Friday, July 27, 2018

Five Frugal Things

1. I got a random (but very strong) urge to declutter, and ended up clearing out three bags of things we don't use from the kitchen as well as a full bag of stuff from my closet. The only thing I never seem to declutter are my books...but to me they aren't clutter! I really will get around to reading all o them someday; I believe it!

2. I joined a gym. Peanut has been going to a climbing gym for most of a year, and I finally joined as well. I don't climb, but they have good fitness classes included in the price. The more classes I go to in a month, the cheaper they are per class! I started going once a week, then twice, now I'm up to three times a week, about $3 per class. I'd like to go four times a week but I'm coming up against schedule conflicts. Working out at home is free, but only if you do it. Classes motivate me better than anything else. I'm focusing on strength training for the first time in my life, and it's HARD. I do not enjoy the classes, but I enjoy the way I feel afterwards.

3. I tried intermittent fasting and discovered that I like it! I don't eat from 8 p.m. until noon the next day, and it's great. I am not hungry in the mornings and no longer have a mid-morning slump. It's also made me much more aware of what I'm eating when I am eating, and I've cut out a lot of sugar. The biggest downside is that I like breakfast foods and we don't have breakfast for dinner very often.

4. I got a credit card from an airline in order to get enough points for two domestic round-trip tickets. We'll have enough points on our other card to cover hotel and other stuff, so Peanut and I will get to take another vacation together soon. I don't have any big financing considerations coming up, so when we are done, I'll close the card and take the hit to my credit score with no problem.

5. I got a bunch of new workout clothes to go with my new gym hobby. Four complete spandex outfits set me back....$20, because I went to the thrift store instead of shopping for brand new stuff.

What are your recent frugal wins?

Thursday, May 3, 2018

My approach to money has changed a lot over the last six months.

This might be lifestyle creep. Or maybe it's something else. Basically, I feel like I have enough. I got a more than 20% raise with my recent job switch. We are maxing out all retirement options. We have money left over at the end of the month. We're bulking up our emergency fund and are even at the point of planning some of those "someday" spends, like a new couch.

The way it primarily plays out for me is Lyft. We still only have one family car, and I take the bus to work every day. A few times a month, something will come up that will make taking the bus home in the evening onerous. A committee meeting that ends so late my bus ride would take two hours, or something like that. So I'll get a Lyft; it's usually about $15. And every time, I marvel at how easy it is for me to make that choice.

Spending money on convenience for myself has always been very difficult. I can count on one hand the number of times I took a taxi in New York, and I lived there for eight years. I can count on one finger the number of times I took a taxi by myself for convenience. In eight years. I just didn't feel I could afford it, I didn't feel like the convenience outweighed the cost. So I dealt with some unsafe situations, being alone on the train late at night coming back from performing, because I couldn't bring myself to spend the money.

And now, it's easy. I don't feel stressed by the cost.

I wouldn't say I think about money less than I used to, but I think about it in a different way. It feels much more like a tool than a straightjacket.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

How much should I pay for convenience?

The other day I was hot and thirsty and my lips were chapped.

So I went into a convenience store to buy a beverage and some chapstick. I didn't have any cash on me, so I figured my purchase would be close to a $5 card minimum, if they had one. I don't mind paying meeting those minimums, as I know it costs money for merchants to accept credit cards. I recently got one of those little stick-on pockets for my cell phone case, and now I basically carry just my phone, my ID, and my credit card. I don't carry a wallet anymore, and rarely have cash on me.

Instead, I stumbled into a conversation with the clerk and another customer about a relatively new Minnesota statute that allows any store that accepts electronic payments to charge a fee equal to their costs, typically expressed as a percent of the purchase, as long as the customer is notified before the transaction. In this case, it was 3.69% and there was a large oval sticker on the counter where I placed my items. This statute has been in effect since last year, but this store was just implementing it and it was a popular topic of conversation.

