Monday, December 29, 2008

Digging out from hundreds of emails

Peanut and I had a great time in the Midwest, when we finally got there. I saw colder temperatures and more snow than I've seen since I was too young to remember it. I met his entire extended family, tried lobster and scallops for the first time, missed out on his grandfather's famous fruit salad, and went shopping at a real mall. I had a lot of fun in general, but the best part was how much closer Peanut and I became during the week. It's hard to explain, but this past week cemented things even more--I am absolutely crazy about this guy, and the last eight months have been the best of my life.

In financial news, we didn't spend all that much since we were fed by all the family. I did just a little shopping with my giftcard from my boss--$75 goes really far at Kohls! I ended up with four new sweaters and some undies and socks. Very nice.

The best Christmas news so far came to me today--my lease is up next month at my apartment and I haven't received any renewal papers. I want to stay but didn't want to sign another year long lease since I don't know what next year holds--it seems pretty likely Peanut and I will move in together at some point. I called my landlord this morning and he agreed to turn my lease into a month-to-month rental--with no raise in price! I'm thrilled by this on a number of levels, and when I next move, I intend to first ask him if he has any bigger apartments in my building or any other building. I know landlords and management companies usually get a bad rap, and often deservedly so, but this man is a fantastic landlord. The building is maintained, the heat is on, the rent is fair, and he sees his tenants as people. Yay!

Hopefully this week I can start posting normally again, but we'll see. I have an old roommate and my sister coming to visit starting tomorrow, and that might throw me for a loop.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Travel plans: ha ha, just kidding!

Peanut and I arrived at the airport to discover flights being canceled left and right, due to weather in the great white midwest, and of course, ours was a victim. He waited in line for an hour to get us rebooked on the first flight available--MONDAY!

One of my very favorite things about Peanut is how steady he is, how difficult to ruffle or perturb. He remained calm and although disappointed that we will spend three fewer days with his family, was completely patient during the wait and kind to the ticket agent who helped us. When people around me are irritable or anxious, I pick up on those feelings and blow them out of proportion like WHOA. So it was wonderful to have this huge kink foul up our plans, and to be calm and okay with the situation, and to change all of our plans around with no fights or bad moods or anything. We even cheerfully helped two little old ladies out of a bus and across the street later (really!).

Also, while we were in the airport, someone broke out a violin and played Christmas songs to the waiting or stranded passengers. It felt a bit like a Christmas movie.

So now we are home, and have to go grocery shopping since we had made all these plans to empty the fridge and cupboards since we were going to be gone a week. We will probably hole up out of the weather for the next two days, watch movies and play video games, and try again very early on Monday morning.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Last holiday check in

Thing the first: Awesome! New rules are going to reign in credit card companies--some of the changes include
  • No more raising rates on existing balances
  • No more double-cycle billing.
  • Any payment above the minimum must automatically apply to the part of the balance with the highest interest.
  • Minimum time before notice of change of terms takes effect goes from 15 to 45 days.
  • Borrowers need reasonable time before a payment is due, at least 21 days
  • No excessive fees for exceeding credit limit because of a hold placed on the account
  • Subprime credit cards that have a $500 credit limit but a big upfront fee will have that fee capped at no more than 50% of the credit limit, and it can be paid off over a year, rather than immediately.
These changes don't go into effect for another year and a half, but it's good to know they're in the works. I have to say, I've never had any problems with a credit card company, but I know people who have and that's made me watch my money more closely.

Thing the second: My list of things to do is done, done, done!
All exams are finished, all projects are finished, all book club books are read, all performances/rehearsals/classes have been performed or attended, all birthday shopping and parties are done, all 2008 mystery shops are done, laundry is done, everything for my trip is purchased, and all my Christmas shopping is done and shipped (or will be, right after my post office run in five minutes).

I have a Christmas party this afternoon, a book club meeting this evening, and a suitcase to pack (and I have a list of what's going in it).

These last few weeks have been intense, but worth it, and I'm looking forward to my trip. I will probably not be posting again until just before the new year--hope you all have very happy holidays!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mid Month goals check-in

December Goals
1. Finish Christmas shopping by 12/15. I’ll finish today! I have to pick up two more things from the bookstore, and order three things to be delivered directly to the recipients. On Thursday I’ll make a post office run and that’ll be that. I also need to send out cards, which I’ll do tomorrow.

2. Bring lunch to work every day. So far, so good! And we have groceries to last us the rest of this week.

3. Rejigger my budget. Haven’t even though about this.

4. Look into a CD ladder. Haven’t thought about this either!

5. Get things done and try to stay sane. So far I have done the bolded of my huge list:
  • two final projects for school
  • two final exams one down, one tonight
  • three manuscripts to read for work and two presentations to prepare
  • two books to read for book clubs one read, one currently being read
  • two huge performances both done, both fun!
  • two birthday parties both done!
  • two corporate holiday parties one down, one to go!
  • two mystery shops (breakfast and dinner) both done!
  • to finish Christmas shopping and ship all packages to distant family and friends almost done!
  • do laundry and pack for my first visit to meet Peanut’s entire extended family laundry’s done, I have to pick up travel size toiletries tonight and start packing!

Things are going pretty well, and I only broke under the stress of all this once, and just for a few minutes (in the middle of all this, my radiator broke and was spewing water all over my bed. I didn’t think I’d have time to have it fixed, but luckily my super didn’t require me to be there, and he took care of it right away). Peanut has been wonderful in handling my comings-and-goings, and I’m excited to have a week away with him to visit his family and spend some quiet time together.

Thinking in lists really helps me keep my head one straight.

Oh! I think I promised to talk about what I did for Peanut’s birthday that was a surprise—I took him to Medieval Times, which is terribly nerdy and which we enjoyed immensely. Our knight lost, but the food was good, the atmosphere was silly and fun, and we had a great time. And I managed to keep it a surprise—he had no idea where we were going until he saw the castle!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

what's going on?!

The first budget period in December is total fail.

I don't even know what happened. I've been so busy with work and school and performances and sales conference and basically just trying to survive...my cash is gone, my bank account balances are lower than I ever let them get, and I have no idea what happened.

I've gone back through and it looks like I'm waiting on several mystery shop payments from last month that were larger than normal ($200 spa visit, three $70 dinners) which is why my credit card balance seems outrageously huge (not to mention the plane ticket I bought my sister for Christmas!). It also appears that I've not been keeping on top of things as well as I normally do--I entered a Paypal transfer in my checking account register and was getting concerned that it wasn't going through but it turns out I never actually scheduled it through Paypal. I've been eating out--cheap meals, sure, but they're still more expensive than packing lunch, which is why I have no cash.

I have to pick up a pricey prescription today as well as some other necessities (chapstick, mousse, face wash, conditioner, tampons...I hate it when all this stuff runs out at the same time and I feel like the checkout clerk thinks I'm some grubby person--it's just a coincidence!) and I'm going to have to put it on my credit card, which I hate doing. My checking account balances are just too low to risk using my debit card and then having a charge I wasn't expecting put me into NSF. I don't have overdraft protection and I don't want to pay any fees.

So. The plan from now on--spend nothing (other than on the things listed above and I'll grab a cup of microwave soup from the drug store for lunch as well) until all pending purchases clear and I have cash from my next payday. I have food at home to eat. My bills are paid for this month (rent, electricity, cell phone). Christmas shopping will get done this weekend, either in cash for in-person purchases (coming from a savings account sinking fund, so I can withdraw money for that) and credit card for online purchases (safer than a debit card if the number gets lifted). But other than that, I really don't need to do any shopping at all and that will help me feel a little more in control of things.

Oy. I will be very glad when this week is over. I knew it would be rough but...in some ways it's been rougher than I expected.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

You're a mean one...

I’m a bit of a Grinch right now. It’s not so much about Christmas, but about birthdays.

A friend’s birthday was this week, and she threw herself a big party, which I felt was a wee bit tacky (this is not a milestone birthday, either). I was aware that she was doing this, but figured it would be a reasonable event. Instead, she booked a reservation at a high-priced bistro as well as dancing at a place with a $20 cover charge and $10 drinks. This was in addition to a small lunch for the day after her birthday, where we would all pitch in for her (this is typically what we do for birthdays in this circle of friends). I went to both the dinner and the lunch, but bowed out of dancing due to the amount of dancing I’m currently doing and the number of finals and projects I need to finish this week (and, quite frankly, the price). The meals alone added up to more than $70, and I got stiffed $25 by the dinner group so I had to swallow that too (I put the meal on my credit card and everyone was supposed to chip in cash, but some one/ones cheaped out and I didn’t realize it until I got home). I don’t know who cheaped out; I don’t even know everyone who was there—otherwise I’d probably speak up to get the money back.

But THEN the friend sent around a Christmas/birthday wish list, to be coordinated with her best friend and her mom so she wouldn’t get duplicates of anything.

UM. ExCUSE me? At this point, I’ve spent more on her birthday than I did on my BOYFRIEND, the most important person in my world right now, and she ALSO expects me to get her a gift? Possibly two, one for Christmas and one for her birthday?! I realize this is a problem for those with close-to-holiday birthdays, but that’s not MY problem. We’ve not previously exchanged gifts for holidays or for my birthday earlier this year, and I don’t like feeling roped into it.

