Saturday, December 20, 2014

2015 goals

I'll probably revisit these at some point -- for one thing, my job situation might or might not change over the summer. I'm either going to be at the same job, with the same income, for another academic year, or be changing jobs with all the resulting unknowns from that. But for the purposes of this post I'm assuming that I'll be at my current job through all of 2015.

I'm trying to keep these simple: instead of several dozen goals, I'm making only five, focused around my current priorities. Some of these are more under my control than others -- for example, I can definitely contribute $1000 a month to retirement because I'm already doing it and it's automatic! But the net worth goals are trickier, because they rely in part on things well outside of my control, like whether I have a medical emergency or what the markets decide to do. I'm also setting a pretty aggressive target for cash savings; if I stick to this plan, I'll be living on about $1150 a month, roughly 1/3 of my net income. I'm going to try this for a few months and see how it goes, but if I'm feeling deprived by the time I do my first-quarter review at the end of March I may have to re-evaluate.

1) Emergency Fund: Now that I'm out of debt, I plan to put $500 into this account every month until I reach $5000 (this should be around September.) Then I'll start contributing the same $500 to my down payment fund (see below under #3).

2) Retirement Savings: I'll continue to contribute $1000 a month to my 403(b) from my pre-tax salary of $4000. My extremely achievable base goal, therefore, is an additional $12,000 contributed to retirement. My stretch goal is to scrape up $2000 through found money (freelance work, basically, since I don't have any really gift-worthy occasions like graduation or weddings upcoming) and contribute that to my Roth IRA. However, before I even get going on the 2015 IRA, I'm going to do what I can to increase my 2014 IRA by April 15, so I think this goal might not happen unless I win the lottery or something.

3) Other Savings Goals: This is pushing it a little, but until my EF is full I want to contribute another $500 a month to three short/medium-term savings accounts: $250 to travel, $125 to "down payments" (to be used for future car/housing down payments) and $125 to "one-time shocks" (to be used for major one-time expenses like a new computer, a move, etc.) Once the EF is at $5000, I'll up that to $375 to each account, continuing to save $1000 in cash a month.

4) Overall Net Worth Goals: Conservatively, there is no reason why I can't increase my net worth by $1500 a month -- that's just my basic retirement+e-fund contribution along with the assumption that I don't overspend my monthly income otherwise. So I'll set my base goal for increasing my net worth at $18,000 this year. However, while some months may be up and some down (as I spend from my short-term savings accounts like the travel account, particularly, and as the markets move around), I would ideally like to average $2000 a month. My stretch goal is $24,000 for the year, therefore, and my extra-special stretch goal is to make this a prettier number and increase my net worth by $25,000 :-)

5) Travel goals: in 2015, I would like to spend at least three weeks in California with one godchild, at least one week in Virginia with the other godchild, at least two weeks at my parents' place, and at least two weekends with my brother and his wife. Luckily, I can work on the road during part of the summer!


6) Other Goals: Don't get into a situation where I have to replace my car or computer and spend a ton of cash :)

I decided to do the Moneystepper 2015 Savings Challenge, so I'm hoping that's going to be a good way to keep monthly track of these goals, along with posts here. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Pretty Important Announcement

As some of you have noticed already, I have a new site, having moved to self-hosted wordpress. I'm sure there will be some kinks to work out, and I'm not totally thrilled with the site design, but I think it's good enough for the moment. As a result, this will be the last post I make on -- I hope you'll come visit (and subscribe, and bookmark, and all that good stuff) at

As a matter of fact, I have a brand-new post up there right now, and it's got some pretty big news in it. Spoiler:

So please join me over at the new address for a little champagne :-)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Three Things I Did This Year That Changed My Life...and One Thing I Want to Do Next Year

This isn't the same as my 2015 financial goals post, which is coming soon -- I've been hammering those out and I think I'm close to being happy with them, so I'll probably post them in the next couple of weeks.

But Michelle at the Shop My Closet Project had a great post talking about the three things she did that enabled her to "find Michelle again" in 2014. She wrote:

"I realized that I had lost myself in the crap that I was (and wasn’t) dealing with. It was hardly surprising that I wasn’t moving forward and was stuck. I am so glad that I recognized that I needed to clear the space in my life to focus on what was important to me."
I'm not quite sure I'm there yet, but I feel like I might be on the way. Here are the three (non-financial) things I did myself in 2014 that might be helping me clear the path towards a future I want to live in:

1) I had a huge emotional crisis. This may seem counter-intuitive, and frankly, it sucked, not just during the week that was really acute but for months afterwards. But it was so bad that it forced me to actually do something, or rather several things, instead of getting along day to day as I'd been doing for quite a while. It forced me to sort out some priorities; since everything is not (yet, anyway) magically aligning in such a way that I can both live in a place I want to be in and have exactly the career I'd wanted to have, I had to make some kind of priority list. And I did.

2) I saw a therapist for about two months (direct result of the huge crisis!) As part of this process, I admitted to myself that while it is not as severe as some people's, I really do have some kind of anxiety disorder and probably dysthemia (a steady low-grade depression) as well. Admitting that this was me, my brain chemistry, and not just "situational," was, I hope, a big step towards being happier in the future. I am currently taking a low, steady dose of an anti-anxiety medication and I think it's helping; so are some of the conversations I had with that therapist and with various friends this spring, about techniques to manage anxiety when it does hit.

3) I became a little bit less of a hermit. I went on two dates -- one of them, I didn't like the guy, and the other, the guy didn't like me enough to follow up -- but hey, at least I went on them. I re-committed to keeping in good touch with friends, both online and off, and I don't just mean calling them every six months -- I've been having good long talks on a fairly regular basis with a variety of people. I also found two religious communities in my new city, one church that I like and one more volunteer-ish group, that I really vibe with, which means twice a week at a minimum I do something that is not work or hanging out by myself at home. This may not sound like much, but I've been a total stick in the mud for years, which is probably on the "top 10 reasons why I'm not married" list, and making the effort to connect with real human beings who care about the things I care about, at least twice a week, has been helping me to heal some spots in my soul that have been pretty dry for a pretty long time.

And here is one thing I want to do next year: take an "energy inventory," like Michelle suggested. What is causing me to regularly lose energy in my life? How can I address these things? I may put some thought into that over the Christmas break and have a post about it around New Year's. It seems like a really good idea.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

OK, maybe I'm going to have to become the world's least professional self-hosted blogger

After all that, I'm considering buying a domain and moving to self-hosted after all. Godaddy is having a sale (as near as I can tell, it's $12 for domain+hosting+wordpress for a year), and I guess I could use some time over the holidays to figure out how to set it up and move everything.

The problem is, while I am perfectly happy with my boring (and free!) blogspot blog, I've heard from four or five people that they have problems commenting here, and if four or five people have bothered to write/tweet me (oh yeah, I finally got with the program and got a twitter handle) that means there are probably more that have just uttered an unkind word and given up when the ()^&%)*%^&%*&^)( website ate their comments. And I hate being an ungracious host :( I'd like to increase the number of conversations I have, and I don't like that technical difficulties are challenging that.

So, I don't know, I'm going to sleep on it; the sale at Godaddy doesn't end five minutes from now. But I feel like I need to figure out some solution that doesn't result in it being really annoying (or even impossible) to comment here.

[Edited to add: it's tomorrow morning, I slept on it, and I decided to do it. How bad could $20 for the first year (including the domain masking Alicia pointed out I'd need) really be? So I picked up Next step, uh, figuring out the tech migration. That'll probably take a while so I'll keep posting here for the next week or two until I have time to sort it out.]

Saturday, December 13, 2014


I was so nerdily pleased about this that I made my housemate listen to the whole thing, and now I'm gonna make you. I don't think I can inflict it on anyone else because how excited I was about it makes me sound like a total loser.

It is very cloudy and overcast here for months on end in Low COL City, The Upper Midwest, and the librarians at my university told me a couple of weeks ago that everyone here just takes Vitamin D pills all winter. I have no idea whether this will really help or not, but I figured at least it wouldn't be expensive and probably wouldn't give me cancer, so I decided to buy some last Saturday at the grocery store.

The first aisle I checked didn't have Vitamin D on its own, only combined with calcium. I threw it in my cart, but then in the next aisle I found the Vitamin D (on sale! 2 for the price of 1!) and put that in the cart, meaning to return the calcium combo....well, of course I got home and discovered that I'd never taken the calcium out of my cart, and it was $6.50!!!!

Fast forward to today's weekly shopping trip. Not only did I remember to take the calcium and the receipt back so I could get a refund, but here was what I had on my list to purchase:

Sweet potatoes
Sour cream*

This added up to a grand total of.... $6.50 exactly. So basically, I am eating for free this week! And am a gigantic nerd, but who cares, I'm a gigantic nerd with $60 of this week's grocery money left over in a month that I badly need available cash for holiday stuff.

