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.