I’m not getting her anything else. As I’ve said, I’ve already spend more on her than I did on Peanut’s birthday, and I wasn’t expecting to. I also don’t really want to take our friendship up to the gift-exchanging level. It’s nothing personal, but I don’t like to exchange gifts except with my very closest friends, all of whom I’ve known for ten years or more. I don’t need the impersonal clutter that comes as acquaintance-friend gifts (smelly lotions and soaps, picture frames, candles...) and I don’t want to buy it for them. I feel like a nice dinner, split evenly, is plenty. After all, that’s time, which is definitely my most valuable resource right now.

But the fact that she included me on the list this year makes me feel like I need to take a stand at some point, with her and with other friends and groups of friends, indicating that I don’t want to buy into the commercialism of society. I don’t want to be given gifts, and I don’t want to be expected to give them. It doesn’t mean I don’t value the relationships—on the contrary, I want to have close enough friendships that wishes like this are respected and pointless traditions done away with.

How do you make this policy known up front without being rude? How do you handle it once you’re this far?

I also feel like this is sort of a girly problem. Peanut and his roommate say “happy birthday” to each other and leave it at that. Peanut asked me whether we should get him a Christmas gift, but he probably won’t get us one...(but what if he does!). Peanut doesn’t exchange gifts with any other friends, only family. Geez, that sounds great!

Perhaps I can make it “a policy”—or say that due to the economy this year, I’m making charitable contributions instead of buying Stuff. And keep it up next year and the year after. Maybe I can claim a religious aversion to commercialism and mostly-meaningless gift exchanges.

I don’t want to be an ungrateful recipient should someone give me something, but I REALLY don’t want to feel obligated to get them something in return this year. Due to the economy, I am feeling really pressured financially, and I don’t want the stress.

Thoughts? Advice?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Ouch, ouch, ouch

I just got around to updating my Networth IQ (see sidebar). Oh, wow....

My rollover IRA from my former job is now worth HALF of what I contributed to it four years ago. My current job's 401k inexplicably continues to increase each month slightly, but I suspect that's because I'm contributing only a little more than I'm losing. I have to just keep telling myself, "I have 40 years until retirement. I can afford to wait this out." Oy.

I have a really high balance (for me) on my credit card right now--just over $600, which is a few mystery shops and Christmas presents. I'll still pay off the entire balance this month.

My company announced layoffs yesterday--2% of the workforce. My job is safe (for now) but someone in my department was let go, so it does hit close to home. I'm re-evaluating, again, how to plan for next year. Where else can I cut expenses? Where can I bring in additional income? How long are things going to be like this?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

chugging along



As promised, a photo of the view we had for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. The best seat in the house! (And yes, we'll be in the same spot for the ball drop on New Year's. Sweet!)
On to other news.
I got my mother's Christmas wish list today, which very sternly ordered us to spend no more than $10 on her. I was struggling with ideas for her gift, but there are several things on her list I can get from a dollar store nearby, so I'll happily stay under her limit and get things she actually wants. She also said she wants to buy me nice bedroom linens and didn't want to ruin the surprise but wasn't sure what size bed I have, or what color/pattern preferences I had. I actually am very excited to get nice linens (something I won't buy for myself--I'm still using hand-me-up sheets that my brother got about TEN YEARS AGO).

I'm hoping to finish the rest of my Christmas shopping online tonight. I'd like to put it all on my credit card and then pay it off before heading out of town.

I am blowing right through my long list of Very Important Things To Do--I finished a manuscript and a book club book yesterday, and read 100 pages of the other book club book. I am half-finished with one school project (I'll finish it up now, during my lunch break) and am totally lost on the other (sigh...). I added another performance--a quick, easy one--this weekend, but it will get me up and out of bed early so there's really no down side. I hope. Rehearsals are over, I just need to work on two of the choreographies myself a few more times.

The only way I'm going to get everything done that I need to do is by not sleeping. Well, I'm not giving up sleep entirely, but I stayed up for two hours after Peanut went to bed to get some reading done. It's not ideal, but it's the easiest way to squeeze in some extra time for all these Must-Dos. Before Peanut, I stayed up a good deal later than I do now, so I know I can handle fewer hours of sleep, especially when it's for such a limited time. I also need to multi-task whenever possible (no watching TV without a needle and thread in my hands!) but watch out for when multi-tasking slows everything down (researching for my school project while Christmas shopping for others doesn't help either one get done!).

Monday, December 1, 2008

November Recap/December Goals

November just FLEW BY! Did it seem like that for anyone else?

November goals
1. Christmas shopping for reals this time! My goal WAS to get it all done before or during Thanksgiving. That didn’t happen—I got my mom’s and Peanut’s birthday presents, as well as my sister’s Christmas gift (plane ticket and something secret) and tickets to the show my friend and I are seeing in lieu of a gift exchange. And I did a lot of trolling the web to find gift ideas; now I just need to actually purchase these things! I’m aiming to do that tomorrow night after work.

2. Take care of things I’ve been putting off. Those shoes, those pants, those Lasik consultation appointments—DONE! Two pairs of shoes repaired at the cobbler ($24), a pair of pants to the dry cleaner ($4, but they’re not back yet so I don’t know if they’re fixed or truly ruined), Lasik consultation done and surgery appointment booked! Man, that feels good.

3. Get ready to batten down the hatches. Um, sort of. I’ve been thinking of it, but then I went and bought dance costumes and ate out more than I should have.

4. Use my gym membership. I didn’t go once. I’m terribly ashamed of myself, and very glad that it was a free membership instead of one I paid for. I think I’ve got six weeks left of it, so hopefully I’ll make it once more.

5. Streamline my spreadsheets. I decided to push this off to the beginning of the year. I’ve been using one system all year long, no need to change it up with only one more month of tax-related information left to go.

December Goals
1. Finish Christmas shopping by 12/15. This shouldn’t be a problem—I’ve actually picked out almost everything for everyone, and wanted to wait for more deals, although I won’t be able to shop during CyberMonday (Hmm...maybe I will do some at lunch?).

2. Bring lunch to work every day. I will have lunch provided next Monday and have a lunch date on 12/16, but other than that, I intend to bring my lunch to work every single day (which is only 15 days because of my vacation time).

3. Rejigger my budget. I forgot to do this after I got my small raise at the beginning of November—it’s a $20-50 difference per paycheck, and I want to figure out where to stash that money instead of letting it pile up in my checking account.

4. Look into a CD ladder. Frankly, this might not be the best time to start doing this since rates are low, but my $5,000 emergency fund and $5,000 tuition reimbursement could use any bump in interest that I can get my hands on. If nothing else, I’ll understand more about it, and when rates rise, I can take advantage of it then.

5. Get things done and try to stay sane. In the next two and a half weeks, I have:
· two final projects for school
· two final exams
· three manuscripts to read for work and two presentations to prepare
· two books to read for book clubs
· two huge performances (the holiday show for the dance studio, and a regular client who throws an enormous bash—this is my fourth year working for him)
· two birthday parties
· two corporate holiday parties
· two mystery shops (breakfast and dinner)
· to finish Christmas shopping and ship all packages to distant family and friends
· do laundry and pack for my first visit to meet Peanut’s entire extended family

No pressure, right? Well, not if I stay focused and just try to knock things out one at a time. The next two and a half weeks will pass regardless of my level of stress, so hopefully I can keep it low-key and just try to get things done that need doing.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Turkey-free week

What I've spent the past two days:

We spent Thursday morning watching the parade from Peanut's Times Square office--it was great! (I'll try to post pictures later). I spent $12.00 on donuts for the "small" group of people we expected to watch the parade with. Turned out to be a dozen out of town relatives of Peanut's newest coworker, complete with three kids under the age of three. The donuts were a big hit.

After the parade, we stopped by the store to pick up the traditional Thanksgiving sides we wanted to make ($5 each). We didn't do a big Thanksgiving meal with turkey or anything, and we enjoyed our meal very much anyway.

Today, I went to the eye doctor and had my first real consultation for Lasik. I liked the doctor a lot, was told I'm an excellent candidate...and booked my surgery appointment! It will cost $3,960, or $1,980 per eye (as Peanut said, "Good thing I've only got two!") which I feel is definitely reasonable. My appointment is at the beginning of January so in five weeks I will be eyeglasses-less for the first time in more than 20 years. I AM SO EXCITED!!!!

After that, I came home and ate leftovers. We're going to run to the grocery store for tomato soup and make that with grilled cheese sandwiches, and I might do some online Christmas shopping, but otherwise, we are planning a quiet weekend in, just the way I like it.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone--this is turning out to be one of my favorites ever.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stolen from One Little Fish and It's Like I'm...mmmagic:

What would I say if I could say it totally anonymously?

I would say:

* Your complaints about your job make me want to avoid you.

* You're being a jerk, too, dear--not just him.

* I am afraid of you.

* I'd like to just sort of...not be friends. Without having to say so.

* I'm sorry for the way I acted for years. I was immature.

* Your money doesn't make you better than me.

* I'm really worried about you.

* You inspire me.

* I want your job.

* Stop judging people and people will stop judging you.

* I don't believe you're going to do it. I've heard the same story too many times from you.

* I miss you.

What would you say?

Yay, I love spending money!

Ok, not really, but I love spending money on worthy causes.

Yesterday, I lost $.75 in a vending machine, which made me very sad. It wasn't so much the money, but I really wanted the coffee (and there were people around who KNEW the machine wasn't working, but they didn't warn me. Grump, grump, grump).

