Sunday, January 30, 2011

January Monthly Totals

So moving forward from the previous post, here's what we did in numbers this past month.

Now hubby and I keep track of everything that goes in and out of our accounts.  I'm sure there are some fancy apps or free software to do this for us, but I literally log receipts into a Word doc and check it against our online banking.  That's all.  Money in, money out.  Then, at the end of the month, we sit down, review what went well, what didn't, and what we want to do for the next month.
January looked like this:
Income:          $3760.81 ($1975.40 without extras)
Bills:               $1326.00 
Rent:              $1500.00 (double to cover February)
Groceries:       $341.41 
Stuff:              $227.00 (usually defined as supplies or non-grocery)
Restaurants:   $157.88 
Health:            $377.50 (unusually high because Mike got glasses)
Entertainment: $36.04 
Cars:              $0  (this category stands for repairs, parts, oil changes, ect)
Gas:               $195.41 

Income was all over the place this month.  We had some gift cards, a small amount from selling an item on Craigslist, a parting Pampered Chef check, and then the loan for rent.  Also, it was the last month that I'll receive my teaching salary.  All in all, that's twice as much as we'll be getting next month (not counting on Mike's GI Bill).

The positives:
  • All of the meal planning and bargain shopping at multiple stores really paid off for groceries.  We spent roughly $85 a week on food.  That's pretty awesome.
  • Gas is much better now that A) I'm not traveling to Waterloo once a week and B) we only have one car.  This is $100 less than previous months.
  • Entertainment is less than 1% of our budget, and that's pretty good for two movie addicts.
The negatives:
  • Clearly we ran into some issues and had to take out a loan for rent.  Not totally our fault, but still unfortunate.
  • Around $180 went on the credit cards.  Not going to help us reduce debt.
  • Our supplies category is modest, I feel, but still something to get lower.

February goals:

  • Be modest about purchases the first half of the month.  Most of our bills come out then and we need to be "aggressive" the second half when there's more to play with.
  • Continue to work on smallest credit card to eliminate a payment in March.  There's $100 left on the department card.  Two payments each payday and that baby could be gone.
  • Cut restaurants down.  While $150 is totally modest compared to what we used to rack up, it's still a little much for what we actually earn.  Half of our balance was from little stuff, a lunch here, snacks at Caseys there.  So we decided to make Friday date night and go out for a nice ($30) meal.  Excluding the weekends Mike goes to drill, that means we can justifiably go out 3 times, spend a total of $90, and still save money.
Question of the Day
Part 1: How do you keep track of your monthly budget, if at all?  
Part 2: What are your goals for February?


Friday, January 28, 2011

A Confession and a Vent

So my attempts to blog regularly have been greatly squelched in the past few weeks.  In order to remedy this, I will start this entry with a grand confession:

January's finances bombed.

Oh yes, here little Miss Blogger said she would brutally capture our financial successes and failures and I've been hiding from my readers for two weeks.

So let's come clean.  This month ended up being a perfect storm of financial yuckiness.  Here's how it started.

November and December are expensive months, largely the fault of Thanksgiving and Christmas.  November in particular was a disaster.

Turkey Day warranted a long overdue visit to family in Kansas City, as well as the need to get the hell out of town.  It was a great trip, we really enjoyed it, and we have no regrets making it. But you can't escape that 13+ hours of driving will result in gas expenses.   

Preceding KS was a trip to Milwaukee (a 10-hour trip).  It was a leftover remnant of my illusion of going to PhD school.  I couldn't back out because I was an area chair (a leadership position) and I had signed up for it over a 1 1/2 years ago so there was no excuse for not planning for it.   Mike scored an amazing hotel deal ($50 for a Hilton!), and we packed sandwiches and breakfast.  Still, gas was gas.

Also sandwiched in November was a trade show that I attended for work.  Now, the company reimburses you for whatever you rack up, but the catch is, you have to have the capital available to do so in the first place.  I had previously gone to another show where the hotel was taken care of.  Not this time, so surprise!  $200 on the credit card for a one night stay at a chic downtown Chicago hotel.

