Monday, June 29

Do you have to play 'bad guy'?

Photo by Phoebe Baker

As I've mentioned before, different financial attitudes can be hell on a relationship. It definitely caused a lot of strife in our apartment.

It was definitely hard on our relationship for a long time. Tim was the spender; I was the saver. Even after he "converted" to frugality, Tim was rarely active about saving money.

Early on, I suggested that I take over the finances. He definitely didn't protest. He'd never felt good with money, but he also had never felt able to change it. So my offer was a blessing. He let me assume responsibility and never looked back. Which was part of the problem.

In abdicating financial control, Tim took all the responsibility off of himself. He stopped worrying about budget or money left in the account. It's not that he stopped considering them. He still checked with me to okay a purchase. In fact, he checked with me about almost all purchases.

In other words, I became the parent. I had to say yea or nay to just about everything. He didn't really filter. If he thought of something he wanted, he would inevitably ask me if we could get it. It was like being in a toy store with a five year old kid. Kids don't really know anything about finance. They know what they want. And they know that parents have the decision on whether to buy or not.

So I was "the heavy." I had to constantly veto his ideas, reminding him that we were saving money. Or that we couldn't afford it. Or that we could find it cheaper elsewhere. It was exhausting.

It was also hard on me overall. I don't like denying Tim things. And his seemingly constant stream of permission-asking made me feel like all I ever did was say no to him. Even if he didn't see it, which he mainly didn't, it was hard on me psychologically.

I felt backed into a corner: either I deprived him or I hurt the budget. Neither is very palatable, as options go. Because of this pressure, I found myself caving more often. I would say yes simply because I felt I couldn't take saying no one more time. Later, though, I'd be angry at myself for not standing firm; and I would resent Tim for putting me in that kind of lose-lose situation.

Eventually, I did get Tim to see that I was in an untenable situation. It took a lot of arguments and a lot of attempts on my part to verbalize what was wrong. As a result, he did start policing himself more. A lot more, actually. Nowadays, he usually runs something through his own frugal filter before checking with me. The "can we" questions have definitely gotten fewer and farther between, at least.

The change has made a huge difference in my stress level. I don't feel like a mean parent, anymore. Now, when Tim has a question about spending, I feel like I'm talking to my partner about finance. Not telling a kid he has enough toys already.

I think that the "bad guy" role is an easy trap for couples to fall in. Even when it's not a spender/saver meld, one partner is usually more frugal than the other. When people with two different standards come together, something has to give. If each of you are judging the other by your own benchmarks, no one ends up happy.

What about your relationships -- past or present? Have you ever felt like the bad guy? Or have you ever felt that your spouse was depriving you unnecessarily?

Labels: ,

Saturday, June 27

Sometimes, it's just about making progress

Photo by Andy Carter

Budgets Are Sexy recently asked, How do you measure your own financial success? There were a lot of answers -- and there are probably plenty more that haven't appeared yet. Some people admitted that they measure themselves by their peers, how much debt they pay off, and plenty of others.

I had a slightly different perspective.

For obvious reasons, Tim and I can't measure ourselves against our peers. Most of our friends can work full-time. Few have chronic health problems that create constant medical bills. So it would be a terrible idea for us to compare ourselves to them.

I am often tempted to gauge our success by the amount of debt we pay off. But most months we're lucky to pay off $500. And with that $500 medical bill to pay off and some unexpected expenses (replacement sneakers, clothes that fit, etc), this month will probably be smaller than normal.

So for me, I usually have to concentrate on the fact that we're making any progress at all. It's not easy. There are plenty of times that I'm maddened by how slowly we have to chip away at the debt.

To remind myself that we are making progress, I got a white board awhile ago. This way, whenever we make a payment, I get to physically erase the old total and write the new, lower one down. (It's also a great reminder that the debt exists, when you feel like going on a crazy shopping spree or that LCD TV beckons with its siren song.)

It's a good way to actually feel that we're making a difference. Yeah, the amount of that difference probably won't be anything close to what I'd prefer. But it is cathartic to see that number decrease, however slowly.

How do you measure your financial success? What tricks do you use to keep your debt reduction efforts going strong?

Labels: ,

Friday, June 26

Freebie Friday

Freebie Friday is brought to you by The Freebie Blogger. Check out the site for tons of useful samples, free events and more!

Glidden is offering a free quart of paint with your choice of color.

Register for a free School Year’s Eve Party Starter Kit.

Betty Crocker is offering a Yoplait Whips free product coupon when you sign up for their enewsletter.

Walmart is offering a free sample of Nature Made TripleFlex Softgels.

Sign up for the Ocean Spray Insiders Club to potentially receive a free product.

Get a 6 pack of PediaSure free after mail in rebate.

Rubio’s will send you a coupon for a free taco when you join the Beach Club.

Sign up for a free sample bottle of Kiss My Face Aroma Therapeutic Anti-Stress Shower/Bath Gel.

Get a free smoothie from the Tropical Smoothie Cafe on your birthday.

Walmart is offering free samples of both Stayfree and Carefree.

Sign up to start receiving emails from Caribou Coffee and you will receive a coupon for a free drink on your birthday. Need more coffee? Click here for a coupon for a free drink at Seattle's Best in Borders.

Looking for something fun and free to do this weekend? Check out The Freebie Blogger's Free Events Calendar.

Wednesday, June 24

Spending: Frustration and irrational guilt

Photo by J.W. Dill

I have a chance to buy some items for one of my hobbies. At about one-third of the normal price. These are things I already wanted to get -- and will, inevitably. It's just a matter of when. Also, there's the fact that Tim now gets $30 a month for his own mad money.

So why do I feel guilty at the thought of spending the money?

Well, there are a few reasons. First of all, I'm already frustrated about our slow progress on debt. In addition, we're now looking at a move to Arizona, which will bring with it moving expenses plus the need for a down payment on a car. Taking away another $30 a month won't make a huge difference to either effort. But it's the principle of the thing.

There's also the feeling that we've got enough "stuff." I would like, in the long run, to pare down our belongings. While these acquisitions will be small and I already have storage space for them, once again it's the principle of the thing. Acquiring more things seems to run counter to that new resolution.

So all this is bouncing around in my head. What lingers, though, is frustration. Why can't things just be easier? Why can't we just have at least one of us earn something approaching a normal salary? Why can't I grant myself the same liberties I give to Tim? (In case you're wondering, the answers are: No one said life would be easy/easy isn't interesting; because we both have health problems, and I need to accept it and stop wishing for things to run counter to reality; because I have a ridiculously overactive guilt complex.)

I know plenty of PF bloggers grant themselves some mad money -- even while paying down debt. I've always said that you have to budget for at least some small things. Otherwise, you'll go mad with deprivation and will probably overspend to appease your resentment.

So why can't I take my own advice? I'm sure part of it is my Type-A personality. We expect perfection from ourselves, even as we cut other people slack. Part of it is also this desire for our debt reduction to hurry up already. It's hard to do anything that takes away from that overall goal. Even though you could argue that it's more dangerous for me not to have any discretionary spending.

I am betting that a lot of people in the middle of debt reduction have this internal struggle. It's just heightened by our limited funds. (Though, if I may be somewhat gender biased for a moment, I am willing to bet that more women than men have this problem. It seems to me that, especially in matters of money, men simply don't have as much guilt about spending.)

In the end, I think I will spend, even though it will be a struggle. It will be good for me. Perhaps one of the few times that a PF blogger has said that spending on a "want" could be a good growth experience.

But I've been working for a long time on being nicer to myself. I spent so many years demanding a perfection from myself that I could never achieve. I spent several years putting myself down rather than admitting that things were a factor of my disability. Saying things like, "I'm too lazy to do X" rather than, "I'm too tired." That habit took forever to break.

