Sunday, July 29, 2012

LinkFest: Lovely Weekend Edition

I keep meaning to get around to doing freezer-to-crockpot meals, but I haven't done so yet. Anyone know of any good vegetarian ones?

Do you think it's harder to make friends as you get older? This article about making friends over 30 felt both familiar and alien to me. Ultimately, I think a lot of it boils down to where you live - I did find it difficult to make close friendships in New York, but have not so much in Minnesota. People here seem much more willing to have a deeper friendship than a superficial one, which makes a lot of difference.

I usually love Cate's recipes, so I'm looking forward to trying this one: cheesy tomato risotto.

Funny About Money asks will a credit card surcharge change your habits? A credit card surcharge will definitely change my spending habits. Right now, Peanut and I put pretty much everything that we can on our no-annual-fee rewards credit card, and as a result we get big gift cards once or twice a year to stores like Target and Home Depot. I'm aware that effectively, I am already paying a credit card surcharge because merchants build it into the cost of their goods. But if I have to start paying a per-use fee for a credit card or a lower total cost with cash or debit or some other form of payment, I'll probably start leaving the plastic at home.

If you're still doing the #couponchallenge (are you??), here's a helpful post from Money Saving Mom: I'm So Frustrated with Coupons I'm Thinking of Giving Up. I haven't had a problem using internet printed coupons at either Target or my grocery store, but I'm careful before I print to make sure they're legitimate. I have had a problem using Cellfire and CardStar at my grocery store - both services supposedly make things easy by putting scannable barcodes in your smartphone, but my phone won't scan anything on the grocery store scanners, and no cashier I've ever asked to try it has seen another customer do it. I know that my phone works as a scanned thing, because I've used it as a mobile plane ticket before, but it definitely doesn't work at the grocery store. All the cashiers have been really nice about it, though, so it hasn't been a frustrating experience.

Daily Money Shot is putting up an Aldi Experiment series! My first experience with Aldi's was only so-so, so I'm interested to see how it works for her.

One of the things I am definitely learning from the whole #couponchallenge is that cheap food is not great. The best deals - including the freebies - that I've found are for things like PopTarts, cookies, sugary cereal, and candy. Prairie Eco Thrifter talks about this a little - there should be no such thing as cheap food. Her comparison of paying $4 for a Starbucks drink but balking at a $2 farmer's market tomato really made me stop and think - WHY am I trying to save so much money with coupons? The grocery budget will only get so low, and we're able to afford to spend money on delicious, healthy food. Do I want to focus on savings to the detriment of our health?

Well, of course not. And I'm not scrimping to the point that we're not still buying fresh produce and other things that rarely have coupons. I'm just thinking that when the whole challenge is over, I may just try to focus couponing for things like personal care products instead of food - but on the other hand, I'm getting better at spotting food deals, and if it's something we'd eat anyway, I'll snap it up. I'll just reframe my thinking about organic or local or humane products by comparing them to what I used to pay for junk food without a second thought.

And on that note, I'm off to make kale two ways for dinner.

How was your week? Read anything interesting? Share a link below!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Please welcome....

....the newest member of the Moneybags household!

This is what's-his-name.

He's been with us for almost a week now, and he's a super sweetie. He likes to cuddle, knead, and lick your hands while you pet him, and I'm totally smitten.

Since this is a money blog, I guess I am happy to report that we got a half-price kitty. He'd been up for adoption for several months, and I didn't want to think why they cut his adoption fee in half, but I would've paid full price twice over once I fell in love with him, so I guess it was a bargain all around. We didn't go all out with the cat stuff - just litter + box, small bowls (small porcelain human bowls, not special cat bowls - cheaper!), and some basic food (exactly what he was eating at the shelter). I borrowed a carrier to bring him home and have since bought a second-hand one for future vet visits. I'm on the lookout for a cheap scratching post on Craigslist as well. I've got a coupon for a free vet visit, and beyond regular checkups, I don't expect he'll cost us a bunch of money. (I hope.) He's six years old, so he's no spring chicken - but he's also a healthy six years old, so is probably free of genetic diseases and problems.

It's been years since I had a pet, and I've had a small, cat-shaped hole in my life for a decade. I'm a total sucker for all-black cats, and I am also thrilled that Peanut's allergies are tolerating the cat really well (he grew up with cats, so it's not a huge surprise, but I want both of the dudes in my life to live happily and healthily in my house with me!).