Today, I bought my sister a plane ticket! Granted, that's a bigger Christmas present than I'm giving anyone else, but she needs to get out of town and it's a gift to me as I'll get to see her! Plus it was a great deal--$146 round trip.

Other than that, I got paid by four mystery shopping companies, for a total of $91.50.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Saturday, November 22

Today the only money I spent was at the Empire State Building--I had a mystery shop there!

Well, let me start from the morning. I made waffles from things we had at home while Peanut went on a drug store run from his roommate, who's come down with a bad cold. We went to Costco for a few things (granola bars, toilet paper, and of course I came home with their evil and oh-so-good spinach dip) but Peanut paid. Then we went to the Empire State Building to do my mystery shop which was pretty easy. But it was REALLY COLD up there and very windy, so we didn't stay long. That's ok with me--I've been up at least three times before and Peanut's not one to be super-impressed with tourist traps. Plus I like Top of the Rock better. Our tickets (which will be reimbursed) cost me $40.

For dinner, we went to our favorite sushi place. Peanut promised to take me there when he got his check from his France trip--it was a medical study that I found but didn't qualify for. I complained about it to him, then he signed up...and got sent to France! Dinner at JJ's was my finder's fee, and it was amazingly delicious. Now we're home and will probably play video games until bedtime. I know--it's hard to be this glamorous. :p

Daily tally: $40, to be reimbursed

This was supposed to be the last day of my spending tracking post, but I think I might try to keep it up. It's helped me remember to post every day, and I do need help remembering that sometimes.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday, November 21

This week has flown by!


Usual bagel purchase. $.75 I would actually like to eat breakfast at home, but that would mean I'd have to get up earlier. I might make it one of my New Year's Resolutions maybe...but then my bagel guy would be so disappointed!

I had a lunch date with a friend who's going through a rough time. We went to a bar/lounge near work we'd never been to, and had a pretty good lunch for $18.20 each. I do not understand how people at my salary level can remotely afford to eat out every day.

After work, I had a spa mystery shop--a facial and eyebrow wax at a high-end spa. My expense limit was $150, but I spent $210 (including tip) and came home with skinny little eyebrows. I'm not sure how I feel about them. I have naturally thick eyebrows, and the thin arch looks so weird to me. On the other hand, even though Peanut KNEW I was going to get them waxed, and even though I asked him pointedly to see if he saw anything different on my face, he did NOT NOTICE the difference. He said they looked "neater" but that was it. So, whatever. The facial was lovely.

And something else was lovely--I came home from the spa freezing and hungry, to discover that Peanut and his roommate had cooked up a FEAST. Spinach salad, roasted asparagus, bacon-wrapped stuffed chicken breasts and mashed potatoes (from SCRATCH) and ice-cream pie. !!!! What great boys! They'd even waited for me so we could all eat together. A delicious free dinner was a fantastic end to my week--I'd planned on eating ramen.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thursday, November 20

Normal bagel routine followed. $.75

I had a lunch with a friend. We had agreed to meet at a deli midway between our offices. I packed a sandwich and intended to only get chips and a drink (I felt a little weird about this, but I didn't want to spend the standard $10-12 at this place). I ended up getting some steamed veggies as well for a total of $6.37. I could have done better.

Right before I left work, I bought my mom's birthday present off Etsy ($34.00) and then found my sister's Christmas present ($24.00), both paid by Paypal. The gift shopping, it has officially started!

I also paid my electric/gas bill for the month: $53.02. Seems criminal for how little time I spend there nowadays. And I got paid for several mystery shops completed last month: $42.00.

Peanut unexpectedly took me out for dinner and to a show for our seventh monthiversary. Actually, it just so happened that he found tickets at TKTS for a show we've been wanting to see, and it also happened to be our monthiversary (we normally don't really celebrate), but I teased him that this set a precedent and I will expect dinner and a show for every monthiversary from now on. He offered to compromise and only celebrate every seventh. We'll see. :)

Daily tally:
Spent: $118.14
Brought in: $42.00

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Wednesday, November 19

This was a pretty cheap day!

I spent $.75 on my bagel in the morning, plus $1.75 for vending machine necessities during school. And I wrote a check for $15.00 for my weekly copay with my counselor. Sometimes I'm not sure that going to therapy is worth it. I have a long and confusing history of depression and anxiety, though, and I'm really tired of it. I promised myself in January that I wouldn't stop when it got hard or boring--I would keep going until I had worked through some issues and developed coping skills to see me through the next phase of my life. And I'm going to stick to it.

I also got reimbursed $58.36 for a mystery shop I completed in October.

Daily tally: Spent $17.50
Brought in: $58.36

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tuesday, November 18

I didn’t get cash yesterday so I had to borrow $5 from Peanut to get my morning bagel ($.75). Reason #32 why I like having a boyfriend.

I poke around for birthday presents for my mom but don’t buy anything. It’s Peanut’s turn to pick up the few things we need for tonight’s dinner, which he does...and then he MAKES me sit down and watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog on Hulu while he cooks. The man is perfect, I tell you.

A side anecdote about money: My workplace offers free flu shots at the beginning of flu season. I’ve never had a flu shot before but I intend to get one this year. When I went down on flu shot day, however, they had run out of the vaccine—more than twice as many people showed up than they expected. They’ll be setting up a second day when I’ll be getting mine, but I think the incident is interesting. Could this be evidence that people are worried about the economy? That they don’t want to have to pay office copays or for over the counter medications, or that they can’t afford to miss work (even with paid sick days) because they’re afraid of getting laid off?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Monday, November 17

I’ve packed my lunch today (leftovers from last night). My train gets all wonky one stop from work, so I end up having to walk the last 10 blocks. This means I miss my regular bagel guy. I try two different carts but neither has the bagel I’m craving (everything with butter). I am too picky and get to work with no bagel. And I’m late because of my train. I make a mental note to bring in a box of instant oatmeal to keep in my desk for days when this happens and decide to try to power through on an empty stomach. By 11, I’m lightheaded and spend $.75 on a granola bar from the vending machine. It’s what I would have spent on my bagel anyway, so I guess I’m about even.

I have a mystery shop at a trendy clothing chain during lunch. The pay is $8 and the reimbursement is $8, which doesn’t give me much room to actually shop. That doesn’t stop me from going a little crazy and spending $40.47 on a top and a wonderful grey cardigan. I don’t normally go over (at least not by a lot—maybe $1-2) on my mystery shops like this. It’s getting to be a trend I don’t like, all the more because I know it’s going to happen at least one more time this week.

I pick up my repaired shoes from the cobbler, but that's "free" since I paid for it last week when I dropped them off. They look like new!

I'm about to go to school, and I have a feeling I'm going to grab a sandwich or something from a deli. I'm starving. Normally I bring a snack with me for days I have school, but Peanut and I are out of our granola bars and haven't been to Costco in a long time. Also, I will be going to dance class tonight, so I need the extra energy. Boo. But I promise not to buy a soda.

Also, dance class is also "free" since I pay for 10 classes up front ($150). But for the purposes of this exercise, I guess I should report it. Should I also report my subway rides? Maybe that's taking it a little too far.

Daily tally: $41.22 plus whatever I spend at the deli. I have less than $5 in cash, and I don't want to use my debit card for this.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sunday, November 16

I have rehearsal in New Jersey today at 1. I’m running late because of the subway, so I skip buying a Dr. Pepper or snack (I had leftover spaghetti for breakfast, yuck) but I do stop to buy my bus tickets at the machine instead of paying cash on the bus. I prefer to do this so I have a receipt for tax deductions although the cost is the same with either method ($6.80). Unfortunately, the machine takes so long I miss my bus. By the time I get to the studio, I’m starving so I buy a Nutrigrain bar at the deli across the street ($1).

On my way home, I pop into Duane Reade to pick up some chapstick, my favorite face-scrubby thing, and something caffeinated. The store is out of the scrubby thing so I grab a Burt’s Bees chapstick and a Dr. Pepper. I don’t realize until I get home that the chapstick cost $4.99 which is ridiculous. I could have gotten regular peppermint chapstick for $2.19, but I really thought the sign under the Burt’s Bees said $2.99. I’m irritated, but I’ve already used the chapstick (which, of course, I don’t even like that much) so I’m just going to suck it up and use the entire tube. Total spent: $6.23

Peanut meets me at the grocery store so we can do our weekly shopping. We plan our meals at the store which sort of works—we can’t think of anything we want for dinner on Thursday so we decide we’ll pick something up that night. I prefer to handle this at home when we can look at what we already have, but it’s late and I’m cranky from an unproductive rehearsal. I also really need to do laundry. It’s my turn to buy groceries, so I spend $24.71 at one store and $9.69 at another to get almost everything we’ll need for the full week of lunches and dinners. We’ll pick up fresh produce tomorrow for the fried rice.

Daily tally: $48.43, $6.80 of which is fully deductible, $1 of which is half deductible

Saturday, November 15, 2008

In-depth spending tracking

In keeping with Fabulously Broke’s Money Diaries series and Saving Diva posting her daily spending on her blog, I’ve decided to list all the money I spend (and on what) from November 15-22. It’s entirely possible that this will wind up being an unusual week, if I do any Christmas shopping, but that’s ok.