So my new method is to picture a friend in the same situation. What would I tell her? I'd tell her that $30 a month was well worth her sanity in the long run. I'd tell her that she was being ridiculous for feeling guilty at all. After all, it's good to be concerned about spending, but not to the point of obsession or deprivation.

Even through the guilt (and frustration over the guilt) I know this is the right move for me. So I guess I hope that more women unnecessarily ridden by guilt will learn to be nicer to themselves and to share their own triumphs over these emotions.

Labels: ,

Monday, June 22

Yet another reason to keep your receipts

Photo by The Consumerist

I'm betting we've all heard about how important it is to keep your receipts. I have a gift card to the Dress Barn right now that serves as proof that keeping a receipt can make all the difference between unwanted store credit and a reversed charge on a credit card. (Sigh.)

I know I should keep my receipts. They can come in handy for plenty of reasons. But I'm scatterbrained, even on the best days. Other days, my brain apparently just decides to abdicate completely. So organization is a hard thing to keep up.

But I've discovered a new reason to keep our sales receipts: taxes.

See, if you itemize your tax deductions, you can include sales tax. To figure this amount, you can either use the IRS calculator, which will give you an estimate, or you can keep all your receipts. If you choose the latter, of course, you have to find a place to keep them all and go through to add them up at the end of the year.

All that aggravation is probably why I've never met anyone who actually saves all receipts. It's an awful lot of hassle. And yet, I'm currently scouting a box to start keeping our receipts in. We'll probably name it something especially crafty -- like "The Sales Tax Receipts Box." (I'm just creative like that.)

So why am I embarking on what seems like a colossal waste of time? It's pretty simple. I finally looked up our estimate. According to the IRS, when you earn $30,000-40,000 in Seattle you will pay approximately $672 in sales tax.

Okay, that's not a bad chunk of change. But there are a couple of points to consider. First, it's that Tim and I are constantly running into unexpected expenses. Very annoying and (cumulatively) very costly. Second, Seattle sales tax is 9.5 percent. Working backwards, that's $7073.68 worth of purchases.

Less than $7,100 of taxable items? Somehow I doubt it. Big time. Even shopping on sales, Tim's Body Shop stuff -- the only products that seem to really soothe his eczema -- runs close to $1,000, I'd say. And that's hardly the only taxable stuff we buy. So we're saving sales tax receipts.

Of course, that doesn't help us with the past 6 months' worth of receipts that we tossed. Being the crafty gal that I am, though, I was able to figure out sales tax after the fact. I just went back to credit card and checking account statements. Using total purchase amounts, I figured out the amount of sales tax. (See, kids? You will use algebra when you're out of school... if you're a huge geek like me.)

As a quick note, I avoided using grocery purchases, since most items aren't taxable. I also made sure to be overly generous in figuring out how much we would have tipped for deliveries and meals out.

Just based on the transactions I could find, I'm already up to $312. And that's missing a lot of receipts.

I want to point out one more benefit of this system: You have to look at your bills back to back. I was moderately horrified by the sheer number of deliveries we have charged so far this year. It can be a real eye opener.

Overall, we shoot for no more than one delivery or meal out per week. Still, as our health and stress levels vary, so does our success with this goal. I knew this abstractly, but it was a bit of a shock to type in six months' worth.

In fact, on average, we actually were about right. Previous to farmers market season, we were shooting for $35 a week. The average of these transactions (including weeks where we felt awful and got premade food two or even three times a week) was $41 per week. Still, that's a pretty painful total -- $1004.93 to be exact. Ouch! That should help reinforce my resolve to cut down in this area of the budget.

I guess the moral of the story is, even if you have no interest in saving sales receipts, you should periodically check your various spending totals. Quicken and other money management software will generally do this for you, so you can see the horrific numbers without any work on your part!

So is anyone else saving sales receipts? If not, are you considering doing it next year? What about checking your spending totals?

Labels: ,

Coinstar lives up to its name

My mom recently suggested that I start checking these machines whenever I'm in the grocery store. Apparently more than half of the time, there's money left in there.

Apparently, the problem is that some coins don't go in. Either a foreign nickel slips past you, or something too old/worn to be accepted by the machine. So the machine spits the coins into the receptacle, allowing people to take them back.

Thing is, though, that our instant gratification culture has trained us to take the money and run. So people, gift card in hand, go on their merry way without pawing through the discarded change leftover.

I finally remembered to try this out myself. Sure enough, there was 12 cents just sitting there. Someone had actually put it up on the counter. I was more than happy to relieve said counter of its heavy dime-and-two-pennies burden.

And, okay, that didn't exactly pay for our grocery trip or anything. But now that there are no pay phones to check for loose change, what are we grab-fueled Americans supposed to snoop around in?

Has anyone else noticed this about Coinstar? Or some other venue? I'd be interested to hear some feedback on this.

Labels: ,

Sunday, June 21

Totally un-frugal post

Sigh. Every so often I forget what a sucker I am for shoes. So I go and look at a sale. Then fall hopelessly in love with something gorgeous.

The chances of them being comfortable are slim. The chances of them actually getting worn (it's not like I have to dress up for work, nor do we go out all that often, let alone get dressy for it) are even slimmer. But... so pretty

And so I share my completely un-frugal longing with you. (Especially painful since I could get $20 off, plus 10% back via Ebates.)

I am not sure if I like these better in black -- it is all-purpose after all! -- or chocolate. Either is gorgeous. And $60.45. Sigh. Did I mention discounts and free shipping (and free returns)?

I like all three colors of these. I'd probably go with black. My old Mary Janes with a heel died awhile ago. At $62.95, though, they're not exactly something I should splurge on.

FYI, if anyone wants a $10 off coupon at, let me know and I can have it emailed to you. Not to enable, but you also get 10% off when you create an account.

I'm off to dream of more cute shoes I can't afford.

Friday, June 19

Why we need a single-payer system

**Blogger's note: This is a bit less concise and well-organized than most of my posts, I think. This is, at least partially, because I (appropriately enough) have been fighting a cold all week. Makes me less patient about editing and more interested in spewing rants onto the page. Still, I feel strongly about health care. Probably because it consumes so much of my and Tim's life. I hope you'll find some of my points interesting. I hope you'll be polite about the ones you disagree with. Either way, I hope you leave a comment.

Picture by dubble.think

Okay, I know I've groused before about Medicare. It has its problems, to be sure. But, of all the options out there, right now, I firmly believe a single-payer system is the best chance we have.

I will probably get some people who violently disagree with me. Heck, one guy on Twitter blocked me because I disputed that we have "the best health care system in the world."

What was funny about the whole exchange, really, is that I tried to explain to him why his statement was so patently false. My first line of attack was that we have people dying from staph infections. It takes one small antibiotic. Very common, very easy. And yet people wait. Because they can't afford to see a doctor.

He pointed out that any emergency room would have to treat them. (Actually, not true. Any public hospital's emergency room has to take you. But I didn't want to argue semantics.) So I told him that, while that's true, if you wait to go the ER, you have two more problems: the bills are even bigger, and your conditions has worsened considerably.

He didn't reply to that. So I mentioned Tim's $502/month insurance, or 18% of our post-tax income. And that's not even touching on the $500 deductible, the co-pays, etc. At his dermatologist -- the doctor Tim sees the most -- we have already racked up nearly $500 in the past 6 months.

I also mentioned that I'm on Medicare, myself. But he apparently was done with the subject. He told me I didn't know what I was talking about, and he didn't want this stuff on his twitter.

His right to not listen, of course. Still, given that I've traversed the bureaucracy of Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance and hospital financial aid, I find it funny that he could accuse me of ignorance.

So, taking all that into account, I will admit a couple of things: I don't know anything about the budget or about where, exactly, all the money will come from. But I felt the need to blog about this because I do know quite a bit about being broke in America -- just barely getting by or, in some cases, sinking deeper into debt just trying to survive -- while also dealing with health issues.