Now, I've said I didn't mind paying a $5 minimum, but this fee gave me pause. It's pretty rare that I "need" to make a purchase that is below $5 with a credit card. (I say "need" because I didn't need to make this purchase - I can't think of any truly necessary purchases that fall into this category.) But it's rare, so it doesn't feel like I'm paying that much more over time for those few transactions where I'm buying something else to get over $5.

We have a good credit card that provides travel rewards, and I use it for almost all my purchases. Even so, the rewards percentage is only about 1% for non-travel purchases - well below the 3.69% fee the store was passing on to me. Which means that suddenly, paying with a credit card is more expensive, literally. It's effectively a cash discount. And if a lot of places start passing that fee along, it'd be pretty noticeable.

Is it going to change my buying behavior? I think it might. I'm certainly going to pay attention and start carrying an "emergency twenty" on me like I used to, to avoid paying more than necessary. The statute is clear that it applies to credit, debit, and other electronic payments, so I'm also going to watch to see whether it shows up on payment systems that use apps - there are a couple of places where I will pay with LevelUp or a proprietary app that works like a loyalty card. And what about online bill pay? It seems like that might be affected too. I'd have to figure out if the fee would be cheaper than a stamp, I guess.

It also makes me rethink how useful my travel rewards credit card is. For the 18 months I've had it, it's paid for itself - it offers travel reimbursements up to a few hundred dollars, covered the TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry fees for Peanut and myself, provides access to travel lounges in airports around the world, and in addition to the 1% on all purchases, gives 3% on travel expenses. I travel about once a month for work, and we went on a vacation last year that was paid for with those points. I'm on track to get a vacation every 12-18 months if I use the card for everything, but this means I'm paying more for that vacation or taking longer to get it. Is it worth it then?

Do you think a pass-through fee for credit card use would change your buying behavior?

Sunday, April 15, 2018


A librarian finds hidden codes in Scottish library books

Break the chain, don't be a slave: " Appetites for desires are rarely quenched. As people spent more, they got more into debt. As they got more into debt, they wanted more and more. As their wants exceeded even the debt-funded shopping sprees (cars, trucks, houses, swimming pools, campers, play structures for the kids, etc.), they got unhappier. They saw other people with things they wanted. Things they felt like they deserved. Their relationships suffered. They became miserable. They hated their jobs but they were stuck. The bank owned them. Work owned them."

The best books I've read in the past month:
The Immortalists
Golden Age and Other Stories
Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders
We Are Legion, We Are Bob (series)
Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

HSA Learning

I learned something new today.

New job, new benefits. As I was completing all the paperwork, I realized that my employer doesn't sponsor or contribute to an HSA, even though they offer two high deductible health plans.

We already have an HSA - we've been contributing to one at either Peanut's job or my job for years, first at actual expense levels and then fully funding (without withdrawing) for the last several years.

I know I can add money to our HSA any time I want, but I wanted to make sure that I'm getting all of the benefits of an HSA, including the initial tax benefit. (I love HSAs for their triple-tax protection: contribute pre-tax, withdraw tax-free for medical expenses up until retirement age, when you can withdraw for any purpose tax-free.)

My HR person didn't really understand what I was asking about so I did a quick google search and figured it out: we contribute post-tax, and simply deduct the total on our taxes next year. It feels less impressive somehow, but ends up the same financially. Peanut and I are now deciding whether to contribute in one lump sum for the year now or on December 31, or at regular intervals throughout the year.

Perhaps not a big insight - but a helpful one for me, and maybe for you too.

Friday, February 16, 2018


Breadwinning moms are increasingly the norm. Not to be confused with gender parity in the workforce, but it certainly speaks to the need for workplaces to have family-friendly policies around flextime, part-time white collar work, and other accommodations that recognize the fact that this is not the 1950s anymore.

Share your job, shatter the glass ceiling. I think this is an absolutely awesome idea. I have had direct reports in all sorts of situations (part time, contract, .8) to allow them to construct a life that they want. No one has approached me with a job share situation, but I think it would probably address every single one of the drawbacks I see as a manager in the current part-time set-ups. I'd love to propose something like this for future reports. (I am not interested in it for myself so much, because I have a stay-at-home-spouse so I don't feel the pinch of parenting as much as couples where both parents work.)


