Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Trip Planning

I'm planning my next trip and I'm so excited I can barely handle it. I love going new places and revisiting the old places. During undergrad and at my first 'real' job I averaged 4-7 flights and a few smaller trips in between each year.

Moving west has significantly impaired my traveling lifestyle. No cheap east coast flights to Europe/the Carribean. The 2-3 hour drive to other cities/the beach is also gone. These things call responsiblities also seem to get in the way. This other not so fun thing called debt is also cramping my stlye.

The inspiration for the trip is my little cousin's graduation. She is number 3 on my list (after my husband and mom) of favorite people so there's no way I would miss her getting those fancy pieces of paper. On my mom's side of the family graduations & weddings tend to be the family reunions. The last 3 weddings (including mine) have been elopements and my undergrad graduation big get together.

I'll be seeing: the graduation girl, my mom, 2-3 aunts, 1-2 uncles, 4+ cousins, and whoever else decides to show up. Since I'm making the trip east I'm also working in my best girlfriends, a few old coworkers, the people I like from high school, and my second moms.

This is going to be a 3 city 10 day trip with lots of spending. I'm still working out the details but I'm thinking somewhere around $1,500 from my personal 'whatever' account. The breakdown:

Airfare: $325
Bus/Train fare: $150
Food & Alcohol: $500
Entertainment: $250
Clothing: $100
Rental Car (?): $100
Subway/Taxis: $75

Food and getting around are the biggest parts of this budget. I'm still trying to work out how I'll be getting between DC-Philly-NYC to see my girlfriends. East Coast folks, please tell me there's been an improvement on the Chinatown bus (or something like it). If I rent a car it will be for a few days in DC/the burbs to ease the demand on my aunt housing us and make seeing folks at the ends of the red/green lines easier. Using the subway/taxis will be my main way of getting around. The food & alcohol is because I like to eat and drink- I'm ready for my favorite mango mojitos, good Thai food, tapas, fake meat galore, and anything else I'm feeling at the moment.

As I solidify my plans I'll have a better idea about getting around between city's and how much I'll actually need to spend. I also need to come up with an amazing graduation gift for my cousin. So far her only request has been me & 2 younger cousins at her house graduation weekend.

Monday, March 30, 2009

My Budget Secret...

I don't have one.

We have a money allocation system (80% of earnings to household, including Roths and 20% for personal spending/savings). I set grocery spending limits and guidelines if we're buying work clothes. We have debt payoff priorities. I comb through our credit card bill monthly for spending trends. But that's about it.

Irregular income + irregular expenses have made a traditional budget too much work. The difference between my husbands base salary and actual earnings last years was more than $25K (his base is not much). Paycheck to paycheck the differences can be mind boggling. New house= new bills. Electric, gas, water, & waste water are the utilities that come to mind. Our house was a foreclosure, so we couldn't ask the previous owner what the bills average. Gasoline prices are all over the place and we have to get to from work.

Even during the low months we earn enough so this isn't really a problem. We pay mortgage, credit card (in full), loans, and then send the extra to our current focus. February was the last month since the move that we didn't have funds for an extra debt payment.

As I get a better feel for our bills I'm thinking about using an accrual system for our bills that vary. We're already doing this for our insurance. Next on the list is our electric/gas bill. Our highest bill was twice as high as our lowest bill. The highest bill also coincides with the low point in our earnings.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Meal Planning-Week 1

Today was moving day for my father in law. I got to watch delivery guys put together furniture and then sit around while the guys loaded a truck with boxes. This gave me the perfect opportunity to pour through a few cookbooks.

I think that each recipe will last 2-3 meals, especially now that I'm back to just one guy in the house. I have five for the week, though other than tomorrow I'm not going to assign food to any certain day. I'm taking baby steps with this meal planning thing.

Sunday- Potato Leek Cheddar Soup w onion focaccia
Pasta Carbonara (w/ Veggie Bacon)
Tortilla Casserole
Pasta w Herbed Ricotta (need basil- may use arugula, chives)
Mushroom Empanadas

I'll let you know how they go- the only thing I've made before is the soup. Depending on how ambitious I'm feeling I may tally the costs associated.