And all that experience tells me that we need a single-payer system.

Just to be sure we're all on the same page, that means a system similar to Medicare. And just to be sure we're all talking about reality -- not what some talking heads are telling you will happen -- let's review Medicare briefly.

  • Part A: Hospital Insurance. This is generally free of charge. (For exceptions, go here.) Part A covers inpatient care, skilled nurse facilities, etc.
  • Part B: Health Insurance. The monthly charge is $96.40. People with low income can qualify for help with premiums.
  • Medicare Advantage Plan. This allows you to buy better health care plans. You have the choice of managed care, PPO or fee-for-service. Depending on the quality of the plan, the price varies. This cost is on top of your Part B premiums.
  • Medicare Prescription Plan. This provides more thorough prescription-cost coverage.

So, this plan isn't perfect. It needs some tweaking, especially when you start to consider the donut hole. But it's still better than letting 1 of every 6 Americans go uninsured. (And plenty of the other 5 have things like high-deductible insurance, which discourages getting routine care.)

Here are my arguments:

  • We would have a lower mortality rate. By the time some people get diagnosed, their diseases are out of control. My mom was on a bus and overheard two fast food employees chatting. One of their coworkers died from MRSA. That's the same thing that Tim's had more than 20 times in the past two years. The only difference: Tim had insurance and a wife who knew how to get financial help for medical bills.
  • A healthier America. If people got more routine care, we would arguably have a better shot at staying healthy. Obviously, some disabilities cannot be helped. Mine certainly wasn't avoided by having insurance. But many health conditions that keep people from working full-time are also ones that could be avoided -- or at least ameliorated -- by having medical care.
  • Less welfare. The better people are, the more likely that they can work and earn a living. I don't care what kind of things you believe about homeless people and people on welfare. Yes, there are some people who are playing the system or otherwise have choices. Most of us don't. Most of us would love nothing more than to be able to work and support ourselves.
  • Less money for Medicaid. I actually started paying more out of pocket once I was accepted to Medicare than on Medicaid. The state of Washington gave me no deductibles, no co-pays, no anything. Currently, Medicaid provides low-income folks with coverage, but it also covers premiums and lowers co-pays for low-income Medicare users. Under a single-payer system, the state would no longer have to cover 100% of some residents' care.
  • More money for hospitals. Right now, there are tons of hospital bills that won't get paid. Either the patient applies for financial assistance, and most of the charges are waived, or people simply default because the amounts are just too high. With more folks insured, this would reduce the pressure on already limited hospital funds. This would probably mean fewer funds coming from state and federal programs, as well.
  • Potentially lower medical bills. If hospitals don't have to make up for non-payments, they could probably bill for less. If they know they'll always get at least something for services, actual charges could be less. Probably naive, but at least at community hospitals, they do have an interest in helping everyone. (Of course, I also believe that if we subsidized medical school -- requiring a certain period of work at free clinics in exchange -- we could help lower medical costs. If doctors had less debt to erase, they could afford to charge more reasonable amounts.)
  • More reasonable ER wait times. Right now, across the country, ERs are clogged full of patients. It's stressful, noisy and very, very tedious. ERs tend to be uninsured Americans' general practitioner. One friend of mine ended up in the hospital for three days because of a spider bite. It got infected and, by the time he finally saw a doctor, the infection was spreading into his bloodstream. I'm sure a lot of people could have used his bed. And I know he and the hospital would have loved to save the money for something less preventable.
  • Economic stimulus. If employers no longer shoulder the burden of health care costs, businesses would be hurting a lot less. The average individual plan is close to $500. So even if you pay $200 a month, your company is still paying $300 per employee. Every month. With that money, the business could give raises, hire more people or, at the very least, not fire more people. This could help staunch the rising unemployment rate.

Of course, for me, the best argument remains the most human one: Everyone deserves health care. Not last-minute care that threatens your financial future. Not care only once you've put your life in danger by trying to take care of it yourself. We deserve help when we need and preventative care so that, hopefully, we won't.

Yes, a lot of details need to be worked out. The donut hole, for one. Though, of course, if you're not on disability or retirement, the donut hole will be far less financially devastating. And some of the co-pays for in-patient care need to be fine-tuned.

But I'm sick of hearing that we have to keep competition to keep insurance companies competitive. There is competition already, in the market. There are plenty of insurance companies, and health care costs only continue to rise. Meanwhile, the bureaucrats at the companies try to find reasons not to pay out, or ways to kick people off their policies. But because they have so many customers, they can negotiate lower rates. Often, they pay less than 75% of the billed amount. Yet people without coverage, people who really need the help, can only get a few percent off for paying in cash.

In short, this system isn't working. And I'm sick of listening to healthy, middle-class Americans preach that "socialism" isn't the way to go. One out of three American families is already on some form of government help. So clearly capitalism isn't exactly working out that well, either.

How about we try something new? Something that, say, other governments rely on all the time. I'm tired of quibbling about inherent problems. Any idea will have flaws and drawbacks. The point is to find the one that benefits the most people. Install that and then do your best to make it better over time.

And if you disagree, take a notebook and a pen and go spend some time down in an ER. Talk to the people there. But wear a mask. You wouldn't want to get sick, now, would you?

Labels: ,

Freebie Friday

Freebie Friday is brought to you by The Freebie Blogger. Check out the site for daily updates on cool samples, freebies and more!

Looking for Father's Day freebies? Click here.

Walmart is offering a free sample of Extra Soft Toilet Tissue and a 10ct travel pack of Scott Moist Wipes.

Sign up for the Nielson Consumer Panel and starting earning free stuff!

Get a Redbox code for a free DVD rental after taking a short survey here. offers many free materials including a free Practical Money Skills CD ROM.

Sign up to receive a free sample of Emeril’s Original Essence. offers free travel guides for destinations in the US, Canada and Mexico. Click here for more information.

Sign up to receive a free Stopain Pain Relief Sample. There are a limited number of samples available each day, so you may have to check back tomorrow.

Disney Movie Rewards is offering a free call to your child from a Disney character. You must first sign in/sign up. Once signed in click “member benefits” then “special offers.”

Kroger is offering a free Kotex Overnight sample to select areas.

There are lots of yummy freebies today (June 19th): Free Light Smoothie At Orange Julius, Free Rootbeer Float at A&W, and a Free Smoothie at Tropical Smoothie Cafe.

Thursday, June 18

Evaluating the worth of "stuff"

Photo by LizMarie

I have a recurring dream. The details change from time to time, but the theme remains the same: I have to move. I can't take much. I have to choose.

In the dream, I'm always anxious and regretful. I can't take everything I want. Inevitably, as we begin to leave, I realize that I have forgotten something vital. Usually, someone is impatiently telling me that we have to go while I frantically try to find room for the forgotten items.

It's a hard dream to have for obvious reasons. I have to be minimalist, which means taking only the most important things. I have to decide what I can live without, what I can't replace. I have to accept that I can't take it all and that I have to make trade-offs. (Did I mention that my dreams are annoyingly obvious when it comes to symbolism? Like the one where I have to drive a car from the passenger seat.)

Inevitably, of course, I wake up and realize it was all a dream. But the knot of tension in my stomach is very real. It dissolves slowly, and I tend to feel vaguely anxious all day. I touch things to reassure myself that it's all still there. That there's no emergency. That I don't have to leave things behind.

So you can imagine how overwhelming it is to even consider moving to Arizona. Whether we use a moving van or PODS or something else, we're going to have to pare down considerably. During the (almost) 13 years in Seattle, I've accumulated quite a lot of things. And that's not even considering the things I've sold or donated to charity over the years!

Tuesday night, Tim and I got to talking about the move. We discussed which things we'd be okay selling or otherwise getting rid of. We went around the apartment and looked at our various possessions.