Monday, February 5, 2018

Linkfest - Working Woman Edition

The Baby, The Book and the Bathwater - on how crazy-making baby and parenting books are. And on the importance of keeping yourself when you become a mom. The desire to create and contribute doesn't disappear when men become fathers; why do we assume it does when women become mothers?

Share Your Job, Shatter the Glass Ceiling - I am finding more and more companies are open to less-than-full-time positions, but I haven't come across a job sharing situation yet. I'd like to explore that for some of my team, as it might alleviate all the "problems" we experience with having some part-time employees. (I say "problems" because they aren't problematic enough to avoid helping people achieve the work-life balance that keeps their talents where I can use them, but they do create some inconveniences, and my biggest fear - that people are working more hours than they want for less pay, simply because the work will never be done.)

Rather than thinking about how much revenue you need to cover your costs, think about how few costs you need to survive as long as you want. While this advice from the Basecamp team is ostensibly about building a business of slow, steady, sustainable growth, it also works as a great analogy for living within a budget and planning for retirement. While merely "surviving" doesn't sound like a lot of fun necessarily, it certainly takes a lot of pressure off in terms of aiming for exponential growth/gains, and helps focus on cost-cutting and meaningful.

The deck is unfairly stacked against women when it comes to retirement savings. We are paid less for the same work, are more likely to be in professions which pay less overall, are more likely to take time off work, are less likely to contribute to retirement savings in the first place - oh, and we live longer. If I could impart one thing to each of my 20-something coworkers is that there is pretty much no sacrifice too large for them right now to get a solid retirement savings plan in place.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Busting through that glass ceiling

I accepted a new job at the end of last year. It's in my same field but a step up to a bigger company, bigger team, bigger budget, bigger goals. And bigger salary. I finally broke through six figures!

Five years ago, I had just left my job to go on maternity leave with Pickle. I knew we had a very sick baby, and I knew I was going to have to stay home with her for longer than I'd planned. I also "knew" that I was ruining my career by doing this, but what else could I do? I was making $35,000 and Peanut made almost twice as much and had much better health insurance. It was obvious who had to stay home.

I had heard all my life that as a woman if you step out of the race for kids, you lose your chances at high-paying jobs, at career advancement. I bought into it and when I started trying to go back to work I undersold myself, badly. A lucky break got my foot in the door at my last job, and I proved the heck out of myself. I was so hungry to be back at work, to be doing what I love and what I trained for. I knocked it out of the park for two years and got recruited to join the new place. And what's ironic? I am definitely making more than I would be making if I had stayed on the track I was on.

Obviously, everyone's story is different, and my situation includes at least as much luck as talent or skill. But staying home with babies does not have to be a career death-sentence. I don't think there's a magic formula for making it work, except to say that don't let anyone else talk you out of your own worth. I was able to identify some skills that staying at home taught me - negotiation, advocacy, perspective, superduper budgeting skills - and how those translate into the workplace. I learned a lot about myself and what I want out of life, which gives me a drive I never had before. And that catapaulted me higher than I'd be if I hadn't had something to stretch for.

So far, the new job is going well. We're trying to avoid lifestyle creep. As we did last year, we'll be maxing out my pre-tax retirement account, as well as fully funding Roth IRAs and an HSA. Last year, that was all we could do, but this year we'll have a little extra to start saving towards the kids' college funds or general savings for something else. The biggest danger of lifestyle creep so far has been lunches - I've been invited to lunch multiple times every week since I started and that make sense as I'm getting to know people but isn't something I want to get used to. Otherwise, we are living much like we did when we made half as much, which sets our future up for even better things.

