Friday, June 29, 2007

Vacation highlights

For those of my loyal fans who have been eagerly awaiting my return, I am back. Here, in brief, is my vacation:

-We went "home" to the town where we grew up for a friend's wedding. It was beautiful.
-We stayed with family and hopped from house to house often enough that no one started driving us crazy and no one resented us or felt left out.
-We visited every relative and high school friend within a 100 mile radius. We ended up filling up gas tanks in borrowed cars three times in a week.
-We were in cars where the battery died and we had to wait for a jump. Twice. Yes, twice.
-We ate restaurant food for dinner every single night (somehow at little to no expense to us.)
-We spent 11 hours on a plane trying to get to Dallas Fort Worth airport to get home, then slept in chairs in the airport (because they ran out of cots) waiting for our morning connection.

I now need a vacation from my vacation, but I got back yesterday morning and had to do a super important presentation for work. Now I have to sort through a week's mail and unpack, mail two movies that sold while we were gone, and buy groceries. I also have to go by my "real" job this afternoon for an indeterminate amount of time to work stuf out for fall.

Uggggh. I'll try to post later with something more on topic and will get a challenge update in as soon as I get organized enough.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Break even week 2 update

So, it’s been another dismal week in the break even challenge. I’m just not making nearly as much money as I expected to be, and I once again way overspent on entertainment. We went to a local festival this Saturday, and had pre-ordered dinner plates for $12 each, so that the whole thing would fit into our local budget, but ended up spending another $25 while we were there on drinks and activities. Then, even though we were already $24 over our budget, we went out Monday to our favorite buffet on BOGO night and spent another $8.

Do I regret spending the money? It’s iffy. We had an amazing time at the festival, and it’s not the kind of thing that happens every day, but if we don’t have the money, we just don’t have the money. The thing is, this experiment is phony in its way because we really have a pretty significant cash cushion built up - hubby has no expectation of me breaking even this summer – so, in essence, we do have the money, I just don’t want to spend it all. The ideal thing would be if I was making enough money, and frugalling enough in places that don’t hurt, that I could afford to write in unexpected events like this when making our budget. It’s important to enjoy life, but I enjoy things a lot more when I can afford them. Maybe instead of having a weekly entertainment budget, I should have a monthly entertainment budget. That way if we want to spend an extra $25 at a festival, that’s just money we won’t be allowed to spend on entertainment for the rest of the month.

As for the earning, it’s been pretty weak. I decided to buckle down and grade essays because I needed cashflow more than I needed long term earnings, but then there weren’t any essays to grade. I have some big, high paying opportunities coming up in the next couple weeks for my job, and I have another 6 hours a week of tutoring work starting at the beginning of July, which will just about double what I’m making now in that area. I have a bunch of articles submitted to AC, and am just waiting for the offers, but who knows how long it will take them or what they will decide to offer. I also have some money in the works and awaiting payout from offers sites, and I have a lot of rebates out, but both of those things could take ages to get back. So right now, I’m just going to keep working as much as I can and keep writing and once again hope that by the end of the summer, it will all come out in the wash.

We’re going to visit family for a week, so we bought almost no groceries this week and worked on cleaning out or fridge. All we bought was a tomato and some peaches, so we are $45 under budget. I also got another free box of cereal from CVS, and am pretty psyched about the fact that I pretty much never have to buy cereal again.

Totals for the week:

Break even number $420
+32 over budget entertainment
-45 under budget groceries
-$120 tutoring
-$18 Essay Grading
-$8 Associated Content Payout
-$11.34 Survey payout
-$.94 rebate check
-$1.50 book sold on Amazon
237 deficit
Total for summer 532 deficit

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Test Prep on the Cheap

I took a really ugly and painful test for teacher certification in my state this Saturday. I had forgotten about the test until about a month before, and then put off studying until about a week before. I didn't have any books, certainly didn't have time to take a prep class, and just needed to get a basic idea of what was going to be on the test and what my approach should be. My dirty little secret is that I teach and tutor test prep classes for a major company but have never used more than my Internet connection and free materials to study for any test I've taken (including the SAT, GRE, Praxis I and II, and various state tests).

The basic list of things I think it's important to know about a test before taking it includes:
1. The content range of the test
2. The structure, format, and length of the test
3. The position and any biases of the test makers
4. The way in which the test is scored
5. The approximate difficulty of the questions

With that in mind, here's how I prepped for the test I just took.

