Monday, October 31, 2011

Weekly Money Checkup


Weekly Money Check-Up is a weekly series on My Pretty Pennies.

1. The most I've spent this last week was on credit card payments. We pay them off in full every month, and I'm now putting work expenses on there for the points (and getting reimbursed in time to pay the bill!) so it's a pretty big transaction to authorize! We also transferred more money into the house fund, which made me happy.

2. Today I am thankful that I moved out of New York in time to avoid Halloween Octsnowber. :)

3. Money can't buy happiness. One free thing I did last week that made me happy was rearrange our living room. Peanut fixed my computer (which wasn't free) and we moved it out to sit next to his instead of being in a different room. I feel much better about the arrangement (we spend a lot of time on our computers), even if it's not the prettiest.

4. I will consider this week a success if I finish a presentation for work - I've been trying for weeks to get it done, and it's due next week, but I haven't been able to get the information I need. I made kind of a stink about it to the people who are delaying me this morning, and I'm finally getting some responses. Hopefully I'll get everything I need, and soon.

5. This year for Halloween, Peanut and I dressed up as Westley/The Dread Pirate Roberts and Buttercup from The Princess Bride. I've been working on these costumes all month long, and I'm really pleased with how they turned out. They weren't as expensive as buying costumes, but given all the time I put into them, we will wear them for several years just to make it worth it! :) We wore them to a party on Saturday night and will wear them again tonight to pass out candy.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dental Insurance Search - and so much more

Pearly Whites Dental Clinic
Whether or not I have insurance, I've got a date with this chair.

As you may know, I've been on the hunt for private dental insurance. Because of the way our employers offer plans, this turned into an audit of our health insurance, too. To recap, Peanut and I are lucky to have access to two health insurance plans - one is a high deductible medical-only plan with premiums covered in full by Peanut's employer, and the other is a more traditional medical + dental plan with premiums shared by us and my employer - our share is about $2,300 per year at 2011's prices.

The medical part of my plan is okay, but the dental part has an annual cap of $1,000, which I used for 2011 in a single day, and I've got an appointment January 2 that will use up the cap for 2012 in a day as well. So we decided to do some looking around for private dental insurance. Several of you asked me to document the process, so here goes!

I started by googling for "individual dental insurance" and "private dental insurance". It's totally overwhelming. A lot of what I saw looked either scammy (cheap, crappy basic websites) or too good to be true. I also found a number of sites that appeared to be for insurance but a closer look showed that it was NOT insurance - there's something called a dental discount plan, which I'll get to in a little bit.

Then I started looking up insurance companies that I already know (Aetna, Delta, UHC, BCBS) to see if they offer individual plans that don't have to be attached to a medical plan. Turns out that most of them do, but not in my state.

So then I started googling state name + dental insurance, and found a few companies that do offer actual individual dental insurance in my state, but they have a waiting period that would disqualify the appointment I have in January.

During this time, I did not enter any personal information into any of these sites. If I could get away with just giving an age and zip code or something, I entered it, but I didn't put a phone number, name, or email address in any of these sites, ESPECIALLY the scammy looking ones.

The next step was to start googling some more basic things. I find Ask Metafilter to be a great resource for helping me answer these types of questions that college didn't quite prepare me for, and it didn't disappoint: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 questions full of relevant answers. I also found this article about the difference between dental insurance and a dental discount plan - basically, dental insurance works the way health insurance does, with copays and deductibles. Dental discount plans SEEM like insurance, and it behooves the companies to present them that way. But really, they just provide discounted prices for you to pay out of pocket, sort of like what insurance companies are able to do for themselves. Dental discount programs typically have some sort of monthly or annual fee, and sometimes there is a waiting period before they go into effect.

With this knowledge, I created a full list of all the different insurance companies and dental discount plans that were available to me. Most of the options were not great - the fees were certainly lower than ~$200/month for the combined dental and medical we'd pay through my company, but most of the caps were about the same ($1,000/year), plus all the options had a waiting period that would have affected the dental work I need done in January. Then I started thinking narrower. I like the dentist I'm seeing now; why research a ton of options just to find something that he doesn't take? So I called the billing office and laid out the situation.

That sure made it easy. My dentist's office takes most of the insurance I uncovered, but they accept only one dental discount plan, which they are affiliated with. The annual fee was lower than all the other discount plans I found, and there's no waiting period. It offers 25% off all preventive and restorative services including cleaning and x-rays.

So that was a pretty easy solution - just go with that. I have one more phone call to make to verify that everything is as it seems, but I expect that to be the case. So I'll be canceling our medical + dental insurance and signing up for this dental discount plan to go into effect January 1.

This means we'll go with Peanut's employer's health insurance, which is free to us on a monthly basis but has a $3,200 deductible before kicking in. Once we've paid that much, they cover in-network 100% and out of network 80%. We also get access to a health savings account, which allows you to keep any funds not used in the year for future medical expenses (as opposed to a flex spending account, where you lose those funds at year's end).