I think we've settled on a real-life name, but I haven't thought of one for the blog. Any ideas?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

July Mid-Month Goal Check

Time to check in to see how my July goals are doing!

1. Make a decision on the quilt thing and put it into action. Done! Or, I guess, in progress - I'm taking a class this weekend to get certified on long-arm quilts so I can do my own.

2. Ramp up the #couponchallenge. Going pretty well - I ordered a newspaper subscription so I won't have to remember to go out and get the paper every Sunday. I haven't had a chance to do a double coupon shopping trip yet this month, but I did try out Aldi and I've been clipping consistently! I find that I'm saving 10-30% off the bill during a normal shopping trip, which is pretty good. (But could be better.)

3. Don't go crazy on house spending. I've been doing pretty good with this - I've just been spending in other places. :p

4. Do some garden research. Haven't started yet - I need a free weekend!

5. Pre-order a video game with no guilt. Done! Peanut and I both pre-ordered the game and I'm excited about it!

How are your July goals going?


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Linkfest! Visiting Family Edition

Squawkfox illustrates how to organize the perfect pantry. My favorite takeaway: keep easy meals on one shelf at eye level. Brilliant! I have things organized by boxes/cans/drinks/giant boxes from Costco, which is not quite as useful for meal-planning purposes. I smell a weekend project! (I mean, not really. My pantry doesn't smell, thankyouverymuch.)

Another blog post from the NY Times: the case for spending a little more sometimes. Word. UP. I just wish I could remember this every time I see a pair of cheap black flats on sale at Target.

The Frugal Girl posted a potentially very controversial post about not wanting to "have it all" (according to the traditional metrics), and got a bushelful of smart, amazing comments. I'm with her - some years ago, I realized that I don't really want to be The Boss. And if I don't want to be The Boss, then I'm just a worker bee forever...unless I do some different things, like take time off to raise kids or work part-time or change careers entirely. Doing those things mean that I will never climb The Ladder and fight The Man - and I won't "have it all" in terms of raising kids and having a clean house and being the big kahuna at work all at the same time. And you know what? That's okay.

Wisebread has a great rundown of slow money leaks to check - and fix!

THIS. This is the post I've been looking for about building a home yoga flow - only the word they used was "sequence" so it never came up!

Some really fantastic posts from Get Rich Slowly! Things That are Cheaper To Do Yourself, particularly Which is Cheaper in the Kitchen. Some of the stuff is surprising! I've been totting up the cost of homemade granola to compare to store-bought, but this made me suspect what the answer is.

Mmmm, this tarragon corn chowder recipe from Simply Recipes looks fantastic!

Speaking of soup, Peanut found this very cool cream soup mix recipe from the University of Minnesota's website. Major universities frequently have very useful information for the general public available on their sites - check out some of the ones in your area or elsewhere in the country!

Given the power outages across the country in the last few weeks, Ready Set Simplify has some very good suggestions on being prepared for a power outage. We are...not prepared. Our freezer is already packed with Costco goodies, so there would not be room for jugs of water - I'm afraid we'd lose a lot of food! We do have a case of water bottles in the basement, and now I know to fill up my tub for toilet flushing purposes. Are you ready for an extended power outage?

Squawkfox runs the numbers on cloth diapers, and what she finds is pretty astounding! I was sold on cloth diapers already, but her numbers make the decision almost

Katy at The Nonconsumer Advocate asks readers what their best curbside find is. I have several - my kitchen table and four chairs, a beautiful old wooden desk, several bookshelves, some end tables. I think the desk is my favorite, but the table and chairs have definitely been the most useful! I'm always on the lookout for new pieces to add. (Truthfully, I'm not that worried about bedbugs. I wouldn't pick up a bed, bedframe, mattress, box spring or similar pieces, and I check everything I find before bringing it in the house.)

Small Notebook makes an excellent point about savings and simplicity in her Clear the Free Stuff post: You cannot simplify your life unless you can skip a sale and say "no thanks" to a free offer. This is something I have had to work on in my life!