1. I started with the webpage belonging to the company giving my test (in this case, as in most, ETS). Generally, they will provide some of the most basic information, such as how many questions and how long. This gives you a starting point for generating a strategy.
2. I took the practice questions given on ETS's site. This gave me a general idea of what questions looked like and how hard they were.
3. I checked my answers to ETS's test. I used that, and the bibliography offered, to get an idea of what they were looking for. (For example, I saw Nancie Atwell in the list of suggested readings, so I know that they prefer a writing workshop constructivist approach to writing. Good news for me.)
4. I made notes on areas of weakness or confusion and kept that list on a notepad next to my desk.
5. I searched for the name of my test on google. Several sites came up, mostly belonging to colleges, with general tips for test day. A few offered syllabi of the covered material. I made notes on topics I didn't know on my notepad.
6. I went to Amazon and searched for my test type. My Internet research had given me the names of a few books and I started with those. I used the search within this book feature and read as much as I could until Amazon cut me off.
7. I used my notes on topics of weakness to do further Internet reading into genres, time periods, and theories I needed to review.
8. I doublechecked my admission ticket, sharpened some pencils, and went to bed.

That's it, that's all I did. Now, if I'd been a little more dedicated, I could have spent some time in the library, but for an hour a day for 5 days, this provided a pretty good background.

When I took the GRE, I spent more time but not any more money. Fortunately for you if this is what you're doing, there are a lot more online materials available. Do similar research, and you will find interactive vocab flashcards, math reviews, and about 10 full length practice tests you can take.

I'd be out of a part time job if I talked everyone out of test prep classes, but unless you have trouble self-motivating or have a serious weakness in a major area covered by the test, you can do most of your test prep without the major expense.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Brainless and Painless ways I earn extra money online

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the vast majority of money I earn this summer for my Break even challenge is going to be from doing actual work, whether it’s tutoring, grading essays or writing. Still, it’s good to have a few ways that I can earn some extra money without having to put in any brainpower. When I was teaching all day, these extra money makers were about all I could handle, and now these are what I like to do at night while watching TV, or in the morning while I’m eating breakfast. They won’t bring in a fortune, but they bring in a little extra money. While the time input can be significant, the mental input is minimal, which makes it sound like a pretty good deal to me.

Disclaimer: Many of the links below are referral links, which means I make money if you sign up through them. Feel free to delete the referral stuff from the end of the URL and refresh before signing up if you would prefer not to use my info.

Paid to complete offers

This is probably the most lucrative of the brainless money makers bunch, for me at least. You sign up for offers, usually either free sites or trial offers of sites, and money credits to your account. The free offers are no brainers, and the trial offers can net you even more money, as long as you keep careful records and remember to cancel. To be honest, once I went a day over with a trial offer, and though I was initially charged for a month’s service it was credited back to my card within a week. That may not, however, be the norm, so try not to make that kind of mistake. The monthly fees can quickly outweigh whatever you may earn.

I started out using Instant Profitz, who at the time (and may still) had the highest payouts for individual offers. I got frustrated, though, with many offers not crediting. Now I primarily use Deal Barbie Pays. Deal Barbie is much more reliable, and when something doesn’t credit, you can always get in touch with someone personally to find out why. From Deal Barbie, I make about $1 for most free signups, and as much as $20 for most standard trials. Higher risk, or higher initial investment, yields higher returns, but I don’t usually go that far.

I’ve recently also signed up with Cash Crate, and will let you know how that goes.

Surveys

Surveys are pretty average online money makers. They can range from less than $1 to about $20 per survey - with the higher end being extremely rare. It's important to evaluate a survey's compensation policy before you spend a lot of time taking surveys. Some companies don't pay you money at all but simply give you entries into sweepstakes.

My survey is the company I’ve been with the longest. They give a reasonable number of surveys and have, on occasion sent products. The best thing about them is that they pay for screeners even if you don’t qualify for the full survey. I get the $10 payout a couple of times a year.

MyView sends me the most surveys per month, and pays out pretty regularly, but I can’t find on their website how to sign up. You can go to their site and see if you can figure it out.

I’ve also been paid by Your2Cents, Viewpoint forum, and by Lightspeed Panel.

Paid to click

These are at the bottom of the totem pole as far as money making is concerned, but I still enjoy them because they are JUST SO EASY. Many of these require you to view an ad for at least 15 seconds before they give you credit. My trick is that I use tabbed browsing to do other things while clicking. That way I can get paid to click while reading blogs, taking surveys, or writing.

Awesome Emails 4 U has been around long enough to be trustworthy, and it has a really great webmistress who likes to give early payouts and bonuses.

Classical Mail has a much lower payout which is easy to reach (only 50 cents), but recently they’ve had some trouble and significantly decreased the number of ads they offer. I still make about 2 cents a day for 3 ads, so I reach the payout amount every month with little effort.

Inbox Dollars, Send Earnings, and Snap Dollars are a little different in that they don’t require you to stay on a site for any amount of time. They pay just for a click through from your email, and also pay for offers you complete or actions that you take.

2nd anniversary Carnival of Personal Finance at Get Rich Slowly

It's hard to believe the Carnival has been around for two years, but the 2nd anniversary carnival is up at Get Rich Slowly today.

