawn? Go native (the naked part is optional) and use plants adapted to the area you are in. Generally, this means lower maintenance and less demand on water. Put in edibles. Be rebellious and put asparagus, beans and rhubarb on your front lawn. Personally, I think okra plants have gorgeous blossoms. Edible does not have to mean ugly. Put in herbs along the sidewalk and people might come from miles around just to walk past your house (and maybe take a sprig or two of basil, oregano and spearmint).

Try a greener item or idea that makes you a bit uncomfortable. You might find you like it. How do you know if you never try it? By extending your reach, you learn what you are capable of accomplishing as well as learning your limits. My colleague may have me beat in petroleum consumption with his constant bicycle usage, but I win in the nondisposable department (go cloth!)

Lest you think I left the frugal part behind--I bet you save money as well. See what trying something new will do for the planet and your bottom line.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Getting started is half the battle

When discussing my financial situation, I approach it in a slow and steady fashion. That is, create a spending plan, account for every penny, spend less than I earn, set goals for savings and fund these goals automatically. This is not a fancy method and you will not get rich quickly. However, years of living this way have given me a CD ladder, several savings accounts with specific goals in mind, enough money to cover all monthly, semi-annually or irregular bills, and a retirement fund however depleted with the current market in a downward trend.

How did I get here? I eliminated all credit card debt, paid my student loan and car loan in full, kept my car for years after being paid off, bought a home well within my budget and chose a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. This is boring to discuss, but again, no fancy methods, money manipulations or lifestyle envy. I made consistent, automatic contributions to my retirement funds and savings accounts. I paid all my bills on time missing only a few times in ten years. And I strictly followed a spending plan, ensuring I could spend without raiding my savings accounts.

Why am I telling you this? Because looking at where I am now, it all seems easy. However, getting started took some false starts and overcoming inertia. I got along just fine without automatic transfers from my checking account into my savings account. I did not save as much as I wanted, but I did not spend more than I earned. Then I made a commitment to buy a house, something that requires maintenance or replacement of items. And I had to make a downpayment on said house. Suddenly, letting money slip through my fingers just because I could spend it seemed like a poor plan. At this point, I decided to change my saving habits to include more strict adherence to my spending plan and removing "savings" as an item in my spending plan. Instead, I just starting setting up an automatic transfer from checking to savings.

Wow! That automatic transfer was a revelation! Suddenly, my savings account was growing faster than I could imagine and having a greater cushion for unexpected expenses seemed within reach. But to get started, I needed to do two things: 1) change my thinking and 2) do something about it. Both of these are easier to write or say than do. For example, I know that I have too much stuff in my house--too much clothing, too many books, CDs and DVDs, more stuff than I need in my day-to-day living. I know I need to sort through it and determine what stays and what goes. But it is easier to say "Oh, I need to do that" than to actually get off the sofa and do it. I have the best intentions, but still, nothing gets done.

However, when I do sort through it all (and I will!), having all that space back, having fewer items to clean or dust or maintain will give me more control over my life, lessen my burden and mean fewer things to pack and move in the future. I have learned my lesson with my finances but have yet to apply it to all parts of my life. I know I need to work on my health goals and sheer amount of stuff I live with. Progress always comes slowly so I will remind you do not look at what you have not done (e.g., the dishes); look at what you have accomplished (e.g., expanding the garden for the growing season). The positive feeling will help carry you through the challenges of getting started on that next project that seems insurmountable.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Unexpected effects from my no-spending challenge

When I initially planned my no-spending challenge, I was looking to save a little money toward my goals and learn to separate what I could do (e.g., go to the thrift store every weekend) from what I needed to do (e.g., buying food and seeds for growing food). Strangely enough, the effects of this self-imposed challenge are still felt even today.

For example, I needed furnace filters as I had just used the last one in February. One of my two local hardware stores was having a "20% off everything you can fit into the bag" sale with the caveat that I had to pay $1 for the reusable bag. I had been at the other hardware store using a $5 coupon, but was unable to buy furnace filters as they were out of my filter size. However, I noted the price of the filter. With the 20% discount, I could get the filters for over 75 cents less than the other store. So, I picked up four furnace filters. I found myself wandering around the store, looking at other possibilities to buy at 20%, but found myself either saying "I don't need that" or "I could make something like that". That was unexpected.