Saturday, November 15
Peanut and I have a mystery shop at a chain restaurant in downtown Manhattan. We had originally planned to go to the Tenement Museum today as well, but the weather is ugly and the walking tour won’t be much fun, so we decide to just go to the mystery shop (I can’t reschedule it). This well-known chain doesn’t really stand out in any way, except for the price—we spend $11.02 on the required bar shop (for ONE drink) and $86.37 on the meal. We didn’t always stick with the cheapest options, but I don’t think there’s any way we could have stayed under the $60 reimbursement cap given all the things we had to order (drink at the bar, appetizer, salad, two entrees, dessert, soft drinks). I think it’s despicable that the chain restaurant jack up their prices in tourist-heavy areas—It’s NOT that expensive to eat in New York City, at least not at any local options that would have had comparable (or better) food than the chain. Total spent: $60 that will be reimbursed, $37.39 that won’t.

Then we went window-shopping at J&R Computer World—Peanut is planning to build a second computer for me to use at his apartment and is looking for parts and a monitor. We didn’t buy anything but priced some stuff and I played with HP’s touch-screen monitor.

We stopped in at my favorite shop in Chinatown, Kam Man, and I bought a package of lichi gummies and some Ferrero Rocher chocolates. They are much cheaper there than anywhere else, but still, I didn’t need them. Cost: $7.02.

On the way home, I picked up a head of broccoli to include with our pasta dinner, and then forgot to use it. Broccoli is expensive! $2.50

Total spent: $106.91, $60 of which I’ll get back next month. I might be able to deduct at least part of the $37.39 if there was really no way I could have spent under the $60 cap and still met the shop requirements.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wow, they inspired a rant!

The ladies over at The World of Wealth and Saving Diva have pretty well summed up how I feel sometimes--I just can't seem to get my act together. I want a perfect apartment, a perfect relationship, a clean desk every night when I leave work at 6 p.m. on the dot, straight A's in graduate school, a regular manicure and pedicure, hair that cooperates at all times, flawless skin, a great-fitting and modern wardrobe, overflowing bank accounts, a regular workout routine, and eight hours of sleep every night. And a healthy breakfast over the paper every morning.

Guess what? All of that is NEVER going to happen, especially not all at the same time. The best I can hope for is two out of however-many-wishes I just listed. And that doesn't make me a failure!

Sitcoms and movies have made me want more than is realistic, and honestly, more than I really, truly, actually want. If everything was perfect and easy...where would the fun be? Part of what I enjoy about my life right now is that I'm still figuring out how I want to make it. I'm just living on my own for the first time, and that includes figuring out my style and whether I want art on the walls or a sleeper sofa. I'm learning to balance school and a job and a relationship and time with friends. I'm figuring out whether I want to be sophisticated modern chic or bohemian artsy-funky and how to squeeze an extra $50 out of my budget for those to-die-for shoes. The challenge is in the learning, and the making mistakes, and the getting things right, and I wouldn't want a life without challenges.

That's easy to say, for the most part. It's still not getting me to the gym for a yoga class. Baby steps, that's all I can manage. When I feel like I've taken on too much, I just have to step back and let things fall where they will. The world will not fall apart if I say no. The world will probably not bat an eye if I say, "I'm not perfect and I don't apologize for that". I'm way too hard on myself, harder than anyone else, and I'm still learning to give myself permission to just be.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Gettin’ Things DONE

I’m on a roll!

I dropped off two pairs of shoes at the cobbler and paid up front ($24) for heel repairs and a good shine. Not too bad, although I could completely replace both pair for the price (one is a $13 payless pair, the other I got for $5 at a shady discount store). However, I like both and they’re perfectly broken in. It seems like a good investment.

I made almost all the arrangements necessary for Peanut’s birthday extravaganza surprise. I still need to arrange transportation, but that can be done the day of. Yay! I’m so excited I just want to tell someone what I’m doing, but I want this to be a big surprise to him so I’m keeping my mouth shut.

I got another spa mystery shop and booked my appointments for a facial and an eyebrow wax. I’m a little ambivalent about the eyebrow wax—the last one I got left my brows WAY too thin for my tastes, and I’ve been trying to grow them out ever since. But a waxing service is required for the shop, so I’ll suffer through. J I’m still trying to get the holy grail of spa mystery shops, the massage and body wrap. MMMMMM...

I got all my paperwork for 2009 benefits, including my health care reimbursement account, an d tuition reimbursement taken care of. Ah, relief!

Yesterday in the mail, I got an offer from my company that I can now invest in a Roth 401(k) in addition to a traditional 401(k) as part of my work benefits.

I debated signing up but I don’t think it’s as valuable as it might be.

1. I will probably be in a LOWER tax bracket when I retire, so it makes sense for me right now to use tax-deferred investment options. This is not the case for most people, and I can only hope I’m assuming this correctly. Yes, I’m at a fairly low federal tax rate right now, and I expect that it will increase as my earnings go up. However, living in New York City, I’m also subject to New York State and New York City income tax. I do not intent to retire in New York City; in fact, I will probably live in a state that has no income tax at all. So while my federal tax rate might be higher, I won’t be paying city and state taxes, and my overall tax liability will be lower. For that reason, I have a rollover traditional IRA in addition to my work 401(k) but I have not opened a Roth IRA and will not be opening a Roth 401(k) any time soon.
2. It doesn’t sound like there’s an extra match—I get a 6% match for contributing to my 401(k). I currently contribute 10% of my pre-tax income. If I could get an additional 6% match by contribution my after-tax income to the Roth 401(k) I would jump all over that—it’s free money! But it sounds like the company will only match 6% on my total income, so there’s no opportunity for more free money.
3. I won’t have the money next year. Unless Peanut and I move in together and cut living expenses, next year will be pretty tight for me. I allocated more than $200 per paycheck into my HCRA to pay for Lasik surgery and when I get reimbursed, that money can’t just go back into my regular budget—it needs to be set aside for student loan payments.

Friday, November 7, 2008

October Recap/November Goals

October Goals Recap
1. Again, spend less on food. We did not spend less on food, but we only spent $20 more than in September. $485 for two people for the entire month, including all eating out...I’ll take it.

2. Christmas gifts. I did not deal with this at all. Shame on me! Back on the list it goes!

3. Do some paperwork decluttering. Yes! I went through my entire filing cabinet and came out with an entire trash can worth of recycling stuff, and a good-sized stack of stuff to shred. I still need to do the shredding. This was a huge relief to get done.

4. Start thinking about MY Christmas list. I have been thinking about this, and there’s very little I want/need. Peanut is taking me to a show we’d both like to see, and he’s buying my ticket to his home for Christmas, so what’s more to ask for? I want to get him something nice, and I’d like a little something to open, but I want to put about a $20 cap on it. For everyone else, I’m still not really sure what to ask for...maybe gift cards to clothing stores. I want some new clothes.

5. Spend a little money on things I’ve been putting off. I didn’t do this and I wish I had. I have two pairs of shoes to take to the cobbler, and a pair of pants to take to the dry cleaner. I’m making that a priority this week.

November goals
1. Christmas shopping for reals this time! My goal is to get it all done before or during Thanksgiving. Also, my mom’s birthday gift (usually flowers or Edible Arrangements or something) and Peanut’s birthday present (I already know what we’re doing, just have to order it. I’m watching for a coupon code or something). And I need to pick up a little something for his parents, who I have never met (I’m thinking an NYC Christmas ornament or something, and then something like food or wine that I could get there). I think my entire Christmas/birthday gift budget (Peanut, his parents, my parents (4), my siblings (4), my friends (I exchange gifts with a couple), my grandparents, my superintendent/family, cards for everyone else, the book club white elephant exchange, and a food thing for my work peeps) will be around $600. It will be around $700 if I include what I spend on myself to enjoy some things (for example, one friend and I agreed to go to dinner and a show together as our Christmas gifts to each other. Do I count that?).

2. Take care of things I’ve been putting off. Those shoes, those pants, those Lasik consultation appointments. All of that gets done this month.

3. Get ready to batten down the hatches. I put $5000 in my HCRA for Lasik in 2009, which will decrease my paychecks by around $200 each (this is all before tax, so it will really be less, but I’m trying to be as prepared as possible). I will likely get a raise at the end of this week, but I don’t want to count on too much right now. Next year, things will be tight, and I may need to dip into savings to avoid going into debt. No time like the present to start practicing.

4. Use my gym membership. I got a free three month gym membership for mystery shopping a large chain. I enjoyed using it for the shops, but I’d like to take advantage of the yoga classes and other amenities I’m getting for free too!

5. Streamline my spreadsheets. Peanut took a look at my spreadsheets last night and pronounced them “way too damn complicated”. I’m sure they are. I am by no means an Excel wizard, and the spreadsheets I carry around on my thumb drive are a mixture of other peoples’ templates that I can’t modify too much and my own haphazard designs that keep getting built on top of one another. He knows Excel much better and has offered to put together something that will automatically update other portions (for example, when I transfer money from a checking to a savings account, both registers will be automatically updated—or when I note a tax-deductible expenditure in my spending tracker, it will update my taxes spreadsheet as well).

