Thursday, December 30, 2010

Saving Up for Bikes

Hubby and I hit up the local bike shop yesterday to check out some options.  The sales guy was super helpful and I not only learned a ton, but have a good idea of what we need.

See, we recently lost a car in an accident (long story, not my fault, overpass still destroyed the car, only liability insurance).  So we had to suddenly evaluate our car situation.  There is no way we could add another loan payment to our monthly obligations.  Second, we're tired of getting used cars that don't last long or come with hidden problems.

Luckily enough, we're in a position to only need one car right now.  Though Mike will be starting up classes, they're either at night or on the weekend.  Second, we live right on a bike trail, which not only goes downtown where Jennie works, but literally right behind her building.

So bikes it is (with careful planning until then so Mike isn't stuck home every day...).

Like most people, we've gone the cheap route on Wally World bikes.  Twice.  I estimate we've probably spent $500 on bikes in the past 8 years.  Cheap bikes are exactly that: cheap.  They'd break, be uncomfortable, or be easy to abandon.  Which I shamefully admit we have done.  Long-term planning + college students ... well, you get the picture.

So this time around, I want a serious bike.  Which also means a serious pricetag.  I want something that will get me to work, get me exercising, and provide something Mike and I can do together.   

Based on the models we looked at, we're looking at spending approximately $900 on 2 new bikes.

Trek 7100 Hybrid Bike Path Bike: $420 (ish) + tax

That's a cheap used car! 

But I have to tell myself, these ARE in place of a cheap used car.  This equipment is promoting entertainment, health, and environmentalism all in one.  That's a good combo for nouveau hippies like us :)

So to purchase these bikes circa April, when I'm hoping the snow will melt, we have to squirrel away around $225 a month into savings.  Sigh, particularly when we've been averaging $60 a month, and that in itself has been steep. 

Of course, we are going to look at some more options, particularly national chains like Dick's or Scheel's.  A friend also suggested checking out pawn stores, which is a fantastic idea.

Regardless of getting the money together, I am excited about this venture.  It's perfect in so many ways.  And the best part: we've both resolved to not buy a second car until we can do so upfront, no loan, gently used. 

Any other suggestions for getting a good bike?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas Gift Success!

This year, we did exclusively homemade gifts for Christmas.  We were partly motivated by finances and having a family that grew by marriage this year.  We were also, in part, protesting the rampant consumerism that seems to be growing worse ever year.

At any rate, this is the result of 8+ hours of baking and only $40

That's right: $40 of supplies produced 6 loaves of bread, 250 cookies (20 dozen), 60 chocolate-covered cherries, 3 cookie tins, 3 gift boxes, and baggies.  
On the bread front, each set of parents got 1 or 2 loaves of bread, depending on size and recipe.  Here is a loaf of focaccia, which only needed yeast, flour, water, salt, and olive oil.

These roasting pans, the kind that come with lids around $2.50, we already had on hand and made great bread containers.

This is stollen, a German cake/bread recipe.  It is a basic bread mixture with added almonds, orange and lemon zest, candied fruits, and golden raisins.  On top is a simple mixture of powdered sugar and butter.  It's very much like a heavy Danish.


Here is another loaf of stollen (one recipe made 3 loaves) and a loaf of egg bread, also very basic.

On the cookie front, we did 3 types, all tailored to suit each individual family.  The largest batch was Pennsylvania Dutch Sugar Cookies, followed by Mexican Hot Chocolate Crinkles (below), and Snickerdoodles.  Each required standard ingredients you have in your cupboards.

My favorite venture was the chocolate-covered cherries.  I come from a long line of candy makers and I thought it was time to delve into this side of my heritage.  I was really surprised how easy and fun making these candies are.  They use maraschino cherries, powdered sugar, corn syrup, butter, and chocolate coating. 

Everyone commented on the fancy boxes.  Little did they know we found these gems for a buck a piece at the Dollar Tree!

We were super thrilled with how the baking turned out.  Plus, the amount of cookies allowed us to give each sibling and their significant other (where applicable) a dozen cookies each, which amounted to 9.  This was awesome because we usually skip siblings.

The gifts before we headed out the door ...

Our $40 purchased everything you see, minus the roasting pans:
Tins, boxes, flour, sugar, powdered sugar, vegetable oil, 3lb butter, raisins, baggies, cherries, chocolate coating, a lemon, an orange, candied fruit, eggs, and sprinkles.  Items like vanilla, almonds, and cocoa powder we already had enough of.

Everyone was super thrilled with our gifts and it was fun seeing people gush over what we did.  We'll definitely be going this route again next year!