While I did end up with a year's supply of furnace filters and some mouse bait (I hate voles!), I did not walk out with more than I truly needed. While I had read that it takes a month to really change a habit, I had not realized that my no-spending challenge and the mentality it fostered would change how I behaved. I not only question more what I really need to buy but I also find myself spending less time in places I usually browse for items like the thrift store and craigslist. Getting out of the habit also seems to carryover from the challenge.

This no-spending exercise was not perfect. For example, I still enjoy going out to lunch with friends and feel less guilty now that it is allowed again. I also recently made a run to the grocery store for junk food--not a great use of time or resources. But I have learned where the give is in my budget, that I can live with less without compromising my health or my enjoyment of life. I have also stimulated my thinking, wondering if there is another way other than buying it. Yes, I have moved on to buying used rather than new, but can I make it myself or something similar enough to do the job? Using what I have on hand decreases the clutter and I need all the help I can get with that.

So I challenge you to do something differently for a month. You can pick any month and anything. For example, try using cloth towels and cloth napkins rather than paper products and see how that affects your life. Or you could cut your eating out allocation in half and see how creatively you can think about spending time with friends. Let me know what you did and how it went for you. I would be interested in learning how changing one thing affected you.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Is that spring I see?

In recent years, I have become inordinately excited over the smallest things like bulbs breaking ground and trees leafing out. Strangely enough, this coincided with my ownership of a house and changing the landscaping (and gardening) to suit my taste and interests. The little bits of greenery I thought I spotted at the end of February are now more than just little bits. My crocuses have bloomed and my tulips have leaves. As such, I feel the necessity to share such spring-like bounty with you:

Furthermore, I planted seeds a week ago and the basil, both varieties, are showing signs of life. I love seeing seeds germinating! My little four-shelf greenhouse is working as well as I had hoped even if I had to bring the pots with my seeds inside for a few days since nighttime temperatures were below freezing.

I am really excited about getting ready for gardening this year. My plans include planting more variety of fruits and vegetables. Last year, I planted onions, lettuce, peas, beans (green and dried), cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots and strawberries. I was able to harvest all but the carrots even if some harvests were paltry. This year, I am adding potatoes, corn, basil and oregano to my garden with a raised bed built for black raspberries. I am also considering planting some asparagus in the strip of land between my sidewalk and the road, but have not broken ground yet.

All this excitement about green things gets me in the mood for gardening and increased self-sufficiency. While my current gardening space does not bring me to food independence, each plant gives me flexibility in my food budget and brings me closer to my ideal. I know the plants were grown organically and I can learn what issues arise with growing said plant on a small scale. I learn how well or poorly I handle what to do with my produce, and I can experiment with canning and preserving to see which methods I prefer for each freshly picked vegetable. For example, I plan on growing some cucumbers to make pickles. I have never made pickles, but my family enjoys them. I can try making my own and giving them as gifts to family members.

I am prepared for failure even at this stage. Even though my basil seeds are germinating does not mean they will survive long enough to be planted outdoors. Learning to become more independent is not without its bumps in the road.

How are your gardening plans coming along?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Where did this money come from?

Well, my most recent paycheck had a solicited and unsolicited addition to my salary. The solicited one was a small bonus paid by my company. The unsolicited one was the federal government trying to get me to simulate the economy. The difficulty is trying to decipher how much was the bonus and how much was the stimulus money. This is important as the money from each source is designated for a different purpose.

As I have discussed before, the stimulus money would help fund my Roth IRA for 2009. This is an ongoing stimulus that decreases the amount of federal tax I am paying to encourage me to spend a bit more than I normally do. I hope my index mutual funds appreciate it.

The bonus money would be added to my car savings account and the leftovers added to either my found money account (likely for a future computer purchase) or my farm savings account. After some calculations comparing my most recent check with the previous, I came up with a number for my bonus and used that to pad my car and farm savings accounts. The remainder was the economic stimulus money and was added into the spreadsheet for my Roth IRA funds. The next paycheck should confirm whether my calculations were accurate or not.