The Carnival is a greatest hits carnival with some of the best articles of all time from PF bloggers around the web. I'm just honored to be in the presence of some of these writers. Go check it out, there's some great stuff!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Friday Freebies 6/15

Here are some of the freebies I've found this week:

Diabetes blood sugar meter
Knorr veggie sides
Olay foundation and lip color
Post chocolate shredded wheat
Aveeno ageless

Enjoy!

Free and easy ways to help charities

One of my biggest goals for my money is to be able to help people more. Right now, when I’m in a position where I have a lot of time, but not a lot of money, I’m always looking for creative and low cost ways to help charities. Over the years, I’ve developed an arsenal of ways to help, from the low commitment/low impact to the high commitment/high impact, and have gone in and out of using them over time.

Super Low Commitment

1. Click Probably the easiest way to help charities is to spend about two minutes every day on click to donate sites. These are sites that accumulate sponsors willing to donate a set amount of money to charity per page view, click, or action. The click amounts generally range from about 2 cents per click to about 25 cents, with an occasional temporary click drive that pays up to $1 per click. The original click site is The Hunger Site, which has now expanded to serve several causes, including Breast Cancer research and Rainforest protection. My personal favorite is the Care2 races, which also include a lot of content, tips, and information. When I have more time, I go to this click to donate index and try to click on as many extra sites as I can. I figure every little bit helps!

2. Search I recently discovered a search site called Search Kindly, which uses Google’s engine, but donates proceeds to charity. You can even add it to your search box in IE, making it just as easy as searching Google, but with a benefit to charity.

3. Email For my primary web mail, I use Planet Save Email in place of Yahoo or Hotmail. It’s a free email server that, to me, is just as good as the big ones, but donates a portion of profits to rainforest preservation. They have had a few glitches in the past but seem to have resolved them. Other sites that offer free charity webmail support Breast Cancer Research and the environment.

Slightly More Commitment

4. Donate old stuff Suze Orman and Flylady both say that when you have a yard sale or sell your old stuff, you will never get its value back. When you donate it, it retains its value. This is so true. I take bags of clothes to the Goodwill, give magazines to preschools and high school art teachers, and give books to schools and libraries whenever I see drives.

5. Donate free stuff Through couponing and rebating, I get a lot of stuff for free consistently, particularly shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, and feminine supplies. Once I’ve stockpiled enough of this to last three months, I don’t really want to keep storing it, but I keep buying it and donate it to my local foodbank. Shelters, particularly women’s shelters, often want this stuff too. One homeless shelter in my area particularly prefers travel size shampoo, deodorant and toothpaste – all of which I have in abundance from couponing and from freebies.

6. Clip and save There are many things you can clip and save that may not benefit you but would benefit someone else. The one that comes to mind is Boxtops for Education. Each box top you clip and give to a local school costs you nothing and gives that school 10 cents to use toward supplies. Campbells soup has a similar program.

Another thing you can clip is coupons. Coupons you don’t need, including expired coupons, can be sent to and used by military personnel on base, many of whom live at or below the poverty line.


Stay tuned for higher commitment/higher impact ways to help!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Break even challenge Week 1 Update

So this week was a miserable failure in the break even challenge. I had a huge deficit between how much money I made and how much it cost me to live. That means that this week I’m eating into my savings cushion. I’m not sure yet if it’s because of how I’m accounting this, because I started slow, because I just didn’t work at this seriously enough, or because it’s a flawed concept.

I decided to account for click, survey, rebate, and paid offer earnings when I got the money and not when I completed the offer, a decision I still stand by because of all the uncertainty associated with these things. However, because these things can take up to two months, I may complete these actions this week but not get the money for 2 months. This is more of a long term thing than it is a weekly thing. But that’s okay, I believe that if I keep totals it will all come out in the wash.

I started my part time job this Tuesday, so I basically took all of last week off. On days when I work 2 hours tutoring, I have broken even for the day, so that makes it a lot easier. However, I am only working 3 days a week right now. That still leaves 4 days, or $240, that I need to make up in other ways. I’m starting to realize that’s a lot of money. I’m considering taking on my hours at my job to make this work. I think working 2 or 3 hours a day, 5 days a week would still be a pretty comfortable way to live.

I also went over budget in both groceries and entertainment this week. Groceries because I was stocking up, entertainment because, well. . . because I overspent. We saw a movie for $10 (for two of us! Hubby gets the student rate and everything is cheaper here than it was on the east coast), we went to lunch for $11 at a sandwich shop on Saturday, but then we went out to dinner on Sunday. We went to a fast casual burrito place but still somehow managed to spend $19. That puts us $15 over our entertainment budget, meaning I have to find a way to make $3 extra every day. When I think of it that way, it makes it a whole lot less appealing.