[*I am not eating these four items only this week. I'm trying to use up everything perishable in the house and some of the freezer/pantry stuff too before I leave to see my folks, so I decided to throw a bunch of stuff I already had -- lentils, sausage, tomato paste, carrots, celery, garlic -- in a pot with the sweet potatoes and onion and some water and make soup. It's not bad at all. That takes care of lunch for the week. I also have enough apples left over from last week's purchase to have one for an afternoon snack every day. I'll make a pot of oatmeal (already have everything I need for that) on Sunday night and that's breakfast for the week. I'm going to Christmas parties at least two and possibly three nights this week, so there's not much dinner to worry about, but I have some leftovers and I can always make some ramen or something in a real bind. The sour cream is to make rhubarb muffins to bring to a potluck on Thursday -- I've had the rhubarb frozen since the late summer so it's time to use it. I had all the other ingredients for those in the pantry or fridge. Et voila.]

[ETA: I wrote this post then went out to the farmer's market and spent $2 on kale, $2 on a stocking present for my SIL, $4 on a present for my housemate, and $20 on my brother's birthday present (another vintage book). So now I only have about $30 in my pocket, and I'm probably going to spend it all this week between the $10 admission show I'm going to tonight, postage, and buying daily coffee, but hey, at least I shouldn't have to dip into slush and I can use that for the various expenses I'll have on vacation. And I've now prepaid birthday presents for my mom (February) and brother (April); just need to think of something for my dad, in May, and then nothing to worry about until late fall 2015.]

Friday, December 12, 2014

A very PF-y Christmas :)

This year's Christmas giving is being driven by my usual combination: I estimate (a) how broke I am, (b) how much energy I have to devote to shopping, and then go from there :) Mostly I'm pretty broke (or, as in this year, just not feeling like I've built up enough of a cash cushion to justify spending $$) so in the past I've often made music mixes and sent cards, covering dozens of people for only a couple of hundred dollars while spending a little more on personalized gifts for my immediate family and sometimes a few friends.

This year I allotted $200 of my December spending money to gifts. But I also am using a little bit of my grocery/spending money cash. Since nobody in my family knows I have a blog, here's the final list:

Mom and Dad: $100 gift certificate to a restaurant. They have a ton of stuff and are actively trying to cut down on the number of things in the house. Also, lots of relatives/friends always send nice chocolates at the holidays so they don't need more, and Mom has enough tea and soap and whatnot to last forever. She's hard to buy for. Anyway, I decided to get them an experience rather than a thing this year, and picked a place that sounds exciting and is near where they live.

Brother: A book about our favorite baseball team when we were kids that I bought used for him about six months ago when I saw it, so for these purposes, $0.

Sister-in-law: A 1901 map of Anglo-Saxon England that I found on Etsy. Two sellers turned out to have the exact same map (sliced out of an antique atlas); lucky for me, I noticed this in time and bought the one that was $12, not the one that was $20. With shipping, $16.90.

Goddaughter (age 4): ballet shoes, on sale. With shipping, $17.83.

Godson (age 1): vintage children's book with illustrated "Twas the Night Before Christmas" -- spent $5 of my grocery money this week at a farmer's market stall that has used books. He's too young for this still, but it'll be a cute present that his parents will like and they can read it to him even if it's over his head for the next few years :)

Stocking present, mom: local honey from the farmer's market, spent $4 of my grocery money.

Stocking present, dad: pear butter from the farmer's market, spent $3.50 of my grocery money.

Stocking present, brother: goofy crocheted Christmas ornament: spent $.50 of my grocery money.

Best friend: Donation to Providence House, where I lived as a volunteer for a while in New York and which houses women transitioning out of prison until they can get a stable job and save up for their own apartments: $50.00.

This actually leaves me with a surplus of $15 in my gift category, so I may buy some fancy chocolate after all to give to my SIL in her stocking and to my other best friend. Et voila, Christmas handled!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Still here

I don't use a blog reader or anything, since I am obviously the world's least professional blogger -- I don't even have my own domain! And I don't post on a schedule, or do basically anything to monetize my blog, though it is my dream someone will use one of those capitalone360 affiliate links in the sidebar one day and I'll make $40 off it. :-)

But I've started to notice lately that people I have bookmarked have been absent for a while. Debt Debs, The Intentional Penny, The Barefoot Budgeter...all have been dark since late October with no explanation. Girl Meets Debt, who gave me what amounted to my big break (hee!) by posting a guest interview with me, disappeared about six months ago.

I hope some of the people I'm missing come back! It feels odd to click on their links in my bookmarks and have the last post come up from so long ago, and have no idea where people are and what they're up to and whether or not they're coming back.

And it's equally weird to think how long I've been at this, when I didn't want to pay for a domain back in March because I was afraid I'd get bored with it after a month. It's still motivational, though, and enjoyable, so I keep it up. Maybe I'll do it long enough to become the longest-tenured least professional PF blogger? Who's been around the longest without moving to self-hosted wordpress? I bet I can outlast whoever it is! Now there's a 2015 goal to get me started.... :-)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Wanting more

The thing about the whole pay-off-my-grad-school-debt-in-a-year was driven by the twin feelings of panic (in the months before graduation, when it wasn't at all clear that I was going to get any kind of job at all) and tremendous relief (when I semi-magically landed a one-year job that paid much better than I'd expected to be paid.) I knew, at the moment that I ran the numbers on my new salary vs. my debt, that it was possible to get it done and that I ought to do it in order to avoid future feelings of panic in case I couldn't get a job the following year. I did a couple things right immediately in July 2013: I committed to the goal, and I signed up for so I could get a better handle on what was going on with my spending.

I also did some things wrong: I didn't set a budget that assumed debt came first, to be followed by other urgent priorities (rent payments, buying a car, at least a tiny bit of savings), to be followed by discretionary spending. Instead, I just shopped for food and clothing and furniture and the car on what I felt was an as-needed basis and paid debt out of what was left at the end of the month. This meant that to make my goal, I ended up having to throw crazy percentages of my salary at the debt in the last five months, instead of smoothing out the expenses all along by strictly limiting the discretionary spending.

Now that I'm (mostly) out of debt, though, I'm hoping that I can turn the same wake-up I had in March, to be summarized as "pay yourself first," and apply it to savings -- that $500 a month I talked about in my last post. Because I want to do things, things that can't necessarily be cash-flowed every month. A decent pair of boots (which I want like you wouldn't believe), I could probably cash-flow. Retirement? Having a house I like and furniture I like? A car I find more comfortable and convenient than the one I was able to pay cash for last summer? The ability to travel when I want to? These things will require a long-term attitude towards savings that is like the attitude I developed about the debt towards the end: this is first. Everything else is negotiable.

Man, it would sure help if I made twice as much money, though :-)

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Fidgeting with the EF again (a 2015 goals preview)

I have been bouncing around on what I think about emergency funds all year. I know I want cash savings for car maintenance, for travel, for health stuff, and for general emergencies (which in my case is really only going to mean one thing: I need to make a "career transition" in July 2016, 18 months from now, and will need cash for expenses associated with that.)

For a while I had a goal set at $6000, then I upped it to $10,000 because that sounded like it could realistically cover a *lot* of "career transition," especially when coupled with unemployment ensurance. But I've been thinking about what I want to accomplish financially in 2015, in preparation for setting those goals, and just now I did this:

(Yeah, I included the bottom part of that screencap just so I could bask in having the loans paid off again. Sue me.)

If I save $500 every month from now until I leave this job in July 2016, I will have $10000 in cash by that time. I intend to do this -- it seems like a weirdly miniscule amount for that much work, but I have to keep reminding myself it's in addition to the retirement savings and the cash I'm setting aside monthly for yearly costs of car maintenance, health, travel, etc. We're just talking about medium-term savings here.

I re-set the goal explicitly entitled "Emergency Fund" to $5000, though, not because I plan to blow the other $5000 but because I feel really, really protective and defensive about that EF money. In my head, it's in a glass case marked "Break In Case of Job Loss." That's a good thing, because it means I won't randomly spend it on travel to Europe, but a bad thing, because it means I'm going to resist drawing on it for other long-term goals I need cash for.

So, once I reach that $5000 mark -- I'm estimating August, at $500 a month -- I'm going to stop contributing to that particular targeted savings account and open two others. One will be for "house/car" -- because I'm going to have to get one or both of those at some point, and I don't have anything saved for a down payment, and I figure I really should start -- and the other will be for something I'm going to have to invent a category name for. I'm thinking things like a new laptop, when I need one, or moving expenses. Things that aren't wants, but real needs, but are too big and lump-sum-like to be absorbed into monthly cash flow. The way I used to deal with this stuff is putting it on a credit card and then paying it down, but, well, yeah. Trying to avoid that in the future. So the way I look at it, if I put $250 in each of these accounts monthly after the EF is done, I should have $2500 in the car/house fund and $2500 in the "life expenses"[name TBD when I actually open it] account, assuming, of course, that my laptop doesn't die in that time frame :)

Friday, December 5, 2014

December is going to be so weird financially

Weird enough that you may not get my big New Year's post until mid-January!