The high deductible plan makes sense for us - our medical bills are usually quite low (so, lower than the $2,300 we'd pay for my plan) although if we got pregnant next year, they'd suddenly be much larger than ever before (large enough to make the $3,200 deductible kick in, and then insurance would cover everything after that - again cheaper than $2,300 in premiums plus our share of whatever my employer's insurance wouldn't cover). Money Beagle talks about high deductible plans this week, too. Of course, all of these plans make sense according to the 2011 details, which may or may not change significantly for 2012 - I expect that paperwork any day and will be verifying all of it before signing anything.

The solution for us definitely wouldn't make sense if we were eligible for a dental plan that wasn't tied to medical (through employers, those are usually very low-cost), and a high deductible medical plan doesn't make sense for anyone who doesn't immediately have the deductible on hand and who isn't at the sweet spot for either low expenses or high expenses in a year.

To sum up, if you are researching private dental insurance, I'd recommend starting with your dentist - this would have saved me a ton of time! Find out what insurance your dentist takes and find out if any of them offers private policies. Ask about dental discount plans - some of my research indicated that you could use both - ie, insurance for all covered expenses and a discount plan for anything out of pocket (though you'd have to make sure you are saving enough to justify the annual fee for the discount plan).

I hope that helps! Any questions?

Photo via dbgg1979

Friday, October 28, 2011

LinkFest

Short, short, short version - too much going on with all the mortgage excitement! Here's what caught my eye this week:

I was included in this week's Carnival of Personal Finance - thanks!

Trent had a GREAT post defining the different acronyms for retirement saving.

PT Money says it's okay to spend money on things you really want - you just need to spend intentionally. I totally agree with this!

Also, the book The Everything Guide to Mortgages and Michael Bluejay's site - a MUST READ for every new homebuyer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Time Off

I have been at my job since June and I have only taken one day off. I have close to two weeks of vacation/personal days that I will need to use most of before the end of the year (some can carry over, and I want to make sure to do that). Time to start planning what to do!

Personal Day
Change driver's license
Doctor's appointment (I went for my physical in January but I could go again? I do need to find a local doctor here.)
Do a huge once a month cooking day
Go to the mall (seriously - I hate shopping on weekends when everyone else is there)
Go look at houses
Create an in case of file and declutter our filing system
Create a will
Check on all our insurance coverage (renter, car, life, disability) and make sure it's enough
Get my car ready for winter
Pretend it's a weekend and get nothing accomplished

Vacation Days
Travel home for Christmas

Half of my vacation days can go to next year, which I'd like to do. At my old job I was about to be bumped up to three weeks vacation, so I'd like to carry over my days from this year and make it feel like that's happened.

I also haven't used any sick days, and they don't carry over. I used to be a real stickler about using all my days, even if I wasn't sick, and I still feel like that's morally okay but I'm not so interested in doing it anymore. I like my job, and I don't like lying to people that I'm sick when I'm not.

What do you do with your time off, other than travel? What else can I do during the week that I'm not thinking of?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Getting the car ready for winter

I am living in a state of denial that I will soon be driving to work in a blizzard, but there's starting to be frost on the windshield in the morning so it is time for me to face facts: I need to get the car ready for winter.

Here's my to-do list:
Use Rainex on the windshields
Clean the windshield wipers with rubbing alcohol
Buy ice scraper
Buy snow shovel
Buy fuel de-icer
Buy antifreeze
Buy jumper cables (check the trunk to make sure we don't already have some)
Buy flashlight and/or flares
Buy kitty litter
Fix license plate light
Put the first aid kit in the car
Buy gloves (my current cotton gloves still let the coldness of the steering wheel through - and it's not even below freezing yet)
Buy boots to wear while digging out the car
Research driving courses for driving in the snow
Change driver's license so that when I inevitably get pulled over or pulled out of a ditch, I don't also get a ticket for that
Consider upping car insurance coverage for dangerous driving conditions

Winter drivers, what am I forgetting? I already keep a blanket in the car at all times and snacks upon my person.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Weekly Money Checkup: Blogging Maniac Edition

 
Weekly Money Check-Up is a weekly series on My Pretty Pennies.

1. The most I’ve spent this last week was on a charge for work. I've already submitted for reimbursement, which is good, because it's $2,000! (Oh, points, points, points!) 


2. Today I am thankful for getting pre-approved! All of a sudden it feels like our life is going to start moving really fast.

3. Money can’t buy happiness. One free thing I did last week that made me happy was get ahead on my to-read pile.

4. I will consider this week a success if I finish our Halloween costumes! 


5. The next big trip I am taking is to northern Minnesota to go skiing! We just booked a fireplace suite in a lodge upstate and will be going with a bunch of other friends. I plan to bring the crockpot. :)

Whew!

Wow. Peanut and I have some research to start doing! We got an email from the mortgage broker today that starts with "Congratulations!" and contains "Everything looks very good!" and "How big of a house did you want to buy???" and ends with "I've got everything ready to go!"

So. No hard numbers just yet, but we are meeting this week to discuss everything (and we get a copy of our credit reports and credit scores, woo!). Peanut and I have had a price range in mind for the type of house we would like to buy in the neighborhoods we are interested in, and we will probably stick with that even if the bank offers us a lot more. If they offer within our range, we might go lower. And if they offer lower than our range, I guess we will be renters forever.