November was a bad month.

December had Christmas, which if you've been reading this, you know we went to dedicated lengths to do homemade gifts.  While that was a great venture, it couldn't counteract the damage done in November.

So January comes around and we get down to the nitty-gritty of our finances.  We make specific goals.  We dedicate to getting rid of all of our credit card debt in 2011.  We want to start the year off right.  I become an expert bargain shopper. 

But January had a hidden snafu waiting for us. Mike's GI Bill.  Particularly, when it would show up.

If you're unfamiliar with the GI Bill, it's given to military members as kind of condolence that their military service disrupts the typical time one goes to college.  It's also to supplement living expenses the vet-turned-student needs but is now not generating income for.

Mike started classes the second week this month and we thought, even though the government is slow, surely the money will arrive by the end of January.  Just in time to replace the teaching salary I no longer have and to take care of February rent.

So we got confident.  I made a double car insurance payment ($86) and then slashed a credit card balance in half by throwing $100 on it.

The second week in, we learn that the GI Bill will show up in February.  Mid-February.

Being aggressive on those payments shorted us money for groceries.  And gee, guess how much went on the credit cards?  Yep, almost $200.  See the correlation?

So in addition to racking up the credit cards because of my decisions, we were also in the unfortunate situation of not having rent for February.  We sheepishly went into our credit union, asked for a personal loan in the exact amount of rent, received said loan, and promptly wrote a check to our property company, which has already been cashed.  

If that weren't enough, all of this has been compounded by a growing frustration on my part for not earning enough money.  I'm the one with the two degrees, and while I never expected to make good money by majoring in English, I did expect that I could take care of myself and husband.  No no no. 

I make $1600 a month after taxes and healthcare come out.  Rent is $750.  Making all of our other obligations and finding money for groceries, supplies, and gas has been a delicate and wearing dance.

It bothers me that I have a lovely job and I can't fully take care of our finances.  It bothers me that when Mike gets his GI Bill, it will double our income. It really bothers me that I left a highly stressful and unstable job/s teaching with much much better money and came to a more stable job where I still can't get ahead financially. 

In fact, my job is causing us to get behind.

I very much feel like one of those traditional middle-aged guys who's always been the breadwinner and then suddenly is not.  I unfortunately do not have the luxury of buying a fancy car or jet-setting off to Europe on a grand vacation.

No, I am 26, just a kid in numbers, but emotionally twice that.  And the reality of my responsibility in our two-member family, combined with the ridiculous pressure I put on myself, is wearing just as hard as our finances are.

2009 was a shit-tastic year for us.  I worked too hard and Mike couldn't find work.  We lived in an apartment that now is fondly referred to as Buzzard Gulch.  

2010 came in with mixed results.  We had a hard time saying much positive in our yearly newsletter.

Already 2011 is kicking us when we're already down.  I don't want January to set the tone for us this year.  

Now that I've just hurled a bunch of negativity at you, which I appreciate you letting me vent, know that we're pulling up our socks and taking on February with closed fists.

I've decided that as lovely as the credit card goal is, we're just not going to hit that in any way shape or form.  So we're realigning it to tackled 3 out of our 4 cards, which have $100, $500, and $950 on them respectively.  

Two are bank cards from different institutions.  I want to get rid of the big balance, which comes from a national bank, and then go to our credit union and ask them to consolidate the credit limits.  This allows us to dump said national bank, have the primary credit card at a better interest rate, and eliminate an entire payment.

The other goal will be to not depend on the GI Bill.  While it's going to amount to $1500 a month (and in one lump sum), I want to pretend it's not there.  Granted, half of it is needed for rent, but that other 700 clams, that's what I'm talking about.  I don't want to raise our living expenses to match this additional income.  I want to always be surprised when it shows up, and throw it at debt and savings.  

So that's where we stand.  On shaky ground and channeling disappointment into productivity.  But at the end of the day, I'm thankful it isn't worse.  I have a job, in my field even, a nice place to rent, a supportive partner, transportation, and healthcare.  We're not on foodstamps, we're not living in a hole, we don't have kids to feed or parents to house.  It could be a lot worse.  