--Right now I'm waiting for about $870 in reimbursements from the conference trip I just took, so my numbers look really different than the numbers I reported in my last net worth update, which is unsettling to me even though I know that my numbers are accurate. I hope to get these back in the next couple weeks so I can pay off my credit card before Christmas and not see that little red bar anymore.

--Speaking of which, in theory, I'm paying off my credit card -- actually, I definitely intend to make the last payment on the debt I've been carrying on it. I'm waiting for my statement to hit next week so I can see how many cash-back points I can apply against it, to reduce the amount of $$ I have to use to pay it off.

--But in practice, I can't celebrate that because I'm afraid my medical+travel+gift expenses for December are going to put me right back in the red, so I can't really have a big to-do about being debt-free until I'm sure I'm staying that way.

--Also, my university is switching retirement plan coordinators. Right now, my 403(b) is at Vanguard; in a few weeks, it will be at Fidelity. I'm a little annoyed, because I have my IRA at Vanguard and I like to keep everything under the same roof and Vanguard is a better company, but it shouldn't mater that much: I can keep the same funds (Vanguard lifecycle fund) even with the new administrator, and when I leave this job, sometime in the next 6-18 months, I'll just roll it back over to a Vanguard IRA anyway, so it's not that huge of a deal.

--BUT the point is that it's not actually clear to me that come net worth update time at the end of the month, I'll know how much is actually in my 403(b)! There's a "blackout" period of several weeks, between December 16 and sometime during the week of January 4 depending on how fast stuff happens, during which we can't make any moves, because they're just going to be working on transferring everything over. I'm getting the strong impression from the literature they've handed out that during this time, my account balance will be invisible to me. I really don't like that idea. It's not that I think they're going to lose the cash (PROBABLY), but I like to be able to log in and check my balance, you know? And again, it'll really mess with the net worth update.

Like I said -- nothing's wrong, it's all just weird. It'll be good to get everything hashed out and looking normal in mint, which I guess should happen sometime during the first week of January. Harshing my buzz for a planned new year's post though! Maybe I can make one on January 8 and then backdate it or something :-)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Living on less vs. living well

As you may have noticed, my regular monthly expenses since I moved have dropped dramatically. (And a good thing too, since so did my income; between the lower salary, and aggressively contributing 25% of gross to my 403(b), my take-home pay is only about 55% of what it was. On the other hand, I don't have to pay off student loans with it -- I'm not really living on all that much less than I was before.)

Some of this was really intentional: I gave myself a food budget and have been mostly sticking to it, resisting temptation to buy vast quantities of cheese and take myself out for Vietnamese food when I'm too tired to cook.

Some of it, though, was partly just luck. It's cheaper to register, insure, and maintain my car here. And housing is really inexpensive. I made one big decision, though, that's helped keep it super low: I decided to live with a roommate. I've been paying $300 in rent plus half the electric bill, which has meant that in some months my housing expenses were only in the $325 range. With winter coming on, my December rent/utilities will be up to $350 (gasp!)

However, I needed to find a new roommate for the spring semester -- it's a long story, mostly not bad, just kind of a pain. I went and saw five places, after writing emails to about a dozen people. The first three were totally unworkable, for different reasons, but one of them was tempting, because it would have been very cheap -- just $275 a month including everything, with no electric bill. (The dealbreaker problem there was no real kitchen -- they have a toaster oven, microwave, and mini-fridge, but since a lot of my budget-balancing involves heavy cooking, I didn't think I could handle it. There were other problems in that situation too, though.)

I ended up going with a room that's $400, all-inclusive. So in the winter, it won't be much more than I would have paid here, although an extra $50 a month does add up...still, it feels like quibbling when I compare it to anything I ever paid in New York. My lowest rent there (to share a room) was $600, and that was nearly fifteen years ago, and in a neighborhood a long commute from my job. My highest rent was -- holy Jesus -- $1900, though that was when I was paying the whole rent on a 2-bedroom by myself for a few months when I didn't have a roommate. (This is why I had student loans, folks: I should never have taken that particular apartment. Moment of panic. I should talk about why I did it sometime.)

OK, but this is all a really long way of talking my way around to commenting on the posts about living on 50% of your income (or less) that J. Money and Cait have recently made. In particular, Cait does a thought experiment: What if we'd been told, all our lives, that what we should do was to live on as little as possible and save the rest?

For me, the answer is: I'd have a lot more money. I wasn't encouraged to be a spendthrift or anything, but nobody ever really talked to me about saving in a more than theoretical way. My parents have done pretty well, largely because their salaries got very respectable as they got older and, as many have noted, the period during which they've invested in their retirement accounts has been a very good one for the markets by historical standards. But they've never had a budget and I'm pretty sure have never said things like "I'm going to save 10% of my income" (or 20% or whatever.) They just have income, spend, and save what they don't use.

I always knew saving was something I needed to do at some point, after student loans and grad school, or for certain goals (like when I wanted to quit my first job out of college, I saved like mad for six months so I had enough to live on while I interned.) But the idea that you should save a percentage of whatever came in, even if your overall income was low, was totally new to me, aged 35, when I first started to look into money management earlier this year. Let alone the idea that you should live on as little as possible and bank the rest! In this case, right now, that would have meant I should've taken the $275 option, not the $400 one.

$400 is still a great rent/utilities cost, by American standards, and the room and house are much nicer than the two cheaper options I saw (and also nicer than the two more expensive options I saw!) But part of me is probably going to continue to have a nagging feeling that I should have tried to save the $125/month and live in the $275 place.... Honestly, I'd probably just have ended up spending the savings on getting takeout though. Or at least a big chunk of them. "No real kitchen" is my dealbreaker, it seems.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

November update: even better!

For the first time since I started this whole thing, I didn't end up right against the limits of my budget this month: it was that weird month where, unless it happens in the next twelve hours, nothing will have gone wrong. Looking at my "slush" entries in YNAB, I see a few gifts, a drink out with a friend when I was traveling, a $20 business expense that I can't get reimbursed, and a big household-items Target trip that, even though it's in the slush line item because I put it on a credit card, I actually "paid" for by reducing the amount of cash I took out for general spending and groceries. No major medical expenses, car repairs, non-reimbursible meals out, book purchases, nothin'.

As a result, I'll be able to roll over about $200 of unspent money into next month, which is good because I will definitely have some major expenses in December. I have my annual eye exam (with associated contact lens purchase), I have some Christmas gifts to buy, and either by car or by train (making a decision this week) I have to travel to the east coast and back. Even though I am theoretically getting out of debt this month, with my last regular payment to the credit card debt that I've been carrying since the spring, I'm afraid I'm going to end the month right back in it since my flexible spending cushion is still so low! We'll see, I guess. There's not much I can do about the eye stuff, but obviously I'll try to keep the gift/travel expenses as low as I can, and we'll just see how things go. (I am also reducing my grocery budget for the month because I'll be away for at least a week, so that might help too.)

Anyway, here are the November numbers, NOT including the reimbursible spending I did at the conference I was just at:

(1) I'd been saving up to pay my friends three months' worth of phone service (I'm now on their family plan at $25 a month) and I wrote that check while I was seeing them over Thanksgiving. For some airheaded reason I only had $70 and not $75 (the phone plan is $25 a month for my share) in that budget, hence the slight overage.

(2) I set "cash for spending," "entertainment," "gifts," and "charity" at $0 for the month because, in the first case, I was compensating for what should have been a big cash purchase (household items/grocery Target run) but I put on a credit card instead at the beginning of the month as I hadn't had time to take cash out yet. For the last three, I set them at $0 because I didn't feel like dealing with them this month as separate line items -- I spent in all three categories, actually, but I took them either out of slush or out of my cash withdrawal for the month.

(3) Travel: I bought a train ticket, then moved the excess in that category back into slush to roll over into next month. My other travel expenses this month were either reimbursible, or I was able to pay for them out of the cash I still had left over from groceries.

(4) Personal/medical: a co-pay for a followup visit from the eye infection from last month, plus a co-pay for a prescription medication.

(5) Debt and savings: right where they should be. Still on the slow and steady plan.

I had a post-tax savings rate of just over 50% this month, which is exciting! My income (including the pre-tax retirement withdrawals and the post-tax paychecks) was $3167 and I saved about $1600 of that, give or take a few dollars.

The markets had another ok month, and I moved my Roth IRA from a target date fund to Total Stock Market Index shares. I decided to keep the 403(b) in the target date fund, so I will still have some bonds and international stock in there, but I wanted to be more aggressive with the Roth. I have no plans to do anything more with it except let it sit there for the next thirty years (and feed it money when I can, obviously.)