Monday, November 3, 2008

Personal finance miscellanea

First of all, let me say that I am so, so grateful for health insurance. I got food poisoning or the stomach flu last week (does it really matter which at that point?), and ended up going to the doctor ($20 copay) and getting a prescription ($25 copay) which brought me back to life. I totally missed Halloween—I didn’t dress up or even eat any candy. And I didn’t WANT any, which is the real sign that you’re sick. If I hadn’t had health insurance, I would still have survived, but I got better at least a few days faster thanks to the antibiotic and I’m glad I didn’t have to worry about how to pay the doctor or the pharmacy for what I needed. This country needs some plan where insurance or low-cost, quality health care is available to every single person. I hope that happens during my lifetime.

Second, I updated my Networth IQ (see sidebar) even though I considered not doing it this month. It’s very depressing. My retirement accounts lost 20% since last month, and overall for the year...oh, I don’t even want to think about it. They’re now worth less than I put in them.

However. I have a long time to go before I retire, and despite the economy, my personal savings are still going up. I am doing well.

Third, while updating my networth IQ, I noticed a charge on my credit card that I most definitely did not make--$125 worth of nutritional supplements (which I don’t use) from a website I’ve never heard of. I will be calling the fraud division and getting a new card, and from now on, I will be using a throwaway card number when shopping online. This is a big pain, and is the third time this has happened to me, I think. Someone needs to fix the system! It’s far too easy for credit card numbers to be bought and sold and used on the web, and while I’m glad that the fraud divisions are aware of it and will be dealing with it promptly, it’s still a pain—I have a mystery shop later this week that I would have used the card for, and now I’ll have to put it on my personal debit card, which loses me reward points, and also my checking account balance will be artificially low until I’m reimbursed (and oh yes—this is the mystery shopping company that I have to fight with to get them to pay me on time).

Fourth, another mystery shopping company stiffed me $2.21 in the check for a shop I did in September. That seems like a small amount, but it’s the principle of the thing--and if they're taking $2 from each shopper, they're making a bundle. I stayed under the max reimbursement, followed the guidelines, had an excellent shop review...so there’s no reason for them to not pay me the full amount I spent completing the shop. I will fight for this.

And lastly, things upcoming: The final installment of Mystery Shopping 102: Taxes. October recap and November goals. Musings on what I’d do if my expenses cut in half, and how that might happen sooner than I’d expected—and if not, why I’m ok with that.

Non-personal-finance related: the trees on the roof garden across the street are a gorgeous fall display. I’m in a good mood.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tax time...

Today, two posts about taxes caught my eye, and reminded me that I have not finished my Mystery Shopping 102 series. The last post will be about taxes, and I'll get on it this week.

To sum up, The World of Wealth talks about figuring out how much you owe before you get all the paperwork in January, and how to prepare by putting off deductions until 2009 if possible.

And Money Under 30 addresses those who need to pay quarterly estimated payments, even though it's too late to catch up if you should've been doing that all along. This is important for those who do enough mystery shopping for it to apply to them.

I can't believe it's time to start thinking about taxes again already--I feel like I just paid them!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Musing rant

I've had an ongoing problem with payment from one of my mystery shopping companies--they're consistently late (and by late, I mean they don't pay me until I nag them HARD) and the amounts I'm expected to front are pretty high (this round, in the $200-300 range). But I like the shops (Peanut's favorite restaurant) so I keep doing them.

But when I was composing my latest nagging email to them this morning, quoting from their payment policy and copying over my meticulous records to prove my point, I got really stressed out. Sometimes, this is not worth it.

By that I mean, I keep doing things on the side--focus groups, mystery shopping, dance jobs--to bring in money. I'm afraid that my day job income isn't enough--that I'll never make enough money to not need these side gigs. I'm making almost $10,000 more per year than I was two years ago, and I managed to get by then. So when will it be enough?

I also sometimes wonder if I focused the energy I currently spend answering surveys and doing focus groups, maintaining the paperwork and doing the mystery shops, clipping coupons and comparing prices and reading personal finance blogs and adjusting budget categories--if I put all that energy towards my career, what would I achieve? How much could I start bringing in? How high could I get promoted? What awesome projects could I be working on?

The truth is, I'm afraid to put all my eggs in one basket. What if I got fired or laid off? What if I just got stuck moving up the ladder inch by inch, getting cost-of-living raises and the occasional bonus until I switch companies, which I really don't want to do? What if I couldn't do it?

Which is ridiculous. That's much less likely than that I would excel by focusing my energy on goals and things at work.

I need to work this out in my head.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Horror--buying lunch!

Peanut and I woke up this morning and simply could not face another sandwich. We've been eating a lot of sandwiches lately, but at work and at home, and collectively, we had had enough.

So we agreed to buy lunch today, the first time in...I don't know, weeks. It was very freeing to walk to work without tupperware banging about in my bag, and I'm really looking forward to my Indian lunch, but I'm sure I'll change my mind when I hand over my $7.95 (half of what I spend on ALL lunches, normally!).

I am really thankful to be in a financial situation where I can decide that I'm sick of sandwiches and really need some curry today--and I'll be happy to bring my sandwiches again tomorrow.

That's all.

Monday, October 20, 2008

weekend update with Little Miss Moneybags

This weekend, we spent $30 and waited three hours for a pizza. And it was worth it! Definitely the tastiest pizza I've ever had, and watching Dom make dozens of pizzas, including ours, was a treat. It even gave me an idea for part of Peanut's Christmas present.

Other than that, I spent much of this weekend studying. Midterms are this week so I will be under the radar until they're over. The nice thing is that ought to keep me from spending much money.

It's time for me to start making Lasik consultation appointments and figure out which doctor to go with for the surgery. I've decided to max out my medical flex spending account for 2009 to $5,000, which will probably not cover all of my medical expenses for the year (Lasik, doctor/dentist appointments, therapy if I keep going, prescriptions at $200 per year...yikes!). This will lower my taxable income considerably, and will lower each paycheck by about $150. I'll probably be getting a raise when my review comes around in a few weeks but ouch...I'm very, very nervous about my rent going up now. If it goes up more than, say, five percent, I'm going to be hurting very badly (and my apartment is not rent stabilized, so it's conceivable it could go up much higher than that). I really like my apartment, and I like my building, and I realllllly don't want to move again. Moving frequently is the biggest money-drain I've faced since living in New York, and I want to stay in one place for several years.

I guess if the rent goes up more than I can afford (I won't know until January) I will talk to the landlord. I've paid on time every month and am a good tenant (no complaints, no problems, etc). I'm hoping he'll be lenient--he lowered the asking price of the rent when I looked at the place, so that's a good sign.

I keep trying to tell myself that I cannot stress about this--there's no point. I don't know what I'll be making next year. I don't know if the rent will rise or by how much. So until I can know these things, why let them eat at me?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What would you do with $297,500?

From Master Your Card, a breakdown of what might have happened if the government gave that $85 billion bailout directly to the American people.

What would *I* do?

Pay off school and student loans ~$20,000
Max out Roth IRA for 2008 and 2009 $10,000
Buy a condo or coop in New York--maybe. Even the full $297,500 is not enough for that, but it'd be a hefty downpayment.

And I would take a cruise.

What would you do?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

simplifying and eating cheaply

Mighty Bargain Hunter has inspired me today.

First, he talks about simplifying, which I am all about lately. I'm trying to use things up before buying more--things like eye shadow palettes (I have at least four) and "office" supplies (cards, envelopes, index cards, etc). I just don't want to have to move all this stuff ever again!

Second, he has a coupon code for 80% off at Restaurant.com--this is a GREAT deal if you use Restaurant.com. However, I have never used it. Every time he posts these codes, I'm intrigued and I click through and look, but I feel like there are so many stipulations on when and how these certificates can be used, and I would almost feel like a fool using them to pay for a meal at the restaurants that are listed there. I don't know why. I really should take advantage of it--I mean, the one that's up now is a $25 certificate for $2--that's such a steal!

Monday, October 13, 2008

A mashup from this past weekend

Peanut and I relaxed a little on the no-eating-out and the spend-as-little-as-possible-on-food rules this weekend, and I am very glad. I hadn't realized that it was sort of getting to me. Even though we ate out twice (dinner on Saturday at our favorite sushi place, and lunch on Sunday from the deli at whole foods), we only spent $30 combined and had a very nice and social time.

It was an unusual situation because we met up with some of his friends from out of town, so we probably won't be doing this all the time, but it was nice to know we could do it and not go overboard. One thing that probably helped was that Saturday, his friends were quite late showing up so we had a cheap snack at home before going out--which meant we ate less than usual. And Sunday, we split a salad and a bag of chips, knowing we had a yummy dinner planned at home.

We also went clothes shopping for Peanut yesterday, and ostensibly for me, but I just cannot bring myself to go clothes shopping with other people. He got a whole bunch of stuff, some of which he sorely needed (yay, shoes with no holes in them!) but I tried on a few things, felt rushed, and didn't buy anything at all. I have never liked shopping with other people, even girlfriends, because I feel bad taking as much time as I want to try stuff on and agonize over whether I want it. Also, I don't need anything right now, though I want a lot of stuff, and all I could think about was how every $30 towards clothes was $30 I was not putting towards Lasik.

My mother sent me two books and a very chic skirt from a consignment shop. The skirt was seriously on sale; my mom said it was a great deal. The books are a great gift--Tisha is one of my favorite books from childhood, and the other is one that I've been wanting to read--but the skirt is problematic. It fits, but only just, and is high-waisted, something I have never managed to pull off. It's a French label, and has a thigh slit that I'm not sure is appropriate for my workplace, though it might be ok with the right top and some dark stockings and high boots. But that means I'd need to buy the right top and dark stockings and high boots. So was this a good deal, or not? My mom only spent $3 on it--but I will have to spend close to $100 to make it work. A gift that requires the recipient to spend money to use it is not usually a great gift. However, my mom's heart was in the right place, so I'll hang on to the skirt for a while to see if anything comes up that matches it perfectly. If I haven't worn it in six months, I'll give it away.

