Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Striving for self-sufficiency: Not quite reality

Quiet garden

One thing I have learned by being a homeowner on the property I chose is as hard as I strive for self-sufficiency, I cannot quite make it in suburbia. Oh, I have made modest gains in supplying my own food, decreasing the amount of lawn, using rain water and decreasing my use of potable water, but I only occasionally eat homegrown food. I still rely heavily on grocery stores for the main share of my food.

And while I compost my food and yard waste, some spoiled food still makes it into the garbage bin. Plus I need to import composted horse manure to supply most of my compost needs in the garden. I still buy most of my seeds, buy the seed starting medium but am able to reuse items around the house for seed-starting containers. While I use all the leaves I can on my property, I still need more leaves to chop and use for mulch. This is where neighbor's piles come in handy. Both imports mentioned here (leaves and compost) are gained through hard work and minimum distance traveled, but still need to be brought onsite to accomplish what I need done.

I have planted all the trees on my property and unfortunately, none of them will be for food use. However, they were planted to shade the house and reduce cooling costs in the summer. As we are undergoing record heat in May where it feels more like July, this is definitely something I desire. Too bad the payoff is in the future, not the present, but the four additional trees will add value when I sell my property. The fifth one is too far away for shade, but does add beauty as it flowers in the spring. Another item reused extensively are the rocks I discovered as I dug all the holes for the trees. While the rocks jarred my arms as my shovel hit them, I have been able to line the bottom of potted plants, hold down newspaper, cardboard and straw, mark the location for succession planting and edge a foundation bed with the limestone. I have a modest suburban rock pile, but it has served me well.

However, I keep as much as I can onsite, only occasionally exporting items (rose bush and raspberry shrub trimmings with plans to rectify the situation this year) and importing vast quantities. However, I am decreasing my reliance on the conventional system for my needs by outsourcing to curb shopping, growing my own food, generating my own fertilizer (compost), using gray water and rain water, reusing items rather than choosing disposable ones, shopping secondhand and being frugal. All these actions align with my personal values. So while I still commute daily to a job in my gas-guzzling car and rely on this form of transportation over most others, I strive to make all I do at home count and slowly increase my self-sufficiency even if I know I cannot supply all my needs onsite.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Adding more to the retirement account

Strips of paper with IRA, 401K and Retirement inscriptions

In an earlier post, I talked about my salary increase. I realized two weeks later that I had not increased my 401(k) contribution. This was not a terrible thing, but with an increased paycheck comes the potential for increased taxes. Plus investing more in my retirement will likely benefit me in the future. Therefore, I increased my 401(k) contribution by 1% and saw a modest decrease in my take-home pay. With some changes to my automatic savings, I was able to cover the difference and build my retirement investment more quickly. Since this money comes out pretax, it does affect my final tax burden so I should see a modest reduction now as well as investing for the future.

Have you increased your retirement contributions?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

One friend's strategy: Open an IRA to reduce taxes

Crossword puzzle and pencil

My taxes and I get along quite well, usually getting a refund back more than having to pay to the government. (I do try not to get refunds, but so far, not quite there.) However, not everyone is so lucky. One of my friends found that when she figured her taxes for 2009 that she owed more than she wanted. Of course, she had waited until April 10 to calculate what she owed the various governments (she and her husband work in two different states). Currently, she and her husband rent, have one child and are resident aliens. However, when she calculated what they owed, she was not pleased with the total. In fact, she told me she was opening a traditional IRA to reduce her tax burden.

I can only speak in general terms because I do not know how much she owed or how much her tax bill was reduced by opening and contributing to an IRA. However, she reduced it enough that the refund from the state covered what she owed to the federal government with a small amount left over. I have not gotten to this point, but I know this is one strategy to reduce tax burdens rather quickly especially as in my friend's case, taxes are not figured until the last minute. This may be why people can contribute to a Roth or traditional IRA until April 15.

Our tax situations are different. I am single, have a house with a mortgage interest to deduct, contribute to charity and to my 401(k). She is married with a child, rents her home and contributes to her 401(k). To further reduce her taxes, she plans on continuing to contribute to the traditional IRA and possibly opening a 529 for her child.

Is contributing to an IRA a tax-reduction strategy you could use?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Frugal tip: Start a coupon club

Scissors and coupons

Two of my colleagues and I discuss coupons and grocery sales, noting how much we save combining the two at least once a week. From our talks, I have learned my two colleagues have easily saved more than they spent when using coupons. When I mentioned to one of them that every time I visit my mom, I sort through her coupons to find ones I could use, she said "Hey, I can bring my coupon circulars here if you want to look through them." I readily agreed and the departmental coupon club was born.

What is the coupon club? Those who receive the Sunday paper bring in the coupon circulars and offer it to others to look through. In our club, these coupons sit on top of a cabinet centrally located in my department and anyone is welcome to look through and clip coupons. At the end of the week, the coupons are recycled and Monday brings a fresh infusion. It is a kindness for those like me who do not get a Sunday paper and gives access to a second coupon for an item if available from the other person. For example, I saved $8 on my contact lens solution because the flyer had coupons for the brand I used. I made sure to thank my colleagues for bringing in their coupons so I could save such a significant amount.

How do you start a coupon club? Find like-minded individuals willing to bring in their flyers to share. Ask around at work, consult with neighbors or friends to suggest pooling resources and getting the most out of the coupon flyers. Our club mainly consists of three people and only two contribute flyers. The arrangement is casual and seems to work without conflict. Your club can be similar or even involve a social environment (e.g., a lunch with friends and coupon exchanging). Not everyone is going to use the same coupons and it maximizes everyone's savings at the store.

Will you start a coupon club?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The life of a scavenging gardener

White Impatiens

Much of my attention currently is focused on my garden. I am happily harvesting asparagus from my patch between the sidewalk and street, eyeing up the healthy rhubarb plants and looking forward to my first black raspberry harvest. I am also planting annual crops, figuring out among all my gardening spots where to put all the seeds I want to sow or plants I have started. I am also looking to fill in the native plants in the garden at the front of my house.

What do I mean by scavenging? Much of my recent venture was determined by craigslist. Because I had a rectangular recycling bin that was no longer needed for recycling, I wondered what to do with it. I had the brilliant idea to use it as a big planting pot as it had four holes in the bottom that would work for drainage. Also, I use five-quart ice cream buckets in various capacities around the house, but there gets to be a point where they are no longer fit for hauling stuff to the compost bin. Well, I have wanted to dress up the step to my front door. What if I use the ice cream buckets to plant annuals like impatiens? Plus I just used up paint in a metal can. That would work too! And hey, I could dress up the plastic and metal with some spray paint.

I found someone giving away garden soil on craigslist. All I needed to do was provide my own method of hauling said soil. So armed with my trusty shovel, two five-gallon buckets and two thick plastic bags that previously held either mulch or cat litter, I made my way to the person's home. As if digging and moving dirt was not work enough, his house was on a hillside so I had the challenge of hauling bags and buckets up an incline. This dirt haul was complemented by $1 per plant bee balm another person was selling off craigslist on the honor system. I chose two and stashed them in my car for later as I was getting plants and dirt over the lunch hour.

I also share a company-sponsored garden plot with three other people and wanted to get my sweet corn in the ground. However, I had forgotten my nitrogen-rich dried blood. Because I had access to two coffee pots and the leftover coffee grounds, another source of nitrogen, I decided to use the available two filters of coffee grounds. I mixed it with the composted horse manure (hauled for free a couple weeks ago) and planted four hills of corn in the garden plot after work. This was a good choice as rain started overnight.

When I finally reached my home, I layered my free dirt with composted horse manure in the recycling bin, the holes covered with rocks from around my house, likely uncovered when digging holes for my trees. I planted the last set of my onion plants and watered well. Finally, I dug two holes for my new bee balm plants and installed them with a boost of compost. I did encounter lava rock, a legacy mulch from a previous owner. These I plan on lining the bottom of my ice cream buckets once painted.

