Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Resolution Recap

Well-Being
1. Single-task. This is going to be a work in progress, probably for the rest of my life. I've gotten better, but in many facets of my life I still try to do too much at once.
2. Participate in The Happiness Project. I left off of doing the project publicly on my blog, but I have been doing very well at creating space in my life for happiness. I don't beat myself up if I don't post here regularly. I turn down invitations to events when I'd rather stay at home and read. I have given myself routines that make me feel better, especially around getting enough sleep. I have finished a lot of the nagging items on my to-do list.

Health
3. Be able to do headstand in yoga. I sort of ignored this one until December, and I've been working on it daily all month. Once I'm up in headstand I can hold it for several breaths, but I still have to kick up against a wall. I am really enjoying this (being upside down seems to give me better perspective on all sorts of things!) so I'm going to keep working on it.

Financial
4. Save enough to hurt a little. Peanut and I have spent the year as a dual income family, but we've always lived as if we're a single income family - and we've lived on the lower income, stashing the higher into savings. First for our cross-country move, then for a house, and now for all the other costs of buying a home. A more specific goal would have helped here - I haven't really felt like we've been hurting, but we have saved a lot of money.
5. Change our net worth by the value of our student loans/increase our net worth by $31,000. This one goes down in history as a near-miss. We're only off by $3,000 which coincidentally is just about how much it cost us to move across country.

Professional
6. Prepare to leave my job. Well, obviously, that was a success!

Home
7. Declutter -- ideally, reduce our possessions by about 1/3.  I did a really thorough decluttering before we moved, and while I don't know that we dropped by 1/3, we lightened our load considerably.
8. Organize digital photos and finish physical scrapbooks. Mostly done. There's a little more organizing to do on our digital photos, but the physical scrapbooks are as done as they're going to get and I got rid of all the supplies. I have been working on the digital photos in the evenings and don't have much longer till that's done. I'm also being WAY more careful about categorizing and organizing them when uploading new ones.

For Fun
9. Take up a crafty hobby. Success! I have started sewing/quilting and cooking, both of which meet my goal. I felt like my entire life revolved around the computer and internet and I wanted something to do with my hands, something that would produce something at the end of the time I spent on it.
10. Create a bucket-list of New York adventures and start checking them off. Mostly success. I didn't get to a few of the things on my list, but I feel like I wrapped up my eight years in New York in a really lovely fashion, and I'm excited to go back someday as a tourist.
11. Read through my library. Hmmm...this one depends on how you look at it. If the goal was to get rid of some of the books that I own, I did a pretty good job of it. We donated more than an entire bookcase of books when moving (though we still had about 40 boxes of books afterwards...). As far as reading through books I already own, however, I'd have to call this a big fat failure. I read a lot of new books instead - books for work, books for review, books for friends, books from the library. I definitely broke 100 books for the year but I didn't so much make a dent in the hundreds of books I want to read and pass along. Oh, darn - something to keep working on. :)

Resolutions for 2012 are coming up!

How did you do in your resolutions?

December Spending Review

Alcohol $21.14
Business expenses (reimbursable) $650
Business expenses (deductable) $3.89
Car $30.06
Clothing $53.85
Entertainment $40
Food—dining out $412.90
Food—groceries $243
Gifts $162.75
Household $68.50
House $450
Hygiene/Medical $121.25
Mystery Shop Expense $14.92
Rent $830
Sewing/Quilting $48
Student loans $403.83
Travel $88.88
Utilities $175.93
Yoga $40

Total Spending: $3,858.90

Things of note: 
Not a bad month overall! Despite a week long trip, travel, and Christmas gifts, this has been one of the cheapest months we've had since we moved.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 in Review

Inspired by Money Beagle's 2011 in Review, I'm going to do one of my own!

January

I started the year by making 11 New Year's Resolutions for 2011 - an ambitious list! I struggled with spending money on drinks at brunch and yoga and dance classes. I got a pretty significant hair cut (over a foot!) which was also the most I've ever paid someone to cut my hair (verdict: worth it, but I prefer it longer). Behind the scenes, Peanut and I started seriously thinking about leaving New York.