This fascinating Washington Post article talks about the current and future costs (financial, physical, and social) of air conditioning - a very interesting read! I'm looking forward to picking up the book referenced within. I love having air conditioning, but I find most places to be way over air-conditioned. During Minnesota's recent heat wave, I spent most evenings sitting in my backyard, drinking lemonade and eating popsicles, instead of inside with fake cold air blowing on me. Heaven!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Who's awesome?

Peanut and I are awesome, that's who.


Because we both got significant raises on Wednesday.

I knew I was going to get a raise, because my review had been delayed to give my boss and her boss more time to argue for more money for me (w00t!). I didn't know how much, but I knew it would be more than the standard 2% - I guessed between 8-10%. I was delighted to get 14.2%! (I also got a glowing review with some great goals for the coming year - I am feeling the love from my job and am loving all over it in response right now.)

When I got back to my desk, I g-chatted at Peanut to share the news and found out that he'd ALSO gotten a raise! He got 10% (which, since he makes more than me, made our raises almost identical in dollar amounts). What a day!

I am frequently reminded of how lucky we are. Quitting our jobs to move across the country last year - just because we wanted to - really could have gone badly for us in this economy. I'm so pleased and thankful that it didn't.

As for what we're doing with that money? Well, saving it, mostly. We're not living with an on-paper, on-purpose budget right now, instead relying on tracking spending to keep us focused on our goals. Every month I transfer over whatever's left into savings, which goes into a couple of pots: Roth IRA, emergency fund building, Jeep repairs, travel, medical deductible (we have a high one!) and taxes. We'll just be tucking away a little more going forward.

How's your week been?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

#couponchallenge Update: My Trip to Aldi

I've been interested in shopping at Aldi ever since I read about The Frugal Girl's very cool trip to the Aldi headquarters last year (part two here, Q&A here). The other day, Peanut and I drove by an Aldi just a few miles from our house - we didn't even know it was there! (Apparently it's only been open six months or so; it doesn't even show up on Google maps yet.) So today I decided to check it out.

If you don't know, Aldi is a grocery store that aims to save customers money in some interesting ways: they don't arrange products on shelves (they leave them in the packaging they arrive in, sort of like Costco), they charge for shopping carts and bags, they don't accept credit cards or checks or coupons, and they sell mainly generic products - not big names.

Here's what I bought, and a note on how I feel about it:
  • Sweet corn, 4 ears: $1.49 Con: $0.12 MORE EXPENSIVE per ear than my grocery store. Ears came wrapped in plastic, so I couldn't pick out my own, plus, ugh, plastic. 
  • Sharp cheddar: $1.79/block Same price as my grocery store brand when it's on sale (which is frequently).
  • Saltines $0.89/box Pro: WAY cheaper than either my grocery store ($3.26/box) or Target ($2.54/box). Con: I forgot that Saltines are one of the things Peanut is brand-sensitive about. If he doesn't like these, there is no savings.
  • Gala apples: $3.99/bag. Pro: slightly cheaper than my grocery store (hard to calculate, as I don't buy them by the bag normally, and the bags at Aldi were filled by number of apples, not weight - weird.) Con: Had to buy a plastic bag of apples.
  • Beefsteak tomatoes: $1.39 for two in a plastic box. Pro: about 75% of the normal price at my grocery store, and slightly cheaper than my store's sale price. Con: Tomatoes in a plastic box.
  • Artisan lettuce: $1.99 for four small heads in a plastic box. Pro: Cheaper. Con: Not the kind of lettuce I would normally buy, plus a plastic box.
  • Skim milk: $1.99/gallon Same price as my grocery store.
  • Frozen lasagna: $1.19 for a single-serve box. Pro: Definitely cheaper than frozen dinners from either Target or my usual store! Potential Con: Will it taste good? Definite con: Only one vegetarian option available.
  • Hot dog buns: $0.39 for eight Pro: SUPER CHEAP!!!! Con: No selection - that was the only type of bun available, and I really wanted hoagie buns, not hot dog buns.
Total: $15.11 for two cloth bags full of groceries. I would have paid $20+ for the same amount of food from my grocery store.

So will I start shopping at Aldi regularly?

I'm undecided. The location is .8 miles farther from my house than my normal grocery store, but more importantly, it's in the opposite direction - a direction I very rarely travel. Combined with that, the savings doesn't really outweigh the downsides to almost every single product I purchased. (In addition to the produce all being wrapped in plastic, it was decidedly inferior to the produce available at my usual grocery store and Target - mold, for example, or just beat up or wrinkly produce.) However, this was a mid-week stock up, and probably not the best trip to take to give Aldi a shot.