But what's  next? I've got no idea. Peanut's mom is our real estate agent, and she's been sending us links to houses she thinks we'd like for a long time, so...I guess we start looking in person? Going to open houses? I don't know yet how long this pre-approval is good for (I know they expire) and I don't want to be rushed into something just because. Nor do I think I'm going to find anything "perfect" - I'm going to find something I like a lot and can live with for many years to come.

Do you shop around for mortgage pre-approvals? I'm not sure we really can - Peanut's mom is our real estate agent, and this is the broker she recommended. Peace at holiday gatherings sort of dictates that we use his mom as our agent, and probably that we use this broker. That's not how I typically make big financial decisions, but I don't know that we have a choice here. Please note: I have utmost faith in Peanut's mom as our real estate agent; she's got a great eye and is big on not pushing people into something they don't want, and she specializes in first-time buyers. And I'm sure the broker is also a top-notch professional, it's just weird that these decisions were sort of made for us (by us) when we decided to move here.

So anyway, I'll be spending tonight googling about the mortgage pre-approval process and the early stages of how to buy a house. I'd be surprised if we find something before the holidays, but you never know. It would be awesome to have a garage to keep the car in starting with the first snow.

omg, I'm going to have to pack up everything I own AGAIN. Send help. And snacks. And upbeat music.

Living Well on What You Make

I'm jumping on Serendipity's bandwagon with ee musings!

Do you avoid a lot of the expenses that many of your peers spend money on, such as technology and meals out?
Kind of - Peanut and I have two great desktop computers plus a laptop, and we each have a smart phone. However, Peanut builds all of our computers from scratch, so we're saving about half of what they would cost otherwise. I bring my lunch to work every day - EVERY.DAY. (It helps that there's really nowhere to go for lunch around my office.) Probably where we save the most is with entertainment and clothing - Peanut's tastes are very simple, and I just don't do a lot of shopping. I'd bet we've spent less than $1,000 for the two of us for the past several years. We also share a car instead of each having our own.

What's your typical meal?
We make things like tacos (we love tacos!), crockpot chili, pasta, homemade pizza, fried rice, buffalo chicken salads - pretty simple stuff. We like eggs and toast or oatmeal for breakfast, and I like salads or PB&J for lunch.

What about clothes?
Oh, see above! Peanut wears jeans and t-shirts and a hoodie every single day. He looks like a perpetual teenager (an ADORABLE one). We liked living in New York, where he could get plain t-shirts for $4 each at Uniqlo. I like a lot more variety in my wardrobe, but I'm still allergic to paying a lot of money for stuff. I probably need to do a decluttering and another shopping trip for winter - I don't even have any work appropriate shoes that aren't summer flats!

What about going on dates?
We usually hang out with friends rather than going on one-on-one dates now that we're married. We eat out about once a week as a date, whether it's solo or with the group.

Do you indulge in any luxuries?
Oh, sure. Peanut eats out about half the week with his coworkers. We do like our technology. I've always had semi-expensive hobbies, like dance or yoga classes, and I'm now getting into quilting and sewing. Much of our life is luxurious compared to the rest of the world - we live downtown, have lots of space, own a car, go to the movies, buy whatever we want for groceries.

Do you have health insurance?
Yes - I have spent WAY too much time in the last week digging into our health insurance to figure out which coverage is better (we can get it from either of our employers). I've got a post to come on this!

Do you have any savings for emergencies?
Yes. We have an emergency fund that is eight to ten months of our current standard of living, and a year if we tightened our belts. It won't get touched for anything other than a catastrophe - job loss, car wreck, medical emergency.

Do you anticipate or look forward to having a higher salary one day?
Probably. I took a pretty serious pay cut with our move (40%) so I know that I can command a higher salary - I'm just not sure if I can do it outside of New York. I'm mostly looking for a nice work-life balance and a job I enjoy rather than a higher salary at this point.

What about retirement--do you plan on ever saving enough to retire?
Boy, I hope so. We've maxed out our Roths for a few years running, and in the past we contributed to 401Ks up to the match (we're currently not eligible because we're both so new at our jobs, but as soon we're eligible, we'll do the same). Right now we're putting away a little more than 13% of our pre-tax income. It still feels like it's not enough, but then, I feel like it's going to be really hard to predict what we'll actually need to retire. I'd like to get to the point of contributing 15-20%, then paying off a mortgage, then starting to max out both a Roth and a 401k for each of us each year. And I'd like the market to stop fluctuating so I can actually see some growth!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Surprise update

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have caught our surprise announcement last night: Peanut and I applied to be pre-approved for a mortgage!

We've been talking about this a lot - we never planned to be in this apartment for more than a year, and we are coming up on six months into the lease. I am dreading the winter coming up, and it occurred to me that I might enjoy it more if I have a garage to keep the car in. I also hate feeling like where we live is so temporary - there's no point in fixing anything up or buying anything new decoration-wise, when I KNOW that this is a very temporary home.