It's kind of silly that $100,000 is a benchmark goal - there's nothing inherently special about it. I did feel a particular satisfaction sailing past it, but hopefully I can be content here for a while.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Best Books I Read in 2017

I read a lot of books in 2017 - 115 to be exact. And yes, that was while working full-time with two children under five. (How do I do it? I have a stay-at-home husband, which is the answer to almost everything in my life. Also, I take the bus to work and make time to read in the evenings instead of watching TV. But mostly it's that I don't have to do cooking/cleaning/that kind of thing.)

Here, in no particular order and without (much) commentary, are the best books I read in 2017.

Email Marketing By the Numbers

They Ask, You Answer (by the River Pools and Spas guy)

Borne - so weird.

All Our Wrong Todays - so, so, so good. My favorite science fiction/spec fic of the year.

The Art of Digital Marketing

Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe - couldn't put it down!

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

Oh, Crap Potty Training - if you have kids, get this book. It's the best one!

La Rose

The Content Trap - so good I read it twice.

The First 90 Days - recommended to everyone starting a new job.

The Dark Tower Series - somehow I had never read them before.

The Broker - the only book I could find to take place in Bologna, Italy, where I traveled in 2017.

When You Reach Me

Steve Jobs - I'm not an Apple fan, but I enjoyed the book.

The Everything Store - I am the opposite of an Amazon fan, but I really enjoyed this book.

You Should Test That - so good I bought it after I read it.

A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty - poetry! If you are or know a teenage girl, this is great.

Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success

The Children's Hospital - a tie with Borne for weirdest book of the year.

Google Analytics Breakthrough

City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York - awesomesauce.

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built

Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For: A Guide for New Leaders - recommended for people new to managing

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction - I also read this one twice. It's The Content Trap lite.

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America - if you buy food, you should read this.

The Punch Escrow - very close second place for best science fiction of the year.

The Merchant of Yonkers - which I requested from the library and discovered to my delight that the last time it was checked out was in 1948.

My least favorite book of the year was a tie between I Hate Everyone Except for You and The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Which, yes, won the Newbery Award and which everyone else on the planet loved. I can't explain it.

What should I read next?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Book Review: Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Econonmy

This book was such fun! I love narrative nonfiction and especially interesting tidbits of history, but this book looked at each of the inventions through their effects on the economy. It's a fascinating take on everyday items and ideas that shape our modern world.

One thing that stuck out at me was how many of the things that had the biggest impact did so because their primary use was to free up women's time. The plow, the pill, the TV dinner - these and so many other inventions shaped the economy because they freed women up to join the workforce. I did a stint as a stay at home mom and homemaker, and I found it really overwhelming in terms of drudgery, boredom, repetitive work - and I had a washing machine, a dishwasher, a microwave, all those things to help make my daily life less filled with the kind of work that my female ancestors would have dealt with.

Another thing that I found really interesting was how many of these inventions aren't things as much as they are concepts. Money, timekeeping, patents and copyrights - all fabrications from the human mind, not products that we can touch. The best representation of money I've ever heard was a story about a time when the banks closed in Ireland...for months. People survived by writing checks since they didn't have access to their cash, and it worked. It shows how much money is really theoretical and doesn't have much to do with paper and coins.

There are lots of interesting anecdotes like this that carry through the book, and if you have any interest in how our modern world works, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018


Two incomes are not always the answer to having more money. Really important stuff here! We found it to be true that as a dual-income-with-kids family, two incomes did not leave us with more money - in fact, we were paying for the privilege of me going back to work. Having only one working parent has always given us more discretionary spending money, even when that income was half of what I'm currently making.

There are additional important points throughout this excellent article, including the comment about how disability insurance for stay-at-home parents is critical (and very hard to find). We are lucky that Peanut's disability insurance from when he was working will continue to cover him now as long as we keep the premium paid on time. I couldn't find any kind of disability insurance for a no-income spouse when I was at home, and I know of only one company now that offers it.

Author Ann Patchett reflects on her year of no shopping

Two different approaches to business - do you notice these things as a consumer (or do you consider them as part of your job)?