What startled me was how willing I was to get rid of things. Other than the couch, the bed and a dresser, I'm not particularly tied to any of our items.

Well, that's not true. I like most of our stuff. I wouldn't voluntarily get rid of it if we were simply moving across town. But when it comes to things I think are worth hauling 1500 miles? The perspective changes considerably.

Another surprise was just how much stuff we had. Until you look around with a critical, we-have-finite-space eye, things blend in. You consider them part of the landscape of necessary stuff. Dressers are useful for sheet sets and miscellaneous clothing. A set of drawers is great for holding odds and ends. A side table is a convenient place for a lamp, plus it houses Sandy's fortress of solitude (aka a cardboard box with a small chunk cut out, allowing her to go in and hide as needed).

In short, you assume you need them -- right up until you consider how you'd get them 1500 miles away.

Having never had to move to a new state with furniture, this is all new to me. Instead of seeing things we use daily, I now see things that have to be packed and fit into a moving van, or shipped to us once we get settled. I stopped thinking of our possessions as creature comforts and started seeing them as things weighing us (or, at least, a moving van) down.

It finally helped me to see why some people choose a minimalist lifestyle. While I don't think I'll ever go to that extreme, I definitely have a new appreciation for just how tied we our to our "stuff." Each item that Tim and I can't live without has to, somehow, get to Arizona.

Usually, I'm a natural-born packrat. I have trouble getting rid of things. I blame my mother. (That's what she's there for, right?) It was only a few years ago that she finally threw away the last cloth diaper from my infancy. Apparently they make very good cleaning rags.

It's this whole attitude that ended up, for me, being a firm, if annoying, belief that everything will eventually come in handy.

If I'm being completely honest, though, I have to admit that my packrat nature also comes from being materialistic. I like things. They're fun, they can provide entertainment/convenience/comfort. A lot of times, they're colorful. What's not to like?

Turns out there are several answers to that question. First and foremost, there's the fact that most things cost money. That part I've never liked. Then there's the clutter they create. And I've obviously covered just how much our "stuff" can be a burden.

But what I haven't thought about much is the opportunity cost. I've always known that money spent on things is money that isn't going against debt or into an emergency fund. That's the obvious part.

My new appreciation, though, is for the opportunity cost of stuff we already own. It's the potential money it represents. As I go through the apartment, I'm seeing so many things that could be cash. That's always appealing. And when you compare it to moving those items out of state, money in hand is even more enticing.

And so begins our effort to convert some "stuff" into money. Currently, I'm helping Tim sell more of his Magic cards. We've agreed that the funds from that will sit in the bank until we know more about our plans. As will the profits from a few items I'm selling on eBay.

Once that is done, I'm considering attacking my bead collection. I like it but I haven't touched them in ages, it's an expensive hobby, and I never end up finishing things. Parceled up into small lots, I think I could net some decent money. Nothing huge, but $20-40 could go a long way.

At this point, part of me is also getting morbidly curious: How much could we end up making from this sell-off? I want to find out how much stuff we have that we don't really want to take with us. How much could we sell as we go? That is, what could we sell without really missing it -- even if we didn't move for a year?

Have you ever taken stock of your belongings? Ever wondered how much you could do without? How much you could get for them? What would you absolutely keep if you moved out of state?

Labels: ,

Tuesday, June 16

Is getting deeper into debt ever justifiable?

Photo by Gloria Payne

I think there are some arguments to be made that it is. But it's rare.

There are some obvious cases, such as medical costs, where money is not the most important item on the agenda. And certainly, you can make a case for student loans, although these are increasingly coming under fire. (To be fair, the criticism is generally aimed at students who emerge from graduate school so deeply in debt that their loan payments suck up most of their pay.)

Still, are there other cases?

This is the thought that bounced around my cranium this past weekend. Because we're moving to Arizona.

Not immediately, so don't get up on those soapboxes just yet. But the idea of just saying, "What the hell!" and taking off... It was alluring. Well, for everything except the actual, horrible process of packing up whatever you don't sell and lugging it across the country.

The reason we're considering Arizona is that Tim's skin was nearly flare-up free during the two times he lived there. Rash free, even.

Let me put this in perspective. Whenever we'd meet a new doctor, Tim would mention his eczema. The doctor would glance over and say, "Yeah, I see it's flared up pretty badly right now." Tim would give a small smirk and break the news that this was a good day for his skin. Put another way, every single doctor and pharmacist has told us that Tim's case is the worst (or, very occasionally, one of the worst) they had ever seen.

Meanwhile, as summer creeps on and the humidity rises, Tim's skin is getting worse. And I watch my husband be nearly constantly uncomfortable.

So, as much as I love the Seattle area, I realized we have to get the heck out of Washington. The sooner the better.

Unfortunately, there are a few very compelling reasons why we can't move just yet:

  1. We owe $6707 on our Citi card (yes, I know I need to update my ticker) and $385 on another that was 0 percent.
  2. Tim's rediscovered student loan (link) is still at $4100 -- about $600 of which will fall off once the loan is rehabbed.
  3. We owe parents a total of $5,000.
  4. We'd need a reasonable down payment for a car. Bus is not an option down there.
  5. We'd need first/last/deposit for a new place
  6. We'd need money to cover the move.

Certainly, it's not the best list in the whole wide world. Especially considering that we can only throw about $300-400 a month against it.

But it wasn't this that set my mind on overdrive. It was this fun, circle of facts:

  • Tim's skin is so much better in AZ, he can work with almost no trouble
  • With a full-time paycheck (and the cheaper rent), we could get out of debt quickly
  • But we can't afford to move down there until we're further out of debt
  • And we won't be out of debt for awhile, because his skin acts up so much
  • And that won't change until we move down to AZ.

Talk about maddening!

Don't worry, I'm not going to rationalize a move at this point in time. Even if we could borrow/save up the money for a new place, we'd never be able to get financing for a reliable car. (Since we wouldn't know any mechanics, I'd probably just want to get a brand new one and keep it until it's absolutely dead.)

So we'd need around $1500-2000 for the apartment -- first & last month's rent, deposit and pet deposit -- plus a few thousand for a car downpayment, plus however much it would cost to move. Even being (extremely) conservative, that would be $5,000 we'd need just to get down there. And the cheaper rent would be negated by the car payment.

Still, there's part of me that keeps roving around the apartment, trying to figure out what we could get sell. Wondering if there's a point at which we could rationalize it, so that my husband can be comfortable in his own skin.

Not very smart from a personal finance perspective. It scares me a little, frankly, the idea of going further into debt. But there are times when money is a secondary concern.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 15

Are register rewards worth it?

Photo by Evelynishere

Or do you just end up spending more?

Staples, Walgreens, and now even grocery stores are using "savings" programs that are mainly designed to make you a repeat customer. Even if it's somewhat forcibly.

The stores offer savings in the form of credit against future purchases. So while you think you're saving in the present, you're really saving in the future. Or, looked at another way, you're simply enjoying the benefits in the future from money you already spent in the past -- all while thinking you're getting a good deal. It's a tad dizzying, really.

Let me give an example: Walgreen's recently advertised Kashi cereal as 3 boxes for $7. You bought 3 boxes, paid $10 and got a $3 Register Reward slip. You can use that slip on your next purchase at the store.

So, in fact, you're not saving money on the cereal. You're saving money on future purchases. There's a pretty big distinction.

One of the main problems here is that Register Rewards (and programs like them) expire. So, like rebates, there's a good chance that people won't use them. The company gets product sold, makes about the normal profit and customers come away feeling like they got a great deal. How could companies not love this process?!