We've been saving for a house, and while I'm not sure we've got a big enough downpayment just yet, we didn't feel like we could really move forward unless we really knew where we stood with the banks. How much do we need to have saved? What neighborhood do we want to live in? What will closing costs, insurance, taxes be? Are we out of our minds, looking for a mortgage after being in our jobs for only six and four months? What can we afford? We can't know any of this without hearing from the bank, so we decided to go ahead and apply. We'll be able to continue to save $2,000 a month for a house, so even if our downpayment is a little small right now, by the time we start handing over money in a few months, it will be a bigger pot.

We've filled out the application and will scan and email a bunch more paperwork in over the weekend. We'll probably meet with the broker next weekend, and see where we go from there. I've been focusing all my research efforts on dental insurance the last few weeks (post to come very soon!) but now I'll need to get started on the mortgage and house search process! If you have any good starting points, please leave them in the comments.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Linkfest

Good tips for preparing your car for winter, and another on winter drive safety tips.

Over at The Happiness Project, Gretchen asked "What's your pigeon of discontent?" Oh, I have so many - half finished projects, waking up late, feeling unfairly charged money...it's an interesting way to look at the little things that affect my mood.

I found this little gas calculator when trying to decide if it was worth driving out to a new store where I could get a good deal.

This Ask Unclutterer is a fantastic tip - a tool that checks for duplicate files when you're transferring over to a new computer. I've been doing this manually as one of my weekend projects, and it's utterly boring.

Small Notebook's official Shopping Guide for Comfortably Dressy Style - bookmarked!

FB asks what do you NOT spend on groceries? We also don't buy a lot of meat, shop on a weekly basis (but we do shop to stock up), and a new one is that I no longer buy breakfast cereal. I never bought the sugary kids cereals, but I did get like Special K or something pretty regularly, but no more.

You can also check my StumbleUpon page for neat things I found there this week.

Have you seen any great links this week that I should read?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Praise of Skepticism

I've seen a couple of posts around the blogosphere lately encouraging financial literacy. I'm all for this - but I think it can be boiled down to one really simple skill: skepticism.

Being skeptical prevents you from falling for Ponzi schemes and other bad investments.

Being skeptical keeps you from rate-chasing, therefore wasting time that could be spent generating more money or just enjoying your life.

Being skeptical means you read everything you sign before you sign it, and ask questions about anything you don't understand.

Being skeptical protects you from believing advertising that tells you a product or service will make your life perfect.

Being skeptical requires you to ask "why?" and "how?" to every financial opportunity, thereby exposing the hidden truths underneath.

Being skeptical encourages you to save for the future instead of relying on the government to provide for you.

Being skeptical prevents you from falling for the snappy lines from politicians, bankers, and advertisers and encourages you to rely on your own intelligence, willpower, and intuition.

Being skeptical means you understand that no one cares about your money as much as you do - and so the responsibility for managing your money belongs to no one else but you.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Lovely

Dear old Direct Loan Services,

Thank you for auto-paying my account on October 7, even though due to your website changes a lot of people had to wait for their regular monthly charges to go through several days later, thereby getting a "late" status marked on their accounts. I appreciate your making an exception for me, especially after I called your customer service department on October 5, and was assured that it was impossible to pay anything that week.

However, I revoked auto-pay several months ago, and had deleted that checking account from your system, since it's an old bank account that I was about to close. I had attached my new bank account information, for future auto-pay capabilities (so I could get a quarter percentage discount off my interest rate) but for some reason, you chose to go with the old, familiar account. This thoughtful gesture cost me $35 in overdraft charges, even though I had asked for the bank to not honor overdrafts and instead refuse any charges that would put my account in the negative. (Don't worry, they will be getting a letter from me, too.) I don't suppose it would be possible to have that deducted from my balance?

I'd also like to talk to you about the matter of the rebate I was promised when taking out loans with you - $279.00 worth of rebate, actually, which you confirmed that I earned two months ago, but which shows as $0.00 applied to my account, even though the rebate status is "earned". I'd like to know where and when that money will show up, or if I'll continue to be charged interest on that amount for the forseeable future.

This little rendezvous has me wondering if there is some way to get consolidated far, far away from you. I can't trust what your messages say, I can't trust what your customer service reps say, and I can't trust anything on your website, so now I am wondering whether you have my balance right, or indeed anything at all. Dear Direct Loans, thank you for ruining my Friday night.

Sincerely,
LMM

How to be Credit Card Savvy

This is a guest post from Dee A. Mason.

These days people are constantly being bombarded with phrases like ‘credit crunch’, ‘times of austerity’ and ‘tighten your belts’. They’re not exactly happy thoughts but it’s true that people spent years throwing cash at designer clothes, holidays and houses that they could ill-afford and their personal debt piled up.

At some point the debt has to be repaid and people are now learning the hard way that it’s far easier to spend money than it is to repay it – even more so when it wasn’t strictly theirs to begin with. And now the time has come to pay back the pennies, people are having to come up with ingenious way to save money, spend less, and cut down on their weekly bills.

Getting Thrifty

Obviously there are certain outgoings that are impossible to cut back on. If you have a hefty mortgage or an eye-watering monthly rental bill then there’s not much you can do about that apart from move house or change your mortgage to interest only (if that’s possible on your particular mortgage deal). Shopping bills can be shaved by taking advantage of supermarket deals, seasonal bargains and sale shops. And luxuries like your daily latte or weekly takeaway can be given up without too much disruption to your lifestyle. In fact, little changes like this can make a big difference to your monthly outgoings and this extra cash will soon add up. But, if you want to really reign in your spending and get a better hold on your finances, it’s time to check out the interest you’re paying on your credit card.

