Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How Much Money Is Enough?

I've been thinking a lot lately about income.  With Mike on orders, we've had a surplus land in our laps and you'd better believe I'm killing off entire bills left and right.

When he's done and back taking classes, our monthly income should look like this:
  • $800 on the 1st (Jennie)
  • $1776 on the 7th (GI Bill)
  • $800 on the 15th (Jennie)
  • $359 after the 15th (drill pay)
That's about $3,700 for the total month.   

Sometimes I feel guilty that we have a lot of money and aren't being frugal enough.  I mean, I think almost $4,000 a month is a lot of money.  Surely that's more than enough to meet one's needs.

You have enough!
I used to think that if I had a 40K salary (as an individual), that would be ideal.  There's so much you could do with that.  

But, technically, our new monthly income would equal 40K a year.  

I often feel as if we're not doing enough with our money.  When I think about our income in one lump sum, I ask, surely we could be putting more on credit cards?  Surely we could spend less on going out to eat?  Surely we could lower our utility bill?  Surely we didn't have to go out for drinks with friends?

I call this attitude economic guilt.

Def: Feelings of guilt stemming from average or common spending habits.  The need to question if every purchase was responsible, worthwhile, or fiscally sound.  The lack of pride in one's economic success.

There's being responsible with your money, and then there's questioning every single move to the point that you ruin your confidence about what you're doing.

I'm in the latter category.  I'm always comparing the amount of "extra purchases" to a bill I could have paid. 

Wow, that dinner out cost $30.  I could have put that on a credit card.

Ugh, that car repair was worth one month of rent.

Dang, that amount of groceries was equal to a tank of gas.

I fully acknowledge that this thought pattern can be helpful, but not for every single time you swipe your debit card.  All you end up doing is feeling remorse that you didn't hold back more, even if you were getting essentials like milk and cat litter.

I would love to be in a position where I wasn't worrying so much about money.  I'm not saying spending without a care, but making purchases and assuring myself I didn't sacrifice our finances in another area.
Mike and I had a discussion the other day based on this one question:

How much is enough money for us?

We know our combined salaries are currently hovering around 45k.  It does what it needs to - puts food on the table, keeps the bills current, and fills the truck with gas.  But it doesn't give us much wiggle room.


That's our number.  That's the level at which we could achieve a "comfortable" financial footing. 

We figure an extra 10k a year would give us the padding we need for a savings account, debt reduction, retirement planning, a second car, and maybe even a vacation.

Naturally, that's still kind of low.  I can't imagine what it would be like to be a couple that brings in $60-80,000 a year together.  Can you imagine the possibilities!?

At any rate, if we were to move or seek other jobs, we now have a salary goal in mind.  It's a helpful point of reference and something good to ponder no matter where you're sitting at.

What would it take for you to live comfortably?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Counting Calories on the Cheap

With the recent commencement of mandatory biking, I thought it would be prudent to finally start tracking calories.  After actually moving your butt, this is always the #2 piece of advice for losing weight/managing your health.

A coworker brought My Fitness Pal to my attention after showing me the app of her iPhone.  It's a free online tool that lets you track calories, exercise, and goals.  It also provides an e-community, if you're into that kind of thing.
I've always been resistant to counting calories.  As an avid home cook, it's a pain in the arse to calculate calories from scratch.  

But there's no question that even a simple food diary can be a wake-up call.  So when I saw how easy it was to log them online, I thought I'd give it a whirl again.

Here's an example of logging food with My Fitness Pal.  They have an extensive database of brands so I've personally found it easy to use.  On the odd occasion they don't have your food in question, you can simply enter it once and then it's part of their collection.

Best part - you can save meals.  You can take a grouping of ingredients (yogurt, raspberries, and juice) and save it as "Smoothie", putting all that nutritional data in one place that you can return to.

For example, today I save "Refried Bean Burrito" - 1 tortilla shell, 1/4 c refried beans, 1oz colby jack cheese, and 1 T taco sauce.  Instead of having to log 4 items each time, now that whole meal is saved.  (PS - it's very healthy and tasty!  And cheap ...)

Here is an example of tracking your exercise time and calories burned.  Like food, you just enter the type of exercise and the duration - it calculates the calories for you.  I like how it shows where you are sitting with your goals.

Speaking of goals, the program also adds your food and exercise together so you can see if you're hitting your target every day.  You can also log in with weight or different body measures (like waist or bust). 

For me, this tool is enormously helpful.  I can immediately see how well or poorly I'm eating.  As a visual person, this is accessible and quick.  

So far, I've found that my main weaknesses are:
  • Too many calories on non-exercise days (by under 300, but still ...)
  • A tendency to go over on fat (work food days ... I'm looking at you)
  • Under on fiber (if not making a concerted effort)

I used to think I was a "neutral eater" - neither bad like a junk food junkie but not anything to brag about either.

Now, when I see my food choices for the day, I understand that anything but healthy is counterproductive.  There is no such thing as being neutral when it comes to food.  

I am the typical American diet - just not the drive-through/processed foods extreme.