Tehnyit suggested that I account for increased fuel costs and other incidentals. As of right now, I am within my fuel budget for the month. I budgeted about $100 for each car, and while I put $30 of gas in my car last Thursday, I still have about half a tank so I think I’m okay. Even though I spend gas chasing deals, I think I still use less gas than I did when I was working every day.

Totals for the week
$420 bills
+$7 grocery overspending
+$15 entertainment overspending
$442 = break even number
-$120 tutoring
-$7 grading essays
-$5.07 Associated Content payment
-$1 rebate check
-$11 survey payments
-$2.93 profit after shipping for book sold on half.com
-$0.50 Paid to click payout
-$0.01 found a penny!

$294.49 deficit

Hopefully I'll make it up as the summer goes on

Festival of Frugality at Frugal Upstate

This week's Festival of frugality was hosted by Frugal Upstate who did a fantastic job. I love her commentary on each post. She also has a fantastic blog, so while you're there check it out!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Money mistakes

One of my favorite genres of pfblog posts is the money mistakes confession. I was recently reminded of this by the money mistakes posted at Wise Bread and thought I would join in the conversation.
In no particular order:

1. I bought more car than I could afford. Even though on a cognitive level I know that the correct question to ask is “Can I afford this car (in its entirety)?” I got caught up in things and thought it was sufficient to ask the question “Can I afford these payments?” I could. Then I ended up moving leaving my job to move across the country with my husband. Life changes. Payments follow you.

2. I ate fast food and drank expensive coffee on borrowed money. I’m so diligent about not racking up credit card debt, but somehow I wasn’t quite as diligent when it came to my student loans. While my husband has debt from his undergrad degree, I went to a state school for undergrad, and got a lot of scholarships, so I only needed student loans to stay for a fifth year and get my masters. I don’t really regret taking out loans for that. What I do regret is that, while I was living on my loan rebate checks, I spent money on stupid things like fast food hamburgers and Starbucks coffee. I should have been able to refuse a big chunk of that loan, or at least keep it in a high interest savings account and repay principal as soon as I got a job. Instead I spent it simply because I had it. Now I’m paying 6% interest on those latt├ęs.

3. I invested money I shouldn’t have . In spring of 2000, when I was a 19 year old college freshman, I had a $3000 CD mature. It wasn’t a whole lot of money, but it was money that I didn’t really need. It was birthday money that I had been saving for college since before I was old enough to know what that meant, and here I was 19 years old and going to school practically for free, and this money was all mine. A friend of mine told me it would be a great idea to invest it, so I bout $1000 of a nice safe S&P index fund. In 2000. Yeah, that 2000. Six months later, after my initial investment was almost cut in half, I bought another $1000 worth because I was averaging down, right? Woo hoo.

Even if I hadn’t timed the market so badly, it was still a bad idea for me to invest that money. Why? Because I couldn’t really afford to leave that money alone for the amount of time it takes. I did end up needing some of that money while I was in college, and I had to cash all of it out within two years of when I graduated. If I had just put that money in a high interest savings account or money market earning 4%, when I went to grad school I would have had about 3500. That would have paid my rent for 10 months. Money that you will need within 5 years should never be invested in the stock market. I learned that one the hard way.

I’m sure I’ve made more mistakes than that in my life, but those are my big ones that come to mind right away. What are yours?

Turning off my computer

I need to work on turning off my computer. Not turning off my computer at night or when I'm at work, I'm pretty good at that. What I need to work on is turning off my computer during the day when I'm at home and could hypothetically be on it. The power saving, over time, is noticeable, but that's not the whole reason to do it. The truth is, if my computer is on, I will find something to do on it. I will find something to do that I will call productive (like compulsively checking my bank accounts or blog stats), and before I know it, that will be my entire day. I say sometimes that I'm leaving it on to listen to podcasts while I clean, but then I take frequent breaks from cleaning to come back to my computer. I think I need to be reachable at all times by IM, but seriously? If it's important, people can call me.

I have a whole list of things I want to do, from writing in my journal to sorting my clothes for goodwill to sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee and relaxing. As long as this computer is on all day every day, though, I don't know if I will ever get to any of it. So, for now, I'm out.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Dress shopping (rant)

I'm going to a wedding in two weeks, and I went out yesterday to buy a dress. UGGGGH. Does anyone else hate dress shopping as much as I do? I mean, I'm sure that part of it has to do with the fact that I have a somewhat poor self image, so I don't like how I look in anything, and some of it has to do with the fact that I'm cheap (and dresses are freaking expensive!). But yesterday, I had money in my hand (or my budget anyway) and a mission, and - to be honest - a pretty good figure, and I just couldn't find anything I really liked. I started walking around department store dress sections and just became overwhelmed and anxious. So much so that I almost started crying in the middle of the store. Overreacting? Yes. But there are some things that just make me so angry about stores.