Convenient but Costly

Credit cards are the easy way to shop but that’s part of the problem: it doesn’t really feel like you’re spending your own money and in truth, you’re not. You’re borrowing money from the credit card company, which you agree to pay back in part or full on a monthly basis. While big purchases such as houses or cars generally have to be made with some form of credit in place, you should check yourself and decide whether you need to use your credit card for all of those small, everyday purchases.

Check your Interest Rates

A lot of credit cards come with an initial discounted interest period for balance transfers, purchases or both. Whilst it’s a good idea to switch to a discounted rate, you should also always check out the regular APR for any card you’re considering. Some of the discounted cards will revert to a high interest rate after six months or a year. If you religiously pay off your card balance every month, then the interest rate isn’t quite as important to you, as you’re simply using your card as a convenient way to pay for goods. However, if you let things slip, or just repay the minimum outstanding balance each month then you should go through the small print with a fine toothcomb.

Decisions, Decisions

There are so many credit cards on the market that it can be a maze trying to work your way through the various deals, the different interest rates and the incentives that are offered by certain cards (points, cash back schemes etc). The best credit cards are likely to be those with a lower annual APR but which also offer benefits such as cash back and insurance on purchases as standard. At the end of the day, it really depends how often you use your credit card, what you use it for and how you repay the balance that will determine which card is best for you. Never rush into getting a new credit card, or be swayed by deals that appear too good to be true. Write down a list of your priorities and then do your research, narrowing down the choices to those credit card companies that most closely match your requirements. A credit card can be your friend. It can help you get out of scrapes and give you a bit of financial back up. But always treat it with respect and never let your spending get out of control. As a basic rule of thumb: if you can’t afford to buy something, you shouldn’t even be looking at it.

Linkfest

One Frugal Girl discovers an easy way to ensure quick and healthy dinners at home, by cooking a little extra chicken at the beginning of the week. I also discovered this recently, when we made a big batch of chili that kept us in quick and easy lunches and dinners all week. My goal for the winter is to do up a big batch of chili, soup, or stew on Sundays from now on to keep the week going smoothly.

Adaptu shows how much you should save every year to have enough to cover college for your kids. Yikes!

October 16-22 is the 4th Annual Protect Your Identity Week. (hat tip to Ms. Money Savvy) We shred all our sensitive documents already, but if you don't have a shredder, you can find a community shredding program near you. My biggest recommendation for protecting yourself from identity theft is to check your statements regularly (ideally once a week) and compare charges to your records before paying the bill. Budgeting in the Fun Stuff has a great story about why that's important!

Amber at Blonde & Balanced writes about saving for other expenses associated with buying a new home - like all the things you need for a house that you don't need for an apartment! Lawn mower, blinds/curtains, furniture, a grill, etc. You'll start to see more posts on here about buying a first home, eventually - we've been saving and are almost to the point of starting to look instead of just dreaming about it.

I have been loving the style posts over at Small Notebook - this one perfectly describes the style I'd like to achieve: comfortably dressy. I'm an underbuyer, so I struggle with spending a lot of money on one item, but looking over my cheap sweater collection this year, I realize the problem that causes: all of my sweaters are pilled, worn, and ugly looking. I'm not comfortable wearing them to the office, so - once again - I need to go shopping for winter clothes. Maybe this year it's time to spend the money on cashmere and quality.

Great question to filter the gifts that you buy: Will this end up at a thrift shop or yard sale?

Thanks to Jeremy for including me in the top personal finance posts of the week, over at Personal Finance Whiz.

As usual, Trent has blown me away with his careful analysis and explanation of the current financial situation - I'm lucky that no one is pressuring me about not being as settled as my parents were at my age, but this post is what I would turn to if they were: A Dose of Financial Reality, or why today's twenty-somethings have it much harder than the previous generation.

Cate's stuff I want post rang awfully true to me. I haven't been keeping a list like that because I hope I'll forget certain items, but then when I do have a little money to spend on decorations or something, I never know what I want. Maybe I should save them and keep dreaming!

It's nice to know I'm not the only one who's having problems with the new Department of Education website!

Did you know warehouse clubs sell insurance? Me, either! I'm going to investigate in my hunt for private dental insurance.

I really needed to read this post about expecting a "daily yoga" body while only practicing once a week. It relates to a lot more than working out!

What are your favorite links from around the web this week?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Crunching the Numbers: Public Transit

I took the bus to work today, since I had to leave the car at the shop for an oil change. It was a lovely change of pace for my morning commute (an extra half hour of reading time!) and I considered switching to that for nice day commuting. But then I wondered if it's really cheaper.

First of all, the time commitment.

Driving takes me about 10 minutes to get to work, 12 if I hit all the stoplights wrong, and 20 if I hit mega-traffic. I leave at 8:40 most days, and get to work a bit before 9.

The bus took exactly 40 minutes - I left my apartment at 8:05 and was at my desk at 8:45. That was a little earlier than I'd need to be, but that's the latest bus I can catch and not be actually late for work.