February

I explored what I'm really saving for and the type of person I want to be. While privatizing my blog a little, I learned a lot about the excuses I used to make that kept me from saving more. I copied Cordelia by officially listing some quits - things that stuck with me all year long! (Maybe it's time to make some more!)

March

I opened up about being shy about how much I make (which garnered me a link from The Simple Dollar!), I found classes available for barter, and disclosed why I think automating your finances is a terrible idea. I stumbled upon the How TV Ruined Your Life series from the BBC and was really gobsmacked by it. Behind the scenes, Peanut and I officially decided to leave New York as soon as he got a job...and then he got one a week later.

April

I began two months of living alone, while packing up everything we owned and quitting my beloved job. I announced our plans to move in a series of hints. I attended a super swanky Spa Week event (my first perk from being a blogger). I turned 30.

May

Peanut and I started paying dual rent on our respective apartments, an experience that I am hoping not to repeat. I hoped that after moving cross-country, we'd move again in a year or two with less stuff than we had before. The Little Miss Moneybags that's currently packing up all the same things just SIX MONTHS LATER is quivering with joyless laughter.

June

We moved! I started my new job. I talked about how frugality carries over to spending other people's money as well as our own, reported on hiring full service movers and debated four scenarios for handling our debt/savings priorities.

July

I ran the costs on our new-to-us car. I explained how I earned money while in school and why wardrobe items aren't investments. I discovered that Minnesota summers include some of the most consistently gorgeous weather I've ever experienced. Because of that, the entire state government shut down for most of the month to enjoy it - that, or there was some sort of budget negotiation break down, I can't remember exactly. :)

August

Bored of money (our motto: we earn, we save, we wait), I talked about the free things I did this summer. I expressed conflicting emotions about Groupon (I've still never bought one, though I did buy a Living Social deal this fall). I wondered who the "real me" is and why I'm not living her life - and then I gave up caffeine so I could try to get her life after all. (I will drink regular tea now, but not coffee, and I prefer uncaffeinated tea when it's available. I sleep SO MUCH BETTER.)

September

I complained about deceptive junk mail and defined myself by something other than "consumer". Behind the scenes, we attended five weddings in five weeks and celebrated our first wedding anniversary.

October

I overscheduled myself (again) and questioned the costs - both financial and time - of some of my hobbies. After taking the bus to work one day, I considered the cost of public transit. My student loan company made gigantic errors switching platforms, double charged me and got me hit with an insufficient funds fee from a bank account I'd revoked their access to. I praised skepticism and talked about spending within our means. I made lists of things to do with time off and to my car. We applied - and got approved - for a mortgage! I spent the entire month researching dental insurance.

November

We bought a house! Since it was sooner than we'd originally planned for, I got a little defensive about putting only 10% down and paying PMI - but ultimately I realized that it shows how little I really know about financial situations I've not yet faced.

December

I started focusing on the one resolution I basically ignored for the previous eleven months. I spent money to save money, realized I have the world's sharpest left elbow, and stressed about becoming a grown-up. I survived taking a significant other home for the holidays for the first time ever and managed to have a nice time despite my nerves.

In Summary

2011 has been, in general, a year of high points. I'm happy, healthy, and in a good place in my life. My thirties are turning out to be so much better than my twenties would have indicated, and I plan to enjoy the hell out of the rest of them.

For 2012, I hope for more of the same. We'll move into our house and discover the joys of homeownership. I have plans to travel with my mother and sister as well as for work, and I am working on some goals that will create more time and space to really enjoy where I am in life. Peanut and I will continue living off of one income while using the other to save and pay down student loans and mortgage debt. Of course, as I can see from 2011, anything can change in a year's time - but hopefully even if the circumstances turn out differently than we would have predicted, everything will be all right - or better - when the dust settles.

How was your 2011? Do you have any big hopes for 2012?


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Linkfest: Holiday Edition

Peanut and I have been traveling, visiting and otherwise making merry this holiday season and I have to say it's been lovely. The $3 gift challenge was a lot of fun and we got and gave some fantastic gifts for such a small price. This is something I will keep in mind for the future - if there's creativity and thought involved, gifts can cost less than a cup of coffee!

In observance of the holidays, I have been taking a lot of time off from the internet - no tweeting, writing posts, or otherwise spending time plugged in. It's been really nice to "mark all as read" without even a twinge of guilt.

