Sunday, August 29, 2010

Honeymoon!

Peanut and I weren't really planning to take a honeymoon. Initially I was thinking maybe we'd rent a car and drive back from the wedding, meandering along and stopping at B&Bs and generally being romantic and then I price-checked a one-way car rental and got a serious reality check.

But I didn't want to come home and go right back to work, nor did I want to spend the first four days of our marriage the way our weekends usually go, playing video games and staring at each other. And somehow, I got a bee in my bonnet to go someplace I've never been:

Niagara Falls

Wheee!

I did some research and we can easily go for less than $1,000. I love touristy, kitschy places like this -- places like Gatlinburg (Dollywood!) and Graceland and Medieval Times and even taking visitors to Times Square to a diner where all the waiters and waitresses are Broadway-bound.

We'll be taking the train from NYC, a nine-hour (!) trip, for which I found a buy one, get one half-off coupon code. Then we'll be staying a 2 1/2 star hotel with good Travelocity reviews in Niagara Falls, Ontario, for a package deal: 3 nights, free upgrade to a deluxe room (not sure what this means), 3 hot breakfasts for two people, and one 2-course dinner, all for $340 CDN. I want to do the Maid of the Mist boat ride and the Butterfly Conservatory, and maybe one other touristy thing, and otherwise just wander around and tell everyone we're on our honeymoon.

I can't wait!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

How to Live Cheaply in New York: Round Up

Well, this wraps up my How to Live Cheaply in New York series. I covered Grocery shopping, Housing, Entertainment, Transportation, Dining Out, Personal Care, and Making More Money.

Many of these suggestions apply to more cities than New York -- and if they work in the city with the highest cost of living in the country, they can definitely work for you!

Friday, August 27, 2010

How to Live Cheaply in New York: Making More Money

This is part of a series of living cheaply in New York. See previous posts: Grocery shopping, Housing, Entertainment, Transportation, Dining Out, Personal Care

As many personal finance gurus point out, it's not enough to cut expenses -- every good personal finance plan will include methods to increase income as well. New York is a great place to have side gigs for bringing in extra cash. Unlike other places, though, it's harder to do things like moonlight as a bartender -- bartenders and service staff in New York have to have extensive experience in New York City restaurants to get hired (how you ever get started, I'm not sure). But here are some other options:

Craigslist has a lot of side jobs posted, and many of them are totally legitimate. I was an extra in a music video, auditioned to be an artist's model, and know of friends who've picked up dog-walking, personal assistant, and bookkeeping jobs from there as well.

Also, mystery shopping is abundant here in New York. There are so many stores, and so many opportunities to get a free meal and a few bucks for something you'd be doing anyway. See the mystery shopping field guide I wrote a few years ago for more information!

The biggest easy moneymaker is focus groups. Large major metro areas have a lot of focus groups and I'd say New York probably has the most. You just go and talk about what you think about a product for an hour and get paid cash (usually) that's way better than anything you can get working part-time. The only downside is that most firms have a limit on how frequently you participate, usually every six months or so. Still, it doesn't hurt! I'm registered with a couple of places, but Probe, Recruit and Field and Focus Point Global contact me the most frequently.

I also managed to find a way to turn a hobby into a paying enterprise -- and I think that's fairly easy to do here in New York. If you have a hobby or skill that someone else will pay for (dancing, performing anything, computer knowledge, programming, animation, etc) it's pretty easy to find side work doing exactly that.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Budget for debt repayment

Here's a sneak peek at our new budget for debt repayment.

We bring in about $5,500 per month, with a few three paycheck months. 

Rent: $1,444 (until May, when it will drop to $1,428)
Cell phones $115 (Peanut pays $45 to a family plan, mine is $70. We're both under contract until next summer.)
Renter's insurance $10
Utilities $80

Food $500 (this includes eating out and groceries. Pretty generous!)
Entertainment $30

Internet $40
Household/personal $40
Laundry $30
Transportation $90 (Peanut's monthly metrocard; mine's a pre-tax perk at work)

Total $2,379

Leaving $3,121 (plus those third paychecks in three paycheck months) to throw at our student loans
 
Notice what's missing:
Travel, including travel home for the holidays
Clothes and jewelry
Yoga and dance classes (I have to earn the money through dancing to continue going to class -- and no new costumes!)
Electronics

Still, we've got $500 in the food category, which is pretty darn generous. Frankly, this is hardly bare bones. We're not cutting cell phones, we're not cutting internet, we still have an entertainment category for movies. We're going to try to cut back on eating out to spend less there simply because we don't need to be spending that much. Not going home for the holidays isn't much of a loss, as we don't have anymore vacation days due to the wedding -- and we'll have seen all of our families so much because of the wedding that we'll be sick of them. (Kidding! Sort of.)