Now, how my taxes will fare next year, that is another question. Have any American readers seen the effects of the Obama stimulus plan in your own paycheck?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Change is in the air and on the ground

Living in the upper Midwest of the United States as I do, winter is a part of life. I may whine and complain, but I do like the change of seasons, the cold and even the snow (as long as I don't have to drive in it or shovel it). This year, I have really been impatient for spring to take over from winter. There have been some days hinting at it, but the true measure are the tulips and crocuses breaking ground around my home. I thought I saw some green in a small raised bed on the south side of my home at the end of February, but last weekend, I took a closer look. Not only were the thin green leaves of crocuses popping up, but the tulips I planted in November 2007 and throughout 2008 were poking up from the ground. I cannot wait to see the plants burst into color and let me know that spring is truly on its way.

Part of my impatience for spring stems from wanting to get out in the garden. I love the smell of freshly turned earth in the early spring, the promise of growing things and the potential that all that gardening space has for growing my own food. My composter is beginning to revive, giving me more space to add to it. I have some tree branches and shrubs to prune and dead vegetation to remove and add to the compost pile. Plus I need to start some seeds so me, my finished compost, collected seedling trays, seed packets and a small, four-shelf greenhouse have an appointment for germination. Hopefully, I can grow my own and not kill them before they are ready for the outdoors.

Furthermore, I am eagerly awaiting my first outdoor clothes drying session of the year. The weather forecast for the weekend calls for 50 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny, great weather to be outside and drying laundry. I will take all the reduction in electricity use I can get. Soon enough, my dehumidifiers and central air conditioning will be increasing my kilowatt hours.

Are you eagerly awaiting the change in seasons?

Monday, March 2, 2009

An early bonus

My recent payroll check had a small surprise in it: my extra exemption came through. To be honest, I was surprised my withholding had already been adjusted as I submitted the paperwork only a week before the end of my pay period, but there it was--a little extra money. In the end, one extra exemption meant $22 more in my paycheck. I had estimated I would receive about $20 so I was pleased to see my estimate was close to reality.

As I discussed in my earlier post, I planned on using the extra money toward my Roth IRA. However, I chose to use only $21 per paycheck for a Roth IRA contribution. Based on my biweekly check and monthly contributions, this number worked out better than $20 or $22. The extra $2 per month is added to my farm account. As of writing this post, I had just changed my automatic index fund contributions to reflect the new contribution levels. Based on the number of checks I have remaining in this year, that means I contribute an extra $462 to my Roth IRA for 2009.

I am closer to fully funding my Roth IRA, which performed better than my 401(k) this month, without removing money from savings accounts. Getting closer to achieving one of the financial goals I set for myself is rewarding.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The end of the no-spending challenge

My no-spending challenge was not only a way to save a little extra money from my spending plan, but seeing how easy or difficult it was to spend less, especially in categories like eating out, miscellaneous (yes, I have such a category), personal care and clothing. Right now, I am looking at how much more I can save because I do have a job with a steady flow of money coming in. However, if the situation changes and money is no longer coming in, I know which categories are easier to target for elimination or immediate reduction, and how much lower my living expense can be. Shaving another $75 or $125 from living expenses will stretch my savings that much further. Limited finances are extra incentive to turn down the thermostat in winter, turn up the air conditioning in summer or see how long you go without turning on said appliances.

This month really challenged my thinking about what I needed to buy and what I could make for myself. Touting self-sufficiency and practicing are two different things. While many times it takes hearing a comment or reading a blog to open my mind to possibility of doing something differently, this challenge had a few self-generated moments of thinking creatively (e.g., making a catnip-stuffed toy for the cats).

In the end, I had $226 leftover in my spending plan. For many of the categories, the money was carried over to the next month (e.g., car insurance and cat care). The car insurance and registration is a known, regular expense while cat care is sporatic but necessary when the cats need supplies or to visit the vets.

Some of the leftover money was used to finance future goals. This included:
$53 to regular savings (some remaining from gas category for future hedge against gasoline prices and from unspent eating out category)
$23 to car savings (other half of leftover gas category plus some from miscellaneous allocation)
$8.26 to found money (from phone/DSL and miscellaneous allocations)
$4.78 to farm (change from gas category and grocery leftovers)

The total leftover money was $73 more than in January. Other than a lunch out with a friend I had not seen in months, I managed to keep expenses in necessary categories rather than fulfilling wants this past week. Furthermore, I did not overspend into the next month for any category so I start off March on a a good note. Still, I am looking forward to going to the thrift and hardware stores in the near future. The former I miss and the latter has a few things I need to buy (bolts, washers, nuts and furnace filters).