Selection librarians from my local library system were profiled in my local newspaper, along with the most popular books of 2017. I'm a library super user, with 20+ books and ebooks checked out at any given time. The kids and I go weekly to pick up new books and return the ones we're done with. Our local branch has an excellent play area, and we've made friends with neighborhood people we see regularly. I use the hold system and the interlibrary loan system extensively, and have even checked out a power tester for free. I've also booked a number of offsite meetings for work at the library, giving us a distraction-free (and literally free) workspace for creative work and planning. Yay libraries!

But on the other hand, children learn the most important lesson away from adults. And that culture of childhood is threatened. I'll have more to say on this later in 2018.

Kickstarter math is weird. This is a super interesting (and eye-opening) look at what it takes to be successful on Kickstarter.

Monday, January 1, 2018

2018 New Years Resolutions

1. Read fewer books, but more fiction. While most people who put anything about reading on their New Year's Resolutions list are probably hoping to read more, I'd like to read less. I read 115 books in 2017 (and no, that doesn't include books I read out loud to the kids). And most of them were non-fiction of the self-improvement or business/work-related type. I tend to get hooked on a topic and then read 8-10 books on the subject, but I find that after book 3 or 4, there are diminishing returns. So I don't really need to be reading more books - I'm aiming for quality over quantity this year. I'm going to try to read 2 fiction books to every non-fiction title, aiming to read for pleasure as much as for learning. I'm aiming for 75 books overall, or about 1.2 books per week. 

2. Organize my digital life. I want to DO something with the saved links, the starred blog posts, the pinned recipes, the downloaded podcasts. Yesterday, I upgraded to a paid version of Evernote, giving me more space per month, so I'm going to try to put it to good use by storing all of this kind of information in a single place, and setting a dedicated time each week to reviewing the information that I've saved for later and doing something with it. Things like, actually writing the blog post inspired by that article, or putting the ingredients for that recipe on a shopping list and scheduling a time to try it out, or actually looking back at the notes I took from all those self-improvement books I read this year. I've put a reminder in my calendar to do this weekly.
3. #1goodmoneything per day. This is an idea I got from Revanche a couple years ago - instead of always saving up for big wins, aim for a single good money decision each day. Little things add up and while it may not be super sexy to tweet about "brought my lunch to work five days this week!" that is a major contributing factor to how Peanut and I were able to grow our net worth by more than $80,000 this year. It's really in the small decisions.
4. Regular journaling. I'd like to bring a little more intention to my day and awareness to my decisions, so I was thinking of writing down big decisions and my reasons for them, then revisiting them later to see where my thinking is faulty. Then I saw Trent's recent article about his journaling habit, and I thought maybe I could combine them into one new habit. I've added a reminder onto my calendar to do this every day.
5. Inbox zero for personal email. I have a terrible habit of reading emails on my phone, then marking them unread with the intention of replying later...only I never do. So my goal is to get to inbox zero by the end of January, only open emails once, and actually respond to people in a timely manner. And this includes my drafts folder, too. Not kidding - I have drafts in there from 2012!
6. Physical movement. With the exception of my seven years with a belly dance troupe, I have always struggled to get enough physical activity. I'm a sedentary person by nature (see #1 above, about how much I read!) and I don't like to sweat. But as I get older, I notice the effects of sitting at a computer much more, so I'm going to work on it (again) in 2018. I did a push-up challenge in 2017 that did wonders for my back, so I'll repeat that. I've started doing yoga at home once a week as well.

7. Spend more time on physical self-care. I'm in my mid-thirties, and I'm starting to see the effects of aging. Which is fine - I actually like both my body and my mind more as I age - but it does mean I can't drop into bed without taking care of my skin anymore! I'd also like to use up all the samples of stuff I have lying around, from moisturizer to cuticle care to fancy pepperminty exfoliating foot stuff.

8. Be with the kids when I'm with the kids. My kids are still at the ages where they want to snuggle me, want to be read to, want to just be with me. But I'm starting to see it fading. I want to take advantage of how much they love me now - not reading or being on my phone in the evenings when we're together.