In a twisted way, we're lucky.  And that's sometimes what you have to hang on to.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Meatless Mondays -- Baked Spaghetti

So hubby and I are initiating Meatless Mondays.  We're traditional Iowans in respect to our meat and potatoes.  Trying to go meatless is to help us balance our meat intake with more fruits, veggies, and fiber.  

I totally respect people who have an ethical dilemma about eating meat.  Unfortunately, meat is just too tasty to stop eating.  I also wish we could purchase cage-free, grass-fed, hormone-free, farm-raised happy meat, but the markup is waaay out of our price league at this point.

In the meantime, the best I can do is be thankful that an animal died so I can eat, portion control so we're mindful of our consumption level, and prepare it so we waste as little as possible.

This week's venture was Baked Spaghetti

13x9" pan

8oz wheat angel hair pasta (1/2 box)
14-16oz jar pasta/pizza sauce
14.5oz can of diced tomatoes, drained
1 cup shredded mozzarella
1 cup grated Parmesan

Prepare pasta according to package. Rinse and cool enough to handle.

Create three sets of layers starting with
1) sauce + tomatoes, then 2) pasta and 3) cheese.  Just like assembling lasagna. 

Bake @350 25 minutes covered with foil.  Uncover last five minutes.

This recipe creates 6 generous sized pieces.

Cost based on Walmart purchases:
$0.78 cents for tomatoes (Hunts)
$1.08 for jar of pizza sauce (Ragu)
$0.89 for half box of angel hair (Barilla)
$1.00 for half bag of shredded mozz
$0.60 cents for 1/2-1c Parmesan
$4.35 or 73 cents a serving

Nutritionally, this is a fantastic meal.  Lots of vitamins from the infusion of tomatoes, Barilla's wheat pasta has tons of fiber and added Omega 3's, and this recipe can easily adapt to lower amounts of parmesan and adding 2% cheese.

Nutrition Profile per serving:
306 calories (15% based on 2,000 cal)
11.3g fat (17%)
6g saturated fat (30%, and based on a full cup of parmesan)
815mg sodium (34%)
5g fiber (20%)
59g carb (19.5%)
18g protein (36%)
8g sugar 

This is pretty good considering we can do about 1.5 servings (plus veggies) and we're full.  

Paired the meal with a spinach salad.  We really like Brianna's Dressing.  It's a little more on the expensive side (around $3-4 a bottle, depending on where you're at) but there are no preservatives and the taste is restaurant quality.

This is one of those foundation recipes that's simple and quick, but has room to jazz up or down based on your preferences.  We also had enough leftovers for both Mike and I to have lunch the next day, making this a double punch for healthy and economical!

Question of the Day: What's your favorite vegetarian dish?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Free Entertainment Series: The Des Moines Art Center

This past weekend I went to visit a good friend in the Des Moines area.  When Mike has his drill weekends, I tag along and spend the weekend doing fun stuff.  It's actually a good money saver since we're both headed the same direction.

Des Moines, for all of its boringness, actually has some interesting stuff tucked here and there.  We decided to check out the Des Moines Art Center

Admission: FREE

If only it would have been summer when we went

For as small as our state is, they have a pretty decent collection.  You could easily spot major artists (albeit some of their minor works) like Warhol, Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Cassatt, and O'Keeffe.
Merci Google for above and below!

This is a Georgia O'Keeffe we particularly enjoyed.  It's an abstract, Cubist, deconstruction of wind blowing over a lake.  I read the plaque to get all of that :)  We just liked the bold colors and lines, lol

This guy is made from corrugated metal roofing, the stuff you see on farm sheds.  Apparently he's a staple of the collection.  

He was the last piece of their temporary exhibit "Bad Dreams" and I like this context.  He reminds of the horses the Nazgul or the Headless Horseman would ride.

These guys made me laugh.

It's titled "Animal Pyramid" and I love the balance of traditional animal forms
with the overall whimsical feel. 

I was totally thinking of Fantasia while looking at this and "Le Carnaval des Animaux" by Saint-Saens was playing in my head.  