Coming home, the drive takes significantly longer - 20 minutes is a great day, 30 is normal, and 45 isn't unusual.

My return bus schedule wasn't quite accurate since I didn't go directly home, but I've driven through the downtown traffic to imagine that it would add 30-45 minutes to my normal commuting schedule. Thus, it lengthens my commute by nearly an hour total.

And this doesn't take into consideration the fact that I do our grocery shopping with the car on the way home from work one evening a week. Presumably I could work that out by bus also, but I would be one unhappy person when I got home.

Now for the cost.

The bus is pretty simple: $2.25 each way, since I'm going at rush hour. $4.50 total, per day. That would be $22.50 per week, although if you buy the weekly pass, it's an even $22.

Driving is a little more complicated. How to amortize the cost of maintenance, the original purchase price, etc? I can't even begin to fathom it. We got the car for reasons other than commuting (like grocery shopping, going to visit family, etc.), so it doesn't seem fair to build the entire cost of the car into my weekly commute calculations. I'm okay with leaving them out, at least until I've got a better sense of what they'd be. Instead, I'll just do the math for gas and insurance.

We have filled up eight times since buying the car at the beginning of June, at an average of $55 per fill-up. That's $440, divided by the 18 weeks we've owned the car is about $24.50 per week. However, my commute is only a few miles (~30 miles per week), so probably close to half of that gas usage is attributed to driving to other places in the evenings and weekends. So let's say $15 a week for gas exclusively for my commute.

Insurance is $447 per year, so $8.60 per week. That gives us a weekly cost of driving at $23.60 per week - $1.60 more than taking the bus.

Going back to the time commitment, that means I would be spending hour of my life to "earn" a $1.60 savings. Adding in the purchase cost and eventual maintenance costs of the car would likely increase that savings by a few dollars, but probably not enough to make it worth waiting for the bus in sub-zero temperatures. (Also adding in the environmental cost is not something I am capable of figuring out, but it's something that is in my mind. I'd be happy to join or start a carpool if I lived near any of my coworkers, and when we start house-hunting, we plan to look for places on bus routes.)

Now that I know that it's really quite easy and fairly cheap to take the bus to work, I don't mind doing it sometimes when the weather's nice or when Peanut needs the car, but it doesn't make sense from a financial/time perspective to do it on a regular basis. I can save way more than $1.60 by spending that extra hour at home cooking dinner (actively or via crockpot!) instead of ordering takeout because I'm too tired and cranky from commuting to cook.

One thing this whole exercise has done has opened my eyes as to how much it really costs to own something, though. Before sitting down to do the math, I wouldn't have guessed that our car costs us as least $20 per week just to own it. (Our apartment costs us $28 PER DAY!)

Have you ever sat down and figured the savings for public transportation? Or figured out what the big things in your life cost you per day to own?


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Quick update

  • Thanks so much for all your thoughts on my hobby problem! I'm trying out a few different things (like doing a few minutes of each hobby for a week, or devoting days to a hobby for a week or two) and I'll let you know how that goes. 
  • I'm researching personal dental insurance, and What. A. Nightmare. I'm close to figuring out a plan, after I have approximately 96 straight hours free to crunch numbers and make phone calls. 
  • I've been using the crock pot more, and haven't liked most of the recipes I've made in it. I have, however, been eating them anyway. Today I had really acidic, lame homemade minestrone with super soggy noodles. I saved $6 plus whatever the food I would've thrown away costs.  
  • Tomorrow, I will have really acidic, lame homemade minestrone with even soggier noodles. I will save another $6 plus whatever the food I would've thrown away might cost. 
  • Therefore, I am so hardcore at PF. It helps to remind myself this even though I spent $16 unplanned at the Target As-Is Thrift Store. What an evil place!
  • There is so much going on in my life right now. So ridiculously much. I'm like a squirrel, burrowing in for the winter. I keep cleaning and arranging and decluttering and updating computers and crossing things off to-do lists and putting things away and wanting to spruce things up. I know I'm about to be locked inside for the next six months, and I want it to be a pleasant place to be locked into, I guess. 
  • My student loan company "updated" their website, resulting in my completely losing access to everything. Even their phone reps can't help me pay my bill! This is the first time I've ever missed a payment date in my life and I am freaking out. Even though they say that there are no due dates this month because of the switch. I am worried that they'll get everything back and then say I missed a payment. Or not have rolled in my rebates. Or have gotten the total wrong, in their favor, and I'll never be able to prove it. I don't get statements, not even email reminders to pay, and I didn't download anything off the old site because I didn't know they were going to change anything. Am I completely paranoid?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

How do you handle your hobbies?

I feel like I am overscheduling myself again, and I want to take a poll.

How many hobbies do you have? How much time do you spend on them each week? How much money?

Here are the things I would LIKE to spend time on each week:
One dance class
Two yoga classes
Read two books
One or two book club meetings per month
Podcasts/radio shows like This American Life or PlanetMoney
Make one new recipe for dinner, plus homemade lunches and dinners every day
Volunteer at radio station
Play a few hours of Guild Wars
Blogging and all that goes along with it
Sewing (Halloween costumes, then back to quilting)
Board games night or outing with friends
Date night with Peanut

This is all in addition to, you know, working full-time and sleeping and grocery shopping and laundry and stuff like that. It's just way too much!

