Sunday, December 29, 2013

Why I Don't Automate Bill Pay

This year has been crazy with our budget. We've had joint finances for over eight years, but this is the first time we have ever had dual incomes! Our annual pull isn't that much different, but steady paychecks that we can rely on is a whole new world. One thing that hasn't changed is how I pay our bills. 

I don't use automatic bill pay.

The reason stems back to how our finances used to be - totally unpredictable. Mike's GI payments for school never showed up with any consistency and neither did his drill checks.  Each had about a week buffer for when they would nonchalantly appear in checking (and that was the months when they showed up at all ...). My income was steady at least, but it wasn't enough to handle all of our bills each pay period and leave us with enough leftover for groceries.  

I simply never had the confidence that we'd have enough money in our account when a bill was scheduled to withdraw. I was more worried about overdraft penalties than late fees!

Even though our income is more steady now, Mike's paychecks still come in irregularly. He gets paid somewhere around the 10th and 25th, but there's no pattern I can discern. December was the 24th and 10th, both Tuesdays. November was the 28th (Thursday) and 8th (Friday). October was the 25th (Friday) and 10th (Thursday). Nonsense, I tell you! And obviously still too risky for automatic payments.

Even if this wasn't the case, I like being hands-on with our finances far too much to cede control to a computer program. It's not a mistrust in technology or companies to handle my payments for me - I simply want to be the one to initiate the process.

I even pay all of our bills online, but I do so by hand. I log into each account, review the charges, determine the payment, print off the receipt and statement, and file away the hard copies. I suppose this is an "ancient" way to deal with bills. I could be simplifying our bills by automating the process and saving transactions as PDFs. 

But I like the accountability of paying bills individually. It forces me to interact with each and every paycheck, debt, and expense line. There is something quite valuable in monitoring money going in and out. It makes you confront your economic reality and take ownership of every aspect of your finances.

That's the problem with automatic bill pay - it comes with the risk of going on autopilot with your money. If you're not keeping tabs on things, the approach can be very passive. And that's the furthest thing I want to be with our budget.

To be fair, I'm not knocking those who use automatic payments. It can be a really useful tool if you need regulated discipline, you're forgetful about bills, or you don't want to worry about late fees. This article from the Washington Post gives a nice overview of the pros and cons. If Mike was the one doing finances, oh man, I would automate everything! Love him dearly, but his memory is not up to the task ...

In fact, we have several bills that we were required to have automated: car loan, internet, water, Netflix, and a payment for disability insurance (picks up where my company's coverage leaves off, if you're curious).

By and large, I don't mind these. The car and internet bills come out the first of the month. This is good because both of those are necessities and having them yanked would be a major disruption. The car loan sends a paper statement so we can see our progress and the internet bill is fixed. Netflix is also static and comes out routinely, as is the $10 insurance payment.   

The water bill is the one that drives me nuts. First of all, it comes every two months. It's our only bill that doesn't come in every month. Secondly, our city only offers two payment methods: check or automatic withdrawal. I'm not mailing a check that takes a week to cash! 

The one that really gets me is the due date is somewhere around the 28th. It's always right before payday when our account is nearly empty. On months the water comes in, I have to remember when I'm paying bills on the 15th to make sure we leave a buffer in checking for that darn water payment. Sigh ...

Everything else - student loans, electricity/gas, phone, and credit cards - are all done by logging in online. Rent is another story, but we pay two months at a time and by check. 

I even have a hard copy of our monthly expenses that I work off of. Every account we have, whether it's active or not, is listed here. Bills are divided up by whether they come out the 1st or 15th of month. It also includes payment averages for variable bills and a blank space to note what they actually were. I also leave some lines for irregular items, like medical bills that pop up periodically. 

Screenshot of our monthly expense sheet
It's a super simple Word doc. It's not even a budget in any sense, just more of an overview of all of our obligations. Nonetheless, it helps to have those ballparks outlined so we always have an idea of what we're up against. And even though my financial brain farts are pretty rare, the printout also ensures that I don't overlook any accounts. 

I suppose I could joke and say that paying bills by hand comes down to control issues, but why wouldn't you want to be in the driver's seat when it comes to your hard-earned money? I've found this method really works for us and it's one I can't see abandoning anytime soon.

How do you manage bill payments?  

Sunday, December 8, 2013

My First Grain-Free Thanksgiving

Most days, my food allergies are manageable. There's a regularity to what we eat, how I prepare for business trips, and navigate going out to eat. Staying safe while consuming food is not something that I have to battle anymore, just calmly prepare for and execute.   

Until the holidays arrive.  

For anyone with food sensitivities, the holidays can wear down even the most seasoned allergy warrior. No matter how much you try to normalize your restrictions, you will run into your limitations in full force. Every family gathering, holiday party, company potluck, and even meals while traveling can be a mine field for contamination. 
Freedom from Want by Norman Rockwell
For some, there's also a twinge of longing when surrounded by foods that are off limits. The regret doesn't come from a superficial craving for a frosted sugar cookie, but a desire to take part in family traditions. But if you have to forgo certain foods, there's a little piece of your heritage that you're missing out on.  

For me, my aunt's peanut brittle, my mom's recipe for Red Velvet Cake that we had at our wedding, and my family's Pennsylvania Dutch sugar cookies (flavored with almond extract) that will only be tastes in my memory.

But this is not a sob story about food and the holidays. This is about rising to the challenge of food allergies and turning compromises into yummy substitutes. This is showing people that no matter what is off limits in your diet, there's a wealth of beautiful, wholesome food that will tickle the taste buds and delight the senses.   

This is an ode to creating new memories.