Why isn't there anything designed for people between the ages of 25 and 55?

Every dress I saw looked like it was either designed for a size 0 sixteen year old, or a 65 year old retiree. No offense to either sixteen year olds or sixty five year olds, and honestly there are dresses out there that would be great for you! But I find it almost impossible to find something that doesn't either age me or make me look like I'm trying to be a kid.

Why must everything be the same styles?

If the current style is something that doesn't flatter your particular body type, like a halter or an A-line, you're out of luck because everything that year will be that style.

Why can't something be pretty but tasteful?

I am a young married woman with some shape and all I want is to wear a dress that makes me look attractive but not trashy. It seems (or seemed yesterday at least) nearly impossible. I need either be covered head to toe in polyester or . . . uncovered head to toe.

Why do stores clearance items about five minutes after a season starts?

I need to wear this dress in two weeks which means I needed to buy it 3 months ago. Since I waited this long, if I want something summery I need to pick through clearance racks that don't carry my size in anything not horrible.

Why is everything classy always black?

I don't like to wear black to weddings because of tradition and superstition and all that nonsense, and it's REALLY HARD to find a dress that looks classy and semi-formal and isn't black. Then I get to weddings these days, and I'm the only one not wearing black.

Why are they so freaking expensive?

One piece of cheap fabric that covers maybe half my body should not cost as much as an entire week's worth of my play clothes. It just shouldn't.

After much whining and nashing of teeth, trying on, taking pictures of myself with my camera phone to send to my husband for advice, and generally throwing an internal temper tantrum, I did manage to find a dress which I didn't hate for within my budget. It took just about all my patience though, and I will find ways to use this dress again because I am not doing this again for a long time.

Deep breath. End rant.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Grocery saving adventure

We had a very busy weekend grocery shopping. We found a few really good deals and ended up running to different stores to maximize savings and coupon usage. In the end, before any rebates, here's what we got:


At the farmer’s market
1 pint strawberries
1 bunch of parsley
1 bunch of cilantro
Jar of local honey
1 cucumber

Albertsons
(3) boxes Glucerna cereal
Cookie Mix
(3) Suddenly salad pasta salad mix
(15) boxes general mills cereal
1 can Pillsbury grands biscuits
½ pound pastrami
½ pound corned beef
Cole slaw
½ pound turkey
½ pound provolone cheese
(1) 10 pack Mission Tortillas
1 gallon milk
Windex microfiber cloths
Loaf of fresh French bread

Kroger
(3) Buitoni Tortellini
2 pounds bananas
8 kroger brand yogurts
(2) 4-packs of Dannon Activia yogurt
1 pound nectarines
1 pound peaches
1 loaf Earthgrains bread
1 bunch romaine lettuce
1 pound Shrimp
8 ounces kraft shredded cheddar cheese
(2) boxes Annie’s Organic Shells and cheese

for a grand total of $57, almost to the penny. We also ended up with a $4.59 coupon to use toward next week's groceries and 3 coupons for free gallons of milk. Unfortunately, that still does put me $7 over my grocery budget, which is $7 more to make up in this week's break even challenge (not looking so great, unfortunately).

We try to eat pretty healthy, and to include a few splurges (like the shrimp) to keep ourselves on track. I get frustrated when people see big grocery savings and say "Oh, you must eat terrible food. Consider your health." There are always vegetables in my grocery cart, and I find ways to save money on them. I also stock up on staples, like cereal, when they are very cheap to make sure there's enough money left in the weekly budget for fresh vegetables, fruit, and dairy.

Hopefully, the stocking up will make next week's grocery budget even cheaper. . . and hopefully there won't be any more exhausting deals for a little while.

Time for another carnival!

The carnival of personal finance is up at Getting Green. Go check it out!

Friday, June 8, 2007

My magic pantry

I was making my husband’s lunch last night (as I do just about every night), and I took the jelly jar out of the fridge.

“Shoot!” I called out.

“What’s wrong?” came my husband’s voice from the other room.

“Oh, nothing really,” I answered, scraping the inside of the jelly jar with a long knife. “We’re just almost out of jelly and I didn’t want to go to the store tomorrow.”

“I can stop on my way home?” came his generous response.

“No, it’s okay I can….” I trailed off as I opened the pantry to get a jar of peanut butter and found an unopened jar of jelly staring me in the face. I didn’t remember buying it, but there it was. “Never mind, honey.”

How did I have jelly that I didn’t know I had? Well, I would like to attribute it to the magical powers of my pantry and its ability to breed jars of jelly when I close the door, but probably that wasn’t it. Maintaining a well stocked pantry is one of the most important things that I do to save money on food and to reduce my monthly household budget. That trip to the store to pick up jelly, especially at 5PM when stomach juices are flowing and especially especially if hubby had gone for me, would have turned into a $25 impulse buy. (Look what I got! And it was such a good deal! And looked so good!)