I still have dirt left from my haul, but less than I desire. With a bit more time, my scavenged dirt, inexpensive plants and repurposed materials will yield more food for me and more beauty for my home.

What will you reuse or repurpose in the garden?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A new perspective on changed behavior

Teenage girl (16-18) shopping for clothing in thrift store

Sometimes I do not realize how much I have altered my behaviors until someone asks a simple question. Recently, I was enjoying lunch with a friend and she asked me where I shop for clothing. Only a few years ago, I would occasionally go shopping with her, usually to the outlet mall. In reply, I shrugged and said the thrift store was my main shopping venue.

Note, I have never really enjoyed going to the mall and as much as I liked some of the offerings of the outlet mall, I had to drive over 30 minutes on the interstate to get there. Driving places just for shopping has never been my idea of fun. Instead, I make once weekly trips to the thrift store and am surprised at what I find. It is a treasure hunt and an exercise in patience because finding what I want and need can take weeks or even months, or I can find something I know would work well with my plans. Oddly enough, I enjoy discovering a new item or finding something I have searched for.

Buying secondhand hits two of my values: living frugally and lessening my consumption footprint. I surprised my friend with my answer but the truth is in my spending plan: I can afford most things I want or need on $20 a month and usually carry over sums to the next month. I am affordably dressed, few people know I have purchased secondhand unless I tell them and I like tallying up the number of pieces of an outfit I am wearing is from the thrift shop or garage sale. My pride and accomplishment in this feat only encourages me to find other ways of acquiring items with fewer effects on my spending and increase my sustainability.

What have you done differently?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Did you celebrate Earth Day?

Food in grocery bag

I got up on April 22, the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, and began my normal routine. I used the bathroom, practicing "if it is yellow, let it mellow" philosophy and using cloth wipes. I checked some of my favorite internet sites (e.g., my Google account), had some breakfast and took my shower, shutting off the water in between rinsing. I used some of my remaining rain water from Autumn 2009 to water my vegetable seedlings in their repurposed containers, and placed the seedlings in my greenhouse purchased used from craigslist. I brought my lunch with me (leftover dinner from two nights ago) and a treat for my work colleagues (organic corn tortilla chips with homemade taco dip; components were in reused plastic containers).

While I did not explicitly celebrate Earth Day, I continued to practice what aligns with my personal values: reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle. Yes, I still use cloth handkerchiefs, collect items on a neighbor's curb, get composted horse manure for free from a nearby farm and take care of my car so it runs as long as possible before I need to replace it. All these things I happened to do on Earth Day. The composted horse manure enables me to increase the tilth of my soil so I am better able to grow food on my suburban property. The items I recruited from the curb will go for other household projects including storing chopped leaves in the fall. I took my car in for its semiannual checkup and found there was something to be concerned about but will not immediately affect the use of my car. This enables me to save longer for my next vehicle and broaden my choices when I did need to buy a newer car. All these things I would have done normally but happened to take place on Earth Day.

Everyone has a list of several ways to celebrate Earth Day. I just look at the individual choices I make every day and what more sustainable activities I have incorporated into my life. Green living is more than a day-long event. It is a lifestyle, considered choices in what is purchased, how it is made and what is really needed. If we made just two thoughtful choices a day (no, I don't need a bag; I brought my own and hey, do I really need that overpackaged, processed food?), this would build a foundation to greener and more considerate living for all of us.

What did you do differently on Earth Day?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Managing the food stocks

Canned Asparagus

Not only do I strive to be frugal in spending money and maximizing my savings, but I also make sure that the inability to access the grocery store is a minor inconvenience rather than a catastrophic event. Over time, I have stockpiled various foodstuffs in my pantry and my freezer, making sure I have an array of items that can be used in the course of creating meals or dealing with emergencies (e.g., storm knocks out power and disrupts travel). I keep potable water in gallon jugs in my basement, canned and dry goods in the pantry, perishable items in the chest freezer, at least two weeks worth of food for the cat, and a variety of items for personal hygiene, cooking and other uses.

However, the all these items need to be managed. Most canned and dry goods have an expiration date on them to indicate when to use them and items in the freezer do not keep forever. In fact, frozen food does lose its flavor over time. Thus, at least twice a year, I sort though my pantry and my freezer to ensure I am rotating out the older items and reassessing how much space I have for new items. Past due frozen items I make sure I use within a few weeks. Canned and dry goods, if unopened and within two months of expiring, are added to the pantry donation pile. This way, the food goes to someone who can use it and I use up the older frozen foodstuffs before the new.

I encourage you to check your pantry and see what you are using and what you might want to donate to the food pantry. And if something is still good and you are no longer interested in eating it, add that to the pile as well. Keeping your food stores stocked with items you will use and are likely to eat is more helpful than having that can of beans just because you feel you should use it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Trying to keep up

RIght now is the time several homeowner projects are demanding my time. I love my rain barrels, but before I could install them, I needed to paint the siding they block when in place. Why? The exterior paint was cracking and to keep my home in good shape for the future, I needed to scrape off the loose paint, prime the surface and then put on two coats of paint. Each time I went outside, that was 30 minutes invested in painting, not including set up, ensuring all the tools were there and mixing the primer and paint. Luckily, the weather cooperated so painting done in two days.

Then the rain barrels needed to be installed. No rain is predicted for the next two days, but my area is dry and I will need all the reserve supply I can get for my garden. However, I had not cleaned the gutters and organic debris in the rain water collection barrels is not a good thing. My elderly neighbor was kind enough to loan me his ladder so I carefully made my way up and down to remove the leaves and debris from my gutters. A quick rinse with the hose and I am ready for rain to arrive.

Of course, being spring, I have several seedlings in the greenhouse, garden beds to prepare and sown peas peaking through the soil. The tender greens mean I need to protect them from dastardly rabbits who enjoy seedlings as snacks. So after some grassy trimming and some moved fencing, I had successfully enclosed the garden bed.

All this work I have done demonstrated I was prepared for all the tasks I needed to perform. Since I had previously painted the exterior of my home, I had enough painting supplies to apply any primer or paint needed. I also had a gallon and a quarter of paint expressly for repainting the exterior because I need to maintain my home's wood siding. Thus, I just needed to retrieve the items from my basement and I was in the painting business. The rain barrels were washed last fall and stored in my garage. It was an easy task to switch the diverter on my downspout to active and hook up my rain barrels.

As for protecting my gardens, because there were plants last year I needed to protect that this year are more mature, I had enough fencing and posts to cover my newly planted peas by cannibalizing what I had. Having all the supplies I needed on hand (with additional items on hand) and a kind neighbor, I was able to just tell myself "get started on this task today" and the project was accomplished.

Now I just need more composted horse manure and some time before the rain and I will plant more of my garden!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Psst! Do you want to buy something else?

Shopping bags on store counter, close-up

Recently, I made a combination trip to the grocery story, the pharmacy and the vet office to pick up some needed items. I hit the grocery store first and since my list was short and I prefer go in, get what I need and leave, I was done in a few minutes. However, the pharmacy was not open yet so I recalled my previous hunt for an item at the hardware store ended with me empty handed and a suggestion to visit Wal-mart. Now, I am not a fan for many reasons and don't typically enter the store. In fact, my last trip there was the first in two years.

This trip was an unwarranted one--I had not planned on going--and an eye-opening one. Because I was only looking for one item and wanting to kill some time, I found myself realizing the bright colors, the presentations, everything was encouraging me to pick up more items--because they were pretty and not that expensive. I was taken aback at just how blatant the consumerist lifestyle was. Wandering in the cleaning aisle was overwhelming. As I make my own detergent and use baking soda and vinegar, the bright packaging seemed garish to my naive eyes. I realize now because the Wal-mart store was lit so much brighter than my grocery store, all the colors seemed more vivid and eye catching. Not to say I did not succumb to the siren call to spend. I came away from the store with one item I needed (more 5W-30 for my car), something I could use if not the most eco friendly (a refill on my lint remover) and one item I did not need but decided to buy anyway (a pack of three canvas bags I could use to make gift bags). And unfortunately, not the item I was looking for in the first place.