I'm really proud of what we did this year and for being resourceful without feeling like we shorted anyone.  We spent $24 on ourselves to get 2 Hallmark ornaments (we get a Snoopy and Woodstock one for each year) and then $30 on our two nieces and nephew to get each a new shirt and mail them.

That means our grand Christmas total was $100!  Woot!

Weekly Challenge: Closet Organization (Dec 27-31)

The Weekly Challenge is a small task to set for yourself that will help save money, organize your life, or lower your environmental impact.

Have you ever bought an item you thought you needed, only to find it hiding in a corner when you got home?  Organization lets you create an inventory of your possessions, which allows you to purchase items you know you truly need

This week's challenge is to tackle a closet.  Chances are, you'll already be rooting around one as you pack away your Christmas decorations.  

This project provides an opportunity to purge unwanted items and create new space for ones that need a place to park their butt.  Nothing like an empty shelf to get stuff off the floor! 

Items you will need:
  • The bravery to tackle a closet
  • Time set aside for the task (an hour, an evening, spaced out each day...)
  • A container for items to donate
  • 2 bags -- one for recycling, one for trash
  • A dusting rag, potentially a broom or vacuum

1) Start by completely removing all the items.  Seriously, give yourself a fresh space to work with. 

2) As you clear out the space, make sure to give everything a little clean.  This may be as simple as wiping off bottles, folding clothes, or throwing comforters in the dryer for a fluff.  Dust off shelves, vacuum/sweep the floor, wipe off box tops.   

3) Evaluate all the items you have, always asking:
  • Do I need this?
    • If no, can I donate or recycle it?
    • If yes, is this closet a good home for this item?
This is a good approach if you're working with a storage/bath/hall closet.  If you're organizing a clothes closet, you have some additional work cut out for you.  You need to evaluate all of the clothes in there for fit, season (weather, not fashion), and likability.  If you haven't worn it in a year and it's not a motivation outfit, donate it.  Let someone else put it to good use instead of collecting dust.

4) After you've gone through everything, assess whether the closet needs any organizational accessories.  There are tons of inexpensive containers, hampers, boxes, totes, hooks, and racks that you can add without a big price ticket.  In our book, any item that gets you organized is always justified.  

My designated closet is our office walk-in. 

It's our only walk-in and medium sized, but it's our main storage area.

As you can see, it's fairly organized but it holds a lot.  It's easy to forget what we've stashed in there.  The Christmas decorations also need to be returned to this closet so it's a good one to work on.

Check back this weekend to see how we did!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Keeping It Simple for the Holidays

Regardless of how you celebrate the holidays, there are three things you’re likely to spend money on: gifts, food, and gas.  It’s difficult to avoid the extra spending that December necessitates, but there are ways to spend more thoughtfully.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for saving money when it comes to gifts.  Every family has their own traditions, economic realities, and comfort levels.  The best thing you can do is be realistic about your budget (which implies you should set one, eh-hem!) and be sensitive to others’ needs. 

If there are still folks on your shopping list, here are some other ways to light up someone’s face without breaking your bank:

·       Give the Gift of Creativity.  All you crafty people out there should relish in your talents and pass your creations along to others.  Framed photography and art, knitted and crocheted items, pre-made scrapbooks, quilts and throws, canned goodies, or baked yummies all make for thoughtful gifts.  A small amount of money is devoted to supplies, but the rest is all you. 

·       Do a Drawing.  This is a particularly useful option for large families or those who are hurting financially.  Simply do a drawing so everyone is responsible for one and ONLY one other family member.  Instead of having to buy lots of little gifts, you can concentrate on one special present.

·       Set Price Points.  While you should have an overall budget, setting specific limits can be helpful for friends, siblings, or even significant others.  This may be an amount that you set yourself or something you discuss openly with loved ones.   
·       Play Detective.  No one wants to give a gift that’s a flop.  Despite your best intentions, if a present goes unused, that’s ultimately misspent money.  Take the guess out of shopping and simply ask what a person could use.  Then you’ll know you’ve spent your money on the right item.

·       The Gift of Empowerment. A good gift should enhance someone’s life.  Any present that can be educational or used for self-improvement is always money well-spent.  These are simple items like books for the smarties, tools for gearheads, or baking supplies for your foodies.   
·       The Rain Check.  January is a holiday-less month.  Why not try to push back some of your gift giving by a couple of weeks?  It can help take the strain off of December’s budget, and you can snag some great after-holidays deals if you’re inclined. 
·       The Gift of Time.  No price can be put on your willingness to save someone a little time.  Night off from cooking, evening of childcare, a week off of a certain chore (cat litter anyone?), an interruption-free bath … let someone off the hook for a couple hours.  

·       The Radical.  If you really want to break with tradition and your family is open to it, forgo all of it.  Have a big potluck instead and enjoy the time with each other.  A full belly and a warm house, yes please!   