A pantry only saves you money, though, if you don’t spend too much money stocking it in the first place. If you go out tomorrow and spend $200 to buy everything your household will ever use, you will not have money left in your budget for milk next week, and you will still find that you run out of things. Here are some ways to stock your pantry will saving your budget:

Plan

Make a list of things that your family uses regularly, and uses up regularly. In my household, that list always includes peanut butter and jelly, Listerine, toilet paper, frozen vegetables, bread, and canned tomatoes. Your list may be completely different. The important thing to remember is that you DO NOT save money by buying things on someone else’s list. You only save money by getting deals on things your family needs and uses.

Double up

If you see a somewhat decent sale on something you regularly use, buy two of them. It will cost you a little bit more money this week, but will save you money next week, or whenever you would have bought it again. Next week, you’ll have extra money left in your budget to buy two of something else that’s on sale.

Buy big

When you find a fantastic sale on something, buy a ton of it. We currently have 8 boxes of family size tea bags in our cabinet that I bought for 50 cents a box. How long will it take us to run through that? A long time. A long time before I ever again would imagine spending $2.50 on a box of tea bags.

Another way we do this is by shopping at a warehouse club for certain items we use a lot. For example, if we’re starting to run dangerously low on toilet paper, I go out and buy a jumbo pack at Sam’s Club. It’s not the best deal available, but it buys me time. I know have until that pack runs out to find a good deal on toilet paper. Trust me, that’s something I do not want to run out of, and running to the drug store at midnight to buy the overpriced 4-pack is definitely not something I’m willing to do.

Keep track

It’s important to keep track of what you have in your pantry. The can of beans languishing in the back of your pantry for six months is not saving you any money. You need to use it. Every so often, go through your pantry and pull out three things you haven’t used in a long time. Go to a good recipe website (I like http://www.allrecipes.com) and find a good recipe you’ve never tried to use up those things. Then don’t buy them again unless you know you’ll use them.

Another thing to keep track of is when you’re almost out of something. An item gets added to your grocery list when you open the last one, not when you use it up. It’s even better if you start shopping for a deal when you’re down to two. If you only have two left, it’s time to look for an “ok” deal instead of just a rock bottom deal.

Share

The other really cool thing about having a full pantry is that you are able to share. Last time I went through my pantry, I pulled out a full grocery bag of stuff I bought because it was almost free but that I realized now we just won’t eat. The whole bag is going to my local food bank at the end of the week. I’m also able to invite people to dinner because there’s always plenty, and to whip up a soup, casserole or dessert to bring to a friend when something goes wrong. The love and joy that comes from doing these things is even better than the money it saves me.

That really does sound like a magic pantry, doesn’t it?

More small changes: Cleaning

More small changes for the day, this time focused on cleaning:

Change #11 – Banish one chemical

Choose one chore for which you now use a harsh chemical (scrubbing the tub, cleaning the toilet, washing the floor, cleaning the oven) and try it with something healthier. Maybe baking soda will work or vinegar water. Maybe all it takes is dish soap and water. Maybe just water. You could be buying chemicals you don’t need at all, and you’ll never know unless you try. I keep spray bottles of soapy water, vinegar water, and clear water under my sink so that it really takes no more effort to clean this way than it would with chemicals

Change #12 – Ditch disposables

Lately it seems like there’s a disposable version of everything: disposable wipes, dusters, scrubbers, even toilet bowl brushes. You don’t need to give all of these up to make an impact; just try to cut back. In place of paper towels or treated wipes, use cloth rags cut from old clothes or reusable microfiber cloths. I use microfiber in place of the disposable static dusters and the Swiffer mop pads, too. I think they even work better.

Change #13 - Make a clean sweep

I’m not sure where people got the idea that vacuuming is so much easier than sweeping. By the time I’ve lugged out my vacuum and plugged it in, I could have swept my entire kitchen floor, and I think it gets just as clean with a broom, without using any electricity. I still have to vacuum my carpets, but at least it’s reducing the impact a bit.


Check out the first part of the saving money, saving the world series

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Break even challenge

Since I’m not working full time for the summer, I sat down at the beginning of this month and figured out how much money I actually need to make to “break even,” that is, to make it through the summer without having to tap into my emergency fund or savings to pay the bills. First, I took our total outgo budget, including our fixed expenses, gas, groceries, and a small allowance for eating out and entertainment. Then, I subtracted out my husband’s stipend. That was how much I needed to earn per month for us to keep up with our bills. That number was $1800 (400 less than my salary at my full time job, which is worthy of further consideration in the future ). I then divided that 1800 by 30 and calculated that I will need to make an average of $60 a day, 7 days a week.