I can divide them up in financial categories like this:
Low cost/no cost: 
Podcasts/radio shows
Blogging
Guildwars
Reading (I have hundreds of books, and the library has even more!)
Book clubs
Volunteering

Medium cost:
Yoga class
Game nights with friends (we bring some food thing to share, or we host)
New recipes
Date night

High(er) cost:
Dance classes (more than twice as much as yoga, per class)
Sewing (I'm still building a toolkit of sewing materials, so I don't really have any free projects lying around to work on. Fabric can be expensive!)

It used to be, I picked my hobbies in large part based on the financial consideration - I had more time than money. Now, it turns out that time is more precious to me (I'd rather work shorter hours for less pay than longer hours for more pay) and that means that my hobbies are impacted as well.

For example, dance class used to be a firm commitment in my life - I'd worked with the company long enough to make enough money to cover all associated costs of classes and whatnot. Only school interfered with my going to dance class. Now, though, it requires three hours of a Saturday afternoon plus when I get home I have to shower and wash my hair and sort of start my day over, and I have no expectation of earning anything with this new group until I've given them a LOT of my time (and money). I'm not sure that's worth it anymore.

Yoga is a lower cost commitment, both time and money-wise. The classes are about half the price of the dance classes, and it's also something I can do at home for free while getting some of the same benefits of a class (for me, this is not true of dance classes). A yoga class is also half the time of a dance class, and I don't always come home disgustingly sweaty. Sometimes I do, but class is early in the morning or later in the evening so it's not like I'm starting my day all over in the middle of it.

I haven't been reading as many books as I was able to read with a train commute, so I probably won't break my record of 127 books last year. But so what? I have more friends here than I did in New York, or at least a group of friends that I see more consistently, and that's been really nice. I usually find that I'm happier when I choose people over products, even when that product is a beautifully written story. 

At any rate, I think I need to limit myself to just a handful of these hobbies, and take some of the stress off myself about not being able to keep up with everything. I think I managed to get out of the radio station volunteer gig with some grace (note to self: do not fire off emails volunteering your time. Sit on them for a day or two first!). I think the ones I really want to focus on are

  1. Date night with Peanut
  2. Yoga (one class a week to start, with a few minutes of home practice every day)
  3. Games night/friends
  4. Blogging
  5. Sewing/listening to podcasts (gotta finish up our Halloween costumes!)
  6. Reading
How can I prioritize? Maybe pick days, like Monday is reading day, Tuesday is sewing day, Friday is date night, and if I miss it this week, no biggie because next week is coming around? Or set days for the big ones - yoga class, date night, game night - and then try to squeeze in a little blogging, a little reading, a little sewing every day around my work schedule?

How do you balance all the things you WANT to do with all the things you HAVE to do, in a finite amount of time?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Linkfest

I love this: How to be bold and make decisions. My favorite of the list is You Can Change Your Mind. Seriously, there are very few things in life that can't be undone - having kids is about the only one that comes to mind. Every job can be quit, every new city can be moved away from, relationships can be ended and mended most of the time. Give something new a try!

I totally use YouTube for how-to videos! I haven't used one to save money like this Consumerist reader but I learned how to pack a moving truck, cut and clean a leek, take apart my computer monitor, and lots of other stuff.

Stuff I needed to hear this week: it's so much easier to simplify than to organize, a recipe for reclaiming  your time for success, the upside of quitting and why you should do it more often.

The Consumerist has a great step-by-step guide on how to close the accounts of a deceased relative. Not a pleasant topic, but an important one.

You can also check out my StumbleUpon page for other posts I've stumbled across this week!

Have you come across any links this week that you'd like to share? Feel free to leave them in the comments!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Weekly Money Checkup


Weekly Money Check-Up is a weekly series on My Pretty Pennies.

1. The most I’ve spent this last week was on rent. No, let's say saving for a house!

2. Today I am thankful for this week's forecast: Indian summer all the way! I'm making a goal to go for a lunchtime walk every day.

3. Money can’t buy happiness. One free thing I did last week that made me happy was walk along a beautiful avenue in St. Paul that has old mansions on it with a view of the city skyline down in the valley. Gorgeous!

4. I will consider this week a success if I get some priority sorting done. I have gone and overscheduled myself (again) and I need to figure out how to get some breathing room into my life. Also, if I buy fabric for and start making our Halloween costumes.

5. I like my husband because he has put up with some cranky behavior from me the last few days, and he doesn't deserve that. He handled it with more grace than I would be capable of, and I'm very humbled.

How's your weekly money checkup going?
 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

September Recap/October Goals

September Goals
1. Make endodontist appointment.  Done and done. My root canal has been fixed (probably the worst dental experience of my life) and I have to go back to the dentist to remove the temporary filling and do whatever they're going to do to finish it off. It looks like this tooth will have to be pulled and replaced with an implant or bridge at some point in my life, but we're talking maybe ten years or more out now. Hopefully I'll have much better dental coverage at that time.