Garden Spending

It's early in the season, but I've already spend some money on what will be my vegetable garden. So far I've just had 2-3 expenses:

Seeds- $15.00
I went in with a group of ladies to buy vegetable seeds. We came up with a list of what we were interested in, one person ordered it all online, and we did an even cost split. The other day we had a seed party where we planeted seeds that need time to germinate and took others home in baggies.

Jiffy Seed Starter Greenhouse- $8.00
I thought I'd use eggshells, paper towel cores, and other hacks I've seen around the internet. The original plan had been to split the seeds into containers and plant at home. But once they were in some of the seeds were so tiny the lady in charge reccomended planting at her place. The seemed like the easiest way to plant then transport without getting dirt all over my car.

The kit has 72 peat pellets that expand when watered. Netting that will eventually decompose holds it together. Each pellet gets a seed or two and the lid + warm environment provides the humidity to get seeds going. Though it's made of plastic, the outer part of the kit (tray & lid) can be reused for years to come. This was a little less, $6.99 + tax, but I bought a lot of things on this trip and can't don't want to spend the time to figure out tax.

Vermicompost bin- approx $30
I started this project last fall and can't remember exact prices. I used 2 rubbermaid bins, a borrowed drill, and $10 of worms to get started. This project was all start up costs. Shredded newspaper/junk mail with banking info/paper towel cores/cardboard (all already in the house) make their bedding. Our fruit and vegetable scraps are their food. All in all it's been an easy, non smelly process that will reduce costs when I buy soil.

Still to come:
Lumber- $30-50
Nails & such- $20-30

Unexpected Prosper Funds

I have money invested with Prosper and Lending Club- two peer-to-peer lending sites. The loans I've funded at both sites have been successful so far, which is great. Until recently though Prosper had a minimum withdrawal of $25 or $50. So even though I was earning money I couldn't access it.

So imagine my surprise when I logged into Prosper to get an idea of how much was hanging out there and realized that the withdrawal minimum had been lifted. As I'm sure you've already guessed that those funds ($19.76) are on their way to my bank for a brief layover before going towards debt. An additional $5.33 was at Lending Club, so next week we'll be 25.09 closer to our goals.

Prosper is going through a quiet period, so they're not taking any new lenders. Lending Club is taking new lenders. They have a nice referral program where new referred lenders receive $50. If you're interested leave a comment and I'll send a referral.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Meal Planning Month

In general I'm not someone who makes a meal plan. In the past I could get away with it, coming home from work and tossing something together. Other times I'd make a casserole or two and that would be a few meals. But since the new job, house, or housemate (insert whichever) I have not been able to get it together for more than a week or two. Lately I've been eating out too much. That and eating cereal for dinner- a lot. We've also essentially been putting money in the compost bin with vegetables that have gone bad.

So even though I generally don't like meal planning I'm going to see if it will work this month. The goal is 5-6 dinners each week and lunches for work. I'm pulling out cookbooks, visiting blogs, and calling mom to try to get things together, one week at a time. Any recommendations for vegetarian (lacto-ovo) recipes are appreciated. Assuming I can get my act together I'll be posting my weekly plan.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

And the new car is

a 2009 Prius.

Though this was not how we wanted to buy a car, we're happy with the outcome.

In a perfect world the old car would have lasted until we had 10-15K saved up for a new one. If we financed anything it would have been less than 10K. Snowball money from my car and our appliances would have sped up the saving process. We would have shopped around more, possibly buying something at auction.

This isn't a perfect world though and stuff happens. Because we have an emergency fund we had the funds to make a down payment. Even though I (we, but the financing is all on me) bought a house last summer, which does ugly things to your credit, my auto score is low/mid 700's. His scores continue to rise and are almost at the 700 mark, a good hundred points since I moved here 2.5 years ago. We also know our finances well enough to know what we can and cannot afford.

Our previous snowball plan was: car, with auto savings going to the 0% appliances; break for yard furniture; saving for a new car; mortgage below PMI; student loan

With current financing (we are shopping the rate) payments start in 1.5 months.
Current plan: my car, auto savings on 0% appliances; pay off Prius; get mortgage below PMI; student loan. Yard furniture may look different this year but that's ok. Our time frame for the Prius is max 2 years.