Now, if this were to be done with a regular job, then I wouldn’t calculate it for 7 days a week because, really, who wants to work 7 days a week? But I don’t plan to earn this money just from one job. I’m going to spend the summer experimenting and playing with different ways of earning money through freelancing, working part time jobs, blogging, writing, mystery shopping, and trying various online opportunities. Since I can do this for an hour or two a day, or take whole days off, I’m going to average what I make weekly over the seven days of that week.

I have very few worries about being able to make $60 a day. I already have a tutoring gig that starts next week where I’ll make $60 three days a week for two hours a day of work, so that only leaves four days of having to scrounge – and plenty of time during which to do the scrounging. Mostly, this will be an experiment in record keeping for me, tracking how much I’m actually making from various activities. Hopefully, I will be able to prove to myself that I can easily get by – if not ahead – should I ever leave or lose my full time job for any reason.

Here are the rules I’m setting for this challenge:

• Part time tutoring and essay grading for my current employer will count as break even money on the day I do the work
• Freelance work, commissions, interest income or anything I make requiring a payout at a later date will count on the day I receive the payout
• If I go under my weekly grocery budget of $50 or entertainment budget of $25, that will decrease my break even requirement for that week
• Gift cards and other rewards from point programs will NOT count as income but will instead count to reduce spending
• Personal spending or discretionary spending above what is budgeting will INCREASE my break even requirements for that week
• Grocery rebates will count as INCOME when they are received, but the original purchase MUST fit into my $50 a week grocery budget or it will increase my requirements of the week it was purchased

I may add more requirements as I go along and notice things that work or don’t work. I’m going to try to check in once a week with a challenge update, and give a weekly total, daily average, and current update total. Wish me luck and stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Free Stuff Update

Last week I posted about free stuff you could get at restaurants. I had incorrect information, and Sonic's free root beer float day is actually TOMORROW, June 7. Enjoy!

Doing Nothing

It's not very healthy for me to have vast stretches of open, unscheduled time ahead of me. I worked at my part time job every day last week, and I have a tutoring student I'm working with two hours a day starting next week, but this week I need to rest my mind and body a little, so I am blissfully just sitting around and doing nothing.

Somewhat blissfully.

Doing nothing is a lot harder than it sounds. My mind is so busy with all the critical chatter that it's hard to relax in one place for more than a few minutes. Yesterday, I took my book down to my apartment complex's pool to lay in the sun and read, and five minutes later thought of something I needed to do in my apartment. I lay down to take a nap, and then realized my dishwasher needed to be unloaded and I shouldn't be sleeping yet. I went to run errands and felt anxious because I was away from home and thought my husband might get home before I did and then I wouldn't have dinner ready.

For goodness sake.

I think that they key to all this do nothing angst is to just have a schedule and routines. I should get my laundry and my my dishes done and my house clean first, then write, then schedule in some leisure time in the afternoon so that it's done before dinner time. Without a schedule, the bad stuff is taking up as much time as possible, kind of like my money does when I don't have a budget. If I can just make a schedule, I think I would still have hours in my day to do all the things I want to do, like go to the gym, swim, get some sun and read my book if I just figured out where my time was going.

Hmmm. . . that sounds like a lot of stuff. I wonder what happened to doing nothing?

Monday, June 4, 2007

Summer budgeting and money for teachers

I’ve had a lot of people ask me lately how, as a teacher, I make my budget work. Two-three months without a paycheck is quite a challenge, and requires some advanced planning. Over the past few years, I’ve seen people achieve this in several different ways and have tried a number of them myself. Here are just a few of the ways to get through the summer:

A summer job

For those of us without kids at home, and with free time and energy, this is probably the best plan. There’s no reason why we need to take two months of complete vacation every year. I’ve known teachers who mowed lawns, waitressed, painted houses, worked at bookstores, went to summer camp, and any number of other things. Some teachers will do anything in the summer as long as it is with kids; some will do anything as long as it’s not. The key is often to do something that is strenuous in a different way than teaching is, so that you still feel like you’re getting a mental rest.

“Summer savings”/ “12 month pay”

Many schools will split up your pay checks and pay you over 12 months instead of over ten if you would like. The first school I worked at did this by making a monthly deduction from your check and placing it in a credit union account. They then paid you from the account during the summer months. If your school doesn’t offer this, you can accomplish the same thing yourself. Simply divide your salary by 6. This will give you your savings goal. Now divide that number by ten. This is the amount you should deposit in a high interest savings account every month. Do it first, before you pay any of your other bills. When the end of school rolls around, you will have two months’ salary in the bank that you can draw from to pay your bills. You’ll also have the interest from that money. Bonus!