And lastly, I figured out what I'm getting for Peanut for his birthday in two months. I had a couple ideas, but I think this one is perfect, and I'll get to enjoy it, too. It winds up being about $10 over the $100 budget I had planned, but I will do a smaller Christmas gift and it will balance out. I will also look for a coupon code or something to see if I can get a better deal. Unfortunately, I can't post the details here since he might find it so...well, I'll just describe it after the fact!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Looking my best

Yesterday I spent $91 on a manicure and pedicure. This is only because it was a mystery shop, and therefore I will be getting reimbursed because ye, gods—nearly $100 for little more than nail polish I could have applied myself?! Sure, it was a nice spa but wow.

Watching the other women in the salon, I started thinking about the amount of money that is spent on self-care, particularly in New York City, and my mind is boggled. Many of these women appeared to be on a close basis with the employees of the salon, indicating they go there frequently (every week, maybe?). And they were there in the middle of the day on a Thursday, not in work clothes like I was but in the spa robe and hair up in a towel—it seemed like an all day thing for them. HOW?!

For the most part, I’m quite frugal about personal care. I buy drugstore products, and not the most expensive ones. I use as few products as I can get away with—shampoo, conditioner, and mousse for hair, a cleanser and moisturizer for my face, simple soaps and lotions for my body. I rarely paint my fingernails, preferring to buff them to a high shine, and my toes are usually polished but not perfectly. I wear makeup pretty much every day, but it’s minimal, and I buy cosmetics at a discount store. A friend cuts my hair for $25 two or three times a year. I get massages twice a year during Spa Week, and usually treat myself to one other service like electrolysis or a facial at the same time.

Should I be doing more? Or rather, should I be doing things differently? I’ve never had great skin, but it’s never been terrible. I get blemishes fairly frequently but I don’t have acne scars. I keep a regular routine, but at my age, would it be worth it to invest in ProActive? I can’t see spending so much money on so many products but honestly, I’m starting to be unhappy with my skin. I feel like as I get closer to 30 my skin shouldn’t look like I’m still in high school sometimes. Is this a vanity issue, or is it worth doing because it might make my skin healthier?

Also, home mani-pedis. I do a good-enough job with an emery board and some clippers, but I love that cuticle clipper thing salons have. And nail stones --those things are great. I think I would be able to mimic a perfect salon mani-pedi with those tools, so aren’t they worth the money?

The thing is, I am not going to start spending lots of money at salons and pay someone else to do my nails when I’m perfectly capable of doing them myself. I’m too frugal by nature for that, but maybe I’m being TOO frugal for being a professional woman. Much as I hate it, people do judge you on your looks and it’s important to present yourself in the best light possible—you only get one first impression, as they say. As I get older, perhaps it is worth it to spend a little more money on products that both make me look good AND take care of my physical appearance as I age.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

boo hoo hoo!

I haven't thought of these cookies in years, but now I desperately want some--because I can never have them again.

For those who haven't clicked the link, you know those animal crackers with pink and white coatings and sprinkles? They're out of business.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Mystery Shopping 102: Completing the Shop, Keeping Track, Getting Paid, and Paperwork

See previous:

Mystery Shopping: A Field Guide
Mystery Shopping 102: What You Need to Get Started
Mystery Shopping 102: How to Find Shops

Doing the shop
Read the instructions carefully before signing up for a shop, and again before completing it. Print out any paperwork you might need before you begin (some shops require that you not take notes on the premises, some require that you print out an invoice before entering your report with no way to print it afterward). I usually make notes of particulars on a post it note or in the memo feature of my phone, rather than printing out paperwork. For restaurant shops that require timing, I will note all the things I'm supposed to time for in the memo section of my phone, and then enter the time while doing the shop. It just looks like I'm rude and texting someone or checking email at the dinner table rather than giving me away as a shopper.


Some shops require special equipment, like scales and thermometers or digital stopwatches. (The scale and thermometers were provided by the shopping company, and I paid a deposit for them. The deposit will be returned when I send back the equipement.) I have a digital stopwatch program on my phone, and since I don't have a car, I don't do many shops that require special equipment.
Do the shop honestly, objectively, in the parameters required, without giving yourself away. Upload your report, including scanning/photographing or faxing receipts, as soon as possible.
Keeping track of shops and payments
I set up a spreadsheet to keep track of all my shops for scheduling, payment, and taxation purposes. As you can see, I'm pretty detailed. I keep a tab like this for every company I shop for. Blue means the shop is totally finished and I've been paid. Purple means I've completed the shop and am waiting to be paid (note the estimated payment dates in the paid date column). Yellow means the shop is upcoming.
The columns are mostly self-explanatory, but I'll take a second to explain the fee/reimbursement/not reimbursed columns. The fee column is whatever I'm going to be paid just for doing the shop. This is always taxable income. In many cases, restaurant shops do not actually pay, but simply reimburse up to a set limit. That's what the reimbursement column shows. The Not Reimbursed column shows expenses I had above and beyond what the reimbursement covered. This is sometimes, but not necessarily, a tax-deductible expense. I will cover that more in the next installment of Mystery Shopping 102.

This spreadsheet gives me a lot of valuable information. At a glance, I can see what shops I have coming up and what I'm waiting to be paid for. I also have a summary page in the spreadsheet that shows what I have grossed and netted from each company so I know whether to expect tax forms from them, and also so I just know how much I've made in the year.

Getting Paid

As I said before, most companies pay via PayPal. The check number field is leftover from when I actually used to get physical checks mailed to me from every company. I keep it there because a few companies still do pay that way. I have a separate checking account for mystery shopping money. I deposit those checks into that account, and also transfer money from Paypal to that account to both pay for shops as they come up and to pay off my credit card if any shops were put on a credit card for some reason. I transfer some money from Paypal (about 1/3) into my savings account in anticipation of paying taxes. And I pay myself some money to do what I want with it--right now, it's going towards Lasik surgery, but I've funded budget categories of clothing, eating out, travel, and spa services by mystery shopping as well.

Paperwork
I keep paperwork until I'm paid for a shop, period. That includes copies of receipts and business cards if I have to physically mail them in, fax reports confirming the fax was sent, and anything else relating to proof that I completed a shop within the requirements and deserve to be paid for it, as well as check stubs. After I'm paid, I'll only keep receipts and things I need for tax purposes, and then I keep those things for the standard three years you keep any tax paperwork. I start a file at the beginning of the year and I throw receipts in it all year long for both mystery shopping and dance expenses. I note on the receipt what the expense was for if it's not clear. My digital spreadsheet means that at almost any point, I can figure out how much I'm going to have to pay.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The sky is falling!

Lifehacker has a great post on preparing for the financiapocalypse.

Cash
1. Make sure your bank accounts are FDIC-insured (this is almost always, always the case. Up to $100,000 per account is covered; if you've got more than that, why are you reading my blog?!).
2. Build a liquid emergency fund of several months' expenses in case of layoffs or other problems.

Investments
1. Do NOT let the market get to you (stop reading the news!). It can pretty much only go up from here, so particularly if you've got 10 years or more before retirement, let it gain back the ground you've lost. In fact, if you can afford it, invest MORE! (Remember, buy low, sell high!)

Career
1. Get ready to lose your job...and find a new one. I'm not focused on this, but for those in layoff-prone industries, it's really good advice.

That said, I will be taking a peek at my investments later today when I do my monthly net worth update. I'm nervous and excited at the same time--at least any drop in my net worth this time won't be my fault!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mystery Shopping 102: How to Find Shops

See previous:

Mystery Shopping: A Field Guide
Mystery Shopping 102: What You Need to Get Started

First of all, avoid any company that contacts YOU out of the blue, or advertises in slick flash ads. They might be legitimate, they might not be—but there are so many legitimate companies, you don’t need to find out.

Whatever you do, do not just type in "mystery shopping" into Google and enter your personal information into all the sites that pop up. You're asking to get scammed! A great way to find legitimate companies is to go to Volition.com's mystery shopping forums. If you find a company on the web that looks legitimate but you’re not sure, do a search or ask on Volition's forum--if someone else works for them, you'll get an answer pretty quick. Volition also provides a comprehensive list of legitimate companies.

When you’re registering with the companies, it’s a good idea to use Google Toolbar or a product like Roboform to help you keep your sanity as you fill out the same information over and over again. You’re asked for your contact information, demographic information, often a writing sample or two (save these in a word document and copy and paste them to save time), and frequently your social security number. These companies use encrypted software so it’s safe to send your SS# to them—and yes, you need to do so. They’re paying you to do work for them; it’s taxable income and they will report it. If you’re signing up with legitimate companies, your information is safe. (And you should be checking your credit report regularly anyway, so if something DID go wrong, you’d catch it).

When I get the registration email, I immediately set up a Gmail filter to catch all the emails I get from that point forward. This is also an easy way to figure out what my username and password is for the companies, since they’re often contained in that welcome email.