<looks disgusted at self>

With that embarrassing admission out of the way, I have begun to slowly change my habits.  My biggest downfall is fruits and veggies.  I have never eaten enough and as a recovering picky eat, there are still vast foods that I will not touch.

Today went really well though - I had a plum, an apple, 1.5 cups of spinach, and spaghetti sauce that has 2 servings of veggies.  

There's no doubt that eating the recommended amount of fruits/veggies would be a huge benefit to my health.  I just have to work at it, because it's terribly easy to me to skip them altogether.

Side note - take fresh corn, cut it off the cob, saute in a modest amount of butter = super awesome!

Anyways ... :)

So I wrote this post on my own volition - I am not being paid under the table by anyone, lol.  I know there are a million tools out that this same thing - some free, others not.

Question of the Day: What tools have you used and how well do/did you like them?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

7 Questions About Being Carless

Week 4 of the "Jennie-only-has-a-bike-while-Mike-is-in-another-part-of-the-state" saga has closed.

Instead of having only a week left (as originally planned), we just learned that Mike is being held in Des Moines into the month of July.  All signs indicate he will be there for another 3-6 weeks.

To give you a proper update, I'm going to answer some questions I've received through Facebook and from friends and coworkers: 

What's your biking routine?
Because I'm terribly out of shape, biking has been more challenging than I expected.  In 3 weeks, I have biked to work 12 times.

I ride on a bike trail that follows the Cedar River, which keeps me out of traffic and goes right behind my office.  On average, it takes me 30-35 minutes to get to work and 40-50 minutes to get home.

The trail is very hilly. I'm sure it's not challenging for hardcore bikers, but I am a sweaty mess at the end of each ride.

What has been the hardest thing?
For the first two weeks, I experienced daily headaches and shoulder pain.  I was also extremely tired, all leading to a great amount of frustration.

I learned 3 things about my body during this time:
  • My shoulder pain was caused from wearing a backpack.  Since college, I've had mild shoulder problems (I suspect years of marching band might be a factor ...), but even a light weight resting on them can inflame a nerve.  Now I strap my backpack to my handlebars.
  • To ease tiredness, I have to be in bed around 9pm and get around 9+ hours of sleep. 
  • My headaches were from dehydration.  On normal days, I drink over 100 oz of water.  When I bike, I have to push that to 250 oz, including a liter (4 cups) before I head out in the morning.  I just have to honor what my body needs, even though that's a ridiculous amount of water.
I drink 4 times this a day  (source)
What has been your greatest success?
Biking has one goal - get to Point A.  It's easy to feel successful at the end of each and every ride.  You can always say, "Yay!  I made it!"

My biggest success is that I rode into work all 5 days for the first time last week.  It was 6.5 hours, or 400 minutes.  I had been working my way up to this goal for several weeks and now I know I can do it.

I also have been shaving time off of my ride to work.  When we first got our bikes, it took around 40 minutes to ride in.  Now, I can get there in 30-33 minutes.    

Do you feel healthier?
This is a hard one.  Weight-wise, the scale indicates I've lost 3 pounds.  I look in the mirror and see a little slimming, but not enough for anyone else to notice.

Clearly I've been getting faster, so that means I'm building muscle and getting more efficient.

However, I'm still dead tired at the end of each day.  That rush of endorphins you're supposed to get after exercising?  I've yet to experience that. 

I do know, as I've been tracking calories in a food diary, that I need to eat much much healthier to sustain this level of activity. 
Have you thought about buying a car or getting a rental?
Mike and I are really proud that we've made our one-car situation work since last October.  However, him being on orders has thrown a wrench into everything.

We cannot afford a second car at this time.  Sure, we could get a loan, but that would be completely irresponsible because of our current debt load.  We simply cannot add another monthly payment to our long list.  Hence why we got the bikes, so it would be a little easier to share one car.

We're also resistant to the idea of buying a clunker.  There's nothing worse than unexpected and frequent car repairs.  We don't want to put ourselves in a situation where we've willingly taken on a budget drain.

No more lemons!
Rental cars are expensive.  I got one last weekend to attend a friend's bachelorette party.  So as not to concern her, I won't disclose how much it was, but it was waaay more than necessary.  Of course, it was worth every penny to have two days of independence and freedom.

To our best knowledge, a rental car (in our area) will cost about $900 a month - that's $700 for the actual car and $200 in fees and taxes.  Cute.

In two weeks though, I will have to get a rental.  After July 4th, I start teaching again - one night in Waterloo, the next in Cedar Rapids.  I must have a set of wheels to not only travel an hour, but get back home in time to show up for class not looking like a mess.  I'm also in a wedding and would have to spend 3 days biking there, lol.

Renting a car isn't ideal, but we're down to limited options. No one said being fiscally responsible is easy. 

Is it hard being away from each other?
Not entirely.

We're a very independent and self-sufficient couple.  Out of the 10 years we've been together, 5 have been long distance.  It's not exactly routine, but it's also not a shock either when orders/deployments happen.