Second, there's the old double-accounting trick. At least, that's what I call it. I'm very susceptible to it. I attribute that to the following: My brain is continuously distracted by random thoughts, lists of errands and any nearby shiny objects. Once you add the fog that rolls in with my readily accessible fatigue, you've got a former calculus student working up a sweat trying to do basic math some days.

So, when I use these programs, it's pretty common for the ole' gray matter to account twice for savings that occur only once. Such as: "Golly, it's so cool that I just got 3 boxes of Kashi for $7" -- even though I just paid $10 -- and then later, "Hey, while we're here, I'm going to get this candy because it's practically free. I have a $3 off coupon!"

See what just happened there? (If so, you're often one step ahead of me.) The discount got used in two different ways. So, in my mind, I saved $6. In fact, the "discount" only works if I buy something I'd buy anyway.

And, as I said before, you could question whether I would save any money at all, really. I'd pay $10 for 3 boxes of Kashi. Then, I would come back to Walgreen's and spend my $3 in Register Rewards. Since your item has to at least be equal to the RR slip, I'd end up paying 27 cents in sales tax.

So, I shelled out a minimum of $10.27, got a $3 certificate, and am being told I got it for $7. Anyone else see a logistical problem here?

If you plan ahead, you can avoid some of the confusion inherent in such complex transactions. For example, I bought three boxes, received my RR slip and gave it to Tim. While his three boxes were being rung up, I went back and got the last three left on the shelf. When I came back, he handed me his RR slip.

So, we paid $10, $7 and $7. In all, we got 9 boxes for $24. That's $2.67 a box -- or 34 cents more than advertised. Oh, and now we have a leftover RR to use for our next drug store need. Definitely not the worst deal in the world. It's a heck of a lot cheaper than the usual $4+ grocery store price and even cheaper than the large boxes at Sam's Club. Even if we let the RR lapse.

Since all of my prescriptions are at Walgreen's, this isn't a big deal. But if you're not a regular shopper there, the store just guaranteed that you'll make a return visit. (If you don't, it doesn't have to give you the discount, so it's win-win.)

And most people don't just get the one item at the drug store. There are a few hard-core shoppers who can manage it. But for most, these Register Rewards act like loss-leaders. They lure you into the store for one cheap item; then you come out, dazed, with an arm full of stuff and a significantly lighter wallet.

It's insidious.


Albertsons has been doing something similar around once a month. If you buy $25 worth of certain products, you get $5 off. You have to look closely (or, at least, I did) to notice that it's in the form of a $5 credit toward your purchase the next week. Good only for that week.

Tim and I had to work carefully to be sure that we a) used it before it expired and b) bought only essentials with it, lest we fall prey to the notion that it was "free" money. These days, I only participate in those deals if I actually need $25 worth of the products. I rarely do.


For a long time, Staples/Office Depot/Office Max let you return empty printer cartridges. Each cartridge netted you a $3 discount on a purchase. Maximum of three a day.

This was a great way to get a discount on ink. Or get shipping supplies if you ran a small business. My mom actually collected cartridges at the University of Washington, where they were simply being thrown away, and would use the discounts to buy and donate school supplies: backpacks, binders, pens, pencils, and more for families who couldn't afford those items.

Then the stores wised up. Now, you can turn in as many as 25 a day (at least, at Office Depot) but the discount comes later. Once a quarter, to be exact. And the credit is valid only for a couple of weeks. If you miss that window, too bad.

This means that people will be rushed and panicked, especially if they wait until the last minute. They won't want to "lose" the credit, so they'll buy things they probably didn't really need. This easily leads to excessive spending, which means a profit for the company.

Really, though, the company wins in two ways:

  1. People think small with small amounts. But as the amount grows, so does their imagination. So, if they get a $3 -- or even a $9 -- discount, they'll probably spend it carefully. But, over the course of three months, those discounts accumulate. When they get up above $10 or so, people start to think bigger. If they get it up over the $20 or $30 mark, they're likely to see it as a way to get a discount on a big ticket item. So what they once would have used to get things free, now becomes a means to afford expensive purchases. Nice little deal for the company.
  2. People have to come back in. In order to use the credit, which most of us begin to think of as our due, we have to go back. Or on to the website. Either way, the store gets us back in -- and in a mood to consume, no less!

Of course, the stores lose out on people like my mom, who simply stocks up on paper and ink and rarely goes over her credit amount. Perhaps soon enough they'll change it to something that necessitates purchase? As in, "Get $40 off (a purchase of $75 or more)."

I certainly hope not. But I think it's important for all consumers to remember that companies create rewards programs to get customers in the door. In other words, no rewards program is completely selfless -- all have ulterior motives. These programs are created to get you in the store, spending. It's a careful balance for the companies: Good enough rewards to keep customers happy, without losing too many profits.

In other words, remember that companies create (and tweak) these programs to always be in their best interest. So long as you remember that, you stand a better chance of actually getting a deal.

Good questions to ask are:

  • Would I normally buy/use these products?
  • Will I actually use the products (or reward)?
  • Is it in my financial interest to use the reward?
If the answer to any of the above is "no," taking advantage of the offer will more than likely lead to you, wandering aisles of a store, trying to find things to buy. Things you don't need. All so you can take full advantage of a deal that isn't really that great a deal.
If you simply remember that even the best rewards programs are part of a capitalist business, you will have, I think, a better chance of getting real value from these programs.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, June 14

Mixed marriages: When savers and spenders unite

Picture by Francis Carnauba

Forget religious and cultural differences, the fastest way to relationship problems is a gap in financial outlooks. The most obvious example is when a frugal person marries a spender, but problems can exist when the partners are simply different levels of frugal. Whoever is more frugal will probably consider the other to be something of a spender.

Sometimes, though, it's simply a case of different priorities. Some people believe in pure self-denial until debt is erased; others want to enjoy the present while pummeling debt. Of course, sometimes it really is a case of saver vs spender.

At least, that's how I felt with Tim for a long time. He was a spender being converted to frugality; I grew up being careful with money. It seemed only natural that I become CFO of the relationship. I was happy to take care of paying bills and scheduling debt payments, but there was one major aspect of the job that gave me pause: reconciling our different approaches toward money.

Even today, Tim's attitude is more inclined to spend -- which is not always a bad thing. He finds ways to save or, at least, not to spend. But if it comes down to missing out on a good experience, he is more likely to consider both sides. I, on the other hand, am more inclined toward self-abnegation.

We have, over the last three years, started to balance each other out. Even two years ago, Tim wouldn't have even stopped to consider forgoing fun. Now, he's more likely to really think it through. This, in turn, helps me to know that when he lobbies for us to spend money, it's probably pretty important to him.

Wherever you all on the frugality spectrum, one thing is pretty obvious: Money is an explosive issue. According to my therapist, it's the second most common argument in marriages. (Kids are the first.) That statistic certainly makes sense to me.

Money is how we get through this world and our lives. It determines things as basic as if we can feed and clothe ourselves. (And how well we do it.) To many, it measures success and failure; happiness and misery. Money is also one of the main was we define ourselves: either by what we can buy with it -- all the latest toys, fashion and baubles -- or by how much we consciously choose not to spend.

Of course, the major problem is that we rarely fall in love with people with the exact same financial outlook. (If you found one, congratulations and hang on for dear life!) So, when faced with disparate outlooks on finances, how do you come up with a plan you can both stick to?

Paid Twice discusses this in a recent post. She makes a lot of good points, particularly about compromise. She also touched on a very important one: transparency. Even if you take care of all financial matters, it's best, she advises, to sit down with your partner. Go over basic plans, actions and goals. What's more, comb through the nitty, gritty details, so your partner can see where the money goes. That's what helped her marriage.

I think this advice is spot on. Your partner needs to know that your rules are't arbitrary. Then both parties will understand why rules are in place, what purpose they serve. I would add that it's a good opportunity to make sure that both parties are happy with current goals and priorities. Sometimes it's good to have short-term goals, as well as long-term ones. (Though, of course, that's spoken as someone who believes in small indulgences to avoid overall frugal burnout.)