Because I confine most of my spending to the second hand store, I did not realize how retail stores that sell new stuff are really trying to sell their stock. Because I still watch television and do feel some influence of the advertising even if I generally react with skepticism, I had forgotten about the direct sell in the stores themselves. Yes, I am aware of the way grocery stores leverage their space to encourage spontaneous purchases. I know I am not perfect, but a list really helps keep me from impulse purchases. Plus, I am only focused on finding the items I want instead of what else there is available to purchase.

So confronted by the reality of American consumerism, I could only ask myself if I really needed this item in hand? The engine oil--yes. The lint roller--no, but my current one was only out and this was a refill, something I had not purchased in over five years. The three canvas bags--no, but $1 per bag was cheap and I had decorative items at home to personalize them and give them as gifts to nieces or nephews. Plus I was reminded I could make bags as gifts for others with all the fabric I have.

So be wary when you enter any store. A retail shop does want to part you from your money and once inside, you are subject to their displays until you leave. Wal-mart received three times the amount of money than I should have spent and that was only in the fifteen minutes I was there. They did their job well and I learned I need to work harder at resisting the sales pitch.

How much do you overspend in any store you enter?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Three ways to cut the cost of groceries without coupons

Detail view of supermarket shelves

Saving money on grocery shopping seems to be a popular topic on search engines. Many people seem to find themselves at my site because I discuss going to the grocery store once a month and I happen to be single. With all the other costs in my life (cat has a prescription diet and a chronic condition, a mortgage and associated utilities cost, etc.), saving some money on food and keeping my grocery spending allocation the same is a challenge.

Regardless, I have stuck with my tried and true method of creating a grocery list and putting the items in the order in which I shop (minimize backtracking in the store) and using my calculator to see how the numbers look (giving me feedback on whether I am overspending or no). While meal planning is not as important, I do keep in mind what I enjoy eating as I make up my list prior to the once monthly grocery trip.

For many people, price points are important when figuring out where and how to shop for groceries. With that in mind, I have some tips for those looking to pinch those pennies:

Club memberships: If bulk buying suits your needs (i.e., something you use often, have room to store it and will use it before it spoils), consider sharing a membership to Costco or Sam's Club. To find out if either option will fit your shopping needs, get a trial membership or ask if someone has a membership and would allow you to join them one day. I really only want a few items in larger quantities so purchasing a year-long membership seems unnecessary. Finding a friend who has a membership and asking to use their card once or twice a year, or sharing a membership cost with a family member or colleague is less expensive than purchasing one alone.

A calculator is handy to make sure you are getting a better deal than in your usual grocery store. This is where a trial membershop or trip with a friend is useful--for calculating the unit costs and determining if the membership gives a better bargain. Again, you need room to keep all the food or bulk items and then use them in a timely fashion so nothing spoils, thus eliminating the savings in the bulk purchase.

Food buying clubs: Recently, I have learned there is the Angel Food Ministries option in my area. While I am still debating whether I truly want to purchase some of my food from them, it seems like a nice assortment of items. Again, much of the food is processed and seems heavily packaged from the description, not the greenest items. However, there are fresh produce options, something I would consider buying. There is a minimum purchase amount but if these are items you normally buy, this food buying club may save you some money--if there is room in your refrigerator and freezer for all the items.

There are other more state-centric food buying clubs. One in my state has a pickup just a few blocks away at a church and offers organic and fresh produce options as well. Local clubs may also feature more local produce and food items, a way to support local farmers and save some money.

Food transportation and delivery: This is a combination option. That is, you offer to help an elderly or disabled neighbor by shopping for his or her food and then charge a small fee to do so. Since you were going to the grocery store anyway, you are not using more gasoline, the intended recipient is your neighbor so little additional cost in gasoline there and you just need to spend a little more time finding the neighbor's items as well as your own. A modest fee for convenience would counteract some of the total on your grocery bill and you help out someone else at the same time.

Alternatively, you could offer a rideshare with a neighbor that has no car, and for a little gas money, get some company and a helping hand for unloading groceries. Again, a small fee discussed between parties could decrease your grocery spending each month and give someone the opportunity to shop for more than the few things he or she can carry by hand or on a bus, resulting in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Will you try one of these strategies?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How to learn a new skill

Person cutting fabric near sewing equipment

I am someone who enjoys challenging herself, to take on something new and see how it works, both for my lifestyle choices and if I enjoy it. Only a few years ago, gardening encompassed getting more trees planted and putting in some perennials around my foundation. Now I grow some of my food and preserve them. Deciding to try a u-pick strawberry farm encouraged me to make my own freezer jam with all the berries I brought home. I only have limited freezer space so I soon learn how to can my jams and other preserves in a hot-water bath canner. I needed a bookshelf to fit a certain space in my bedroom and could not find one that fit my requirements. So, I made one myself with adjustable shelves and stained and varnished it to my liking. All of these are new skills I acquired were fueled by interest and curiosity. However, one needs a bit more than that to tackle most projects. Here are a few ways to expand your skill set and become more self-sufficient:

Take a class. I have been using this method for decades. I learned sewing in high school, a course taken during summer school. However, I was taught quilting from continuing education class ten years later. For many people, a more structured environment like a classroom is a great way to learn a new skill. Classes are more social than other learning methods and feedback from an instructor can really help you. Having someone critique my fabric choices for my quilting project gave me a better eye the next time I bought fabric.

Read a book. For those who like to do things at her own pace, a book is a great way to read and absorb information. Drawings and illustrations are quite useful in learning new skills and many books are available for different levels of skill and interest. You might not want to build a bookshelf, but maybe a bird feeder or small table is more your style. And as you progress with your learning and enjoy the experience, you have find more challenging projects to try. Libraries are a great resource for checking out a book and seeing if there is something you want to try.

Ask a friend, family member or neighbor. There is always something to learn from someone else. My niece is learning how to crochet from her grandmother, I learned how to sort and do laundry from my mother and one of my coworkers learned how to knit from another friend. Most people enjoy sharing their skills so ask if he or she knows how to do something you are interested in. You enjoy some time with them or get to know them better and add to your skill set. That is a win-win situation!

Join a group. I know of knitting, quilting and sewing circles, places to play games and book clubs for reading a variety of genres. These can be private groups or sponsored by a library or retail shop. Many welcome beginners or offer instruction on the subject. Check your local paper or ask if there is a group others know about that may serve your needs. Plus, this adds some social interaction and is less structured than a class.

Research online. If you have access to the internet, explore away. However, be cautious with the information you find. Anyone can post anything and be sure to sort out if the information and source are credible. This method is another way to learn at your own pace and to find something that offers you the best learning style. YouTube has a host of video instructions, great for visual learners while others might want a static web page or a podcast for better understanding. I read how to plant a tree on the Web and have five successfully growing trees to show for it.

Just do it. There is something to be said for just diving in and trying it. Presumably, you have some idea of how your desired item is created or performed and you have the right tools. There is likely more trial and error involved with this method of learning, but I understand some find action preferable to reading or watching someone else. Although I did read about composting when I purchased my compost bin, just do it applied to throwing in biodegradable items, and my organic material did decompose. And planting my rhubarb three weeks after digging it out of ground from another location was a experiment that was successful through no intention of my own.

Will you be learning a new skill this year?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How important is the right manager for job satisfaction?