Once you're registered, the companies will email you shops in your area. Frequently, these shops are "self-assign", so by visiting the website and accepting the shop, you automatically get it. Other times, you will have to email a scheduler or apply and then wait to find out if you've been assigned the shop. Some companies will email to alert that there are shops available on their websites, which means you need to follow links and log in and search yourself. This is a bit of a hassle, but I'll do it for companies who have shops I know I like doing. Likewise, you can log into any companies site at any time regardless of whether you've received an email, to see what shops are available. It seems like most companies post new shops close to the end of the month. Since I'm registered with more than fifty companies, you could guess that I don't do this very often.

Another way to find shops is to search the job board at Volition.com. If I'm registered with the companies that are posting these shops, I've usually already been alerted to them, but I've found a few companies I was not registered with through this page. (This is basically a page where shops go to die, I think--there's a reason they haven't been assigned to the shoppers in a company's database. They pay badly, they're difficult to complete, they're in a remote or difficult area [like past airport security] or the company is somehow shady. Still, I've found legitimate companies to register with through this page, so I don't discount it.)

A word on scheduling companies. There are two major scheduling companies, Sassie and Prophet. These companies do not assign or pay for shops; they are merely scheduling software for other companies. Many of the registration links you follow will look identical, but they are not. If you are trying to register for a company that already has you in its database, they’ll let you know, so don’t worry about it looking the same.

As you receive shops, either by self-assigning or applying and being assigned by a scheduler, you'll need to keep track of a number of things: date, shop number, payment and reimbursement amounts, date and amount of final payment, confirmation numbers, and any other relevant information. It's very important to keep your own records, both for tax purposes and in case there's a discrepancy with the company about how much you should be paid. I do this in a spreadsheet, which I'll talk about in the next installment of Mystery Shopping 102.

Part 3: Completing the Shop, Submitting Paperwork, and Getting Paid

September Update/October Goals

September goals:
1. Spend less on food! Oh, snap. I was all over this like white on rice—last month I spent $425 alone ($785 combined with Peanut) and this month I spent $212 ($443 combined). We did this by eating out less (mostly only if it was a mystery shop and therefore reimbursed), taking our lunches to work every day but one, and finding some new cheap meals to make. We basically turned it into a game, so we won!

2. Extra cash, again. Ummm…well, I did quite a few mystery shops which I am just now getting reimbursed for. I settled up the dance account although I haven’t been paid for it. I did stash away some extra money in the Lasik fund, and I’m keeping my eyes open for ways to earn more cash all the time.

3. Christmas shopping. Nope…I didn’t do any. I also didn’t buy baby gifts for my two (very) pregnant friends and one who is definitely pregnant but not at the point that you’d say “WOW, she’s going to pop!” Need to revisit.

4. Start taking back my time. I think I did better. I’m not guilting myself over skipping dance class anymore. I just can’t do it on nights that I have school, and that’s ok—I have to set priorities. I also got way caught up on my reading last weekend, so I don’t feel pressure there.

5. Up the ante at work. Doing better. I want to keep focusing on this, and not just because my review is coming up. School came easy for me so I am not accustomed to pushing myself very hard and when things are easy I find myself procrastinating the projects I don’t like. I’m working on this.

October goals:
1. Again, spend less on food. I would like to beat September’s spending and keep it at or below $200 for the month (my share). One way I might be able to do this is to start eating breakfast at home a day or two each week. In addition to my daily bagel at my desk being a bit unprofessional, I could probably stand to eat a little better (oatmeal, fruit, etc), and I’d save $.75 each day. It’s just the getting up earlier that I don’t like!

2. Christmas gifts. No excuses—I need to do this. It will be hanging over my head, and I need to be focused on school (projects and studying) in November. I’m aiming to get at least 50% of the shopping for my long-distance family and friends done in October. Actually, I need to add to that gifts for my pregnant friends as well as Peanut’s birthday and my mom’s birthday.

3. Do some paperwork decluttering. I started a folder for electrolysis pricing and research this weekend, and discovered that I still have paperwork from my legal battle with my apartment’s management company—from two apartments ago. Granted, this happened just over a year ago, but I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say I’m not going to need any of this documentation anymore. And I’m positive there are other files I can weed out, particularly mystery shopping and medical insurance. Peanut is going out of town for several days at the end of the month; I plan to tackle the project then.

4. Start thinking about MY Christmas list. Peanut asked me what I wanted and I thought about it and I’m not sure yet. This is our first gift-giving holiday (well, his birthday comes first, but I’ll worry about that at another time) so it’s fraught with stress—and while it feels weird to ask for things, many people appreciate it when you can point them to a list. Last year I asked my mom for inexpensive things that I like but don’t buy for myself, like Dr. Bronner’s magic soaps, and I got a slew of nice-smelling things that have made me happy all year long.

5. Spend a little money on things I’ve been putting off. I need to take two pairs of shoes to the cobbler. I need to take a pair of pants to the dry cleaner. They’re not big expenses but they’re easy to keep avoiding. And now they’re hanging over my head and irritating me.

Monday, September 29, 2008

End of the month--already?

Last Thursday, I lamented that I had to buy lunch and dinner but it ended up not being too bad. Lunch was less than $5 (Subway) and dinner wound up being free-ish--my friend (who makes quite a bit more than me and lives at home) picked up the bill and I picked up the tip, so spent only about $15 (I also paid for my drink at a happy hour going-away party).

I also talked myself out of going for sushi this weekend, on the premise that a) it would have been a bit disloyal to Peanut (he loves this place too, and was not able to go) and b) I'd have to report it in the spreadsheet and we're doing so well. We will finish the month at under $450 combined; last month, if you remember, we spent $785. I'm quite sure we can do better than this (I'm thinking between $250-300 if we do a little more meal planning and shop in bulk instead of swinging by the grocery store every night).

Tonight I might have to buy dinner--I have no school class due to Rosh Hoshanna so I'll want to make dance class, which means I don't know if poptarts will cut it. Days that I have school I usually have a poptart or granola bar brought from home, and then when I get home around 9 eat some ramen with frozen veggies or a sandwich when I'm famished. But dance class is too physically demanding to handle this way and I don't think I'll have time to run home and then come back. If I do end up eating out, I'll keep it under $5, which is all the cash I have on me until payday tomorrow.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

no tupperware thursday

I had to buy lunch today.

It's been a very hectic week and yesterday was my longest day--I simply don't have portable food in the house, so I will be buying lunch today. Worse, I am having dinner with a friend tonight, so I'll be buying dinner too.

And I was doing so well!

Combined, Peanut and I have spent $300 less this month compared to the same time last month. That kind of progress is hard to give up by buying meals! But I'm remind myself that, hey--I've spent nearly $200 less this month so far, I can afford to get a cheap (less than $5) lunch and a reasonable (less than $20 dinner) today. I don't want to use the excuse to go crazy the rest of the month, but for today, I'm not going to beat myself up over it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mystery Shopping 102: What You Need to Get Started

This is going to take several posts to cover, but I'm doing an in-depth study of what it takes to be a good, consistent mystery shopper earning several thousand dollars a year plus reimbursements. If you're interested in getting started with mystery shopping, this may seem like a lot of information, but mystery shopping is not worth it unless you plan to stick with it. It takes too long to be reimbursed and the fees are not high, but if you live in a large metro area and do shops that are only convenient to you (ie, places you would be shopping or eating anyway, or which are only a block or two out of your way), it can be a rewarding and fun way to bring in some extra cash. All it takes is some organization, dedication and consistency.

A Caveat:
If this is too much information or you're not sure if you'd like mystery shopping, sign up with one company that's active in your area and do a few shops to see if it's something you'd like to stick with. Also, check out my post Mystery Shopping: A Field Guide. If you want to make it a real part-time side gig, follow the advice below.

What you need
Equipment
You do need some equipment. A time piece is important--a watch or a cell phone--because timing is one of the most important aspects of mystery shopping. Many shops require digital timing (hour:minute:second) so I just use that feature on my cell phone.

You should also have regular access to email and internet since shops need to be uploaded the same day they are completed. A digital camera or scanner (I just use my camera) is helpful for capturing a digital image of a receipt for uploading with your report--some companies only accept digital receipt images. Access to a fax machine is helpful but not required if you can digitally upload images. I also buy a box of envelopes and a roll of stamps two or three times a year only for mystery shopping (tax deduction!), since I work with a few companies that require I mail the physical receipt in.

Most shops that require additional equipment--a thermometer, a scale, video equipment--will provide it for you (you will need to post a deposit, or have it taken out of one of your checks--this is not paying for a shop, it's a deposit that you will get back when you return the equipment). Some shops do require photos of the location be taken, so this is another benefit of having a digital camera (unfortunately, you cannot write the camera off on your taxes unless you use it solely for shopping).

Financial and Digital
You need a dedicated checking account and a Paypal account. I recommend opening a separate bank account for mystery shopping--get a free one with a debit card and use this card for mystery shop expenses to make it easier to keep track of things. I also use it to pay off mystery shops that go on my credit card, since sometimes a credit rather than debit purchase is required. A few companies offer payment via direct deposit, and that money goes into this account.

However, the majority of companies pay by Paypal, and I already had an account so I did not open up a separate one. Likewise, I use my personal gmail account for all mystery shopping offers, but I have my emails heavily filtered--I get hundreds of offers a day (no exaggeration!). All these emails skip the inbox and go straight into company-specific folders, which I check at my leisure. This way I don't miss more important emails from friends and family. Be aware that most companies have different email addresses for different offers, so I usually make a filter "@companyname.com" to catch all of them.