2. Keep the eating out in check.  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Moving right along.

3. Transfer $1,000 to the house fund. SUCCESS! And in duplicate, since I was able to move over $2,000! If we can keep this up, we will have a pretty healthy down-payment by the time we start visiting open houses in February or so.

4. Start checking things off the weekend list. Kind of - I was far too optimistic that I'd have a lot of free time what with all the weddings, but I have gotten a few things done. Now that the cold weather is starting up, I think I'm going to have lots of evenings and weekends to fill up with projects.

5. Go easy on myself. This goal went pretty well! We spent too much eating out and I didn't get as much done as I would've liked, but I'm not all that emotionally torn up about it. I spent some quality time with a lot of people, and I've watched four couples exchange marriage vows, so it's been a pretty special month.

October Goals
1. Weekend projects! First and foremost is Halloween costumes. Peanut wants to be The Man in Black which, of course, makes me Princess Buttercup. We had the Impressive Clergyman on our wedding programs, so this will be a FUN project, and totally us.

2. Try some new crockpot recipes. We made a batch of chili two weeks ago that lasted for the entire week - what an easy way to cook! I want to find more crockpot recipe that gives us two or three meals through the week. Any good recipes? I think my next one is a lentil stew of some sort.

3. Save another $2,000 to the house fund. I don't think this will be a problem, but if you fail to plan, you plan to fail and all that.

4. Up our student loan repayments to $500. We've been paying the minimums while saving for the move and now a house and all that. At that rate, it'll take us 90 months to pay off our remaining loans (seven and a half YEARS!). By upping it just $100 per month (which probably won't even hurt), we'll cut that time by almost two years, to 5.8 years. And hopefully once we are done saving for a house, we can shove more money at the loans and knock them out even sooner.

5. Change the oil in our car. I'd like to do this myself (to save money and because I like working on cars) but living in an apartment building has the drawback that I can't do automotive work in our parking lot. I might take it to my in-laws but we'll see how quickly the weather gets super chilly.

6. Speaking of chilly, here's a bonus goal: buy winter boots. I have a pair of sneakers and basically no other winter-appropriate footwear. I will probably need to remedy that this month.

September Spending Review

Alcohol $18
Business expenses (reimbursable) $1610
Business expenses (deductable) $33
Car $126.32
Entertainment $133.99
Food—dining out $470.77
Food—groceries $124.32
Gifts $225.40
Hygiene/Medical $561.77
Laundry $40
Mystery Shopping $94.81
Rent $830
Student loans $403.83
Taxes $277
Travel $268.52
Utilities $209.66
Total Spending: $5,427.39
 
Things of note: 
Eating out - I seriously don't even want to talk about this. Holy cow, that's embarrassing. My only excuse: two out of town trips and some seriously busy weeks.


Those out of town trips are why entertainment is so high, too.


Gifts - wedding season is almost over!


Hygiene/Medical - that would be my dentists visits. It's only half over, and I've now used up my entire insurance contribution for the year. Awesome.

With only one wedding left to attend for the year and no travel plans until the end of December, I think we can buckle down on our spending quite a bit. We did manage to transfer $2,000 to the house fund, so I consider this month a big win.


How'd your month go?

Book Review: Try! Decide! & Attitude!

I was recently given the opportunity to review the books Try!, Decide! and Attitude! by Karen Okulicz. These three little motivational books were written to help people who are unemployed (Try!), having trouble making a decision (Decide!) and struggling with being happy (Attitude!).



Try! was born out of the author's two bouts of unemployment in three years - something a lot of people are facing in this economy. This is not a practical guide to writing resumes and interviewing, but instead a motivational missive from someone who's been there. I was confused by the title at first, but it's not telling unemployed people to try harder like I thought at first - it's encouraging them to try different things, to keep trying even when they are discouraged and frustrated, and worn out.




 Attitude! centers on how to live your best life by learning what you can and can't control. My favorite quote from this book is "You cannot outthink crazy!" and the corollary, "Don't wear crazy shoes!", meaning don't let someone's crazy behavior get to you by reflecting or reacting to their behavior - just set your own boundaries and do your own thing. Many of the sayings in Attitude! could be found on motivational posters in your high school guidance counselor's office - these are things that are common sense, but as we all know, common sense is not necessarily so common.


Decide! is a guide for making decisions in any area of your life. My takeaway from this was the third chapter, "One question and one question only," which says to ask yourself a single question, and ask it so the answer can only be yes or no. (From experience, I know that there's really only one question at the bottom of any decision, and that question is "What will make me happier?" So when looking at any potential decision, I can ask "Will this choice make me happiest out of all my choices?", which is a much simpler question to answer than "Will this make me happy?") I like "policies" like this, which simplify my life and give me easy guidelines to fall back on.


All three books reminded me a little of the way FlyLady writes in her book Sink Reflections, especially the first edition. Try!, Decide! and Attitude! are simple motivational guides written in a friendly and down-to-earth manner.

My thanks to the author for sending me free copies to review. I was not obligated to review them, nor was I compensated in any other way.

Do you have any motivational tips for being unemployed, for being surrounded by crazies, or for making decisions? If so, I'd love to hear them!