So there you have it. Our "whaling on debt" budget. Wish us luck! And watch for changes to take place around the blog in the upcoming weeks, including some new sidebars trackers, a monthly post about how much debt we've killed, and weekly spending recaps that help us focus on having more no-spend days.

Monday, August 23, 2010

New direction at for The Moneybagses

Sooo...it's official: Peanut and I are downsizing to one income! Or at least living that way.

I talked about this a few months ago, but we sat down and took a hard look at our finances last weekend and we decided to go for it. It could be an unpleasant year, but if we live off of one income and funnel the other towards student loan repayment, we will be completely debt-free by our first anniversary. What a present that'll be!


Our student loan debt, as of today, is $45,746.32. The highest loan (which will probably be paid off by the wedding) is at 8% and the lowest is at 5.01%. Peanut has already consolidated and there's no value to me consolidating, so that's where they'll stay the entire time. The total breakdown:


Peanut #1 8.00% $1,692.61
LMM 6.80% $15,568.48
Peanut #2 6.63% $20,660.12
Peanut #3 5.80% $2,878.79
Peanut #4 5.01% $4,946.32

According to whatsthecost.com,  if we put $3,000 per month against these loans, we'll pay them off in 16 months. BUT! If we dump large amounts of cash on them right after the wedding ($3,000 from tuition reimbursement, another $1,000 I can pull from various non-emergency savings, and an estimated $6,000 from wedding money that we get as gifts and/or don't spend since my mother is covering a lot of the wedding now), we can cut the time to pay down to 12 months, and be debt-free by our one year wedding anniversary.

Obviously, this necessitates some budgeting changes. There will be no more saving for a car, or sunny beach vacations, or travel home for holidays, or non-necessary clothing or movies. We will be trying to cut our grocery budget and we'll be eating out less. I might even go back to mystery shopping and/or dance jobs to bring in extra cash we'll use to throw at it.

The good news is, it's only for one year. One year! That's like nothing! And then we will be completely, 100% debt-free AND we'll be used to living on one income, so we can BUILD UP $45,000 in savings in just another year. (Or we could really go crazy, loosen up a TON, and still save twenty grand without even trying.)

What an amazing prospect.

Now, we do have a couple of ground rules:

Retirement savings comes first. We'll continue to contribute up to the match at our respective 401(k)s, and each max out a Roth IRA. We're in pretty good shape already to do so for 2010, and will top them off with wedding money before we start throwing cash at Sallie Mae.

It starts after the wedding -- and after the honeymoon. We'll take the trips that we've currently got scheduled, we'll have a lovely honeymoon (that's a future post!), and then the day after we come home, we start killing debt.

We can re-evaluate if something changes. A job loss, a move, a major medical problem--we can easily drop back to paying minimums and get back on track when we're able.

More on how our budget will change for this endeavor in a future post.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

How to Live Cheaply in New York: Personal Care

This is part of a series of living cheaply in New York. See previous posts: Grocery shopping, Housing, Entertainment, Transportation, Dining Out
New York is second only to L.A., maybe, in being superficial and focused on how people look. Luckily, you don't have to spend a ton of money to look great.

First, Spa Week happens twice a year (not just in New York!), when thousands of pricey salon and spa treatments are only $50. I usually get a massage, but I've also gotten facials, waxes, teeth whitening, laser hair removal and a number of other services for heavily-reduced prices. Just make sure you tip based on the full value of the treatment!

Shiseido Studio in Soho is a neat place -- you can go play with products and they offer classes on how to create different looks. The many, many locations of Sephora are similar (I like the one on Fifth Avenue -- it's in the original Charles Scribner & Sons building, a book publishing legend! Plus, it's beautiful).

For cheap haircuts, the Aveda Institute can't be beat. Student haircuts cost $20, and these are no beauty-school dropouts.