Business people in a meeting

My various work experiences have shown me there is a wide variety of supervisors and managers. The right one can make or break your workplace. At one job, the manager was fine for the most part and I got along well with her. However, if there was something that threw her off balance, her reaction was to reprimand everyone, making the people around her as unhappy as she was. Another supervisor was a great person for training and supporting a new addition to the department and ensured I was competent in my job. However, when I was looking for challenges, he had trouble fostering new skills that did not directly benefit him and the department. As a result, I felt confined and bored, and decided to seek another position.

During my schooling, my graduate advisor was a very hands off professor. At first, this did not seem to be a problem because there were other people in lab I could ask, but as I progressed in my career, being unable to pin him down contributed to my dissatisfaction with graduate school. This experience was in complete contrast to my previous university advisor who had an open door policy and was happy to answer my questions at any time, no matter how large or small. Furthermore, he was also willing to acknowledge what he did not know and encouraged me to find answers elsewhere.

In my current position, I have found a rare supervisor. When I interviewed for the department, every person I talked to who worked for my future manager had nothing but positive things to say about her. If that is not testament enough, the position I was interviewing for was the first open in the department in three years, a low turnover rate for the entire company. In fact, I am still the newest person and I have been part of the department for five years. I have experienced the powers of a good boss for myself and I am thrilled to find what I have desired. My supervisor is a great advocate for our department and each person in the department. She offers us the opportunity to learn new skills and encourages us to set personal development goals. She suggests new possibilities or offers new opportunities, is approachable and even works right alongside everyone she supervises. In fact, she even takes on some of the worst projects to let the rest of us take care of other business, and she gave me a promotion without me having to advocate it. Yes, she recognizes people and is generous when she does so.

Why am I singing the praises of my boss? Because it makes a tremendous difference for job satisfaction. There are days when going to work is harder than others, but I have been in my department for five years, the longest I have been in any location ever. A good supervisor who values her employees is an asset and makes working for someone else a more positive experience.

How do you get yourself a great boss if you don't have one? If you are interviewing for a position, ask lots of questions about the manager's style. Keep in mind what you want in a boss and lacking that, what you don't want in a boss. I knew I did not like micromanagers, people who did not encourage me or who were inaccessible prior to my current position. A few example questions that might get at what you might expect from your potential supervisor:
  • How would you describe your manager's style?

  • Do you feel appreciated in your position?

  • If you ran into trouble with someone in another department, would your supervisor back you up?

  • Please give me examples of how your manager helped you develop new skills on the job.

Some people can cope better with poor managers than I can. However, I find that is does affect how happy I am in a particular position. For me, I need someone who is going to be encouraging, accessible and pushes me to do better. Since a supervisor has power over me, I feel better with someone that will be an advocate rather than leaving me alone or even harming my position.

How do you feel about your supervisor?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Keeping your life in balance with your values

Stack of stones

Each of us knows what is important to us. Whether it be our relationship with family and friends, getting out of debt, saving for the future, starting our own business or giving back to the community, it is something we each value and work at achieving. For me, it is saving for my goals and living a greener life. These are large goals and encompass many small steps.

I find myself focusing on the little things I can do every day to better align my lifestyle to my personal values. That means I create a spending plan each month, automate my savings, keep track of every purchase, consider whether I could either make it or fix it myself, and assess my net worth every month. When how I live my life is in harmony with my personal values, I am more positive and I want to strive to do better. When I am out of alignment, I am unhappy, short with others and resort to poor behaviors: spending more money on conveniences, letting the household maintenance fall by the wayside and spending too much time in escapist activities that only delay the inevitable. I have to deal with my problems.

Unfortunately, when there is dissonance, a gap between your values and how you live your life, it disrupts everything. For example, I am usually frugal and prudent with my money, but find myself spending more money eating out because it is just easier to go to lunch with a friend than eat what I have on hand. It seems easier to pick up some junk food and eat that than take the time to do the dishes that have been piling up and actually make a dinner. My patience disappears and everything my cat does irritates me and my colleagues seem to offend me a lot easier than normal. I lose my emotional and fiscal equilibrium where I make good decisions rather than abdicating for convenience and emotional displays more reminiscent of a cranky child than an adult.

How to restore balance? I find writing down my thoughts, asking myself what is going to be useful. Whatever is bothering eventually makes itself obvious and then I can consider rectifying the situation. For my issue, I realized I not only needed to catchup on my dishes, but also plan meals better. I have neglected to have a list of meals I can prepare and rely on the moment. That encourages me to make poorer choices. Therefore, if I know what I was planning on making this month, I am less likely to get off the plan. And clean dishes make sure I have all my cooking items on hand for whatever I choose to make. With a strategy, I am able to overcome the dissonance and keep closer alignment to my desired lifestyle.

Will you consider how to improve your life and alignment to your values?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Keeping financial goals

High angle view of a piggy bank on American bank notes

Since I have started this blog, writing down my goals for the coming year has become increasingly important. For one, I have a place where I can reread what I am focusing on. Two, detailing the goals for someone more than myself is extra motivation to keep on task. This year is no exception and here is my progress:

1. Fully fund my 2010 Roth IRA ($5,000) in a calendar year.
Accomplished! I funded the balance not covered by my automatic monthly contributions using 2009 tax refund. Assuming I keep making my contributions, my Roth IRA will be maxed out by December 31, 2010.

2. Save $3,000 for purchase of a newer vehicle.
Going into 2010, I thought this was a stretch goal and my savings account reflected I was not track to reach the goal. However, my merit increase + promotion increase has increased the amount of my automatic transfers plus there are two more "extra" pay periods this year so I have hope I can reach this number.

3. Have $2,000 in my farm savings account at the end of 2010.
As with my car savings, I was pushing myself to make this number. However, this looks to be within reach now that I have a larger paycheck from which to save money. Depending on how it goes this year, I might increase this goal.

4. Save $700 by the end of August 2010 for a potential vacation.
This goal was on track from the beginning of the year as it was based on what I had been saving. Since I have now committed to the trip, I plan to keep on my budget.

I am also hoping to turn my furnace off permanently on April 15, but weather determines if this is a realistic goal. Despite a run of unseasonably warm weather, my region was also hit by colder weather that resulted in my house becoming cooler than 54 degrees Farenheit, an uncomfortable level for me. Therefore, after having turned off my furnace for a week, I resorted to turning it back on.

What progress have you made on your goals?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Are you prepared for a companion animal?

Paws of Cat

Pets are expensive. When I lost one cat to illness, leaving me with one 16-year-old cat in early stage kidney disease, I saw my food, water and litter expenses nearly cut in half. However, the veterinarian visits remain about the same as I need to monitor how quickly the kidney disease is progressing. Having a robust emergency fund is helpful when your pet is sick as debating cost of treatment versus current resources is a difficult choice when you would rather consider is the treatment going to add to your companion's quality of life?

Here are a few strategies for keeping pet costs from sinking your spending plan:

Put pet costs as a line item in your budget. I quickly noticed that without a category for "Cat care", I easily blew my budget when I had to purchase anything for my cats. When I did put in a category, I found that costs were less troublesome to manage and I was less stressed about that large purchase of cat litter or treat of canned food. Make sure veterinary visits are covered. Hopefully, your pet is in good health and visits will be no more than once a year. Add a little extra to the spending plan for chronic diseases or unexpected illness. This amount will need to be adjusted if there is prescription food or medication is required for continued health.

Start a savings fund. If I had any money left from my "Cat care" category, I put it in a savings account. This would help with the vet costs or if anything changed in the pet's treatment. My cats have undergone teeth cleaning, surgery, antibiotic treatment, overnight visits to the vet and various diagnostic tests. These costs really add up, another argument for funding a pet expense fund or reinforcing your emergency fund. I have raided my emergency fund more than a few times due to cats visiting the vet, undergoing a battery of tests and dealing with the diagnosis. Save more than you think you will need. Depending on where you are, pet treatment can get very expensive.

If you are in the "considering a pet" stage, start saving now so you have a cushion when you select your companion animal as expenses can quickly add up.