Even so, I've managed to collect a couple of links that I wanted to share.

Peanut and I have been talking about how to pay off our mortgage (because paying the minimum forever isn't an option) and this might be one way to do it: Frugal Babe and her husband are putting the extra into a bond fund to use as an extra emergency fund. Our focus is on our student loans at first, because they have a higher interest rate, but once those are gone, we'll shift to extra on the mortgage - and this might be a way to do that.

A great rundown on 5 myths of T&E deductions. I would clarify one thing - none of these items are deductible if you were reimbursed by your employer. I saw one of my former colleagues learn that lesson the hard way.

Peanut teases me about this a lot: when free is too expensive. "Just because it's free doesn't mean you need it!" I'm a sucker for free samples, programs where I test out products, surveys for tiny cash payments, and so on. I need to remind myself that sometimes free just isn't worth it!

Target date funds have much higher fees than other funds - hmmm. Most of my retirement savings are in target date funds, which I thought compared favorably to other options...but I think maybe I need to take another look.

The Money Pros Index Fund challenge (via Debt Free by Thirty) looks like fun! I've signed up, and my picks are Chipotle, Starbucks, and Ecolab, a cleaning supplies company.

Fabulously Broke asks, "Are you upgrading your lifestyle or spending for quality?" They're not mutually exclusive, but they can be hard to tell apart.

Drive a free car on your next road trip! Completely ignoring my advice from the "when free is too expensive" item above, I think this is so incredibly cool, and I'm totally looking into it the next time we travel.

Consumerist lists ingredient substitutions for cooking or baking. Did you know any of these?

The Happiness Project on goals vs. resolutions. It's a good distinction and one that I will be making when I post my 2012 resolutions later this week.

Did you see anything good around the blogosphere in the last week or so? Share links in the comments!


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Houses and cars and...when did I become a grown-up?

I've been feeling a little stressed about money lately.

I mean, I'm only about to write the biggest check of my life - I can't imagine why that's making me nervous. :)

Our closing date is scheduled for the first week of January. We'll have to wire $21,000 for the remainder of the down payment, and then several thousand more for all the associated fees, taxes, and so forth. That part of buying a house is SO MUCH MORE expensive than I thought it would be. I had asked around, and people said, oh, it's only like two grand.

Uh, yeah. Try like four times that. Even with getting a discount from the mortgage officer and a free house inspection. (Wow, does it pay to have relatives in real estate!)

Anyway, once we've closed, we'll also have the following expenses:

Moving costs
Rent (we have to pay through the end of April or until they find a new renter, whichever is sooner)
Lease-breaking fee
Furnishings for new rooms (guest room, mainly - everything else can wait)
Higher utilities (electric and gas)
Water, sewer and garbage (currently included in our rent)
Homeowners insurance (NINE TIMES more expensive than renter's insurance)
and the biggest: a second car

That's right, ladies and gentlemen -- Peanut and I, who just six months ago were blissfully car-free -- will be buying a second vehicle in 2012.

I'm torn about how I feel about this. I envisioned us remaining car-free when we moved to the midwest. Then I compromised and envisioned us lovingly sharing a car for grocery shopping excursions and visits to family, driving to work together when the weather was bad. I think I've accepted the fact that, while some admirable people can go car-free out here - like Moneyapolis and her DH - or share a car indefinitely, Peanut and I are not cut from the same cloth. Our work schedules don't line up nicely enough for us to reliably ride together both ways on a daily basis. The house will be far enough from public transit that winter commuting will be awfully miserable. And biking - not a chance. I thought I'd give it a try, I really did, but I think I'd have a panic attack riding in traffic before I got to the end of the street.

At any rate, we'll continue sharing a car until we've saved up enough to pay cash for a second one, and the one we have now will still be the "nice" one - so that means the "not nice" car will probably cost less than $5,000.

Fortunately, even with all the extra things we have to pay for, we kept our mortgage payment to around 21% of our monthly income, so we'll still have some money every month to set aside for everything on that list as well as saving for retirement and building a larger emergency fund (since our potential for emergencies will get that much bigger).