The upshot of all of this is that, as best as I can tell (I did some math to remove reimbursibles etc from the equation) I now have a net worth of $12630, up from $10352 last month, a difference of $2278. This makes me super happy, as my stretch goal is to average a $2000 net worth gain per month over the course of the year -- and I'll have some months that don't get to $2000 so I need some of these really good months to smooth it out! Last month was also good on this front (due more to the markets than anything else) so I'll hopefully feel a bit better if, as I expect, December turns out to be a high-spending month and I don't make my $2000 goal.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Why track?

Alicia got me thinking again, as she often does: why do I like to track spending? I don't do it down to the penny, although I might try that for a month this year just to see if it's more valuable to me than I think it would be. But I do it in a general way, keeping track via YNAB (affiliate link with $6 discount) and I have found it helpful.

The major reason people usually give for tracking is to discover where the "leaks" are in their household spending. I think a lot of people are stunned to find out how much they've been spending on groceries or coffee or what have you. But I've been pretty strictly limiting myself to a set amount of food/incidentals cash for months now, and don't feel the need to drill down into the specifics of it as long as I keep to the right amount of cash.

Personally, I've found tracking helpful for two reasons. The first is that it got me to focus on some of my bills that I knew were too big (cell phone, specifically) and really look at how much they were draining from my potential free-spend money or savings.

The second is that I learned that there is no such thing as a normal week or month. Pretty much every single month, something has come up. Medical co-pays, computer repair, car repair, the books I needed to buy for class, a plane ticket, meals out while I'm traveling, a gift or three.... The reason changes every month, but the result is almost always the same: I find myself right up against the limit of my budget, or even dipping into next month's money. (This is after I hit my very aggressive savings targets; my salary is very reasonable for a single person in a low cost of living town, and if I weren't having so much withheld for retirement and put straight to debt/emergency fund/travel savings accounts, I would have plenty left over every month.)

When I first started tracking earlier this year, I felt like I spent a lot of time saying "this is unusual, this is a one-time thing," but now I've said that, or variations on it, so often, that I just have to give up: there will almost always be something. The months where there's something actually left over (looking like November will be one of them, unless something goes dramatically wrong in the next three days) are going to be rare. So the lesson I've drawn from tracking over the course of eight months is really just that old chestnut: save as much as you can in advance because you're going to have rain, every month. A normal month is a month with unexpected expenses; it's the smooth-sailing months that are weird and rare. To me that's a useful enough takeaway to have made the whole enterprise worth it.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


Hey folks, sorry for the relative silence. I've been attending a big conference and visiting with some of my closest friends for Thanksgiving (they live near enough to where I was going already that it was easy to stay around for the week instead of going right back home.)

This trip is making me super grateful to my employers. By the time I add up plane ticket, hotel (I shared with a friend, but still), and eating out three meals a day, the bill's going to be in the vicinity of $1000, and they are paying for it all. (Not the expenses associated with staying with my friends! But I just had to buy a $50 train ticket for that part.)

I'm having a quiet evening -- after a full day of cooking, eating, and cleaning that started at 7 am, I sent my friends out to see a movie a couple of hours ago, and put their kid to bed. Now I'm basically just keeping an ear out for her and relaxing. It's been a really tough few years for me in a lot of ways, and it's setting up to be a tough few years going forward, but I'm taking this moment to be thankful for what I've got: a small but close-knit family, friends and godchildren I adore, meaningful work, and a bank balance that's steadily growing, not declining. As a longstanding radical hippie communist Christian socialist (I'm half-joking, half-not), I feel a little strange about that last line item. I'm not sure it's right to enjoy watching my net worth climb as much as I have this year. But it's true: as I get older, headed into the second half of my 30s, I increasingly want a little more security, a little more stability. I want to be protected in case of emergency, without having to turn to my parents, who've already given me so much (and I'm too freaking old to be asking my parents for money!) So, yes, I'm thankful for that, and for those of you who've been kind enough to share some of this year's journey with me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


This great post at Messy Money inspired me to put down a few holiday-related thoughts.

I used to love Christmas -- the tree, the gifts, the decorating, did I mention the gifts.... But I've actually been struggling with it for a while now. My mom (who I adore) wants to do a ton of decorating, but I just don't usually have the energy for it; the amount she wants to do doesn't seem worthwhile. I wish we had one box of ornaments and a creche, you know?

On top of that, since it's the one time of year my brother and I are home together, there are usually a million social activities scheduled -- there have been years when we've either had people over for dinner, or gone out to someone else's, every night for a week. As I get a little older and my friends start to have kids I understand better why this has to happen and am more motivated to be cheerful about it (when I'm in my sixties, I definitely will really want to see my friends' kids in their thirties) but for an introvert like me, it's just a lot.

Christmas also makes me feel kind of adrift and out of sync. I'm the most seriously religious person in either my immediate and extended family or our extended friend group in my home town. By a LOT. For almost everyone, it's a mostly secular holiday. My mom and brother do want to go to church, but I still feel weird. Easter is usually much better for me since I don't go home for it; I get to spend it with people who I'm more in tune with, religiously speaking. (Let me be clear, I love all the people I get to see when I'm home at Christmas -- it just feels bizarre since I feel like I ought to be having a spiritual experience but I never am because the atmosphere is so secular. If it wouldn't hurt my mom's feelings so much--she loves Christmas stuff--I'd say let's just do a trip home in August and see all these people and forget about Christmas!)

Plus, since this is a PF blog: money. I buy very few gifts, generally. Dad, mom, brother, brother's wife, a couple of friends, two godchildren. Some years I've sent cards to a greatly expanded list, but this is not going to be one of those years; just don't have the energy. I have a book for my brother already, and I'll probably spend $100 on a gift certificate to a restaurant for my parents, who really don't need any more stuff. My godson is too little for gifts (he's just over a year) and my goddaughter is getting an Advent calendar next week when I visit them, plus she'll get a birthday present from me in January (probably a book); I think that's enough. That leaves my two friends and my sister-in-law; need to look for some pretty earrings or something, and I think then I can call it a day on presents. But this still seems like a bit of a stretch, somehow. I so hope I can get through to next December with substantially fuller finances and the ability to do some nicer gifts without pushing. That's the one part of the holiday I genuinely like -- I totally enjoy shopping for gifts and I'd like to be able to send them to more people -- I just want to be able to do it without feeling like I'm then going to be paying down my credit card for the next four months!

Saturday, November 15, 2014


So, my budget is looking really good right now for this month -- it's the first time in months that I haven't spent on health care, the car, or any large random things. I've also, so far, stuck close to home, and kept spending on food low. As a result I still have about $175 in my discretionary slush fund, not counting the $150 I'm setting aside in sinking funds for health and repairs/maintenance, the contributions to my e-fund and travel fund, and also not counting the grocery money I still have in cash.

I'm a little worried that all these positive budgetary feelings are going to drain away by the end of the trip I'm taking during the last week of the month though :) It's half a work trip and half to see friends in the area for Thanksgiving. Work is paying for my plane ticket, hotel room, conference fees, and meals during the three days I'm at the conference; I'm paying for...whatever happens during the Tuesday-Friday Thanksgiving portion of the trip.

Luckily, my friends have a toddler, so it's unlikely that there'll be major entertainment expenses -- we won't go out to have drinks, or see a show, or whatever. It's likely to just be a bunch of hanging around and cooking. So I'm hoping I can keep my financial outlay to a contribution to the grocery shopping. In the best of all possible worlds I could even do it from my grocery cash, and not have to go into the slush fund at all! But I have a sinking feeling things are not going to be quite so easy. What I especially want to try to do is plan ahead for travel meals; if I can pack enough food to eat while I'm flying across the country, and not end up buying stuff in airports, that should help a lot, because it's just crazy how much I always end up spending when I have long flights and layovers. (And by crazy I mean, like, $10-20 on a meal or something, but it ticks me off because I always think, you know, if I were at home, this meal would be costing me more like $2.... and it adds up.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The total weirdness of the academic job market

[I decided this morning that maybe writing up details about interviews, even as generically as I tried to do it, wasn't maybe the greatest idea in the world. So I'm removing the text I wrote but leaving the post so I can respond to comments.

To sum up: I have several interviews for full-time jobs in my field; they would pay very differently, in ways that would affect my finances for obvious reasons; I would rather get one of the ones with a better salary. Heh.]

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Let's talk about my retirement account

OK, the oatmeal post was surprisingly popular. I didn't think anyone would get past the first paragraph :)

I have a decision to make that's a little more consequential than breakfast, though. My university is changing retirement plan administrators, and in the next month I have the opportunity to either do nothing (in which case, all my normal retirement contributions will keep going to a Vanguard lifecycle fund, which is a fund of funds that includes U.S. stocks, international stocks, and 10% domestic and international bonds) or do something (in which case, I'd likely pick out an index fund, probably one that mirrors the S&P 500 or the NASDAQ.) I'm far enough from retirement that I don't know that I really care about having *any* bonds in my portfolio -- I don't really need the stability right now, I think?