One of my favorite secrets of New York is Cosmetics Warehouse on W. 39th. Hair dye for $2.50/box. Brand-name lipsticks and eye shadows for $.99 each. I don't know if it's overstock merchandise or fell off the back of a truck, but it's awesome. They also have a website.

Of course, you can also do the coupon games at the many, many drugstores in New York: CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens, and Duane Reade all regularly have deals on personal items which, paired with a coupon, are totally affordable.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Weekend Linkfest

Here's a round up of what I've been reading lately:
 
Almost frugal does a "monthly-ish" project day to get together with friends and catch up on those little projects like mending. What a great idea! 
 
Mastercard is introducing a credit card with spending limits that you set yourself, so you can have it declined at a restaurant after you've spent $250 or whatever for the month. Umm...ok. And now, how are you going to pay at the restaurant where you just ate your dinner?
 
I'm learning from J. Money's mistake: He accidentally withdrew money from an ATM with his credit card (cash advance) instead of debit card (savings/checking account). He points to a very simple way this could have been avoided: use different pins for credit and debit cards. I'm not 100% sure what my credit card PIN is (I never planned to do a cash advance, so I never bothered to remember) but if I had to set it, it's probably the same. Good advice from him!
 
Frugal Zeitgeist talks about how raises and bonuses are taxed differently, which now explains why my bonus has always been less than I expected but I've had to pay less in taxes out of pocket in those years. 
 
Trent at The Simple Dollar talks about perfection as noted in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. Apparently, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to perfect anything. Which explains why I have only perfected goofing off on the internet. It's a very interesting idea, though -- I don't want to be perfect at belly dance, or at yoga. But if I did those things for one hour a day, I would be one-third of the way to perfection, which is about ten times better than I'm doing now. That's not so much of a sacrifice, is it?
 
Small Notebook talks about what to expect when you're expecting--and you live in a small apartment. This will likely be us in a few years! I really like the comment about little kids needing little homes.
 
CHG asks the internet: how much do you spend on food? I looked at Peanut's and my spreadsheets together and then I didn't want to talk about it anymore. We average over $500 per month on groceries and eating out -- and a lot of it is MY eating out. Oops. Anyway, the rest of the comments over there were very interesting.

Lots of interesting things happening over here at Casa Moneybags, including a budget/spending plan for the post-married days (we're five weeks away!), retirement planning, wedding shenanigans (including a honeymoon, now!), and general overscheduling of my life. More to come soon!

Friday, August 13, 2010

How to Live Cheaply in New York: Dining Out

This is part of a series of living cheaply in New York. See previous posts: Grocery shopping, Housing, Entertainment, Transportation

New York is definitely a city of foodies. Eating out is a big part of the culture, but it gets really expensive. Here are a few ways to keep costs down:

Go out for lunch instead of dinner
If I'm going to go out for a meal with friends, I try to make it for lunch instead of dinner. It's amazing the difference in price! Also, "dinner" here in New York is really late to me -- 8 p.m. or so. I have to eat around 6:30 or I turn into a huge grouch. My favorite lunch spots: Kodama (sushi/bento), La Paloma (burritos), Mangia (Italian/American)

Go out for appetizers, drinks, or dessert instead of a meal
Go to a place known for great appetizers or desserts instead of a full meal. Just watch out for the cost of alcohol! My favorite appetizer, drinks, or dessert spots: Johnny Utah's, Serendipity, Mama Mexico, Toast

Split portions with a friend
Portion sizes nowadays are too big anyway! If you go to a place known for generous helpings, split a meal between two of you and cut your costs in half. My favorite big-portion places: La Paloma, Pio Pio 

Cheaper options
Food trucks! There are some amazing food trucks in Manhattan, and there's always the Red Hook Ball Fields. Favorites: Trini-Paki Boys, Sarah's Halal
Also, local spots. If you head to places that aren't super well-trafficked by tourists, you'll find some good deals. Favorites: Panna II, JJ's, Bohemian Hall, Zen Palate, Mundo


Coupons and other money-saving options
Groupon, Restaurant.com, New York Restaurant Week, and festivals like Taste of Times Square and San Gennaro all offer great opportunities to eat out while saving a lot of money. Another option: mystery shopping! Most of your assignments will be for chain restaurants, but hey--if you're just looking for food that you don't have to make or clean up, you can't beat getting paid to do it.