Keep fewer or smaller animals. I could afford two cats without too much trouble, but it was definitely harder in graduate school when I less income. However, there is a big difference between one and two cats when it came to expenses. I have had a rat, several lizards and fish in previous years. All of these animals were less expensive to keep than my furry felines and rewarding companions in very different ways.

Make sure the animal is right for your lifestyle. A cat is a better choice for someone who is not home during the day rather than a dog that needs regular attention, letting outside and walking. A smaller animal requires less time for cleaning and caring than a large one. Be sure the animal suits your interests and time commitment.

And finally, a piece of advice:

Commit fully to taking care of your companion animal. By taking in an animal, you are committing to his or her well-being. Are you ready to see your pet through to the end of her life? Aging animals become more expensive and can develop chronic, expensive illnesses. There may come a time you will have to consider euthanasia. Becoming the caretaker of any living creature is a great responsibility. Make sure you are ready, both emotionally and fiscally, for all that is involved in dealing with your animal companion.

Knowing how expensive my cats can be, I am still glad I was able to care for them. Both have given me unconditional love and I am committed to being with them for their entire life's journey. As with everything in life: hope for the best, prepare for the worst and love your life's companions whatever form he or she takes.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The voting booth and your finances

Man standing behind curtain in booth, low section

One area I believe people do not consider when evaluating their financial situation is their performance in the voting booth. I worked as an election inspector on April 6 and my city faced several races and two referenda. The most obvious effect on my tax burden was a referendum that would exceed the state's tax levy for funding the city's schools. This would mean for the next four years, my property taxes would definitely increase, with the fourth and final year seeing a $275 fee added to my tax bill. Personally, I voted no on the resolution, but the entire voting community ended up passing the measure. Thus, I know my property tax bill will be increasing by more than I have seen the past few years. Better save more money.

A less direct but certainly important effect of voting is the selection of local alderpeople, mayors and county or regional board members (terms used in the United States). I have witnessed the turnout experienced during a Presidential election and that is wonderful. However, the most direct effect of your vote can be seen locally not nationally. If you vote for a fiscally conservative or growth-oriented mayor or alderperson, that will affect your finances. If you do not vote, you do not have a voice in the democracy. While I am glad there was over 55% turnout in my voting ward on April 6, I still wonder where the nearly 45% of the rest were.

Remember, local council and board members of all stripes and mayors live and work in your community. They answer to you and are there to listen to your comments and represent you in government. Exercise your right as a citizen and make sure to vote every time there is an election. These elected representatives determine how the city/town/village spends your tax dollars and how much they want to levy you each year. It is difficult to support or defeat a measure without all the voices in a community, and harder to control your finances without voting in elections and holding your representatives accountable.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Why I use cash

American Money

I carry a debit card and a rewards credit card in my wallet along with cash in a variety of denominations. Depending on where I intend on shopping determines when I spend cash. For example, when I go out to eat, I use cash, but visiting my hair stylist or the gas pump means I use the credit card. Cash gives me flexibility. If I am eating with someone and we want to split the bill, I can just pay my friend in cash while she charges the full bill to her card because she lacks the cash to pay her portion. I prefer to use cash at the thrift shop because my money is going for charity and I do not want to add fees to their bottom line. Each time a credit card is used, a transaction fee is charged to the vendor.

Cash makes it easy to bargain at garage sales. Typically, I have a $20 bill, a $10 bill, a $5 bill and 4-5 singles in my wallet. If I plan on hitting several garage sales, my wallet has a few more $5 bills and singles. If I ask the person whether in person at a garage sale or virtually via craigslist to knock off a few dollars or $10, it behooves me to have exact cash and not ask for change. Carrying cash and using it for purchases applies more universally than credit cards. Most farmer's markets run on cash and people casually selling things at work want cash, not plastic or a check. I also keep an extra $20 in my purse as a just-in-case resource. I have only used it once since I started carrying it almost two years ago.

While I use cash for about 25% of my transactions, I don't typically visit my credit union to withdraw money. I access cash using my debit card at an ATM. However, the ATM I visit only dispenses $20 bills. Therefore, I usually break any $20s I acquire when I spend it at restaurants and the thrift shop. As a result, I usually have more bills on hand at home that ensures I have the correct array of denominations in my wallet for whatever occasion I need them.

A recent example why having a range of cash denominations is helpful applies to the propane grill my dad received as a birthday gift. While my share of the grill itself was $40, the propane tank had to be purchased separately. Because I had $5 bill in my wallet, I could give my brother additional money to cover a share the unexpected expense. As I mentioned earlier, I have flexibility and control when I carry cash with me. Plus, keeping some cash on hand at home means I don't have to hit the ATM every week just get some cash to spend.

My question to you: How do you use cash?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Check out the All Things Eco Blog Carnival

The lovely Stephanie at FocusOrganic.com was kind enough to select my post Gardening the Scavenger's Way for the All Things Eco carnival Volume 96. Check out the rest of the entries that discuss green living topics from alternative energy to transportation.

Handling a surprise expense

Plate of tomatoes and lettuce and hamburger

This year, my father's birthday happened to arrive the same weekend as Easter. I had planned on giving him a humorous card with two bars of dark chocolate with almonds, a favorite of his. However, my brother called five days before our dad's birthday and asked me to contribute toward giving Dad a gas grill for his 60th birthday. As one of five children, my share would come to $40. I was taken aback at the expense to which my brother informed me earlier he was looking at $60 per person. After querying if Dad wanted a gas grill (yes, he's admired my brothers' setups), would the propane tank be filled and ready to go (not sure, will check into it), I checked my gift giving allocation.

The reason I was uncertain about the gift was twofold. One, I prefer to be warned more than a few days beforehand of an expense so I could save for the item than raid my savings account. Two, I wanted to keep my hard-earned money in my savings account. Luckily, after checking my budget, I had more than enough to cover the $40 in my gift spending category. This was a relief and demonstrated the necessity of having a gift-giving allocation and for spending less than I needed to. Because many previous gifts had been handmade or purchased secondhand, I had not spent the full amount allotted for gifts every month. The leftover money accumulated over time and allowed me to easily afford a share of a gift I had no idea I would be giving my dad.

My dad liked his new propane grill and my brother took care of all the hard work of purchasing, assembling the grill and transporting it to our parent's home. It all worked out (my brother did not have to resort to guilt trips to "encourage" me to contribute) and I was able to keep my savings account intact; a winning situation all around.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Happy Easter!

Chocolate Easter bunny facing in grass, side view, close-up

I will be celebrating family tomorrow as we all gather at my parent's home for Easter lunch. Hopefully, you have some time to celebrate as you wish. Frugal tip: Easter candy is on sale right after the holiday if you like to indulge your need for chocolate and other sweets. Enjoy Easter if you celebrate and have a lovely weekend.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A gal's fun comes to an end

Butler v Kansas State

As hopeful as I sounded last week, my NCAA bracket hopes were thwarted shortly after my posting. Kansas State lost their match to Butler; therefore, I lost any potential gain from the pool. Of course, when the rankings of participant selections came out, I was still in the middle of the pack of 52 with no chance to catapult to one of the top three positions. I played the "select the bracket winners" game just to have a bit of fun and succeeded with that goal. All it means is next year is a fresh opportunity to try my luck again.

How did you do with your bracket choices?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Figuring out what to do with a salary increase

Thinkstock Single Image Set

I am quite meticulous about planning what to do with future money. Everything from small bonuses to merit increases are carefully assessed to figure out what best aligns with my financial goals, whether to spend or save. However, there is planning and there is something that blows all projected plans to heck.