In addition, I would strongly recommend Liz Pulliam Weston's piece Get Real: Marriage is a Business. It's not exactly romantic. To some, it may even seem a little too hard-hearted. But I think the divorce rate would be lower if more people took these steps before they said "I do." To quote, briefly, from the article:

Love does not conquer all. If you and your soul mate can't figure out how
to paddle in the same direction, you'll wind up going in financial circles or --
to extend the metaphor painfully -- down the drain.

This advice could save a lot of relationships. As Tim and I learned -- Well, scratch that. Let's be honest: As I learned, the key to any good relationship is compromise. I always knew it in theory, but when it comes to frugality, I'm rigid as a... er... very rigid item. (Give me a break, folks, it's Sunday. My brain still has a whole 24 hours off!)

At any rate, that's a story for another day. Probably a day later this week...

Labels: ,

Friday, June 12

Freebie Friday

Freebie Friday is brought to you by The Freebie Blogger. Check out that website for constantly updated free samples, events and other opportunities.

If you have a little one at home, or one on the way, click here for a nice list of freebies for babies & moms!

Become a Nesquik Shaker and you may receive coupons for free products and promotional items.

Walmart is offering a free sample of Crest Pro-Health Enamel Shield Toothpaste

Benihana's will give you a free dinner during the month of your birthday.

Print a coupon for a free tube of Advantage Multi (flea and tick control) for cats and dogs.

Sign up to receive a free GeoTrax Animated DVD titled “Steamer and Samuel Save The Day”.

The first 500 people each day can get a coupon for free Gatorade. And don't forget to get your free candy bar coupons today! is offering a free garden ebook and access to 1,000's of free craft ideas.

Sign up to receive a free pack of Sundiwear Stickers - the stickers that turn red so your child won’t.

Walmart is offering a free sample of Tampax Pearl.

Toys R Us stores will be having a Super Why! Play Day on Saturday, June 13th from 12-2 PM. This event will include storytime, coloring fun, alphabet bingo, and giveaways. Children will also receive a free mask (while supplies last).

Get a free 8X10 photo enlargement from with the code FREE8X10. Expires 6/21/09, must be picked up in-store. You can also get 25 free 4X6 prints from with the code JUNE25 through 6/30/09. Shipping is free with in-store pickup.

Thursday, June 11

They like me, they really like me!

It would appear that luck is with me this week. Two of my blog posts caught the eye of the folks over at the Wall Street Journal finance blog, The Wallet.

If you followed one of those two links -- well, really, any link that brought you here -- I appreciate your taking the time to check out this blog. If you like what you see, I do hope you will consider subscribing.

Also, if you aren't yet signed up with Swag Bucks (one of the most addictive rewards programs ever) you should know that the good folks at are offering my readers the chance to start out with six Swag Bucks -- double the normal amount. Just click here to find out more about the program and to get the special code that will net you the extra 3 bucks.

Finally, a reminder that tomorrow is Freebie Friday, which will highlight free events, samples and other items of interest, all courtesy of The Freebie Blogger.

Wednesday, June 10

How far do you have to go to be frugal?

Custom Tailored by Chase Reeves

On Sunday, I asked how you know you need to trim the budget. Now, I'd like to go yet another step further and tackle the time-old PF question: How far do you have to go to be frugal?

I am confident that this question has no answer -- at least, not one that will fit everyone. Or even close to everyone.

My mom is a pillar of frugality. She goes from store to store with a detailed list and a full coupon holder. She grabs extra coupons from the recycle bin in our hallway -- especially the Albertson's double coupon forms. She also ruthlessly pursues rebates, not just filling them out, but also marking due dates on the calendar, so she can be sure all get sent to her.

Perhaps most impressively, she stocks up in a way that would make most survivalists proud. She has a chest freezer, for when she loads up on great meat and/or bread sales. Tim and I haven't had to buy toilet paper in at least a year. She's always got at least 5 packages on hand at any time. Need a new toothbrush? Out of toothpaste? Go down to Mom's. (She does donate most of these, and deodorant, to various shelters in the area.) I have about 8 bottles of Scrubbing Bubbles and untold boxes of Electrasol.

In short, Tim's and my life would be painfully more expensive without Mom's habits.

By comparison, I could only be called moderately frugal. (And some might even consider that charitable.)

  • We eat out or get delivery more than she does. Mainly, this is when our health isn't good. But not exclusively.
  • We get new clothes when our old ones wear out, rather than shop at thrift stores. (It's hard for me to find things that fit, as I'm rather zaftig. And I doubt Tim's skin could handle trying on used clothes: He's allergic to powder detergent.)
  • My energy keeps me from going to each and every store, though I do my best to only get what's on sale at each place. Still, even if I were healthy, I would probably get the occasional item priced 10 cents more.
  • We have DishTV and even upgraded. While we're easily getting our money's worth, some would argue that, if we really wanted to save money, we'd turn off the TV and read more books. I, of course, would argue that it's not like we can simply go on nature hikes with my energy and Tim's skin/seasonal allergies. But I'm sure there are other ways to find entertainment.
  • We buy popcorn at the movies. I'm trying to un-Pavlov ourselves on this one, especially since most of the popcorn is usually eaten by the first 10 minutes of the film. But, since we don't pay for tickets or soda (yet another shout-out to all-mighty, wonderful Coke Rewards), it is an indulgence that I don't always feel bad about.
  • I don't do rebates -- the fatigue/depression (take your pick) keeps me from being organized enough.
  • I don't make my own cleaners. It's arguably cheaper and better for the environment. It's also something I'm just not up to right now.
  • I like to buy hair salon shampoos/conditioners. I'm sure some of the drug store brands are just as good. But for my curly(ish) hair, I do notice a difference. Though lately, I've been alternating between drug store and hair salon products. And only washing my hair every other day.

Nonetheless, I consider myself frugal. I do extensive comparison shopping and research before any electronics buy. I clip coupons. I sit down with the circulars each week and make lists of different items at different stores. I stock up when there's a sale. I enjoy plenty of frugal activities, such as reading. Other than replacing a 5-year-old pair of pants, the only clothes I bought in over a year were absolutely necessary.

So how can my mother and I both be considered frugal? What is the threshold for living frugally? Is there one?

I think this comes down to the usual basic questions of personal finance: When money is tight or debt is large, how close to the bone do you have to cut? What should you be willing to forgo? When is it time for even the beloved luxureeds should be sent away? (To a farm, where there's lots of land, and they can chase rabbits.)

Is there one, definable moment when the budget should be cut? When paring things down goes from a good idea to a clear mandate?

And if such a point exists, how do you know when you have to cut all necessities? Is it only with a major financial blow, such as job loss or some catastrophe? Is it merely when debt reduction is crawling along at an unsatisfactory pace? For that matter, what is a reasonable pace to pay down debt?

Our debt reduction is going frustratingly slowly, since we can only throw $300-400 each month. It's been awhile since we had a more "normal" income, so honestly I'm not sure what average earners should pay -- if such a term is ever applicable.

I certainly don't advocate cutting all luxuries out. This increases the chance of frugal burnout and financial binges. Obviously, in cases of job loss or other major financial catastrophe, you cut whatever you have to in order to survive. But I'm a big fan of living while you pay down debt, not just surviving.

What do you think? How desperate would you have to be before you'd give up everything not absolutely essential to survival?

Labels: ,

Tuesday, June 9


As promised, folks, today I'm bringing you a special offer from Swag Bucks!

In deference to some big changes at the program (all good, I promise), they are offering my readers the chance to sign up and get SIX Swag Bucks. That's double the normal amount!