We are going against the grain in one area of personal finance and with it in another. We added to our debt load. This is bad. But when we looked at our non debt options (3Kish) we'd end up with a car that would not last very long and likely have horrible fuel economy. The extent of our car knowledge is- gas goes here, get the oil changed, window washer fluid goes here, so getting something that would need work was not appealing.

We plan on having this new car (and mine) until they stop running, so even though we financed quite a bit the investment will be worth it over time. Depreciation on Toyota's in general, and Prius's specifically is pretty great. We were down to an 2007 and a few 2009. The difference in sticker price when you look at similar features was $2,500. Since we plan on having it for a while we got the features, color, etc that we liked, rather than get something we didn't like as much for $1,000 less.

For those of you wondering, the other contenders were: Matrix (he felt cramped), Rav4 (wonky seat belts in the back), Corolla (I wanted another utility from the second car), Forester (I don't like AWD). There were a few more early on that I can't remember.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Time for a new car

The shop quote is in and it looks like we'll be buying a new (or new to us) car. According to the mechanic:

$1,000 buys us 4-6 weeks of life
$2,700 fixes the problems that landed the car in the shop

If we were going to try to make the car last another year there's an additional $1,000 worth of work we'd need to put into it. So at almost $4K and more than 200,000 miles on the car we'd rather get something new.

The question is what. I want something that:
  • gets decent gas mileage
  • is kid friendly
  • looks nice enough for the outside sales job he is vying for
  • less than $25K, though I'd be happier in the $10-15 range
  • can handle snow

The combination of the three makes things interesting. We haven't had kids yet, but like the house it's something on the horizon and we don't want to have to buy something else once we do have them. If they had better gas mileage I'd be all over a crossover. I go back and forth on hybrids- good for earth, but expensive. There's a good chance we'll buy something preowned if we don't do a hybrid or crossover, but then this morning I heard that some new cars are costing less than their preowned versions. Decisions, decisions.

No matter what we're going to need to do some sort of finacing and shake up our financial plans.

All and any car advice is welcome! Going without a car is also not an option. I work 15 miles east of our house, he work 25 miles south. The round trip would take 2-2.5 hours if we try to do it with just one car.

Car Trouble

= Hit to the e-fund.


This morning I was in bed, having a somewhat bizarre dream where I was hanging out with my boss and her new baby, when the phone woke me. In my household calls before 8 AM almost always mean something bad. It was my husband, letting me know he was pulling off of the highway because his car decided it didn't want to go more than 15 mph.

We got a tow from AAA, left the car at a shop, and I drove him to work. We have no idea how much it will cost to fix his car or if we're even going to bother. The plan had been to pay off my car (should happen in the next 2 months) then start saving for one for him. Depending on how much the shop says we may buy now.

There are way too many variables (cost to fix, availability of financing, rates, what to buy) for my liking. I'm crossing my fingers that it is something we can absorb into our monthly expenses and stay on plan. But something tells me it's not going to work that way.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tax Prep Costs Increasing

If you are someone else is doing your taxes, and like me you haven't gotten this taken care of yet- get going ASAP. H & R block is raising prices next Monday. I think TurboTax's date is at the end of the week. Since we're getting close to the deadline they are raising prices.

So if you've been procrastinating maybe this weekend should be tax weekend.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Spending Priorities

There is a certain amount of money we spend in our day to day lives and first year of home ownership. With everything going on in our economy I've decided to be more purposeful in where my money goes. This isn't general PF talk, looking at what my money is spent on, but literally where my money ends up.

The most important thing to me is to spend money in the places I would like to see weather this storm. When I need to make a purchase my first choice is a local business. I was watching public access the other day (yes, I'm a nerd) and our mayor said something like more than 70% of money spent at local businesses stays in the city. It's like dollars bouncing around in a pin ball machine. I can't find exact numbers, but everything I've read says more money stays in your area if you buy from a local business vs. national chain. So that's great for our local economy.

Then I try to shop within my city limits. I live on the border of my city, between 2 others, in a metro area. Work, volunteering, and life take me all over my city and the surrounding areas. But as much as possible I try to shop in my city. Sales taxes in my city fund the services I use- the libraries, recreation centers, etc. In a round about way they also fund a portion of my salary.