Yesterday, I was notified that not only did I receive an annual merit increase but an unexpected promotion as well. Notably, this position change came a further salary increase. Since I was not expecting to be promoted,I was unprepared for the change in my salary. Prior to my notification, I worked on a number of scenarios to figure out how much I could add to my various savings accounts if I received anywhere from 2%-4% increase. (In fact, I felt the high number was too optimistic.) All told, I received a nearly 10% increase in my salary. Therefore, I have some work to do on figuring out how to distribute my new salary.

My first priority was restoring the level of automatic transfers to my various savings accounts (emergency, house and car). This year, we are on a 27 paycheck cycle (rather than the normal 26) that reduced the amount of the individual paycheck but totaled the same salary as a 26 pay periods. The first place I compromised was how much I added to my savings accounts rather than changing my spending levels. Being able to fund my savings at previous levels makes me happier as I can reach the goals I am striving for sooner.

Furthermore, I dedicated more money to my future farm account. I have been considering a second job to add more money to this account so with my new salary increase comes along, I can afford to put more money toward this savings goal. In fact, I am now saving 6.5 times more for my future farm than I could before. I am rather pleased I can advance this goal more rapidly without finding alternative income sources.

Finally, a fraction of this new pay level will go to various spending categories. Most are small increases in the monthly allocation. However, some of my spending categories I felt confined by the numbers I allowed myself. Therefore, I believe a tiny increase in the amount I can spend will be helpful without much lifestyle inflation.

I am a numbers gal so as soon as I learned how much more I would be earning with my salary, I had to figure out what to do with it. I cannot let any money just sit there without determining how I can make use of it. With a plan in place, I feel calmer and more in-control regarding my spending allocations and my savings goals.

How do you handle similar situations?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Enjoying fresh and local fruits and veggies

Baskets with fresh produce

The weather is really warming in my area, to the point that we may get near the record high temperature (the record is 80 degrees Fahrenheit on Thursday with a forecast for 77 degrees that day). If gardening is not your thing and you enjoy locally grown greens, please keep in mind Community-Supported Agriculture or CSAs. This is where you purchase a share of a farmer's future harvest now, and he or she provides you will a box of herbs, fruits and veggies for ten+ weeks. While many popular farms have filled all their orders for the season, there are always a few organic farmers looking for more people to join. And your health insurance may give you a bonus for healthy eating, decreasing the cost of your share. To locate a CSA near you, visit the Local Harvest Web site.

Since I grow my own produce and herbs, I am only looking to supplement what my garden provides. Therefore, I use the farmer's market to add to my diet. I can get fruits, veggies, herbs, meats, cheese and more at the small farmer's market close to my workplace. The main one in the area, one of the largest in the country, has an even wider selection and I know many people choose to do most of their grocery shopping each Saturday at the farmer's market. Whether you are looking for a little or a lot of locally grown food for you to choose from, a farmer's market is a great place to start. Talking with the farmers who grow the food or create the product is an engaging experience. If you are unfamiliar with the location of available farmer's markets, visit the Local Harvest Web site for more information.

Remember, if you cannot grow it yourself, a CSA share and farmer's markets are your next best bet for locally grown and sustainably produced food.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Using greener cleaners

Man scrubbing floor

I have written many times about greener living and I have only increased my commitment to doing more as every year passes. Overcoming some of my squeamishness (e.g., worm composting) is never easy but determination counts for much in this area. One area that I am inexorably replacing commercial items with simpler, greener ones is my cleaning products.

I have to say, cleaning the bathroom is merely something I have to do--occasionally--when forced. However, a mix of vinegar and baking soda works for nearly all surfaces in the bathroom: sink, faucet, tub, tub walls, toilet. For the toilet seat and mirror, I use a dilution of vinegar (50% vinegar/50% water by volume) to spray and wipe off with a sponge and newspaper respectively. The vinegar smell dissipates soon after use and does not linger like chemical scents.

For stubborn stains in the toilet bowl, I have found a pumice stone (e.g., Pumie Scouring Stick) works great without a lot of scrubbing. I heard about this from other people looking for alternatives to chemical cleaners and found Pumie brand at my local hardware store.

I use the 50/50 vinegar spray liberally on counters, tabletop and stove top. Vinegar + baking soda is great for the sink and while I have not tried it, should work well in the oven too. Making a paste with the vinegar and baking soda is great where you want more scrubbing action and more vinegar when you need less.

I make my own laundry detergent and only use vinegar to soften my laundry. In fact, I find the chemical-embedded dryer sheets have scents too strong for my nose. I gave away the last of my dryer sheets and have not looked back since. I also used oxygen-based bleach if I want some extra cleaning power in the laundry as it is kinder to laundry and the environment than chlorine-based bleaches.

I prefer to sweep than mop, but when a good floor cleaning is necessary, I use hot water with some vinegar for my laminate and tile floors.

One gallon of vinegar costs me $1.60 and a 4 pound box of baking soda was purchased for $2.70. Both of these items cost less than any all-purpose spray and bathroom cleaner and toilet bowl cleaner and other item thought necessary for cleaning. Being green and frugal has a nice sound to it, yes?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Gardening the scavenger's way

Quiet garden

Gardening is a wonderful pastime. You spend time outside doing physical activity, enjoy some fresh air, take pride in the beauty and bounty you planted and maintain. Right now all I can see is all the work I have to do: adding more mulch and compost, getting the seedlings started and planning where to put all the plants. I have written previously about low-cost gardening ideas (here and here) with a few more options to keep input costs down while maximizing enjoyment.

Coffee grounds
I am not a coffee drinker, but I had read much about the nitrogen boost that coffee grounds can give gardens. I have access to a couple coffee pots at work so I collect the grounds, filter and all, at the end of the day. I put the coffee grounds in a bucket and compost the filter. Acid-loving plants enjoy coffee grounds, but modest amounts of coffee grounds are also welcomed by other plants.

If scavenging from your colleagues at work is not your cup of coffee, visit local coffee shops. With gardening season coming into full swing, many places will save the grounds for anyone who asks. Win for you (nutrients for the garden), win for them (organic material not going into a landfill).

Grass clippings
I mulch my grass back into the ground when mowing as I like returning the nutrients to the soil. However, many people see grass clippings as nusiance and catch the clippings and leave it on the curb. This is great material for mulching garden beds. Keep an eye out for homes where people pile they grass clippings for collection and come back with a rake and containers in which to put the grass. Leave the curb as neatly as you found it and keep the spot in mind if you need more.

Grass clippings (and coffee grounds) are great on the compost pile as well. If you have plenty of leaves, paper, cardboard or other carbon-rich items, add some nitrogen-rich material like fresh grass clippings and coffee grounds. The pile will break down faster and available for use in the garden.

Odds and ends on the curb
People get rid of many items that can be repurposed in the garden. Right now, I am looking for pole-like items that I can use to support my pole beans. It could be lengths of lumber, broom handles or PVC piping, but all would be welcomed to build a tripod structure for my beans to climb. Other bits that can be useful and found on the curb include metal head boards (for trellises), metal poles (for anchoring fencing or keeping hoses out of the garden bed when dragged around), reclaimed furniture (for outdoor use) and the list goes on. If your neighbor is throwing away something, imagine how it might be used to enhance your outdoor space.

Repurposing items
I have started a variety of seedlings in my basement. Most of them were sowed in repurposed containers (e.g., yogurt) and drip trays (e.g., styrofoam takeout trays). The commercial starting trays do take up less space, but I prefer to use what I have on hand. I have been collecting yogurt containers since last year and am grateful I had more than enough for my purposes. Many bits of plastic packaging like the kind that are affixed to cardboard back, are flat and can be used as watering trays so I can water from the bottom. I like this because most of that plastic has no number and cannot be recycled. Anytime I get more use out of something that is disposable makes me feel good.

Milk jugs and 2L soda bottles can be used as mini greenhouses after seedlings are planted outside and it gets chillier than the plant likes. Just cut off the bottom and slip it over the plant. When the weather is warm, remove the cap; when it is cold, put it back in place. With warm enough temperatures past the threat of frost, remove the bottle or jug and enjoy the growing plant.

