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 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?