Oh yes, I just got cultural on you.  Amazing what side disciplines you pick up when you study literature :)

Working on my photo skills for the above three ...

Overall, I recommend the museum for casual and serious art lovers alike.  It does have an emphasis on modern art, so you may raise your eyebrow quizzically from time to time, but I feel it's good to have your perspective challenged.

Question of the Day: What free (or dirt cheap) entertainment would you recommend for your area?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

2011 Financial Goals (pt 2 of 2)

Ok, first of, sorry for the lengthy delay between posts.  It's hard to be at work for 8 hours reading and writing and want to devote any time at night to the same thing :)

So a while back I did a post detailing part of our financial goals for 2011.  The second part to our goals is focusing on my health, particularly lowering my weight.

It may not appear that weight loss has much to do with one's bank account, but it has everything to do with one's future financial stability.  This is an investment so the Me-Down-the-Road won't develop diabetes, heart problems, high blood pressure, and a host of other things that cost money.  Crude, perhaps, to frame one's health in the context of the almighty dollar, but it's no secret that people can become financially crippled from medical bills.  

Anyways, the last couple of years I've done a lot of talking and thinking about getting healthy.  But given my fluctuating work schedule coupled with high levels of stress, I could never get the ball rolling.  Sometimes you have too many things in your life competing for your energy.  I made the call to let work and keeping us financially afloat take precedence over my health.

So at the beginning of last year, I decided to make 2010 the year of me.  I was subjecting myself to the mercy of an adjunct system that was never designed to or could ever accommodate steady work, I had had terrible troubles getting a PhD application out the door due to depression, and was suffering from overload in all senses of the word.

It was time for things to change.  Once I got my rejection letter (which, side note, I think was maybe a good thing ... I don't fuss over it at least ...), I set up 4 very specific goals:
  • Find a stable income 
  • Move out of the area
  • Decrease stress, which was dependent on the first two
  • Lose weight, which was dependent on all three

I achieved all three within the first six months of the year, and did manage to trim a little by taking a water aerobics class.  Once we moved, it took a long time to adjust from academia to publishing and weight loss got lost in the shuffle.  I did take advantage of the bike trail near our home for evening walks and started getting in lunch walks downtown during the summer and fall.  Once winter set in, goodbye maintaining weight and hello going up a few belt notches. 

I really do feel that sometimes, you just have to clear out space in your life to improve your health.  It's like tackling a messy room.  You can clean it and move things around so it looks like you've got space.  But that's a big difference from cleaning and actually moving things out.  I feel like I've purged a lot of negativity from my life and now I'm left with this one battlefield left to tackle.

I was reading a blog on fat activism and body acceptance the other day. Something the author put her finger on really perked up my ears: 

Forgot about how you look, but how you feel.  

So many people emphasize the aesthetics of their body over how it actually works for them.  They want to look a certain way or be a particular size. But what about how their body functions?

This is the mantra I want to focus on, not my looks.  However I feel when I look in the mirror, it pales in comparison to how painful my body feels.  I am 5'6" and in the mid-180s.  My body aches from the extra weight, I don't remember the last time my shoulders and back didn't hurt, I have plantar fasciitis that will not heal, and I find asthma pops up during high-intensity cardio.

Aside from minimizing future medical costs, there's also the present toll on my wardrobe. 

It's kind of hard to see from the picture, but that is 104L container of clothes that are too small.  This has been added to for several years now and represents hundreds of dollars.  I would have a fantastic professional wardrobe if I could use these.

At this point, I refuse to buy anymore clothing at my current size, which ranges from a 16-18.  That's officially plus size, which in my mind = unhealthy.  There's also no point in purchasing clothes at a size that isn't sustainable, that I don't intend to keep for long, and that might encourage me to keep being complacent.

On the upside, most of these clothes are only a size or two away.  I have no illusions of being a skinny as I was in high school.  I want to be a figure 8, something reminiscent of Hollywood glamor girls of the 30s and 40s.