When I first opened my IRA, I basically had no choice -- I only had $2000, so the only thing I could do was invest in a lifecycle fund, which had a $1000 minimum as opposed to the $3000 minimums for other stuff.

I know, recency bias, but I keep looking at this mint chart, which shows how my lifecycle funds are doing relative to the NASDAQ (hint: not great):

Under no circumstances am I going to start trying to pick individual stocks, or move investments around on a regular basis -- I definitely want to set it and forget it. The question is what kind of index fund do I set it and forget it in? And since the university is making me make a decision right now, I feel like I should try to get some advice and make one. What would you do?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Let's talk about oatmeal

That's everyone's favorite topic, isn't it?


OK, fine, you don't have to read it, but I am bound and determined to write about oatmeal this morning.

We were never a hot-breakfast family when I was growing up. My dad left for work really early -- until high school, when I started having to leave early too (I had an hour commute by public transportation) I rarely saw him in the morning. He would get up and drink coffee, and I know he sometimes made himself scrambled eggs because I do remember a few mornings when I was really little when I'd happen to be awake and I'd sit on his lap in my pajamas and get a bite :) But my mom and brother and me would eat cereal, basically. In high school I sometimes did that, but I'd also get Pop Tarts onto the grocery list and often grab one on my way out the door to eat cold while I walked to the train (seriously. Seriously. My life skills needed improving, let's just say.) Even on the weekends, we'd have pancakes maybe three times a year or something, but mostly it was cereal.

In college I rarely ate breakfast, and when I did make it to the dining hall it was, again, usually cereal, sometimes a bagel. Same thing after college: cereal at home, or I'd buy a bagel or a donut on my way into work. In my mid-20s I decided it was time to lose some weight, and I saw a nutritionist who told me that I wasn't eating *enough* -- my body was in some kind of mild starvation mode so it was hanging onto everything. We made a plan, and for a year or so I was making a shake that involved soy milk and fruit and drinking that first thing, then an hour or so later I'd have some toast.

I don't know how I got onto the oatmeal thing. Sometime in the last few years, I realized that except in hot weather, I just prefer hot meals -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- whenever possible. Sometimes that just means toast, but I really like oatmeal, which I make with dried fruit (raisins or cranberries, usually, sometimes blueberries if I can afford them), nuts (pecans or walnuts), and brown sugar.

The problem with oatmeal is (I always thought it meant) morning cooking. It doesn't take forever -- I used to use the 5-minute rolled oats -- but for even more boring complicated reasons I often prefer to wait to eat breakfast until I'm actually at the office, and blah blah blah, long story, even though I wanted to eat more oatmeal I was having trouble fitting into my schedule.

Then I discovered steel-cut oats. (The link sends you to some representative ones on amazon, but whatever, you can buy them at the grocery store and it doesn't really matter what brand, they're all pretty much the same. Avoid McCann's, the ones that come in the pretty canister: they're super expensive. Last year, there was someone who sold wholesale sacks of them at the farmer's market, 3 lbs for about $3, and I'd buy a bag every six weeks or so.)

OK, steel-cut oats are magic if you are me, because (a) they are more filling than rolled oats and (b) you can reheat them in the microwave for up to a week and they still taste good. This discovery absolutely blew my mind, because it means that I can make a pot on Sunday night and stick it in the fridge. Then all I have to do is pack some up in the morning, stick them in my bag, and when I get to work I throw them in the microwave for however long and I can eat a delicious, filling, hot breakfast that gets me through pretty much the entire morning (I usually still get hungry around 11 or 11:30, at which point I either stop and have an early lunch, or have a snack, depending on what I've packed.)

Did you see the part above where at some farmer's markets you can get six weeks' worth for $3?

OK, breakfast does cost me more than that, because I believe in making oatmeal a little more exciting with fruit, nuts, and sweetener (brown sugar or maple syrup or whatever), but still.

Oatmeal -- by which I mean made-ahead steel-cut oats -- is magic.

Friday, October 31, 2014

October Review: Not Too Bad!

This turned into a good month for my retirement accounts; after sliiiiiiiiiiding to the point where I lost all my gains for the year and then some, they rebounded pretty nicely.

As a result of both that, and it being a reasonable month for expenditures in other areas, I did in fact break the $10,000 mark in net worth! I knew this was a possibility, but everything was going to have to break exactly right: no major unexpected expenses, and the markets were gonna have to do the right thing. So I was trying not to get too excited, and conservatively estimating that I'd do it with my mid-November paycheck instead.

But here we are! Cool. It feels good. Next goal: $20,000! Again, if everything breaks exactly right, I could do that in time for my 1-year blogging anniversary at the end of March. It might not happen, but it could! Let's call it my stretch goal.

The numbers, and then some commentary:

-- I went a bit over in the food category, using all the cash for the month that I took out, but also paying for a few quick meals (sandwiches, that kind of thing) on the credit card. 

--"Repairs & Maintenance" is a new category in my budget. I'm going to try to sock away a little money there every month; this month, I needed to buy and install a new car battery, and get a new touchscreen for my ipad after I dropped it and the glass shattered. I thought I'd budgeted for both things, out of "slush" and from a freelance check I had coming in, but the battery ended up being a little more expensive than I thought, so I went over by $16 there.

--I was able to reassign money from "slush" to cover those expenses and most of the two trips I took, one to Chicago and one to visit a friend about a six-hour drive away. But I couldn't quite cash-flow both of them, so I ended up moving money out of my travel savings. I got a little confused about what exactly the numbers were on that travel savings account since I moved money in and out of it multiple times for multiple reasons, so I decided not to bother trying to figure out what exact final deal was -- hence the two places where I have question marks.

--Also notable, I got a reimbursement check for $155; since what I was being reimbursed for was an expense I'd put on my credit card back in January (long story why it took so long) and had been counting as part of my debt, I therefore made a higher than planned debt payment; instead of just the $450 from my paycheck, I paid down $605 of credit card debt.

Which leads me to the stirring conclusion: as of midnight on October 31, I have $737-ish of credit card debt, sizable increases in both my IRA and 403(b) accounts, and the drop I noted yesterday in my emergency and travel funds because I raided them to buy more IRA shares. The end result:

Net worth of $10,352, which is up $2840.00 from last month! 

This is a really, really big net worth increase, much better than I would normally expect to do. The combination of receving the freelance and reimbursement checks, the markets doing bad things at the end of last month and good things this month, and overall mostly sticking to the budget in other areas, all pushed me this far. Cool.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sticking to the Plan Is Hard For Me

I didn't write about this at the time because I was in the middle of a crazy run of work/travel stuff that ate up the entire middle of this month, but in a quiet moment before an end of the month post, I wanted to talk about a financial move I made a couple of weeks ago.

From a net worth perspective the end of the month is looking good -- I'll save the details for the wrapup post -- but things have moved around some. When the markets were tanking, I took $500 out of my emergency fund and $200 out of my travel savings fund and put it into my Roth IRA, along with another $100 I had already earmarked for the IRA. So, instead of being at $1000 (as planned) my emergency fund will end the month at $500, and I won't have as much available for my spring break trip.

I don't think this was a really bad move; I didn't *quite* manage to catch the bottom of the market (it fell for two more days after I made the move) but overall, I'm pleased to have made a contribution to that account, which I hadn't done in a while (extra income's kind of dried up around here and I'm mostly working with my paychecks right now) and to hopefully harvest some buy-low gains. I'm also not super concerned about the emergency fund as such; it should be up to $7000 by the end of 2015 easily if I stick to the plan and, you know, don't have any emergencies.

I guess what worries me is that I'm still not very good at slow and steady. I've always been a boom and bust person financially, great at going short sprints in both spending and paying off debt and even saving, but I don't really like the patient "allocate $50 a month to this account and build it up over time" thing. I've been having a really hard time not just paying off my credit card with what was accumulating in the savings funds, for example. All the time I look at and think "I could just be done with that!" But that would really drain my tiny-again savings accounts now.

And I have to be careful, because I need to think about having available cash. One of the things I like about the retirement funds is just that they are locked up -- I won't ever access them until I'm, you know, retired. I'd never take out money from them for any other reason; in the event of long-term unemployment, catastrophic debt, etc, I'd certainly declare bankruptcy before drawing from them. They are untouchable for the next thirty years or so. This makes me really want to put money into them so it's "safe."

But I have other goals besides retirement. I might need money for a down payment (on an apartment, if not a house) or to buy a new car or for whatever, you know? I can't just throw every spare penny to retirement; I need to build up significant cash reserves. (It sucks that interest rates on savings accounts are so low.)