Mike and I are going for Option 1 and are baking up a storm over the next few days.  This is an ideal solution for a couple that loves to be in the kitchen!  Beyond large quantities of flour and eggs, the only gifts we’ve purchased are clothes for the nieces/nephew.  

Ok, we technically bought two overpriced Hallmark ornaments for our tree to keep up with a tradition we started 9 years ago, but that’s all we’re doing for ourselves.  And that’s nothing to awww over; we haven’t given gifts to each other for several Christmases now and it doesn’t bother either of us.  
Next week we’ll reveal what we made for our homemade goodies and what we spent on them!

Question of the Day: What are ways you’re trimming your gift-giving budget this year? 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Our Financial Profile

Our Financial Profile

Jennie has a Master's degree in English and graduated in 2008.  Up until recently, she was employed as an adjunct instructor, teaching as many courses as she could round up across several colleges.  Her salary was constantly in flux, changing every 8 to 15 weeks.  

To achieve more stability (and significantly decrease levels of stress from constantly working on overload), she took a full-time job as a magazine writer in May.  This required a move and a drastically lower, yet more stable salary.

She makes $24,300 a year.  She also has been teaching one night class a week, receiving $1,650 per 8-week course.  

Mike has a AAA in graphic design and is in the Guard.  Like many others, he is unemployed and without benefits.  This has been a source of frustration for some time.  He is fortunate enough to be paid for his drill weekends, which contributes $250 a month.

We took a large gamble moving.  Jennie accepted a lower paying job, expecting that there would be another salary to counter it.  Neither of us anticipated that the one entry-level salary would actually be the primary income.  It is the reason that we've had to look so hard at our finances lately.  In one month's time, our monthly income permanently dropped by 60%.  We had to make some changes, and fast.

After you take out health insurance ($130 a month only for Jennie: medical, vision, and dental) and taxes ($265.75 a month), Jennie earns $1,629 a month from her magazine job, and has been receiving $761 a month for teaching.  

Add in Mike's drill, and we're working with approximately $2,640 a month.  

This could be pretty reasonable, until you look at what goes out in bills:
$750 condo rent
$90 cell phone plan 
$50 for internet (no cable)
$10-15 for gas heating
$90 for electricity
$80 for water (comes out every two months)
$45 car insurance
$510 student loan payments (spread between the two of us across 4 separate loans)
4 credit payments, variable but around $130 (2 separate, one joint, one department)
$45 to a furniture store
$45 to a medical bill (should be disappearing soon)
$60 to savings (or $30 a pay period)

So, this is our problem.  Our obligations and debt, subtracted just from Jennie's salary, leaves us with $200-$300 to cover gas, groceries, and supplies each two week period.  This is particularly difficult at the beginning of the month.  Jennie's teaching pay comes in just one a month, and is directly routed to rent.  Mike's drill pay comes in the second part of the month.

Overall, we are reasonable spenders.  We aren't name brand kind of people, we have only one car, and we really try to limit our consumption of useless goods.  We make a strong effort to buy environmentally sensitive products and natural foods when possible.  We love going out to eat, a habit that has been greatly (and thankfully) curbed as of late.

This is who we are financially.  In our upcoming posts, we'll be exploring our spending habits and debts in more detail.

Question of the day: Can you bring yourself to disclose your salary, even to a trusted friend or family member?  Why or why not?

The Purpose of this Blog


My name is Jennie, and this is my spouse Mike <waves>.

We're starting a blog that chronicles our financial efforts during 2011. 

There's a distinct cultural pressure to keep your personal finances under wraps.  You can share whatever you like on Facebook, proclaim your religion, political leanings, and sexual orientation for the world to see, but goodness forbid that you reveal what your annual salary is.

This taboo is hogwash!  Why are people prevented from learning from each other?  Why do we get embarrassed when someone makes more or less than us?  Why can't we openly celebrate our friends' financial successes and offer encouragement to those who are struggling?

The fear of being judged or making people feel inadequate.  People don't want to intimidate or be intimidated by economic differences, even when they're being stared in the face by them.  Mike and I view this fear as unproductive, and this attitude of secrecy banishes an important issue from polite conversation. 

Financial openness is one of the best and most underutilized educational tools.  We are putting our finances under a microscope.  We are going to track all of our economic moves for the next 12 months -- detail how we're spending and saving money, share tips and tricks that work for us, and express our frustrations and successes along the way.

We're not financial experts, we don't have degrees in this area, and we're not going to advise you on how to manage your 401k.

But we are going to be brutally honest about where we are at.  We hope that we can inspire a few of you to also take a hard look at your financial situation and start making positive changes as well.

Here's to financial stability in 2011!