But the important thing is for the function.  I want to be that crazy couple that goes on hiking trips, goes canoeing, plays basketball or tennis.  Mike is a runner, and it would be great to do that together.  Or even to remotely have a compatible fitness level.

I feel confident that with this frame of reference, I'll be able to really make an impact this time.  My current plan is to start out small:
  • Walk during my lunch breaks.  I get an hour, and 10 laps around the office is 30 minutes.
  • Use my workout DVDs several times a week: Tae Bo, Stripaerobics, and Biggest Loser.
  • Take advantage of the mall for additional walking
  • Do weightlifting with my medicine ball, resistance bands, and weights.
I contemplated taking classes, signing up for a gym membership, participating in a weight loss program, or purchasing quality exercise equipment.  But at the end of the day, those cost more than we had room for in the budget.  So I'll stick with what I have available that's free :)

Here's to a body in motion for 2011!  

Question of the Day: What are your health or fitness goals for the next year?


Monday, January 10, 2011

Movies on a Budget

Hi kids!

For my latest post, check it out on a fellow blogger's site!  It's all about getting in your movies habit without busting your wallet.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Bargain Deals!

Quickie post on some fabulous bargain finds from this weekend.

Headed to Walmart to check out the after-Christmas sales.  Since making all of our Christmas gifts was such a success, we wanted to see if we could get some good holiday-themed containers in advance.

We made off like bandits!

Everything was half price, so we got the red containers for $1.50 (there's 3 of them with lids), and the boxes for $2.50 a pop.  That's less than $10 for all of them!

The boxes are awesome because you get 3, they come with lids, and they're fairly sturdy cardboard.  These will be so perfect for whatever candies and cookies we do next year.  And with what we spent, they turned out to be 83 cents a piece! (plus tax, but whatever)

I also like that the holiday decoration isn't too obnoxious or ugly.  I'm not a fan of stuff that is too heavily tied to one season because it's hard to reuse.  These are good for the whole winter, and easily be regifted to someone else.

We also hit up Goodwill.  I was in need of some more sweaters as our office is a bit drafty.  No success with pants, but I did find two nice shirts.

Neither of them are a perfect fit, but I think a good washing will help.  At any rate, these were $3.38 a piece.  Boo-yah!

While I was having some difficulties with sizes (that's for another post ... sigh ...), I was impressed with their selection.  If brand names are your thing, you will find them all at Goodwill.  There are some truly hideous gems from the 80s and 90s hanging out, but overall, you can get good basic items.

I also grab a set of dishes to take to work.  Our place has a few ceramic dishes, but I usually have to clean them for my lunch.  Figured my own set would ensure I'd always have a dish, lol.  Both are microwave safe and were 88 cents a piece.  Just need to hit them up with a little bleach and soap and off to work they'll go!

Part of being financially strapped is knowing when to lay down some money and when to hang on to it.  Bargain deals always make me feel good about where my money has gone.  

Question of the Day: What bargain deals have you found lately?

Closet Challenge Update

Tackled the closet today.  Was surprised how little there actually was to do.  Not so much of a challenge!  But what we did need to do was productive.

First Mike had fun dragging out my memory tub from high school.  

Every so often, I go through and purge stuff like this.  You get less sentimental as the years go on.  I once had 4 containers!  This one, as you can see, is mostly full of photo albums and yearbooks.  Stuff to save, but not keep out on the shelves.  We did find a never-worn shirt, now destined for the washer, and an antique lace table cloth, now back in the "hosting" tub it belongs in.

A cousin and I, circa 1987

Rosebud Indian Reservation -- helped with a kids' camp in 2001
Mike enjoying my embarrassment as he pawns through my dorky past
 Anyways, several successes came out of the closet challenge:
  • Found an unopened copy of Office Mac 08, now up on Craigslist for $50
  • Decided to put our 6' artificial Christmas on Craigslist for free
  • All of our stackable luggage is properly put away
  • Repurposed an empty trunk to hold our smaller games.  Now all the board games fit in their original tub, and these games are more accessible.