It's weird - looking at the numbers, I KNOW that this is not out of our reach. I mean, our mortgage payment will still be smaller than rent on our NYC apartment, and we did fine on less than what we're bringing in now! Still, it's nervewracking - even though our ability to handle this is clear on paper and in practice, it still makes me bite my nails.

Why is that? Please tell me I'm not the only one!


Monday, December 19, 2011

GRRRR

I just found a hole in the left elbow of the third sweater in a row - in less than six months!

All three sweaters are from New York & Co - so I'm wondering, is this a failure of their merchandise or something weird about how I sit at my desk? Nothing's changed in the latter, so I'm suspicious.

How on earth do you fix a hole in the elbow? Turning these sweaters into short sleeve cardigans is a possibility, but not ideal - Minnesota winters require long sleeves. I am not a professor so I'm not keen on elbow patches. Any other suggestions?


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

#pfbookclub post!

Life got in the way of....well, everyone for #pfbookclub, but I wanted to get my thoughts down anyway.

Shortchanged was heavy on statistics, light on prescription. The author is clear from the beginning that this is not a financial how-to book or a guide to changing the status quo - I guess she thinks that shedding light on the situation will be enough to start making some changes. I can't say whether that's right, but here are my impressions:

From the first chapter, I was shocked at how widows are affected financially by the death of their husbands. I had no idea, and it's particularly scary because even when you do everything right by saving for retirement or paying your mortgage off, medical expenses can wipe out any advantages and leave you, as an elderly woman, floundering. A terrifying thought. The only way I can think of to combat this is to pay particularly close attention to life insurance and maintain health insurance whenever possible.

The second chapter really struck home for me in terms of the general population of women, even if it isn't true to my particular situation or the situation of most of the women I know. Women suffer from financial disparity with men in two ways: lower income and lower wealth. Women earn $.78 for every dollar men earn, with the youngest members of the workforce earning $.95 to every dollar their male counterparts earn. So we're making SOME headway in terms of the income gap. But the bigger problem is the difference in wealth (a combination of income potential, expenses and savings). Women are nowhere near men in wealth, and there are a host of reasons:
  • More women than men work in part-time positions, which not only pay less, but offer less benefits, including health insurance (leaving women to pay out of pocket or buy private health insurance), retirement funds with or without employer matching, paid sick leave, access to flexible spending accounts or other ways to reduce their tax liability.
  • Women change jobs more frequently, losing out on vesting opportunities. What's more, they are also less likely to roll their retirement savings into another vehicle, opting instead to cash out to pay down debt (this is about the only example from this list that is a bad choice - everything else is out of most women's control).
  • Women are more likely to leave the workforce in full or to drop to part-time work due to children.
  • Women tend to choose lower paying jobs in service industries.
  • Women are less likely to have union jobs with unionized wages and pensions.
  • The IRA limits for non-working spouses affect more women than men, since women are more likely to stay home - this reduces a woman's overall retirement savings ability.
  • Men own more homes and can deduct mortgage interest, while women are more likely to rent.
  • Women are more likely to receive welfare and food stamps, and are more likely to resort to bad debt like car loans and credit cards to make up the shortfall in their monthly expenses.
  • Women are less likely to invest in the stock market (although when they do, they tend to get better returns than men).
  • 84% of custodial single parents are women.
Um. Ouch.

Peanut pointed out that along with the way women are catching up to men in pay and the way men are becoming parodies in popular culture ("the eternal adolescent"), it's possible that at some point in the future, the perceived helplessness of women in regards to finances may reverse. It's possible, and I'd say overdue, but I think it'll take a long time for that to happen.

My favorite chapter was about marriage and how men and women choose to divide up financial responsibilities. Peanut and I fall into the category of sharing everything together - we share all accounts and even all passwords - if one of us were to be incapacitated for any reason, the other is fully capable of taking charge of our finances. I tend to pay the bills and update the spreadsheet a little more than him, because I have this blog to update :), but the spreadsheet lives on Peanut's computer and he writes the rent check, so we're both involved at all times. I realize this is unusual, but I can't imagine it working any other way for us.

The last chapter really drove home some of the things that I didn't realize were true for American women. I knew that my job requires me to be here for one year before I'm eligible for maternity leave; I didn't realize that's the bare minimum of what the law requires - and that the law allows for that leave but it only protects your job and isn't paid leave. I thought we were way more enlightened that that!