Finally I shop at the areas that are most convenient to my home. If I have a choice between Target near work or Target near home, I choose the one near home. Every once in a while this breaks the city limits rule, but businesses that don't take a lot of resources to reach are also important.

I told a friend about this and she said I'm being a bit neurotic. I acknowledged that it may seem that way, but I have a vested interest in my neighborhood surviving. This spirals upward, encompassing my city, metro area, state, and the US all doing well. Since I'm not in a position to spend lots of money to help the economy thinking about purchases in with this framework helps me feel like I'm doing what little I can for my community.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March Madness, Donation Style

It is mid March, time for spring weather, St. Particks Day and the NCAA basketball tournament. This year Razoo has a competition for nonprofits going on called March Goodness. The game? Who can raise the most donations.

The minimum donation is $10, which won't break the bank for most people. The prizes for your favorite nonprofit:
$10,000 GrantFor the non-profit with the most donor supporters
$3,000 Grant For the non-profit with the 2nd most donor supporters
$2,000 Grant Lucky draw among all the non-profits that have at least 50 donor supporters
$1,000 Grant Lucky draw among all the non-profits that have at least 10 donor supporters

The think I like most is that most of the nonprofits are on the smaller side and probably getting overlooked in this economy. I am still trying to decide where to put my money but will make a few donations before the end of the month. Let me know if you have any favorites!


Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Madoff Mess

Bernard Madoff is headed to court today. He just expected to plead guilty to what amounts to a giant ponzi scheme.* You can't miss him on the news and every newscast talks about the people that lost their life savings.

I think what Mr. Madoff did is horrible. I hope our judicial system punishes him adequately. But isn't the first rule of investing diversification? Aren't we all supposed to be building a balanced portfolio with a mix of asset tpes?

It is horrible that people were swindled. But anytime I see folks complaining that they lost their whole life savings I can't help but thing why was your entire life savings invested with this one person/company?

* In a ponzi scheme investors are promised crazy high returns. The high returns attract more investors. The first investors are paid the crazy returns with funds from the new investors coming in.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Hitting Home

Today the recession and the stimulus both hit a little closer to home.

So far only one person I know (a friend of a friend) had been laid off. I guess my mom (real estate agent) makes two. Today my company's fiscal agent, a large nonprofit, laid off 9 people during a restructuring. One was my main point of contact for a portion of my work.

Earlier in the day I was at a table where organizations discussed how stimulus dollars may make their way down. Their was hope, anticipation of quick turnarounds, and uncertainty what (funds and requirements) they will receive. It seems that the funds relating to my industry have made it to the state level or should be there any day now.

It's a weird juxtaposition.

The staff for my organization are all ok- at least through June when fiscal years end. Though if anything we're probably looking at pay cuts. It also doesn't seem like we'll be receiving any stimulus funds, at least not directly.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Rec

Before we moved I had an on again off again membership with my gym. I used it enough that I felt I got my money's worth, though not enough to be as healthy as I want.

When we were looking at houses I had all sorts of things that went into a matrix- proximity to schools, parks & grocery stores, room for us to grow, and space for a garden are just a few. Nearby gyms did not make the list. When we moved in the only commercial gym was a Curves, which I just wasn't feeling. Anything else is more than a 20 minute drive, which means I wouldn't go. I work downtown and everything I've looked at in that vicinity is more than I'm willing to pay (we're talking $60-120/month). I have figured out some things to do from home but I like machines that can give me stats.

The solution? Our local recreation centers. Growing up the rec center was a place to go swimming or keep out of trouble, but not really a gym. In my new city most of the rec centers have standard gym machines (treadmills, ellipticals, bikes, weights, etc). There are two within 15 minutes of our house and more across the city. The even better part- it's around $13/month when you buy three months at a time.

The main downside is that they are closed on Sundays. My friend's solution- Sundays are to get out and explore the trails just outside the city.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Monthly Progress

Debt payoff progress- the short and sweet version.

Percent paid off:
Car Loan- Up 7%
Lowes Card- Up 17%
End of PMI- Up 1%
Student Loan- Up 1%

I'm still trying to decide what to do about the 2008 Roth IRA money. If you have a favorite fund let me know.