William Lockhart Made the First Thanksgiving 1621 by Jean Leone Gerome Ferris
Last Thanksgiving, I was on my way to cutting out gluten. I had scaled back greatly but was still indulging in small quantities of wheat here and there. In fact, Thanksgiving was my deadline for going gluten-free. I was going to enjoy one last meal without hesitation and make the final plunge from there. 

Now that I'm well into eating not only gluten-free, but grain-free, I saw that Thanksgiving this year was going to be complicated if we went anywhere. Wheat would be easy to avoid, but figuring out if corn had gotten into anything?  Almost impossible unless I made the meal myself. Sending a family member a long list of "can't haves" and then quizzing them on every brand and ingredient that went into each and every dish? Couldn't stomach the idea.  

So we decided to stay rooted at home and were joined by my parents. Thus began a few weeks of exploring recipes and a few trial runs before settling on the final menu.

I've actually never seen a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving ...
I feel very fortunate that grain-free eating actually makes a traditional Thanksgiving meal impossible. I didn't have to mess with trying to adapt stuffing, rolls, pie crust, or gravy. I cannot imagine the stress of those trying to force rice, coconut, and almond flours into something that bakes and tastes like their traditional counterparts. For me, the challenge was to have a multi-course meal that fit everyone's tastes.

We started off with a cheese and fruit tray, filled with smoked gouda and Edam cheese (courtesy of Aldi's for $2.99 a brick) and grapes, clementines, and chopped apples that my mom supplied. 

Taking a page from Mike's Thanksgivings growing up, we did a brined turkey. It surprises me how many people have never tried this before! You simply give the turkey a bath in a salt and water solution for a few days (Alton Brown explains the process in an easy way to understand).

You can add a million flavors to brines, such as sugars (regular or juice), citrus peels, fresh herbs, and whole spices. We kept things simple and did one cup of salt, one cup of white sugar, and enough water to cover our 12lb turkey. Our bird hung out in the bath for a day and a half and was drained over night (which did produce the crispy, golden skin as promised but mostly on the top). Didn't even bother to stuff the cavity with anything either.

Don't let his face fool you, Mike is excited for turkey!

To complement the star dish, I made an apple-cherry salad.  This recipe is so simple and it's in our regular meal rotation (I'm on onion hater, so we skipped the red onions). I offered dried cranberries or cherries, shredded parmesan (which came from a block that I grated myself), green apples (though any kind will do), and used a mustard made from apple cider vinegar in the dressing. It's an excellent mix of zippy, sweet, and salt.

In the background, loaf of a bread from a local bakery for the normal folks.  
You can't have Thanksgiving without an appearance from potatoes, so I made a gratin (I kind of threw mine together, but this is a close version). I used half and half, a touch of leftover evaporated milk from pie (see below), and threw some extra parmesan on top at the end. It came out well, but took longer than expected.  Should have realized that most gratins bake at 400 degrees and I put mine in the last hour of the turkey, which was at 325. I also used red potatoes instead of Russets, which apparently have a longer cook time (difference in starch levels, perhaps?).

I also made my first homemade cranberry sauce. I, like many others, grew up on the canned stuff but never cared for it.  Mike grew up with cranberry relish or chutney and I was converted the first time I tried his mom's. I decided to give a plain sauce a whirl and could not believe how stupidly easy it was to make. I consulted several recipes and found that the cranberry to water + sugar ratio varies wildly.  

So I did 12oz of fresh cranberry (a whole whopping $1 at Aldi's), a cup of water, 1/2 cup of white sugar, and the peel of a whole orange. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. That's it! Most of the berries will burst on their own, leaving lots of juice to thicken the sauce and little chunks for variation. Look at the beautiful color! Next time I'd like to add a touch more sugar and maybe some cinnamon sticks. 

If everyone wasn't stuffed by then, I also made sure there were two dessert options. I love pumpkin pie and it's ridiculously easy to make pumpkin custard. You can take any pumpkin pie recipe and simply make it without the crust - no other changes!  

I made this maple-cinnamon one and use evaporated milk instead of regular. We used fresh pumpkin puree that we made ourselves (you can roast whole pumpkins and then blend the innards using this method). I also got heavy cream, threw a little maple syrup in it, and made real whipped cream to dollop on top.

Because there must be at least two dessert options, I also made a flourless chocolate cake. My mom and I are chocoholics and Mike has a Gollum-esque penchant for chocolate desserts, particularly cake. This recipe is super easy to make and is basically sugar, chocolate, cocoa powder, and eggs (I skipped the ganache). I replaced maple syrup for vanilla to achieve a comparable background flavor and skipped the liquor in the recipe for fresh squeezed orange juice (the other end use for the whole orange - waste not want not!).    

All in all, we had a delightful, low-fuss Thanksgiving. I estimate the meal was around $35. Aside from the turkey, nothing was really a premium ingredient. By comparison, a traditional meal (so not gluten free) for 10 people is around $50, according to the Farm Bureau.  

We used the HyVee coupon for buy a ham, get a turkey free, spending $23 on almost 30 pounds of meat (the ham is being donated to the food bank).  

Turkey (12lbs).........$11.50 (with HyVee coupon)
Apples....................$3 (but only used 2 from a 5lb bag)
Gruyere..................$3 (only used half block)
Edam.....................$3 (same)
Baker's chocolate..$2.50
Bread loaf..............$2
Heavy cream.........$1.50
Miscellaneous........$1 (for all the butter, spices, sugar, maple syrup, eggs, oil olive)

I think we did a good job with keeping costs low without sacrificing quality. Mike and I also had a manageable amount of leftovers for two additional meals. I'm pretty sure we could feed two additional people for the same price, though there would be no leftovers in that case. 
Spot the cat
What did you eat for Thanksgiving this year?