Taxes
You need to keep good records for tax purposes. I'll get to taxes in a later post, but for now, any spreadsheet software and a file folder will get you started. I will also detail a mystery shopping calendar/payment/tax spreadsheet in a later post, but for now, make sure to keep track of the company name, shop numbers, payment/reimbursement agreed to, anything spent above that amount, and the payment date and check number, if applicable. Keep receipts and any printed paperwork in the folder.

What you don't need: MSPA certification. Yes, some companies might offer better shops or higher pay or other perks to certified shoppers. Yes, it's a legitimate certification in the industry. No, it's not required. I have been mystery shopping for over five years and I am not certified. The Silver Certification is a $15 online test, and the Gold Certification is either a conference (omg, so expensive) or a $106 DVD course. The costs are tax-deductible, but it's probably not something I would ever look into. I get plenty of shops (and plenty of "good" shops) without it. I don't know of a single situation in which I was turned down for a shop because of a lack of certification.

You also should not ever have to pay for shops. There are a lot of ways to find shop offers, which I'll detail in my next post, and there a lot of scams out there. Be smart and do research on the companies you're signing up with--don't give your SS# to a company that looks shady. Don't agree to do any kind of money-wiring shop (there is no such thing! No. Such. Thing!) ever under any circumstances. Stay away from shop fees and reimbursements that seem too good to be true.

In the next post, I'll detail how to determine which companies are legitimate, how to register with them, and how to start getting assigned to shops.

Part 2: How to Find Shops

I need to whine

wwwwwwhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyy me?

I'm soooooooooooooooooo busy.

Ok, enough with the whining. I'm busy because I'm employed. Yay! Not only that, I like my job. I'm busy because I'm in grad school, which I'm able to afford, and which I also enjoy. I'm busy because I mystery shop for fun and profit. I'm busy becaue I am well-rounded, and have hobbies that require an investment of time (dancing and reading for book club meetings). I am busy because I maintain relationships with friends and am working on building something special with someone special. I am busy because I'm awesome.

I'm just cranky because I sort of overbooked myself this week and on top of that, I'm having to take charge of a group project for my marketing class. I guess I didn't have to, but no one else is, and I do not have time to be stressed about it. I know that I'm organized and a good leader, and I don't want to wait around for someone else to take the initiative if that means I will be worried about whether people are going to get their acts together. I'd rather be thought of as pushy or bossy than lay awake at night worrying about it.

And for the record, since this is the first MBA class that I've taken--I'm not sure I can go after an MBA after all. I find the people in the class pretentious, irritating and exactly the type of person who goes after an MBA. And given my behavior regarding this group project...what does that make me?

Monday, September 22, 2008

An almost-cheap weekend

I had such a great, relaxing, and fun weekend I was disappointed to come to work this morning, and that's pretty rare since I like my job.

Peanut and I made biscuits and gravy on Saturday morning, which I'd been craving. That was the first time I've ever had turkey sausage--the first time I've ever had turkey anything, actually. (For new readers, I have been a vegetarian all my life and am slowly trying meat to see if I still want to be a vegetarian.) To my surprise, the turkey sausage tastes exactly like the Morningstar Farms fake sausage, and the gravy I made from scratch was not bad.

We ate at home for almost every meal, and I must confess, I'm getting a little sick of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We intended to make some other meals too, but got caught up in video games and never really went grocery shopping.

We also finally went to see The Dark Knight, in Imax--for $32! We enjoyed it but Peanut definitely thought it wasn't worth paying extra for Imax and I agree. Oh well--we had a lot of fun wandering through a street fair on the way to the theater and I restrained from buying a weird dress that I've been wanting. Knowing that all my extra money is going to Lasik really has me ignoring spending opportunities right and left.

I did laundry on Sunday, the first time since May that I didn't do it on a summer Friday afternoon, and I noticed something really disturbing--the big washers cost $4 a load. Sure, that's expensive...but I'm pretty sure that when I was doing laundry on Friday afternoons, those same washers were $2.75. Is it possible that the 'mat jacks up the price on the weekends, when more people have to do laundry? If so...if so, I'm really irritated by them. I have to drop off a pair of pants at the dry cleaners associated with them, so I'm going to make a point of doing that during the week and checking the cost of the washers then. If they DO raise the price on the weekends, I think I might complain to the management. That's pretty nasty of them. I probably wouldn't quit going there, though...it's by far the closest one to my apartment and they're open 24 hours, so I could do my laundry in the evenings at the cheaper price.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Rewards for doing well

Peanut and I have been diligent this week about bringing our lunches to work every day, and we get gold stars! Five days of homemade lunches means we are ok with going out to eat with his roommate tonight.

I know, I know--we said we weren't going out to eat unless it was a mystery shop. Oh, well--we're planning on it on purpose (planned since Wednesday) because his roommate is kind of having a rough time (long distance girlfriend) and Peanut hasn't spent much time with him lately, mostly because the roommate likes to go to semi-expensive restaurants and doesn't get the whole budgeting concept that we're working.

I'm looking forward to it--I've never been to this place before and have wanted to go, and I understand the food is great and the prices are very reasonable. Plus, I have had a hell of a week, and need something to drink!

2008 has been a year in which I'm trying to automate and digitize as much of my life as possible. That said, I still carry a check register around. Not a checkbook--I only write a few checks a month and don't want to risk losing it. Just a checkbook cover with two check registers in it, one for each bank account (personal and "business"--another personal account at a different bank to be used solely for mystery shopping and dance expenses). But it occurred to me this week that I could totally digitize those registers and have one less thing to carry around with me in hard copy. So I've been working on transferring the last month of expenses to spread sheets and saving them to my thumb drive. I'm also hoping to (this weekend) get a program or write a script or something that will automatically back up the sheets on my thumb drive to my laptop's hard drive every time I plug it in, so it will be almost like syncing my smartphone and computer. I'd put the spreadsheets on my smartphone, but they're too big and make the phone run other features sluggishly.

This weekend looks to be another frugal one--aside from our dinner out and a possible movie, we'll be cooking and eating in, playing video games, doing laundry/cleaning house, reading, and maybe free yoga in the park. I'd hoped to book a job this weekend, but that didn't happen--maybe next weekend.

Oh, I also booked Spa Week appointments already--for those of you in major metropolitan areas, you are CRAZY if you don't take advantage of these deals.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Auction Sniper

I don't usually post referral links, but I just found out about this one, and it's really something I can support.

AuctionSniper.com


I've been using Auction Sniper for a few years, and it's pretty much the only way I can stand to deal with eBay anymore. I just enter the item number of the thing I want to buy and the highest price I'm willing to pay, and the program attempts to make me the high bidder at the very last moment of the auction. I don't always win, because other people might snipe at a higher price or a closer interval, but it works about 50% of the time, and it's 100% more accurate than me trying to sit in at the last minute and outbid everyone else (mostly because I simply don't have TIME to be at the computer when an auction is ending).

So far, I have only used my free snipes, and if you click on the link above and sign up using me as a referral, I'll get more free snipes. You'll get free snipes for signing up too, and I think it's a great service (or I wouldn't suggest you sign up and ask that if you do, you give me free snipes). :)

Is the economy affecting me?

It seems like the recent fallout with Lehman Brothers and AIG (along with a 500-point dorp in the stock market this week) suddenly has individual personal finance bloggers getting scared. People who are already pretty frugal or at least actively manage their money are starting to be nervous.

Am I nervous? Have the events of this year (the price of gas, the stock market, the grocery shrink ray) affected my life?

Not really. I'm still keeping to a budget. I'm still sticking money into short term savings as well as retirement accounts (although those accounts are losing money each month). I'm not cutting down on purchases or cancelling plans due to finances.

It could appear that I'm reacting to the news. My friend and I were planning to go on a cruise this summer with our tax rebate, and we cancelled that--but it was because she had just moved and realized she needed to be a little more responsible with her money, and I was glad to support that. I would totally have gone if she'd wanted to; it's probably a great time to find deals because everyone else is cancelling their plans.

Peanut and I are making an active effort to do more grocery shopping instead of eating in restaurants. But that decision didn't evolve out of a discussion about the economy, it was more about what we were doing with our time and money. Without saying in so many words, our values place homecooked meals (including the time spent preparing them together) above eating in restaurants, but we weren't living our values. Now we are--and we're eating better, having fun cooking and packing lunches together, having more time to play computer games together, and also saving money, as a bonus.

The biggest areas of concern I have are for the future: the true cost of food is going to continue going up, so I will have to change my budget, and my landlord may decide to raise my rent in the face of rising energy costs--which might mean I'd have to move. I love my place, and moving is very expensive, but that's six months off and I can't worry about it now.

So I'm not really afraid of what's going on in the economy. I belive it's a correction that's overdue, and I believe that things will work themselves out. My job is stable and if the worst should happen, I have an emergency fund in cash and am willing to work in fast food or wherever I can find a job to bring in some income. My student loans will not be due for a while yet, and that's the only debt I have. My retirement accounts are not going to be touched for another 30 or 40 years, so they'll have time to recover from recent losses. All in all, the biggest change I've seen is that people are no longer looking askance at me for using coupons or paying cash or saving up for purchases like I've done all along.