I am looking forward to the garden this year as I really miss all my fresh fruit and vegetables. Using up the last of the frozen veggies make me even more eager to get out and grow more peas and beans. Reducing the costs of gardening with creative scavenging and reuse makes me proud of what I can do without spending money.

Do you have more suggestions?

Welcome visitors from All Things Eco Carnival Volume 96! If you liked this post, please explore the rest of my blog and subscribe to my RSS feed!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Decluttering the piecemeal way

Cluttered home office

Clutter is the bane of my existence. I have too much stuff that just ends up collecting dust and the "I need it just in case" instance never comes. Culling is never easy, but a recent family onslaught (e.g., hosting a family gathering) prompted a major clean up in my home. Well, that and starting a to-do list of items that I needed to tackle. Here is how I accomplished my first pass at decluttering:

Give it away: This was done in two phases: donations to a local charity shop and then offering items for free. I had accumulated several paper bags worth of stuff that I meant to donate but I finally took the time to list each item and its worth before taking it to the donation center. This now adds to my itemized deductions. I gave six feet of books (mostly Star Wars novels) to my brother who will enjoy them and gave away almost all my videotape collection, mostly TV shows and movies I recorded myself. I also managed to give away most of my scrap fabric collection for a church's use.

Sort through it: There was clothing I was not wearing or no longer liked, fabric I was never going to use, papers no longer needed and bins reclaimed in giving away the VHS tapes. With extra bins, I could sort through my fabric collection, put away the Christmas-themed fabric, and cull various items. It also reminded me I had several pieces of clothing that I had set aside for repair. These actions reduced the clutter around my sewing machine. Many items were sent to the basement for storage until needed (e.g., box fan and electric heater).

Also, the newly opened bookshelf space--was partially filled in by books that were stacked on or in front of the bookshelf. Less clutter and easy access to frequently used books on preserving and gardening--bonus for me!

Fix it: That clothing I "found" in the long-neglected to-be-repaired pile? I fixed all of it, washed and sorted the items back into my closet and dresser. That freed up a lot of clutter from one room. However, having all these new items in my closet also reminds me I need to think about a second round of clothing culling.

Just do it: Keeping a list of what I needed to accomplish (cleaning, decluttering, moving items around) and marking them off gave me a sense of purpose as I noted my progress. Plus, I uncovered a lot of floor space that I did not know I had and hey, I have a kitchen table at which several people can eat!

However, this is only my first effort at decluttering the home. While seeing more of my house rather than my stuff is easier on the eyes, my next steps include focusing on specific thinks in each room (e.g., all the papers stacked in my computer armiore) and asking if I truly need to keep the stuff or not.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Every gal needs to have a little fun

BYU v Kansas State

Raise your hand if March Madness means NCAA basketball rather than the desire to get out in the garden. For me it is both. Well, I don't actually watch the basketball games, but I like to participate in the annual tradition of choosing which teams will progress through their brackets and add a little friendly wager to sweeten the pot.

My first experience with March Madness was in graduate school. One of my fellow grad students asked if I wanted to join the pool and I asked what it was about. After a short explanation and a piece of paper of my own, I made my best guess who might win based on the ranking and the teams' season tally (and who rejected me for graduate school). For a person who does not follow collegiate basketball, I ended up in the top three and took home more cash than I put in. I have enjoyed playing every since.

While I only played once more in graduate school (and did not win the second time), my ears perk up when I hear people around me talk about NCAA pools and brackets. Last year was the first time in many years I entered a pool and while I did not win any money, I was one of five people still in the running to win it all at the final game.

This year, I am not so confident that winning is in my future unless other people's brackets are even more messed up than mine. However, with 51 other people playing in the pool, I doubt I will reach one of the top three positions that win money. However, it is only $5 to play and I view it as entertainment for two and a half weeks. Not much that can entertain me for that long and at that price. So I will keep crossing out my invalid picks in red and highlighting the ones that made it in green and see where my choices lead me.

Go Kansas State!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

How I fully funded my Roth IRA

Crossword puzzle and pencil

For the past three years, contributing the maximum to my Roth IRA has been one of my financial goals. This is one half of my annual retirement investments, which also includes my work-sponsored 401(k) with a 3% match. My Roth IRA account resides with T. Rowe Price and is comprised of three index funds. Not only have I given the full contribution for the last three years, I am looking to fully fund my Roth IRA within the same calendar year rather than using the grace period until tax day the following year. How did I do this?

I do my taxes at the beginning of February so I can quickly get any money I am owed back from the government. This year, due to my itemized deductions as well as tax credit for four energy-efficient window replacements, I received a larger-than-expected refund from the federal government and approximately the same amount back from the state as I have for the last two years. Combined, this money was able to finish funding my 2009 Roth IRA, fully contribute to my 2010 Roth IRA (based on the amounts automatically invested each month) and still have a bit left to fund other savings goals. This is not a typical situation for me, but meant that I did not have to increase my monthly Roth IRA contributions to fully fund the account for 2010. This is the first time since I opened my Roth IRA that I was able to contribute the maximum amount in a calendar year.

As a result, I opened a third bond index fund to complement my extended market index and my international index funds. I want to keep a diversified portfolio and feel that adding a small amount of bonds to my investment choices would be beneficial. This is less than 10% of my Roth IRA and and even smaller fraction of my total retirement investments so for someone in her late 30s, I am not going too conservative.

At this point, I am looking forward to my 2011 Roth IRA which hopefully, will have an increase in the maximum contribution amount. It has been stuck at $5,000 for the last two years. If my tax refund is similar to this year's amount, I should also be able to fully fund my Roth IRA and contribute to my savings goals as well.

Have you opened a Roth IRA and have you made the maximum contribution?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Learning something new: Candle making

Close-up of Candle

I like learning new skills whether it be making something I never have before (e.g., my own bread), building something new (e.g., raised garden beds) or discovering something I can do myself (e.g., making laundry detergent). Two items on my to-do list include making candles and making soap.

For the candle making, I just recently took on a project. Interestingly, one of the blogs I follow had a post on crock pot candle making. This seems a simple enough procedure: chop pieces of wax, put in glass jar, heat in a crock pot and add wick; cool and use! And hey, I frequent a thrift store and found an old 70s-looked crock pot that would do perfectly.

Now, I was not creating candles from scratch. I still had a length of candle wick from earlier melt and pour experiments, as well as lots of leftover pillar candles that I did not burn completely. I also had a glass container from a previously burned candle, washed and dried. So I chopped up the leftover candle wax, put in the glass jar, placed it in the crock pot and let it heat per the post. What do you know? The wax melted and I could add the wick. Now I have reused candle wax in a glass jar for many more hours of burning with a scent I enjoy.

While I do not recommend collecting partially used candle wax for years as I have just to make some new candles, this is one way to extend the life of jar candles you have and reuse wax. It is a simple project and if you are like me and enjoy lighting candles every once in a while, it has immediate utility. And hey, reusing glass jars and having a few more candles on hand in case of emergency is a great thing. Plus, this project is mostly hands off aside from chopping up the wax and adding the wick. You can clean or do your bills or work on another project as the wax melts.

As for soap making, still on the to-do list.

Will you try making your own candles in a crock pot?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Starting the day out right

Close-up of breakfast burrito

Breakfast is one of the most important meals of the day. Oddly enough, there seems to be a parallel between what I have for breakfast every day and choosing to live a more sustainable life. Disclaimer: I am far from perfect with my monthly trips to the grocery store and choices that do included processed food stuffs. However, breakfast is one where the quantity of processed food has diminished.