One way to never save money while dining out: skimping on the tip. If you don't have the money to pay your full bill plus a 15% minimum tip, you can't afford to eat out.

How do you save money eating out?

Friday, August 6, 2010

How to Live Cheaply in New York: Transportation

This is part of a series of living cheaply in New York. See previous posts: Grocery shopping, Housing, Entertainment

This one's pretty simple: take public transportation. Currently a monthly unlimited metrocard is $89. This card is good for all subways and buses (except express buses, which I've never used) all month long, any time of day. The subway is generally very safe, even late at night, and I'm lucky to live just two blocks off the train. I take the subway almost exclusively.

For trips to the airport, sometimes I'll take a cab or car service. That winds up being about $13 plus tip, but late at night or with lots of bags, it can be worth it. I know some people take cabs all the time, but I actually can't think of the last time I hailed a cab for something other than the airport. It's an unnecessary expense, and I find it kind of nauseating to ride in a backseat anymore. For out of towners, here are some cab/car service guidelines:
  • Only yellow cabs are allowed to pick up fares from the street. Car service companies ("gypsy cabs"--usually black or grey Lincoln Town Cars) are not supposed to, although of course it happens. If you do take a car service, agree on the price before you get in. 
  • Cabs are required to take you where you want to go, even if it's way out in a borough. If a cabbie balks or refuses, take down their medallion number and file a complaint with 311. 
  • You can pay with cash or a credit/debit card. All cabs are required to take cards, and you can file a complaint if the cabbie refuses.
  • You have the right to a smoke-free, silent ride if you request it, and you have the right to the route of your choice (ie, if you'd prefer the driver take the West Side Highway to Broadway).
  • There is a flat-rate fare to JFK but metered fare to La Guardia. Tolls are the passenger's responsibility.
  • Tip your driver.

Owning a car in New York is strange to me. I know a lot of people do it, but it's weird. Between registration expenses, gas, insurance, and alternate side parking, it seems like such a hassle. When I do need a car, I rent one at La Guardia. Peanut and I have also discussed getting a ZipCar membership, but we don't need wheels frequently enough to justify it. I have a couple friends who have a membership, and we can take advantage of that if necessary.

New York's fabulous public transit system really makes the most sense for anyone living or visiting here. How do you save on transportation costs where you live?

grump, grump, grump

Have I already complained here about Chase not accepting that no means no? It's not just me. I guess that's good to know...but it's still annoying that they ask me at every opportunity and send me lots of junk mail even though I've clearly communicated that I do NOT want to opt-in to overdraft protection and that I DO understand exactly what that means.

Harrumph.

Despite the fact that it's a Friday with lovely weather, I am a bit grumpy. I am really, really tired of wedding planning. I just want to be married already. I don't want to deal with another question about flowers or worry about whether people are coming (only 22 people have RSVP'd yes! We sent our invites out a month ago!) or dread writing final checks or anything. I just do not want to care anymore. I want to be married and done with changing my name and on my way to the next adventure.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

July Recap/August Goals

July Goals
1. Get dress altered, send invitations, finalize flowers and ceremony, start thinking about centerpieces, book travel for wedding, have budget discussion with mom. Dress is with seamstress, invitations are sent, ceremony is written, travel is booked, budget was discussed, have a call with the florist for tomorrow. Still need to book a rental car, make one tweak to the ceremony, and determine centerpieces. Also, I want to finalize all the little reception details -- do we want a card box? Scrapbook? Stuff for kids to do?

2. Be more present. Umm....I think I forgot about this. I really overbooked myself toward the end of the month and this last week has been exhausting.

3. Turn in thesis, get A, submit paperwork for tuition reimbursement. Done and done. I should get the reimbursement in August.

4. Try one new recipe each weekend. Pretty good. We'll do another one tonight.

5. Read and get rid of books. Doing well! I've been reading three or four books a week.

6. Bonus, since #3 is kind of a cheat -- have someone over for dinner. My brother came over for dinner on Friday. It's been mostly too hot--we don't have air conditioning in the common areas of the apartment.

7. Bonus #2, since I just thought of it -- get up a little earlier. Doing well! I'm not actually doing yoga in the mornings, but I have been getting up twenty minutes earlier which helps me feel less rushed.




August Goals

1. Put together a trip to the Renaissance Faire. This will require a lot of coordination and renting a vehicle, but I really want to do it. 
 