In terms of the proposed policy changes, my only question is "Where does the money come from?" Our government's budget is already dangerously overdrawn, and I don't believe it's the government's responsibility to help us financially support our families. Instead, I think it's the government's responsibility to help create an environment where we are able to support our families independently. Mandating paid leave time instead of just protecting parents' jobs would be a great step in the right direction, and could be handled the same way unemployment benefits are currently handled, as an expense to the company. In addition, requiring benefits to be offered to employees working twenty hours per week or more, instead of full time, would enable many people to create flexible work arrangements that would benefit both corporations and families.

As a side note, it occurred to me this week while listening to NPR that we are headed right down the road for socialized medicine, and it is entirely likely that my kids will have an entirely different medical treatment experience than I have had. I hope it's better, but with medical costs skyrocketing, I fear that will not be the case.

Overall, the book leaves me with a grim understanding of the future of my family. First, while this information may not be enough to change my mind on positions like staying home with a baby*, it has armed me with the ammunition to try to deflect some of the dangers that face many women. For example, maintaining a retirement account for a non-working parent,

Second, I am just so, so thankful for Peanut, whose attitudes on money are so similar to mine we might as well be the same person. Because of our joint involvement with our finances and our shared goals for life, parenting, and retirement, I am not as afraid of the future as I would be were I single or, worse, still with any of my exes.

* Right now, our plan is for me to continue working after having children, up until the point where daycare costs exceed the lowest salary in our household, which will probably be mine. At that time, one of us (probably me) would stay home for a few years. We'll see how close we stick to that when a baby is an actual, rather than theoretical, reality.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Spend Money to Save Money

Normally, I am very much NOT a proponent of spending money to save money. Sometimes, however, it works, and I'm relieved to find that it worked for me this morning.

You may remember the great dental insurance debacle of 2010, wherein I realized that my dental insurance was so poor that it wasn't worth spending money on, so we decided to cut it entirely. I was nervous that the dental discount plan offered by my dentist wouldn't actually be worth it, but yay - I saved $200 this morning!

Back when I originally was told the cost of the work, it was $1,480. My old dental insurance would only cover $1,000 of that - and then nothing else for the rest of the year, so we'd be out the $2,200 in annual premiums plus $480 just for that service. I suspected that with their dental discount plan and no insurance, we'd at least come in under $2,000 and I was right. This morning I signed up for the discount plan, which costs $85 per year, and then I called to get a new quote on the service so I can bring payment with me. My total is now $1152. Even including the cost of the discount plan, the total is $243 than what I would have been billed if I still had insurance.

Dental discounts for the win!

Now, we'll see how happy I am having to pay out of pocket for cleanings - but it's still going to come in way cheaper than paying premiums for crappy insurance.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Linkfest

I have a someday list! I call mine "I'M BORED" but it serves the same function - it's a list of things I want to accomplish someday, that I can work on in small steps whenever I find unexpected time on my hands.

A great video on our "culture of consumerism".

I've never heard of attempting to reach high-deductible health insurance nirvana. That looks like a great idea! I don't think it will work for our health insurance because Peanut's employer doesn't contribute to the accompanying health savings account - they just pay the full premium for the insurance. Still, something to look into!

Another reason I don't use Amazon: their new price comparison app designed to turn independent storefronts into Amazon's own showrooms. Katy at the Non-Consumer Advocate gives them a boo-hiss award - entirely deserved!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Linkfest

This reader's story at Get Rich Slowly really tugged at my heartstrings. I unexpectedly lost a friend in childbirth over the Thanksgiving holiday, and I worry about her husband and how he's handling the practical aspects of her death, as well as coming to terms with his grief and suddenly being a single parent to twins. In her memory, I have started creating an In Case of Emergency file so that, should something horrible happen to me or Peanut, our families will at least have access to information about how to deal with the day-to-day things.

A year-end financial self-audit is a really good idea - and here's a great breakdown for how to do it step-by-step.

Interesting barstool analogy of how taxes work. I think the bigger problem we have is that the tax system is inherently broken, particularly with regard to the way corporations are treated.

Um, this is kind of scary - most honey on grocery store shelves isn't really honey.

Get Rich Slowly has the best books about money! This is a great list.