I don't know what to do about this, exactly, except be more aware of it and try harder to enjoy funneling small amounts of money to different places instead of making big splashy moves.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Latte Factor, reenvisioned

I just baked some cookies, and as I cleaned up -- by which I mean, I crumpled up the parchment paper I'd lined the cookie sheet with, put it in the trash, and put the cookie sheet away -- it occurred to me that using parchment paper to bake cookies with may be the least frugal thing I do on a regular basis. You don't need it -- you could just, you know, put the cookie dough on the tray, bake the cookies, then wash the tray -- and it costs a few dollars a roll, and I go through maybe $10 or $15 worth of it in a year. (I bake a lot of cookies, and also use it to line cake pans sometimes.)

It doesn't really bug me that much, but I notice it as something I spend money on that is definitely a convenience and not a "need." Do you have something similar in your life?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Interview + Murphy

Thanks very much to Brian of Debt Discipline, who's featuring me today in his blogger interview series. Brian recently paid off all his debt -- woohoo! -- so I think we can agree he's hella cool. And he was kind enough to wait a couple of weeks for me to answer the questions, too, after some life intervened in the form of conference travel, that head cold, and my favorite baseball team doing unexpectedly well in the playoffs :)

Other than that, things are going ok, except I'd like to know why Murphy-ish stuff always waits til the very end of the month, right when you think you're gonna make your budget, to start happening. Last month it was the news I needed a new car battery (an expense I actually kicked over to October, but still); this month, all hope of having to avoid the travel fund for this weekend's trip died when I had to make a bunch of last-minute medical co-pays and my EZPass auto-renewed. Oh well, it could be worse. But next time you show up, Murph, how about doing it at the beginning of the month when I have more room to maneuver?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mid-month check-in

Thanks to everyone who commented on my last post -- it took WAY longer than usual to reply, but I've now done that.

The reason is that I've been traveling for work again; just got home after a jam-packed three days. And of course I just lost the battle to fend off a full-blown cold, so I dragged myself to the grocery store this morning, but intend to spend most of the rest of the day in bed. It's just a cold, but I'm all stuffy and feel awful. Blech.

I find this grocery list hilarious, because -- what?! -- but I'm only in town for a few days until I leave again on Thursday evening, and I have leftovers to eat too, so I just got a few items.

Timer (mine fell off the fridge and broke last week): $5.99
Sweet potatoes: $2.14
Broccoli: $1.99
Raisins: $3.29
Cheese: $13.96 [The brand of cheddar cheese I like, Cabot, is super expensive out here, but it lasts forever if you keep it unopened in the fridge, so I keep an eye out for sales, which usually come along every couple of months, and stock up. I bought four 8-oz bars today, paying $3.49 each and saving a total of $9 off the regular price]

Total with tax: $28.00

I also bought three boxes of tissues, for $1.00 each (Kleenex were on sale, score) but those come out of our shared household budget, not the grocery money.

Overall, I'm doing ok on the month. I have a little over $50 in cash to buy groceries and food next weekend (to cover the last week of the month) and about $80 left in "slush." The possible down side here is that next weekend's trip is going to involve 12 hours of driving, which is a lot of gas; I'd like to cover this out of the month's budget without having to dip into the travel fund for two months in a row, but I guess we'll see.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How on earth are people doing this?

This is a topic I've touched on before, so bear with me if you're a regular reader, but I'm astonished all over again.

The median family income -- not for an individual, but a family -- in the United States in 2013 was $51,939.

My personal income -- just for me -- in my current job (alas, old overpaid-for-my-field job, I miss you!) is $47,500.

So I make about $4500 below the median income. That's probably a take-home pay differential of, say, $3000/year. While I could certainly put an extra $250 a month to some use, it wouldn't pay for a spouse and children, that's for sure.

And I'm using every penny. Granted I'm putting a lot towards retirement savings. But in theory we all have to do that, especially those of us starting late (as I'm sure most people at or below the median are.) Rent, food, car expenses, it just...adds up.

I'm fine -- I can definitely live decently on this amount of money, though God knows I'd rather have more so I could travel more freely to see my friends, or save up for a house -- but I just don't know how families are getting by.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

My transformation into my grandmother is 90% complete

So I guess the really big news today is I logged into my credit card account this morning and found that someone had made $400 of unauthorized charges that were all still marked "pending." I called the company up and canceled the card, of course, so it should hopefully be low-drama and end there.

But what I actually want to talk about is my trip to the grocery store today. I've got some leftovers and we're planning to use some stuff from the meat CSA to make spaghetti and meatballs tomorrow night, plus I'm on another trip to Chicago from Thurs-Sat, so I didn't want to get too much. But I did need to replace my vanilla, having used the last of it to make my housemate's birthday cake yesterday. (It was delicious, in case you were wondering.)

Now vanilla is expensive. I got to the right aisle and started scanning the per-oz price (something I've been doing a lot lately) only to be stopped in my tracks by a special: store-brand organic vanilla extract, 2 2-oz bottles for $5. This is insanely cheap; the other kind of organic vanilla extract was more than twice as much. Naturally everyone else had already noticed this so the shelf was empty.

Old me: sighs and buys McCormick's vanilla for $5 for a 2-oz bottle.

New me: tracks down a store associate and asks if they'll see if what I want is in stock. Answer: no, "but we can substitute." So I ended up getting regular (not organic -- but real, which is what I actually cared about) vanilla extract, 2 2-oz bottles for $5. Again, an insanely good price.

Then I got home and laughed at myself, because this is the kind of thing my grandmother of blessed memory would have bragged about for at least a month while teenage me tried not to roll my eyes. Maybe more. I miss her.

So, here's my grocery bill for the week:

Parsley, $0.79
28 oz crushed tomatoes, $1.59
28 oz diced tomatoes, $1.59
Organic kale, $1.99
Vanilla extract (YEAH BABY), $5.00
Onion powder, $3.29
Loaf of bread, $4.75
2 chocolate bars to take to work for afternoon snacks, $5.00

Grand total with tax, $24.35

Basically, the food plan for the week is: spaghetti and meatballs (hence the tomatoes, kale, bread (for breadcrumbs) and parsley, to go along with meat, parmesan, eggs, and whatnot we already have), plus a leftover lentil stew thing, plus some combinations of eggs and toast and peanut butter sandwiches and whatever the hell else, because we only have four days to cover until I go to Chicago on Thursday morning.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Yeah, I'm keeping the car

When I look back at my last year, aside from paying down debt and paying rent, my single biggest expense, by far, has been my car. I paid $4000 for it to a friend of mine, and registration, taxes, maintenance, and parts (oil changes, new battery this month, new muffler last winter) are in the vicinity of $1000, give or take a hundred bucks. Plus every month I pay a minimum of $100 in insurance and gas; my guess, although it really is only a guess, is that I've spent more like about $2000 on gas/insurance in the last thirteen months.

So basically what we're saying here is that I could have, roughly, $7000 more in the bank right now if I'd resigned myself to biking/walking everywhere (plus I'd be in better shape). Or maybe $5000 if I'd rented a car every time I needed to make an out of town trip and bought bus tickets for local transportation.

Part of me is saying to myself: "if you really wanted to be financially sound, you wouldn't have bought the car until you were more solvent, or better yet, you'd never have a car at all."

And the rest of me, by far the biggest part, is saying: I love having a car. Actually, I don't love my specific car; it's a 2-door, which I don't like, and I'd prefer to be a little higher up than my tiny low-slung sedan lets me be. But it's fine as a car, and it's more the principle of the thing: at age 35, I love having a car. I love that I'm killing my back less by hauling around groceries and books and whatever else. I love that taking an out of town trip doesn't involve a ton of logistics around getting to the rental place, doing paperwork, blah blah. I love that it's easy to get out to pick apples or hike or whatever. I lived in New York for 11 years. I went hiking in a state park in New Jersey once, because it was so complicated and expensive to get out there. I don't have to beg and borrow when I need to transport boxes (I used to spend a lot of time in NY trying to figure out who I knew who had a car that I might be able to borrow for whatever.)

Mostly, though, I really love the feeling of security it gives me. If things go south with my job or my housing situation, I can carry more with me than a suitcase and a backpack. I can get to friends or family in other cities. Dealing with disaster is infinitely easier when you have a car. Even if there's nothing dramatic, I'm still going to be moving again in the near future; I don't have to entrust all my most valuables to movers; I can pack them in my car, like I did the last time. It is just so much easier.

So I guess it's worth the constant ongoing costs, to me.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

End of September Update

Another month gone! Progress, progress, progress (mostly.)

It was a reasonably successful month; I'm ending it about where I'd hoped I would be in terms of spending, but I didn't get there quite in the way I expected to. Also, the markets took a tumble towards the end of the month, which is kind of depressing in terms of my net worth numbers, but I don't have any control over that, so not much to do but shrug and keep on keepin' on.