Frugality

The summer after my first year teaching, I managed to eat for almost no money by a combination of grocery couponing, using up what was in my pantry, cooking from scratch, and eating at my mom’s (okay, I was awfully young and single at the time). I had a salesman tell me once that because his parents were teachers, they went fishing a lot in the summer and he had never realized as a kid it was because they needed the free/cheap food. When you are off from school in the summer, you have a lot more time and brain power to dedicate to saving money. Sure, that won’t pay your rent, but it can definitely cut down on your expenses.

So what do I do? Right now, a combination of the above. I have a part time job, but I can’t bring myself to work full time. I scrimp and save, and explore the more bizarre recesses of my pantry. I beef up my emergency fund in preparation for the lean months. I plan major purposes so they fall in the winter or late fall. Most importantly, though, I plan and prepare and am very aware of where my money is going.

Carnival!

The Carnival of Debt Reduction is up over at the No Credit Needed Network. Please check it out.

Happy Monday!

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Roundup and I'm out

I'm heading out of town for two days to visit friends, so while I'm gone, I'll leave you with some cool links to check out:

English Major's Money's cheap food experiment

Frugal Homemaker's really sound take on being a bridesmaid

Frugal Finesse's reflections on being frugal

Enjoy and have a great weekend! See you Monday!

Saving Money, saving the world through small changes

(Originally posted on writingup 3.25.07 and 3.26.07)

Last month's issue of Body and Soul magazine had an article on Small Changes, and how many people making small changes on a consistent basis can start to make a very noticeable difference in the environment. That article inspired me to make my own list of small changes, and to commit to actually making those decisions consciously for at least the next month. Hopefully after one month these will have become a habit.

Change #1: Turning off my computer's power strip at night
In college, I used to leave my computer all the time. Within the past year, I started shutting down my computer at night because I realized that it was sitting idle for almost 18 hours until I got home from work the next day. Now, though, I'm going to commit to shutting off the power strip, so my monitor, speakers and printer are also off, and none of it is drawing phantom power. I've always thought of this as a miniscule money saver, but in an environmental context, it seems more meaningful.

Change #2: Unplugging chargers
Our phone chargers are plugged in all the time, even though we each charge our phones for about an hour a day. I am going to unplug these unless our phones are in them.

Change #3: Printing on both sides of the page
When I print lesson plans and worksheets at home, I usually print them one sided, then take them to school and make double sided copies for my students. It would only take another few seconds for me to just double side the originals as well.

Change #4- Defrost things in the refrigerator.
When I need to defrost things, I'm going to take them out of the freezer the night before and put then in the fridge. This does two things: it keeps me from using the microwave or stuff and it cools off my refrigerator, thus saving energy and money twice.

Change #5- Eat one fewer beef meal per week.
Beef is one of the most expensive things we eat, and to tell the truth? It's not my favorite thing. It's also terrible for the environment, full of saturated fat, and much more concentrated in chemicals than non-organic foods lower on the foodchain.

Change #6 - Use reusable containers instead of freezer bags.
I have a cabinet full of tupperware, rubbermaid, and other permutations of leftover containers, but I find myself using freezer bags. So many people talk about washing out freezer bags, which is a serious pain. I'd much rather wash out plastic containers.

Friday, June 1, 2007

To pay off or not to pay off

In my post on why I hate Debt, I wrote about how my car payment is my second biggest expense every month, and how I want to pay it off rather than sell it. After that discussion, I got online and checked the payoff amount of the car.

$5,794

That is a much smaller number than I expected. I mean I know that I’m two years into a three year loan, and I know that I’m paying a very low interest rate (1.9%), so most of my payments have been going toward principal, but somehow that number just startled me.

Now, it’s been a very good month. I just got a larger than normal check from my part time job, hubby got a small but noticeable raise in his stipend, we got a MUCH larger than normal tax refund check, my family sent me some checks for my birthday, and we’ve been doing a pretty good job saving. So, when I combine what’s in our checking account once our bills clear, a good chunk of our emergency savings, and some savings bonds I just found in the back of my closet, we have just about $6000.

I know that numerically it doesn’t make sense to pay off this debt instead of paying toward the bigger student loans, which have a much higher interest rate. It would, however, make it much easier to breathe and to figure out what I want to do if I didn’t have this payment anymore. But would that make me lazy? Would I start spending the extra $400 a month, instead of snowballing it into my next biggest debt?

Then there’s the biggest reason why I’m wary of dumping this much money on something right now. It’s summer. I’m a teacher. That’s the biggest chunk of our household income right now, and it’s gone for the next two months. I think I could find a way for us to break even, between my part time job, hubby’s raise, and various freelance work, but I can’t be sure. It’s a little scary to go into a summer without a big chunk of savings.

So what do I do? The payoff is within reach, and I’m itching, itching to grasp it.
What would you do?