2. Research private student loan consolidation. Once again showing how little I know about student loans, I've been only looking at consolidating with the government program that originally made my loans. A friend told me yesterday that I should be looking at private banks like Chase and Bank of America -- she recently got a 2.8% interest rate on the same loans that I'm paying 6.8% for. 

3. Take it down a notch. I've been really social in July which was bad for my wallet and for my stamina. I need time to recover and I haven't taken it. We have a few things already planned (plus that Renn Faire trip) but other than that, I want to take it easy. 
 
4. Sun salutations. I can't seem to get it together enough to do a yoga video or anything in the mornings, but I could do a series that I already know without any excuses. 

5. Get the trivial wedding details out of the way. Centerpieces, the bits of the ceremony that need to be addressed, any last DIY stuff. I can't wait -- just a few more weeks and I won't have to care about weddings anymore!
 
Not-so-new monthly feature: New Year's Resolution Recap
1. Max out a Roth IRA automatically. Underway!
2. Pay down at least half my student loan debt. I made my first payment of $4,000--not a bad start for a ~$20,000 debt.
3. Give to charity. I have a Goodwill donation pile that I STILL need to take in.
4. Finish graduate school while maintaining a 3.86 GPA and turn in my thesis early. Done--maybe! Now I need to change it to "Resolve stupid class situation with stupid school".
5. Read more than 100 books. Totally on schedule for this.
6. Cultivate a more positive attitude. Doing better this month...
7. Take the stairs whenever possible. ...but not so much on this.
8. Seven minutes of yoga per day. I quit this in February or March in favor of weekly yoga classes. I love them. If I get to getting up earlier and doing 20 minutes in the morning, I'd totally meet this goal.
9. Develop a regular posting schedule for my "real name" blog. Still not updating that one anymore. My stalker ex freaked me out too much by retweeting my posts. I'm debating canceling the domain name and getting a refund for now.
10. Make less of an impact. Taking cloth bags more often -- we actually started to get very low on plastic bags, which we use for garbage bags. I'm also making sure to wash my grocery bags now!

July Spending Review

Misc Income: $25.99 (Pinecone payments, interest)
Savings
Travel $105
Gifts $40
Sunny Vacation $100
Student Loan Repayment $260
Wedding $280
Car $303

Total savings $1,088
Retirement
401(k) $295.40 pre tax (company matches that at 50%)
Roth IRA $454.54 
Total Retirement savings: $897.64

Debt Repayment
Student loans $4,000
Spending
Cell phone $70.16
Clothes $97.42 (some desperately-needed new bras and not-needed new tops)
Entertainment $14.60 (movie tickets)
Food—dining out $232 (ouch! that's just my share!)
Food—groceries $131.80
Gifts $28.27
Household $64.22 (odds and ends, plus some furniture we bought off a friend)
Internet $47.89 (I seem to have paid the bill for two months in the same month--should be zero in August)
Laundry $14.50
Personal $26.83
Rent $722.35
Utilities $55.67
Wedding $416.89 (wedding shoes, dress alteration deposit, plane tickets for the wedding)

Total spending: $1,938.44

Networth IQ updated (see sidebar).


One more of these, and then Peanut and I will be combining all of our money! We're getting married in just 56 days. 


There's some frustrating things going on with the numbers above, though. First, my school finally did my graduation audit and they're claiming that I am missing a class -- even though I've taken 39 credits and the degree only requires 36. I do NOT want to pay to take a class that I've already substituted. We'll see how this plays out. 


Also, we are having a weird situation with our rent. Our lease renewed in June, so our rent went up by 4%, or about $40. Not much to do about that. But around the same time, we got slapped with a major capital improvement increase, for the elevator that was installed before we moved in. That's another $14 monthly increase. Which is fine, but they've been charging us that $14 twice each month since it was approved, and they can't explain to me why that is. Last month I was told that it was for the previous month, since they sent the statements out before they received permission from the city to charge it, and I wouldn't see it again. But it's there again this month, marked as "August arrears" and I'm just not clear on how they can charge me arrears for something that hasn't even happened yet. There are now so many charges, credits and debits on the statement that I can't make sense of it, and I feel like they're putting it all on there to confuse people and get them to pay extra. I'll be calling the office on Monday before I write the check. 


In other news, the weather in New York is now awesome, so Peanut and I are going to go out and enjoy it.