And unlike a deployment, Mike is stateside, has access to the internet, is not in a war zone, and can text/call.  It's more like he's on an extended business trip than anything.

Not us, but they're adorable! (source)

That doesn't mean that we don't miss each other and such, but separation is just an accepted part of our relationship.  Our life is set up so it can easily switch gears when Mike needs to do his thing.

How has the situation affected your finances?
In short, it's thrown everything out of wack.

It's very difficult to determine how much money we're saving.  Though I'm not using a car, Mike is driving through several quadrants of Des Moines for work.  He is also paying $18 a day for lodging.  Then there are his food needs, and he only has a microwave.

I have to make a huge effort to get anywhere to spend money, so in many ways that's good.  Eating out has virtually been banished, though Casey's pizza is hard to resist some nights.  On the other hand, I try to stock up for several weeks of groceries at a time, making some trips larger than others.

Now, Mike is getting paid for being on orders.  And while there's info out there on how much that should be, it's the military.  His pay has been delay, part of it has been shorted, and some expenses (like lodging) will be reimbursed after his orders are through.

So we're using any and all income with extreme hesitation.  I just killed off the leftover loan we took out for rent back in February ($500) and paid off a credit card ($400).  The rest is going directly into savings.  

Loading up savings will be important as Mike will not be taking classes the next school term.  Oddly enough, it's the same term I'll start teaching and my pay from that will make up for his GI Bill being on hold.

However, it looks like there will be a gap in our incomes in August between when his orders pay stops and his GI Bill payments start back up.  So the more we squirrel away to savings, the better we'll be able to handle that.

And that's where we're sitting!  We've appreciated all of the support.  Let me know if you have other questions!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Book Ban of 2011

Warning - I'm about to betray all of those in the English field and lovers of books.

I just instituted a self-imposed book ban.

A buying ban, that is.

The back story on this is that bibliophiles can collect books at an alarming rate.  Mike and I both love books, so you can imagine how many we have together.

We also have half another shelf with coffee table books.  This is pretty modest, really.
Several years back, I made peace with books and did a MASSIVE purge.  When you move a lot, books are literally a pain in the back.  I limited myself to books that I absolutely had to have - coffee table books, ones that had special meaning/were gifts, select textbooks, teaching materials, and classics I would reread again and again.

I got rid of everything that I could easily find at a local library.  The rejects went to Goodwill / the free bookshelf at UNI.

So, I was recently in Barnes and Noble drooling over some tempting offers when a thought began to gnaw at the back of my brain.   

I still have many books at home.  Ones I deliberately kept because I would reread them.  Why am I not enjoying them again?  

I thus decided that I would not buy any new books until I had reread all of the ones I kept.  Well, maybe not all, but I need to work my way through a significant portion before a new book joins them!

Why the ban you ask?  Aren't books relatively cheap?  Isn't the purchase of one book a simple reward, even an intellectual reward?

Absolutely.  However, I'm trying to view everything that we own as a resource.  Something to take advantage of.  Right now seems like the perfect time to do as I planned and get cozy with some old favorites.

Currently, I have these familiar friend on my nightstand.

The Hobbit

Such a cheesy cover!
I have a soft spot for Tolkien.  I read The Hobbit and the LOTR Trilogy way back in high school - my one and only time.  I loved them, was ahead of my classmates in reading them, and felt they were challenging reads.
Then the movies came out my senior year / first two years of college.  I loved those even more and they became a yearly tradition with my group of friends at the time.

Now that Peter Jackson is finally in production for The Hobbit, I'm closely following all news related to the movies.  With it on my radar again, I wanted to refamiliarize myself with Bilbo's adventures.

Let me tell you, it has been delightful making my way through Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain. I am positively giddy imagining how Jackson is going to handle some of the key scenes!  I canNOT wait until 2012 and 2013!!!!

It's also fun to see how much my reading skills have grown.  The Hobbit is positively simple and very accessible.  How was this ever hard?!  

I have 5 chapters left, which I should be finishing tomorrow, and then will proceed to the Trilogy. 

The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

I have always been a voracious consumer of detective fiction.  To my recollection, Sherlock Holmes was one of the first that I cut my teeth on.

As with Tolkien, it has been since high school that Sherlock, Watson, and I went dashing about the streets of London in hansoms and clever costumes. 

Side Note - my love for Holmes recently got transferred to my new favorite series, The Beekeeper's Apprentice or the Mary Russell books.  There's many fan series out there, but throw a sassy, academic female partner with Holmes and you've got my attention.

Anyways, when the latest Holmes movie came out with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, I was not pleased.  I am never a book snob when it comes to adaptation, but for some reason, Guy Ritchie's version of Holmes was not at all what I was expecting nor what I wanted out of a big-budget reinvention.  

I was so disgusted, I drew the ire of my movie companions that night.  So, to make amends and support my verdict, I'm going back to the source material to determine if I was a complete ass or justified in my opinion.  

So far, I'm sticking to my guns, but I'll make a full report once I've rewatched the movie :)

Question of the Day: Which books will never leave your shelves?  What are you currently reading?