I think for certain types of shopping trips - stocking up on cereal, canned goods, boxed products, desserts (including baked goods, ice cream, and cake mixes) and possibly some frozen stuff - Aldi would save me a lot of money. They also have some unexpected products, like mesh camp chairs and clothes drying racks, both for $10, which seem like good deals. If I were getting a bunch of things like chips, soda, and popsicles for a party or oatmeal, trail mix, and granola bars for a camping trip - well, now. Aldi would indeed save me a bundle of money. But will I make a special trip for my usual shopping needs, or just chalk up the higher cost of Target or my usual store as a convenience fee?

I know the best way to stretch your grocery dollar is to shop at multiple stores for different things, but I'm not going to do that as a matter of course, at least not when it involves driving out of my way. I can pop into Target and a grocery store within the same shopping complex, and that's about as much as I have time for. (And as they say, time is money!)

Have you ever shopped at Aldi? Do you shop at multiple grocery stores or stick with the most convenient one?

Friday, July 6, 2012

2012 New Year's Resolutions: A Mid-Year Check-In

Do you remember what your New Year's Resolutions were?

I don't. Which definitely means it's time to do a review to see how I'm doing! Here were my original resolutions, along with a "why" for each one.

And here's a mid-year update. 
1. Save to increase our emergency fund. We are making progress! So far we've increased our emergency fund by 10% from the beginning of the year. My goal is to double it, so we've got a ways to go, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.

2. Buy a second car with cash. Completed!

3. Flirt with The Compact. I have indeed been flirting with The Compact. Overall, I think I'm doing pretty well - I've bought some new shoes and some new pillows, but the majority of things we've bought for the house have come from estate sales or Craigslist or family (see: kitchen stuff, beds, etc.). I have bought a few items of clothing for myself from The Salvation Army, but they were from the Target As-Is store (an *amazing* thing in the Twin Cities) so they were new, even if they were thrift store prices.

4. Pay extra on our student loans. I have managed to get a full payment ahead on my student loans, but otherwise I haven't actively been paying extra toward our loans this year. We've been focusing on emergency fund and other sinking fund savings instead.

5. Go to 52 yoga classes. Um...I have sort of lost count of this. I know I'm doing really well going to my weekly class when I'm in town, but I haven't done much about going to extra classes during the week to "make up" for the ones I missed while traveling. And there are free yoga classes in the summer, too! It's just been too hot to do outdoor yoga classes.

6. Develop a yoga home practice of three days per week, or 156 sessions. I'm not doing well with this at all. Maybe reminding myself that it was a New Year's Resolution and that I had a numerical goal set will help me focus.

Personal Growth
7. Become a better conversationalist. Eh, so-so. I have been forcing myself to attend regular industry mixers, and I'm getting to know some people there which makes me feel more at ease. My method has been to try to talk to one person at a time instead of trying to break into groups, and that's been going okay. I've also modified Molly's HHH plan to think of things to talk about (there's not really a host, so instead I ask "How did you get into our field?"). Next up: I just ordered a few books from the library.

8. Read more than 100 books, including a number of classics. HOLY CRAP, Y'ALL. I literally just said WOW! out loud. I have read 70 books already this year, including Les Miserables and Great Expectations (thereby fulfilling my classics requirement). BUTTER ME, I'M ON A ROLL. This is shaping up to be my most prolific reading year ever! (My last record was 127 - I think I'm officially changing this resolution from 100 books to 128+! My favorites from this year include: Quiet, Main Street Vegan, The Behavior Gap, The Starboard Sea, Three Weeks in December, Alif the Unseen, and True Believers.

9. Nest in my HOUSE. YES. I painted the rooms that bothered me, I spend much of my time in my backyard, and we've got plans for the garden for next year. I feel at home in a way I never have in any residence I've had since I was a child.

10. Get wills, living wills, and in-case-of-emergency paperwork in order. Eh....I kept putting this off as a goal and finally decided to ignore it entirely until something about our living situation changes. Peanut and I own everything jointly and in our state, we would automatically inherit all the property. We have adequate life and disability insurance. We've discussed what we'd like to do if we were on life support and how we'd like our remains to be treated, although we haven't put them in writing - which is really the only outstanding thing that I feel like I might regret not dealing with. Still, I'm going to continue avoiding this until something forces my hand.