Here's my expected/actual budget numbers for the month:

Some notes:
1. The food budget there is ridiculous. What happened: my roommate and I bought a share in a meat CSA, for $140 each. We get five months' worth of local, ethically raised meat (chicken, beef, and pork.) It's a little expensive, but she wanted to do it and I thought I could afford it. So there was that. But then I also went overboard on buying coffees and snacks this month; in October, one of my goals is to meal-plan better so that I have afternoon snacks to bring with me to work rather than caving and buying stuff at work.

2. But that was mitigated by the fact that two major expenses I was expecting to materialize, didn't. I'd been saving up for a big utility bill (I need to pay the entire summer's electric bill) and it turns out I didn't need to -- I had $200 budgeted for it and only needed $80. Then, I had $90 in the budget because I was expecting to need to pay a final phone bill on my old plan, and maybe also pay for the first month on my new plan. But it turned out that I was paying ahead on my phone plan (who knew?), and I won't have to pay for the new one til next month. So, great.

3. I moved most of the savings from #2 into "slush" where it ended up covering even more food (see above), entertainment, and charity expenses.

4. Medical: That's the dentist's bill for a cavity I had filled, plus a couple of co-pays for doctor's visits and prescriptions.

5. Travel: I took a weekend trip to Chicago at the end of the month. I was able to cover some expenses out of slush, but didn't have quite enough, so I'm withdrawing a little from my travel account to cover the rest.

6. I also almost had to blow both my travel and e-funds right at the end of the month even though I've only just gotten them started! My closest friend had a family emergency that I nearly flew out for, but that ended up not happening. And I dropped my ipad and cracked the glass, making it unusable. However, I have a small freelance check coming in early next month that will cover the ipad repair, so even though I'd rather be putting that money in my IRA, I guess it's good that I don't have slow down my credit card repayment.

Like I said, the markets dropped a bunch -- I lost pretty close to $200 in my retirement accounts, which kept me much further from my net worth target than I wanted to be. But c'est la vie. I still made decent progress, and barring a total October-1929-style event, I should be on track to hit $10K in net worth in November, and to pay off the last of my credit card debt in December.

How'd y'all do in September?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


I'm at six months today!

Here is my first post, and here is my second, which I'm still pretty pleased with. The metaphor seems apt.

A couple of weeks after I started, I made a guest post on Girl Meets Debt, one of the first PF blogs I found. That was when the first people who weren't me read the blog :) Maybe I'll celebrate six months by finally getting a twitter account and trying to raise my profile slightly? But I really am grateful for everyone who has been reading and keeping me on track. It is way more fun to think about this out loud with an audience!

I've made a lot of financial progress since I started the blog. My retirement account has grown and my debt has dropped. I've gone from negative net worth to a number that is steadily climbing towards 5 digits, even with my various small missteps (still too many coffee purchases) and murphy-ish events (I need a new car battery.) But more than just the progress by the numbers, I feel like I've gotten a much greater sense of control and planning out of this, and that's been really important to me.

So, thanks again, everyone who is reading this, and also thanks to everyone who blogs themselves -- you all make me feel like I've got companions on the journey.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

FFFFollowup #3

This is going to be kind of a weird week/end of the month -- I'm doing a little traveling, and a bunch of transactions are processing their way through the system so my end of the month update will probably be a bit late as I wait for everything to go through so I can get a more realistic picture. However! For now:

A couple more FFF questions:

The Intentional Penny wanted to know "how did it feel to knock out that student loan debt?"

Short answer: Really, really, really good. :) Longer answer: It was a big relief. I've been talking all along about my unstable job situation; it's year to year for the moment, and while I'm now pretty confident that I'll be able to keep doing that as long as I need to, it was something that initially really scared me. It took me until right before I graduated to land my first post-grad school job, and for a while there it was looking like I wouldn't get one at all (let alone one that ended up paying me as much as that one did.) So, I was facing unemployment with $19K in loans, which was not a good feeling at all. 

Paying them off fast became a really high priority for me because of that. Now, no matter what happens with my career, at least I'm not going to be also in debt. It makes situations like an extended period of un or under employment more feasible, because I can go to my break-the-glass emergency plan (move in with parents) and just have to deal with a few small immediate expenses, like my car insurance. So mostly what being out of debt provides is a much better sense of security. It rocks.

Debt Debs (orchestrator of the whole thing! Thanks!) wanted to know "Why did you move to the MidWest? What do you like about it there and what do you not like?"

I moved for a job, but I'd spent some time in this particular city before. What I like: it's wayyyyy cheaper than the big coastal cities where I've lived before. It's also quieter. Even Chicago feels much more chill, less crowded, less loud and overwhelming, than New York -- let alone the much smaller city where I actually live. As I get a little older I get more low-key, so that suits me! I also like the strong sense of regional identity and cohesiveness; people here want to support their communities in various ways, buying local food, going to see local artists, etc. What I don't like -- well, the persistent and generally unacknowledged racism bothers me. There's a bit of a superiority complex (but God knows the coastal cities have that too! I guess all places are a little smug about how awesome they are.) THE WINTER WEATHER. And finally, my closest friends and family are all far away, some on the east coast and some on the west. I do have a good support system and group of friends here -- they're just not my absolute closest. So that's something that's bothersome. But basically I do like it here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wednesday Food Post + FFFFollowup #2

Conveniently, Huy Tran wanted to know, "Where/how did you learn how to cook? Are your parents good cooks or was it more of something you learned on your own?"

Kind of a combination. My parents are both decent cooks, although I recently realized that my mom doesn't like it or really care that much. She likes to eat, but she'd much rather have someone else cook, whether that's me, my dad, a restaurant, or a frozen dinner. Anyway, they always made dinner from scratch when I was growing up; not many convenience foods, although they mostly did use frozen instead of fresh vegetables.

I still mostly taught myself, though, out of cookbooks. I've picked up a few techniques from my parents, but I don't cook like them at all. They tend to be "meat, vegetable, starch" people, for a variety of reasons, whereas I don't eat much meat and I like one-pot meals that hold up well to multiple meals over the course of a week. So my cooking style has developed and evolved in conversation with cookbooks and blogs more than with my family.

I did a lot better on the shopping front last weekend, which is good because I'm trying to conserve a little cash to get me through the last weekend of the month before my budget resets. Here's what I bought:

Grocery store:
Farro -- $5.09
Marinated artichoke hearts -- $2.09
Chocolate bar -- $2.89
Butternut squash -- $2.18
Garlic -- $.39
Red onion -- $.73
Yellow onions -- $.43
3 lbs apples -- $2.99
Red pepper -- $.34
Milk -- $1.59
Feta cheese -- $1.54

Grocery store total with tax: $20.20

Farmer's market:
Yukon gold potato: $1.50
Plums: $4.00

Total shopping: $25.70

Using these along with pre-existing pantry items (eggs, pumpkin seeds, and stuff like flour and sugar) I made:

--Butternut squash, farro, and feta salad with pepitas to take to work for lunch (4 servings)
--A potato, red pepper, and artichoke tortilla to take to work for breakfast (4 servings)
--and an olive oil plum cake for snacks and desserts.

As you might be able to tell, I use Smitten Kitchen a LOT. I find that her tastes and style vibes with mine pretty well. The squash/farro salad is in the regular rotation for my take-to-work lunches, and I've made the tortilla before too. It's a fair amount of work/dishes the way that I made it (sauteing a red pepper rather than using one from a jar, and having to boil a potato just for this rather than using a leftover) but I'm trying to have breakfasts that have more protein and oomph in them, because I've been getting hungry too early in the day lately.

The plum cake, I can't really recommend. It's edible, but it's just not that great; the plums taste slightly medicinal and the cake itself is a little stiff and dry.

I have several dinners I have to go to for work this week, so I just decided to have cheese sandwiches and apples for dinner the other nights, which since I already had bread and cheese decomplicated that part of the shopping trip.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Frugal Fincon Followup #1

Whew, that turned out to be an unexpectedly crazy weekend (in a good way -- I was just verrrrrrrry busy with my social life.) But I'm looking forward to making a few posts over the next couple of weeks that answer the questions y'all asked!

First off, Femme Frugality wanted to know where I worked as a historian. Which, actually, I can't say :) Not that my cloak of anonymity is that dense or anything, but I want to stay a little less google-able than I would be if I mentioned my employer or exact field within history. Let's just say that I currently work at a large and very recognizable midwestern university. Like a lot of other young academics, I'm currently caught up in the de-permanentization of university teaching jobs; my particular field has been especially hard hit by the financial crisis. (Of the six people I know in my subfield that have left their jobs in the last few years, none have been replaced. It looked like there was going to be an opening this year...and then the dean of that university decided they couldn't justify a new hire after all because of X reasons and.... Well.) So, for the moment, I'm going on one-year contracts. Pretty soon I'll either get a permanent job in my field (not that likely!) or give up and look for something related to do. What might that be? Well, I have some ideas, but I'm not totally sure. :) It's one reason why I want to focus on various kinds of savings right now -- a retirement fund so that it can grow even if I can't contribute for a while, and an emergency fund that I could draw on for some expenses if I need some transitional months.