All you have to do is go here to the registration form. Fill out your personal information and, when you get to the blue highlighted box at the bottom of the form, input the Swag Code "PENNYPICKING" -- be sure to use all caps. (The code will work until 11:59 PM PST on Tuesday, June 16th.)

Voila! You will have 6 Swag Bucks tucked safely in your account.

Of course, you can save up for the bigger stuff. But maybe you want to go on a spending spree! Well, then try your luck in one of the many "Swagstakes" to try your luck at winning prize packs, vintage posters, guitars, or even 100 - 1,000 Swagbucks.

If you're more interested in a sure thing, the Swag Store has prizes starting as low as 3 Swagbucks.

  • Need some tunes? Get an MP3 for as little as 3 Swagbucks.
  • Feeling nostalgic? Go get a Return of the Jedi trading card for 20 Swagbucks. (Or save up for some Star Wars collectible figures.)
  • Saving up for something on Amazon? You can get a $5 gift card for only 45 Swagbucks!
  • You can also get electronics, airline miles, and more!

Whatever you decide you want, check out the Swag Store and take advantage of the special gift with purchase offered on certain items! Just in case giving us free stuff wasn't enough, these guys want to give us free stuff for getting free stuff!

And you'll have plenty to look at. Starting today, Tuesday, June 9th, the video game section is going to get a lot bigger. As in thousands of new & used titles, many on special sales.

On Wednesday, you will see a new feature, "Shop & Earn Favorites." Just choose your favorite Shop & Earn stores. After that, you'll automatically be notified when the stores have new coupons and deals.

On Thursday, go check out the new homepage -- Swagbucks 2.5. I've been told it's cleaner, easier to navigate, has new special elements and is, in general, snazzier than ever!

Finally, throughout the week, the Swag Bucks team will be bringing you "Swag Code Hunts" on the site's blog, as well as on Facebook and Twitter pages. I've done several of these hunts, and they're a little frantic but tons of fun! And there's nothing like a gratuitous Swag Buck in your account to make you smile!

Once you're signed up, don't forget to kick your Swag Bucks earning into high gear with the Swag Bucks Widget. This 300 px by 301 px box will have:

  • A referral tab (how else will you recruit your Swag-Bucks-searching minions?!)
  • A search box (A good reminder for you -- and said minions -- to do their searches)
  • Swag code alerts (Keeps you from having to constantly check in)
  • Pictures of Swag Store items (Gives a new meaning to "Keep your eyes on the prize!")

Put it on your blog, on social bookmarking pages and profiles... Wherever you think you can recruit more people to the cult-y goodness that is Swag Bucks. (But better than a cult, because rather than giving up your worldly possession, you get more!)

So go, sign up, and start earning!


Sunday, June 7

When is it time to cull the budget?

Photo by Jeff Keen

On Thursday, I talked about the fact that there should be distinctions among the various non-necessary expenses. Right now, they're all considered "luxuries" or "wants." But some items are more dear to us than others. (Thanks to Revanche for supplying me with the term "luxureeds" in the comments section of Thursday's post!)

So, when we start the debt reduction process -- or even just begin living more frugally -- we assess our expenses. We trim out the absolute expendable stuff. We try to keep desirable luxuries (ie, eating out or buying clothes) to a minimum. And slowly we begin to make progress.

Still, budgets are made to be tweaked. So at what point do we take it upon ourselves to reassess our priorities? When do we question what we need, what we want and what we can afford? In short, when is it time to cull your budget?

Many of us have basic budget allotments each month. Personally, I do a week-by-week budget because a) Tim gets his unemployment checks weekly, b) we have so many costs it's easier to break them down and c) it keeps us from spending all available funds at the beginning of the month. Whether you go month to month, week to week or even day to day, the real question remains: How often do you review your budget?

We're not just talking about updating for new expenses or triumphantly lowering the amount of old ones after a successful attempt to decrease your bills. This is the sort of thing that should be an ongoing effort or, at the very least, something that you do at the start of each budget cycle.

I guess I'm wondering how folks handle the more thorough budget scrutiny. Do you sit down and really think through your necessities, luxureeds and flat-out luxuries? Do you make an effort to slowly pare down further? In other words, is there a defining moment when you realize your current effort isn't enough?

I know that some PF bloggers have trial periods. Frugal Dad and his wife decided to try living without expanded cable. After one year, they talked and evaluated whether to continued. (In the end, they reinstated the cable, but it was more for the kids than the adults.) Others try to treat it like a game. They are always trying to find a new savings route: a new savings method, a new attempt to lower expenses, a new item they can live without.

So, for you, is budget scrutiny an ongoing thing? Is it a constantly simmering back burner in your head? Or do you and your spouse schedule times to evaluate budgetary issues? Or is it simply spotaneous, as you find inspiration through blogs, friends' anecdotes or bits of news?

Labels: , ,

Saturday, June 6

How much mad money do you allow?

Kind of like emergency fund vs. debt reduction this is one of the eternal questions, no?

Especially while you're still in debt, how much money do you give yourself to spend without concern? And how much is that in relation to your actual income?

This question is once again rearing its head for Tim and I. For awhile, we had a whopping $10 each per week. That got nixed in the midst of our terrible April. And has yet to be reinstated.

It wasn't a big deal, really, because Tim has been selling so many Magic cards, he has been getting along with that money. But that source has officially run dry until we get some more orders together to mail off.

He recently approached me about this. Right around the time I was trying to find $20 in the weekly budget for farmer's market season. Tim loves the special cheeses (I swear that boy was a cow in a previous life), and I delight in the multitudes of cherries (and, later, peaches).

Tim's request is actually very financially sound. He doesn't even want $10 a week, necessarily. Well, I'm sure he wouldn't mind it, but he knows it'll stress me out. So he's asking for a whopping $5 a week. That would mean finding $25 a week. Surely, not an insurmountable task.

And I've always believed that having no money to spend on yourself is one of the quickest paths to insanity. At the same time, every dollar we spend on ourselves is a dollar that could go toward debt. So where does one draw the line? And where should the mad money come from?

I'm still not sure what a good amount is. I do, however, know what we can afford -- at least, in my mind. It's not much. So I had to get creative, especially in finding the money. In the end, it seemed easier to make a few small cuts, which makes the whole process a lot less painful.

Tim's mad money, actually, won't even be from a cut, so much as a reinstatement. He used to get $30 a month: three, $5 Friday Night Magic tournaments and one $15 draft tournament. (The latter is more expensive because you walk away with new cards, regardless of how you do.) Once he began playing Magic Online, I put the funds toward debt. Since it's only been about a month, though, it should be a relatively pain-free reversal to make.

As for the farmer's market, I think the money should come from our food funds. It's logical because a) we're buying food and b) our food budget is one of our only flexible expenses. My first inclination was to pillage the grocery budget. But $10 per person per week would mean our $200 grocery budget would shrink to $120. That's way too big a jump to make all at once. We'd probably fall and hit our heads, thereby incurring hospital bills. And metaphorical injuries are surprisingly expensive!

So, I'm thinking we cut from two different sources: $10 from the weekly grocery budget, $10 from the weekly delivery/eating out budget. This will keep the "food-money from food-money" ideal in place, but without going into privation mode. And I think it'll help keep us on better track in regards to delivery and eating out.

So that's my tentative plan. (At least, until I remember that I can easily plow through 3 lbs of cherries in two or three days, when left to my own devices, and so have to increase my farmer's market allowance.) It might work for us, it might not.

You may have noticed that I haven't allotted myself any mad money. It wasn't an oversight. Here's the thing: Once I have a little money, I start noticing all the things I want. No matter how diligently I save up for something, in the meantime I find at least five other things I wouldn't mind getting. It's very frustrating and leads to the urge to spend spend spend. In other words, it ends with my being resentful and horribly materialistic. It's unpleasant, and it's not the kind of person I want to be.