For Fun
11. Make a quilt, start to finish. In progress! I've completed two quilt tops and have another ready to start, and I'm working with a local store to get trained on their long-arm machine to put top, batting and backing together. Woo hoo!

12. Travel with my mom and sister. Done! We went to the quilt show in Paducah in April, and had a blast.

How are your New Year's Resolutions coming along?


Sunday, July 1, 2012

June Spending Recap

Business expenses (deductable) $3.89
Business expenses (reimbursable) $1,744.94
Car $117.47
Charity $10
Clothing $17.93
Entertainment $77.44
Food—dining out $458.25
Food—groceries $254.64
Gifts $95.94
Helicopter $29.89
Household items $24.91
House $1,392.29
Hygiene/Medical $83.11
Jeep $59.21
Student loans $403.83
Taxes $1,110
Transportation $70.51
Travel $16.69
Utilities $257.34

Total Spending: $6,228.28

Things of note: 

Ugh, this month the eating out was way out of control. I'm sure this is mostly due to my travels, as the meals I had that weren't covered by work tended to be a little pricey as I took my hosts out to eat and stuff like that.

Do note, however, that we cut our grocery bill by $100. I'm not sure whether to attribute that to the #couponchallenge or the exorbitant amount we spent eating out. I guess I'll call it a draw.

Our utility costs dropped a lot. I guess this is due to most of May being temperate enough to not require heating or air conditioning. I hate to see what the next bill will look like with the heat wave we've had here!

The two biggest increases over last month were reimbursable spending, and estimated taxes that were due this month - Peanut is basically done freelancing so we're likely to get most of these funds back next April but in case he does some more freelance work, we're going to be doing that three more times this year. Yay sinking funds!

June Recap/July Goals

June Goals
1.  Find a long-arm quilting rental place. Well, I did all the research and now I just need to make a decision. All the places where you can rent a machine also require you to take a class in order to use it, plus pay for supplies for the class, making this a much more expensive proposition than I first expected. So I need to do some thinking on whether I really want to go this route or send out my finished quilt tops to be professionally done - and I need to decide soon, because one of these is for a baby shower in six weeks!

2. Continue the #couponchallenge. I have to say so-so on this. What with all my traveling, I haven't been doing all the grocery shopping lately, and I also missed two Sunday papers. When I have gone shopping, I've been sure to use coupons, and I can see a significant amount taken off my bill each time. I'm nowhere near Extreme Couponer level, but it's been fun to match sales with coupons!

3. Keep careful track of my spending. I did really well on this during both of my work trips, but we're still not doing great on cash spending. I give this one a C.

4. Be gentle on myself. I think I did really well on this! I have had a lot going on but I haven't been overwhelmed or too stressed about it. Practice makes perfect!

July Goals
1. Make a decision on the quilt thing and put it into action. Self explanatory!

2. Ramp up the #couponchallenge. I'm skipping today's paper since it only has a P&G insert for the holiday, but otherwise I'm going to make sure I get every Sunday paper and use coupons on every shopping trip (unless it's a fresh produce stock-up).

3. Don't go crazy on house spending. We have overnight guests coming and I have a whole list of things I feel like I "need" to have to be a good host (extra, extra pillows, a matching dust ruffle, more towels, etc, etc, etc....). If I find good deals at estate sales or Salvation Army, I guess I can bring it home, but otherwise - no need!

4. Do some garden research. Peanut and I really lucked out on the backyard of this house - it's amazing. Every week something new and beautiful has bloomed. At the same time, we're figuring out who we are as people who own some land to plant things in, and there are aspects of the garden that will not be making it for the long haul. But we're not sure whether we can make some of these changes now or if we need to wait until fall or even next spring - so I'm going to try to do the research to map out a plan so we can schedule everything, and start saving for what we want.

5. Pre-order a video game with no guilt. I know, what a weird thing to say. Well, I'm an underbuyer and I don't like paying full price for things - but Guild Wars 2 is coming out next month and Peanut and I have been waiting for like two years for this. I'm happy to support the makers of the game, and it's the only game I'm likely to buy for the next decade, so I want to be okay with paying full price for it.