Oooof, that was a depressing answer. I work...but maybe not for long. However, I'm trying to stay fairly cheerful about it, recognizing that I have strong skills and a decent network of contacts; I'll never be rich, but I think I'll probably manage all right no matter what.

Following up on that question, Brooke & Genevieve from PFTwins wanted to know why I wanted to get a PhD and whether I thought it was worth it. The first part of that is relatively easy to answer -- I knew I was really good at scholarship, better than I was at anything else. And I thought I'd be good at teaching. I chose my particular field because of personal interest, but the general idea of going into academia came first. Whether it was worth, probably not. Don't get me wrong, I really like what I do, and I am indeed good at it. But 7-8 years for a combined master's and PhD is just too much time to spend being miserably underpaid and with so much uncertainty at the end of it. That was hard for me to recognize in my early 20s when I decided to go; I was interested in serving humanity, you know? And I still am. But I also feel that 25-year-olds are ill-equipped to understand what it will really mean, to try to change fields in their mid-30s. When I was 25, I'd already had jobs in about four separate professional fields (this isn't counting stuff like babysitting and retail.) Switching often seemed normal. It gets a lot harder to do that later on, and I really just don't think someone in their early-mid 20s can understand that in their bones. So: I'm really proud of the dissertation I wrote (that hopefully will be a book in the next couple of years) and of the classes I've taught, the students I've helped, and I guess it was worth it in that sense, but in the sense of being a stepping stone to an actual career, nah. Should've opened a fancy coffeeshop and served homemade pastries instead :)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Frugal Fincon Fiesta: Ask Me Anything! + Versatile Blogger Award

...ok, wait a minute, let's have a little more fun with this...

That's better :) I am a last-minute participant in Debt Debs' blog-hop (why last minute? Because I do everything last-minute, including starting to work on financial health. I guess that is one fact about me) for people not going to FinCon.

It sounded like fun! And also a good chance to respond to Alicia's gracious nomination of me for a Versatile Blogger Award, which requires me to tell y'all 7 totally random things about myself. So let's celebrate good times, and here we go.

Seven Random Things About Me

1) I was the best double-dutch jumper in my entire preschool, but then we didn't play in kindergarten or first grade, and by the time girls got back into it in second grade, I'd totally lost the knack. My rhythm is better now than it was when I was a kid and I sometimes wonder if I could do it again now.

2) I took an LSAT practice test my junior year of college for fun, because it was offered free by the school. I got a nearly perfect score, but I wasn't interested in practicing law then so I didn't take it seriously. Now, though, if it didn't mean another 4-year delay on starting a career plus $$ for tuition, I'd probably jump at going to law school, because as a historian I've grown fascinated by the impact the legal system has on our everyday lives.

3) I have a younger brother who I adore. We spend a lot of time talking about Marx and racism and also cooking elaborate and delicious meals. At least we used to cook together before we both moved out of NY. He's the main thing I miss about living there.

4) I have a really clear visual memory of the passbook for my first savings account, which my parents helped me open at the local bank when I was in elementary school. It was super hard to take money out of it because you had to walk to the bank and get a parent's approval to do anything, so I did build up a little bit there, a few hundred dollars, I guess, over time. At some point in high school I got a checking account with the same bank, though, and that made it much easier to access my money (and spend it alllllllll, which I did.)

5) I can parallel-park a 14-foot truck.

6) I own 5 sizes of tart pans (those flat, fluted pans with the removable bottoms.)

7) I don't wear makeup. I've always thought it made me look really fake -- possibly because I've never learned how to apply it properly -- plus I'd rather spend the money on expensive food, so there's that :-) I used to sometimes wear mascara and eyeliner, but I even quit that by my mid-20s.

Want to know anything else about me? Please ask! And visit all the other blogs participating:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wednesday food post

I didn't do as well last weekend on the food-spending front. It was shaping up to be another tight month as I recovered from the two big expenses (books and new phone) that blew up August's budget, but then I realized that I had $90 set aside for an expense that was not going to materialize after all and transferred $80 of that into my cash budget...and relaxed a little too much, really. For some reason I was just starving all week; I ended up spending too much on going out for coffee/treats in the middle of the afternoon because of it. I don't know what was up with that, but hopefully this week will go better. [I scheduled this post for Weds but am writing it on Sunday.]

Groceries for this week:

Farmer's market:
$3.00 -- pretzel (put this down under "could not eat enough all week, I don't know")
$1.50 -- donuts (gift for my roommate)
$4.00 -- nectarines
$2.00 -- brussel sprouts
$3.00 -- spices (whole coriander and cumin seeds; ground pepper)
$2.50 -- jar of tomato sauce

Total: $16

Grocery store:
$2.69 tater tots -- see, I told you I was weirdly hungry all week. I ended up buying these to have for dinner on Friday night (I know.)
$2.39 milk
$1.55 rice
$6.23 sweet potatoes
$3.42 broccoli
$3.50 ice cream -- another "I caved to a weeklong craving" item
$0.33 ginger
$6.99 olive oil
$3.19 1 lb butter

Total grocery store (with tax) $30.29

Total food shopping: $46.29 (or about $6 over budget, with the extra coming from my "general spending money")

This isn't really good. I impulse-bought about $10 of treats, which if I'd stuck to just eating what I had at home, would have meant I was $4 or $5 under budget. Annoying. And none of this even counts the coffee and muffins and whatever that I paid for out of my general spending money this week either.

Food plan for the week:
--I made a tomato sauce with ground beef from the meat CSA my roommate and I joined, the jar of tomato sauce I bought, and carrots I had left over from last week. I'll eat that with pasta for lunch all week.
--For dinner, I'm going to have Miso sweet potato broccoli rice bowls
--I also made a nectarine coffee cake for breakfast/dessert. Next week I'll have to pick up some steel-cut oats since the weather here seems to have turned and it's about time to start making oatmeal for breakfast again.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Taking aim at the net worth of the married

[Confidential to Alicia: I will respond to your post later this week! I already have a Weds post scheduled, so probably Friday will be a good day for it.]

So, for tl;dr reasons I went back and looked at Cindy from Growing Her Worth's first post, in which she linked to this terrifying article about how single people (especially women) need to be insanely frugal in order to ever even dream of retiring.

As it happens I haven't written nearly as much about issues of single-woman finance as I'd intended to when I picked my blog name. But it's not like I never think about them. I actually think (and worry) about them all the time. There are a slew of issues: no help with the rent (unless you live with a roommate, as I currently do), no backup if you get sick or are unemployed, etc. However, what caught my eye was the net worth chart. Citing the Census Bureau in 2004, she gave a median net worth of $30,026 for single women, compared to $144,580 for married couples. For ages 55-64 (that is, approaching retirement) the median net worth numbers were $62,140 for single women (oof) and $268,835 for married couples (still not great, but much better.)

I was all fired up to set some new goals for myself based on this information when I realized that the financial picture in the U.S. has changed just a little bit since 2004. It took some digging around, but I finally ended up looking at the Census Bureau's data from 2011, which is available in some detail on their website.  There have been some net worth studies since then -- like the one summarized at the Times, here, but when I looked at the data I didn't see it broken out either by gender or by married/single (maybe I just missed something?) The upshot is that the 2011 numbers are probably a bit high, as net worth has been declining for everyone but the wealthiest. But I'll roll with 2011 for the moment.

Median net worth numbers of interest to me, as of the 2011 census:
Married-couple households, 35-54 y.o.: $116,170
Married-couple households, 55-64 y.o.: $239,847
Female householder, 35-54 y.o.: $9640
Female householder, 65 years and older: $104,000

A couple of notes: That's a huge decline in median female wealth. I assume most of it is attributable to housing issues (either drop in home value, or foreclosure, since I know single mothers were very hard hit by cruddy mortgage issues.) The wealth drop wasn't nearly as bad for older single women; in the 55-64 age range, median net worth was almost identical between 2004 and 2011. Of course, that's without accounting for inflation, so I guess there was still a serious drop.

OK then -- how am I doing? I'm 35 years old and my net worth ought to hit $10,000 in mid-November (there's a slim chance of getting there by the end of October, but I think that's unlikely; it should be very close, though.) So, I'm right around the median for single women, and since I'm on the very low end of the age range there, I'm probably doing rather better than the median for 35-year-old women. However, obviously that leaves me in terrible shape, so I'm not going to get all happy.

I think instead I should take aim at the married couples. Damn it, why should I let not having had the good sense to either get married, or pursue some career that paid, hold me back? At my current rate of net worth growth, I should be able to hit $116,000 in about four years, by age 40. (Oh my God, I'll be 40 in four years. I am so not ready for that.) Ideally, of course, I'll get a better-paying job soonish and be able to increase it faster!