Instead, I think I'm going to just take things as they come. I did already spend a pretty penny on some new clothes that would actually fit. Things like that crop up every so often.

In fact, I've become acutely aware in the past sweltering week that two sports bras and one set of shorts is truly not enough when the weather is hot and my sweat glands go into overdrive. So, today we're going to Old Navy to use the new coupon I have -- 30% off $50 or more -- to get two or three more sports bras and a couple more pairs of shorts.

Frankly, I wish I didn't have to spend at all. It makes me feel exponentially further away from getting debt free. But the fact is, I need this stuff. And, other than the aforementioned Old Navy trip, I haven't spent money on clothes since our honeymoon last May. A pretty good track record, if I do say so myself.

So, to recap our mad money plan: $10 a week from the meals out/delivery fund and $10 a week from the grocery fund will take care of the farmer's market needs; Tim gets his $30/month back for Magic; and I get along as needed because if I have a little money, I start to want a lot of money.

Does that seem reasonable? How do you deal with mad money? How did you come up with your plan?

Labels: , ,

A few housekeeping items

I know things have been a little uneven here lately. My work got a big shake-up in the form of Digg nixing shouts. Completely. That means I've spent the last two weeks a) tracking down as many people from Digg as possible on Twitter and b) tweeting my ever-lovin' brains out trying to replicate the same sorts of results with the new system that I got via Digg.

While results have been mixed, the one constant has been an omnipresent near-headache. Ya know the kind? Where your brain is threatening to implode just to get away from the sheer barrage of (typed) noise on your computer screen?

It's not even exactly a headache or near-headache so much as a feeling of being both overwhelmed -- by the amount of info entering my cranium (via my eyeballs) to fill my brain up far beyond capacity -- and yet leaving the computer with almost no new or useful information. Ah, technology!

Cynical rantings aside, I am starting to get my feet back under me. So things should get more or less back on track. But a new wrinkle has also appeared in the form of a weight loss challenge I'm doing thanks to Man vs. Debt. We are divided into teams and have 61 days to reach our target goals. I settled on a very reasonable 10 pounds. So I've been taking walks, being careful about what I eat, etc. (So far, already lost 1 pound thankyouverymuch.)

Despite all these distractions, I'm happy to say that readership is still growing in fits and starts. It will hopefully get better once I get back on the carnival track again. But I seem to be well on track to meet my goal of 300 readers by my blog-o-versary in late July. I'm considering increasing it to 400, actually. But first I need to get back into the swing of things.

On that note, I am getting prepared to move to my own domain. By which I mean, I suppose, getting prepared to get prepared. I've talked to Mrs. Micah a bit to get a ballpark figure or two on how much everything would cost. She is recommending Thesis, so that will add some to the total, but it is a very simple, elegant and easily-manipulated-by-non-techies-like-me design. So while I am checking out other themes, I do keep coming back to Thesis. So I'm slowly putting away some money.

My main concern right now is my header. I've asked a few different bloggers where they got their header art done. No reply. Sigh. So if anyone knows someone who does header art, I would dearly love his or her contact info. I know what I want. Just not who to talk to.

Finally, and perhaps most important to your own frugal needs: SWAGBUCKS!

Got your attention, have I? Swell! On Monday, I'll be announcing some cool promos that the Swagbucks folks have cooked up, along with a special registration code that will net you extra if you're late to the Swagbucks game.

That's about all I can say for now. But I wanted to give you a heads up to look for Monday's post.

Friday, June 5

Freebie Friday

Freebie Friday is brought to you by The Freebie Blogger.

Get a free Glade Candle Tin from Right at Home.

Walmart is offering a free sample of Rohto Eye Drops.

Sign up for a free handmade soap sample from Cloud 9.

Get free donuts today (6/5) in celebration of National Donut Day! Click here.

Juicy Juice is offering a free 14 oz. Reusable Water Bottle when you register for their online community.

Sign up to receive a free one year subscription to Business Week magazine from Rewards Gold.

Enfamil is again offering a free Breast Feeding Support Kit and free formula samples.

Sign up to receive a free Carefree Ultra Protection Liners Sample.

CVS is still offering up to 50 free digital prints. Click here.

Walmart is once again offering a free sample of Crest Whitestrips Advanced Seal.

The Topps Top of the Class Program will award your child with a free trading card gift when you bring in a report card to a participating store.

Carrabba’s Italian Grill is offering a certificate good for a free appetizer plus a chance to win a trip to Napa Valley when you enter their “Toast To Dad” contest.

Wednesday, June 3

Want vs need: Is it too simplistic?

As I reviewed the budget yesterday, seeing if we could pare the budget down to $1,000 a month, I began to really consider the PF idea of "wants vs. needs." It's one of the most basic PF tenets -- and for good reason. When people's financial lives are out of control, they tend to have very skewed ideas of what is a "need."

But how long should that last?

Is it really a good idea to keep this idea of things being either expendable or not? Of course, there are three basic needs: food, shelter, clothing. Once those are met, the rest are luxuries.

But are they, really? Obviously, my medications are not luxuries. If I don't have them -- or don't have enough of them -- I stop being able to function. I am either too exhausted to accomplish much of anything, or I am too severely depressed to cope with the world. Similarly, Tim needs his inhaler. And if he doesn't see a doctor regularly, his skin tends to become so terrible that he can't wear clothes. So, medical items, and medical services, should probably be added as necessities.

At the moment, that about taps out my ideas of absolute necessities. Anything else is technically a luxury. But aren't there gradations? When people get rid of non-vital expenses, they tend to prioritize. Sometimes it's based on cost -- a weekly breakfast with friends is going to be more tenable than a weekly massage -- but other times it's based priorities.

For example, Tim and I pay $60 for Dish TV. It isn't technically a necessity. But since we're both home all the time, it's a closer to the bottom of the "Expendable expenses" list. So, it's not really a need, but our lives would be a lot worse without it. My energy issues prevent us from forgoing TV in favor of hiking or other sporty activities that offer hours-long entertainment. While Tim and I could spend more time online, it would mean more evenings of each of us doing our own thing and not interacting -- not great for a marriage. It would also probably make us more prone to cabin fever, which can result in more outings (and, thereby, more unnecessary spending).

Whether or not you agree with this line of thinking, we all have things that we acknowledge aren't actually "needs," but are loathe to call "luxuries." We think of them as things we "need" inasmuch as we can possibly find a way to afford it.

Of course, most of us have more than one luxury. Even the most dedicated PF bloggers aren't going to go completely bare bones. Living that way tends to lead to frugal burnout. Most of us have a range of "wants" -- some large, some small. Most of us also have prioritized them, in case fat needs to be trimmed from the budget.

So we have things we could give up relatively easily (if somewhat reluctantly) and things that we will cling to tenaciously until there is absolutely no reasonable way to afford/justify it anymore. But we have the same term for both. How much sense does that make?

Thus far, I've only come up with "needxuries" (or maybe "neexuries" but I think the former looks better).

Some of you may be wondering why such a distinction is important. There is an awful lot of comments in the blogosphere that cast aspersions on people's budgets. While people have a right to their own opinions, they often have different priorities than the person who has to live with the budget. Wouldn't it be nice, when talking about expenses, to have a kind of shorthand for "very important" expense? Rather than answering various readers' suggestions that you cut the items most dear to you, they would know better what you could do without.

Granted, this isn't a huge issue. But I know some bloggers deal with very judgmental readers. (I'm lucky to have escaped most of that with you awesome folks!) And there is simply the annoyance of having to listen to people tell you to cut the item that you want to hold onto the most.

So, yeah, we could all start laying out our budgets by priority level. But isn't making up a new word more fun? Someone had to come up with "smores" and "blog," right? So let's brake some new ground here.

What words or terms would you use to denote the importance of your various expenses?

Labels: , ,