Probably the best thing to come of this exercise was deciding to sell my first wedding dress

Yes, I have two wedding dresses.  The simplified story is that Mike and I got engaged in 2002, I bought the first dress in 2003, had a 5-year delay,  figured out in spring 2008 that I would never fit into it again, and got married in dress #2 three weeks later.

Isn't that awesome?!  I still love this dress, the bodice was my favorite part.  But alas, since we've already done the wedding, and almost 3 years ago to boot, there's no point in keeping it.

So I've got it up on Craigslist for $150.  I figure this is pretty reasonable as it's never been worn, still has the tags, is still in style, and was stored in a smoke-free environment.  It's minorly wrinkled, but 7 years in a closet will do that.

Hope someone bites, particularly when they're getting such a good deal!



That was a good start to weekly challenges but too easy!  Off to go brainstorm some more potentials :)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

2011 Financial Goals (pt. 1)

I know some people think New Year's resolutions are hokey, and to some extend, I agree.

However, my life revolves around a calendar.  If you go to my work, there are three calendars that sit in front of me: the current month, the next month, and the editorial calendar.  My life runs on deadlines and a set work schedule.  I am hyper-aware of time passing.

So I'm going to take advantage of this and apply it to our finances.  They, too, run on a very specific schedule.  We have 12 months to work on financial stability.

Mike and I have determined it will be the credit cards.

Not our actual cards - thanks Google!

We took the time to add up our exact debt.  I thought we had a good ballpark figure, but let me tell you, ballpark and finances aren't a great combination.  Things can take you by surprise.

Here's the rundown of our debt:
$3,680 owed
4 cards (one for each, one joint, one department store)
76% owed out of total credit card limits

These are hard numbers to admit.  Are we as in bad of shape as other people?  No.  Is the total owed bad compared to how much we make?  Yes.  

That amount represents 15% of Jennie's total salary, or 23% after taxes/heath insurance.  That's $10 a day!  

That is WAAY too much for two people at our income level.

Frustration is tied to this figure in three ways:
1) I should have been better.  My parents, to my knowledge, have always carried tremendous credit card debt my whole life, reaching into the 5 digits.  I vowed to never go down this path.  I'm over a 1/3 of the way there.
2) In the past six months since moving, we've had to use the credit cards as supplemental income.  It's not like we've been blowing them on useless items, trips, or shopping sprees.  Nope; groceries, gas, and supplies. 
3) The above habit, of course, is what leads people into 5 digit debt.  Thank goodness our total limit wouldn't allow us to, but it's the habits that count.

There's a lot of different perspectives out there about debt.  The ol' some-debt-is-good-some-is-bad advice.  At the end of the day, I say debt is debt.  

We have thousands of dollars tied up with banks who are collecting interest off it.  We have four separate credit card payments each month.  This is a limiting situation that needs to be remedied before we become one of those dismal couples on the Today Show lamenting about our debt.

So Mike and I have resolved to get rid of our credit card debt.  All of it.  In 12 months.

This is going to be daunting task.  To do this, we need to get around $300 a month onto the cards.  This is impossible with just my salary.  Luckily, Mike is going to be getting his GI bill for going to school, which is going to double our monthly income.  We won't see that until mid-January, so we're proceeding cautiously for this first pay cycle.

The overall approach we're taking is a sliding scale.  We're tackling the cards with the lowest balance, giving them an extra large payment, and putting minimums + $5 on the rest.  

For us personally, spreading equal payments across the cards hasn't been helpful.  You never feel like you're getting anywhere.  So the goal is to feel better by knocking out whole cards swiftly.

First card up is the department store.  I just slashed the balance in half by putting $100 on it.  Hopefully we will get it to zero either by the end of the month or start of next one. 

And to really emphasize our commitment to this plan, we're also locking up the credit cards.  Literally.  All four reside in our lockbox.  There's no point in having them in our wallets when we're trying to eliminate them.

I do know people who have literally frozen their cards.  We get in our freezer too much for this to be practical :)

We'll let you know how we do as the months go on!

Question of the Day: Out of your total credit card limit, what percentage do you owe?  Are you comfortable with this number?