Buy your groceries and other things "European style" - as you need them, instead of the American habit of buying in bulk. Things I'll continue to buy in bulk: frozen chicken, nuts, canned soups, toilet paper. Things I prefer to buy as I need them: toiletries (no CVS game here!), perishable food, alcohol.

Another reminder about the importance of secure passwords. Changing all my passwords to unique generated keys (that even I won't know) is one of the things on my Mondays-off to do list. When was the last time you changed your passwords?

I caught this interesting discussion during the week - today's women burning out at age 30. So much for having it all! But when you consider that most US workers don't take all their allotted time off, how can you blame us for burning out? I'm a big proponent of a more realistic work-life balance and extended vacation time, but it's a hard sell in a country where most people don't get around to using the time they already get.

If you click on only one link from today's Linkfest, make it this one: the Wall Street Journal investigated the top 101 iPhone apps to determine what kind of information the apps accessed and shared, and with which third parties. Important and scary reading! And a great interactive presentation of the information to boot.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

November Spending Review

Business expenses (reimbursable) $35.64
Business expenses (deductable) $3.89
Car $826.46
Clothing $144.19
Entertainment $534.16
Food—dining out $303.44
Food—groceries $251.60
Gifts $66.96
Household $20.32
House $2,450
Hygiene/Medical $4.40
Laundry $40
Rent $830
Student loans $403.83
Travel $781.80
Utilities $206.07

Total Spending: $6,992.76

Things of note: 
The car fund is only so hideously high because we paid the next year's car insurance premium up front, plus filled up twice and got a car wash, and for all the winter preparation stuff. Ouch! But we got a good discount for paying the insurance up front, and will actually get a small refund after we move - our new address has a cheaper premium than our current address.

Clothing includes my winter boots and gloves, and some odds and ends.

Entertainment is so high because I ordered a bunch of tickets for a group of friends to go see a Broadway show. I'll get paid back the night of the play.

We did pretty good on food spending, considering the holiday! I've been so consistent in taking lunch to work with me that I can't remember the last time I ate out. Very proud of that.

The House fund shows our first significant payments for the closing process - the earnest money and appraisal fee. I'm considering this as the amount of money we would have moved from checking into savings for the house this month - so although I didn't actually make a $2,000 transfer, I'm calling that goal reached!

I'm hoping that $40 quarter exchange is the last time we'll buy quarters for laundry machines. In less than two months, I will have my OWN washer and dryer. The mere thought leaves me speechless.

November Recap/December Goals

November Goals
1. Sell two costumes. I have the costumes set aside but I did not get around to actually offering them.

2. Get more critical. This was really hard to measure! And probably something I can still work on.

3. Complete my car winter preparedness checklist. Mostly done. I just need a flashlight - I bought one, but then reconsidered so I need to return it and get something else.

4. Do a work-at-home day. Success. I had three business days off (plus the holiday) in November, and I used them to get a lot of things done regarding the house and other things that work better when taken care of during business days. I have two days more to take advantage of.

5. Book all holiday travel. Success!

December Goals
1. Sell costumes. This means: take pictures of me wearing the costumes, send an email and Facebook message to my old company. If no one bites, post to ebay.

2. Finish "In Case of" file, research wills and medical directives, and make any arrangements to finalize them. Tragedy struck close to home last weekend with the very unexpected death of a friend, and getting this finished is now a major priority in my life. At my request, Peanut has signed up for life and disability insurance (his company doesn't offer group plans) and has had the exam that goes along with it. If anything terrible happens, we are better off than we would have been two weeks ago. I do this to honor my friend's memory.

3. Stand on my head every day. This was one of my New Year's Resolutions, and it's the one I've struggled with ignored the most. I've been doing it for a few minutes every day this week, and I can already tell a huge difference! I still need to kick up against the wall, but I am getting the hang of the balance aspect, and I'm coming out of it more gracefully, so I think more practice will help me do it like this:

(Just the first part - I'm nowhere near scorpion yet!)

4. Stay under budget for Christmas, including gifts and travel. I haven't actually set a budget yet, but I want to get a number in mind and stay under that amount. One side of my family has limited gifts to $3/person, which will help for sure.

5. Start packing - to move into our HOUSE!