Growing up, breakfast meant boxed cereal, a glass of orange juice and a multivitamin. This did not change much during my college years or my graduate school years, but I began mixing it up with some pancakes. I know the pancake recipe by heart and can easily whip up a batch that lasts me two to three days when I store the leftover batter in the refrigerator. I have dabbled with oatmeal, but kept coming back to pancakes. When I began making my own jams, I found two slices of toast, buttered and slathered with homemade jam and a glass of milk (plus multivitamin) were a yummy breakfast.

As I look back now, I was moving ever so slowly away from prepackaged breakfast products to more homemade items: pancakes, jam on toast (using home-baked bread) and now to to more homegrown, sustainable items: breakfast burritos. While the tortillas, cheese and salsa are store purchased, I have been enjoying fresh free-range eggs and organic sausage in my burritos. In fact, burritos have overtaken other breakfast foods as my favorite. And yes, I make these breakfasts prior to going to work each morning.

Why do I mention my breakfast? It is not just to brag about how wonderful my homemade breakfast meals are; it is also to demonstrate that breakfast has evolved both to be more tasty and align with my personal values. The gains are modest, but I derive great satisfaction in using eggs purchased from a colleague at work and frying up some sausage from an organic farmer while making my own breakfast. Furthermore, the things I am still purchasing also shows me where I need to work. This year, I plan to make my own salsa and fruit syrups and possibly my own flour tortillas thus, taking another step forward in my sustainability journey.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spending and the charity thrift shop

Used pots and pans on store shelf in thrift store, full frame

Lest you think all my behavior is about being good (staying in my spending plan and saving over 40% of my income), I bring you one of my downfalls: the charity thrift shop. I prefer to buy used for many reasons: being frugal, lower environmental footprint, the good work done with my money. However, my weekly trips usually mean I walk away with something that I need (want) when I stroll through the store.

My latest trip found me leaving the store with a new pair of sandals (I wanted ones with straps for the front and back of my foot), a pasta maker (I want to try making my own), a ceramic pot for plants (it's pretty and I can find a use for it), a cobalt blue glass (my plastic ones are cracking and it's a great color), baby powder (I am running low on the small container I have) and a metal watering can (I have been looking for one and hate how easily the spout on the plastic one broke when I kicked it against the garage wall). Of these, the most useful ones are the watering can and the glass. The rest were optional.

This is how most of my purchases run. I don't need more pots or canning jars or candles or soaps or dishes, but I get them for the just in case/like them/trying something new/possible future gifts. Even if I buy used from a charity thrift shop, I am spending money and it means more clutter, more unnecessary stuff and less money even if I do not spend more than I allocate each month.

My behavior would not be so bad, but I do not always carry through on plans. The stick blender I purchase over a year ago still collects dust rather than mixing up a batch of cold-process soap. I have not using my crockpot much and it's better if I do not discuss all that fabric I bought for all those gift bags I never made. My best move would be not to spend money every time I go to the thrift shop, no matter how good the deal is. However, I like patronizing the shop and would rather make poor spending decisions there than other places.

Am I justifying my existence or a pompous, preaching windbag about my spending habits?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Funding ten hungry savings accounts

Coins in a Glass Jar

I have many goals in my financial life including saving for a newer used car, saving for a future farm in the country, saving for charitable donations and saving for life's unexpected events. This requires various levels of funding, all of which are important. How the heck do I deal with the demands of ten different accounts?

Well, each account is for a different purpose.
1 and 2. General savings: This funds emergency spending overages even if the fault is only mine, large veterinary bills, larger-than-expected car repairs, maintenance and upgrades to the house, or any other unexpected event that required money. This is funded in three different ways: a savings account at my credit union, three CDs at my credit union and a savings account with Emigrant Direct. I allocate money every pay period to add to the savings account and when it gets large enough, either fund a CD or transfer it to the online Emigrant Direct account.
3. House savings: This funds my basic home needs including gardening supplies, outdoor appliances (e.g., lawnmower), tools and low-cost house maintenance and repair (e.g., paint or energy assessment). Any costs over and above this account will draw from my general savings account. I fund this account with an automatic transfer each pay period.
4. Gasoline hedge fund: This fund is for money leftover in my gasoline spending allocation that is subsquently split between this account and my car savings account. Rather than worrying about increasing my spending allocation as gasoline prices go up, I can use the money saved in this account to supplement my spending allocation until the price per gallon goes down far enough the spending plan covers it.
5. Car savings account: This fund is solely for buying a newer car. My current vehicle is running well, but I would rather have money and possibly avoid a car payment than be caught without a plan. My car has 136,000 miles on it and is 13 years old. It has some time left on it (my goal is to reach at least 150,000 miles) but I allocate money each paycheck and each month add to the funding with half of the remaining amount in the gasoline spending as well as odd bits of money here and there from rebates and small bonuses.
6. Charity savings: This fund is for any charitable giving. It is much easier for me to give spontaneously if I know I have x amount in my charity savings account. I am able to fund three charities regularly and still have extras for unexpected giving. I save a small amount each month and sporatically add money in small amounts.
7. Car mainentance: The money in this account solely arises from extras in my spending plan. When I had over $200 available from not spending anything, I decided to open a savings account to earn a bit of interest. This is the first line of defense against car repair expenses and hopefully will mitigate any demand on my regular savings.
8. Found money: This is a catch-all fund. I have purchased a chest freezer and partially funded a new computer purchase with money from this account. The current goal for this account is a potential vacation later this year. Funding comes once a month and looks to be on target with the $700 goal I set.
9. Utilities fun: This is also an account funded by leftovers from my spending plan. This collects money from my natural gas and electric/water utilities if I spend less than I allocate. Winter I typically use the full amount I allow in my spending plan and even had to use some of the money in this account twice. Like the gasoline hedge fund, this account holds money I can apply to any unexpected utility expenses.
10. Future farm: This fund is for the farm in the country I would like to find and buy. This goal is two years away so I wish I could save more. However, I allocate money monthly and have been sending more irregular income (refunds, temp job money) to this account. I would like to save more as I suspect my needs will be great in this area, but so far have done well for being one of many goals I am funding at my current income level.

The main drawback to so many accounts is having multiple demands on a finite amount of money whether it is my regular or sporatic bonus income. Balancing all of them is a delicate act, but I manage to see positive growth in all of them. My main concern is the farm savings account and what I can do to increase the amount in there. This may mean a second job where the money will only go to the single account.

Do you have any thoughts on my strategy?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Debating the allocation of unexpected money

Part of what motivates me is my plans for the future. However, my finances require a balancing act. For example, I received a little extra money this month. Do I:
1. Add to my car savings account?
2. Add to my future farm account?
3. Contribute to my charity account?
4. Donate to my regular (emergency) savings account?

This necessitates some negotiation with myself. What is my priority? Well, the car and future farm are my main priorities. What to do with the extra money? Well, I can add it to either account or split it between them. What if it is only $2? Then I will put the money in my future farm account and next time there is extra money, add more to the car savings account.

Striking a balance is hard. I debate which account is more deserving so many times, the extra money gets shuttled to a different account each time, to make it more "even" or "fair" in my mind. It is easier to keep focused on a single goal, a single account. I feel I sacrifice saving for other things if I only put money in one account. And life, like everything else, is a balancing act. Funding that life is no different.

In total, I have ten different savings accounts, all for different purposes and funding different goals. More than half my money is in ING Direct accounts and the rest split between a brick and mortar credit union and a second online bank. Many more accounts and I may get overwhelmed, but I see the progress in each account albeit slowly when I do my monthly net worth calculation.

Next post, I will break down my savings accounts and what purposes they fulfill.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Emerging from retirement

I thought in September 2009, I was done with this blog. While my writing attention turned to NaNoWriMo and other endeavors, there was a part of me that missed this. I kept having thoughts about "oh, I could write about that", but then remembered I "retired" from the blog.

Well, I have banished the mothballs and plan to start posting again. For those of you who hung on, occasionally find me and still have not unsubscribed from my RSS feed--Hello! Here is to continuing the journey and hoping to hear from you.