Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hi, I broke. Fix me. - Love, Your Car

Our nine-year-old Saturn surprised us last night, first by losing power to the A/C and radio, then by refusing to restart after we'd shut it off. We had to call in a tow truck this morning and have the car carted over to the dealership for repairs. It turns out the area where you insert the key (clearly, I have no knowledge of correct automotive terms) was all jumbled up and needed to be rebuilt.

The damage: $583, plus towing fees. Our insurance company will reimburse us for the towing. Good times. Why spend money on a summer vacation when you can shovel it all into your aging sedan? :-D

As we usually do for large expenses, we charged it to our point-earning credit card and will pay it off as soon as it shows up in our online statement. We may need to dip into the emergency fund, but hey, that's partly why it's there. At times like this, I'm reminded what a relief it is to have even just a little cash socked away into savings. Rebuilding the account is a lot less painful than paying interest to the interest-loving credit card companies.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How to save money at the coffee shop

Of course, the best way to save money at a coffee shop is to not go out for coffee in the first place. I just want to make sure you know I know that. :-)

Although there are a lot of fine, frugal folks with the fortitude to overcome a Starbucks craving, I will admit I'm not one of them. I've cut back significantly, yes, but I still go out for a caffeine-laden treat once a week or so. I enjoy coffee, I enjoy getting out of my house, I enjoy the free wi-fi at our coffee joint down the street, and I enjoy the atmosphere. I enjoy coffee shops so much that I even worked at one for several months. I can't see myself eschewing the experience entirely. 

When I do go, however, I try to choose the drink with the best value. Here's how you can keep the expense of your guilty pleasure at a minimum:

1. If you want plain coffee, make it at home. Why spend $1.50 or $2 for something that may have been burning away in the coffee carafe for an hour or more when you can make your own fresh brew at the strength you prefer it

2. Avoid the fancy drinks. Peppermint mochas, double tall vanilla lattes, salted caramel hot chocolates, Frappuccinos with espresso poured on top... These are expensive because of the syrup and extras that go into making them. Coffee shops do tally how much money each pump of syrup and each shot of espresso is. The more syrup and espresso in the drink, the more expensive it's going to be (and, in the case of the syrups, the more calories you'll end up consuming).

3. Stick with the simple drinks - they often taste better anyway. Small, plain lattes and cappuccinos and real macchiatos (shots of espresso with a dollop of foam on top) are probably your best bet, value wise. Because they don't contain the extras mentioned above, they cost less. They usually taste better, too. When I was a barista, there was nothing I liked more than to hear someone order a cappuccino. It put the spring back into my step as I worked the bar. Pulling the shot and foaming and freepouring the milk require some skill. A lot of baristas enjoy the chance to show off a little, and they'll put extra work into crafting your order.

If you want some flavor, help yourself to a couple (free) packets of sugar at the condiment bar.

4. Order small. Do you really need a medium or large? You'll save money by going with the smallest size. (Tip: It's not always advertised, but at Starbucks, you can usually order a short. It's 4 oz. smaller than the tall.)

5. Go local and save some dough. I used to be a Starbucks junkie, but then I discovered the independent coffee shop down the street. They charge 20 cents less on average per drink - it helps them compete with the chain stores - and brew a great Italian espresso. The quality of their product is better, too. Perhaps that's the case at your own local coffee shop. If you're going to spend, why not support a small business?

6. Bring your own mug. Most places will give you a 5- or 10-cent discount for doing so, and it's better for the environment than using a paper cup, plastic lid, and cardboard sleeve.

7. Make it a special treat. As a barista, I loved my regulars - the people who showed up once a day or even more. I couldn't help but wonder, however, how much money they were spending per year on their caffeine habit and whether they were even enjoying what they purchased. To me, it would get old. Instead of gorging on regular coffee outings, treat yourself once in a while and savor the experience.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Replacing paper towels with... diapers?

In our household, we've been getting a little too paper towel happy - burning through 12-packs of even the most absorbent paper towels at lightning speed (it's easy to do when you have a toddler who tracks dirt/apple juice/milk through the house). Not only was this habit expensive, it was also extremely wasteful. 

So we've decided to change our environmentally unfriendly ways and replace the disposable stuff with 3-ply prefold diapers, the kind you can find in multi-packs in the baby product aisles at most department stores. When our son was born, we received what seemed like a truckload of these things as gifts. We used some of them as diapers, some of them as burp clothes, and some of them to clean the house. For that last purpose, they work especially well.

Some benefits of using prefolds as cleaning implements:

-They're extremely absorbent, much more so than most paper towels or regular kitchen towels.

-They're great for wiping streaks off mirrors, spills off countertops, and fingerprints off the dishwasher/refrigerator/oven door. I also use them to clean the sink area in the bathroom; they do a nice job of polishing up the faucets.

-You can just toss them in the wash whenever you do a load of laundry. 

-You can use them over and over again. Their effectiveness actually increases the longer you have them (they work best after they've been washed a few times).

Because we'd been purchasing some of the pricier paper towel brands, switching to this cloth cleaning option should save us a significant amount of money in the long run (and maybe save a few trees, too).

Saturday, May 23, 2009

What a great present!

This past Mother's Day, I asked Trent not to get me anything. Holidays like Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, and Father's Day tend to irritate me. Admitting that probably makes me sound like the Grinch, but I think they put pressure on people to spend money when they don't need to. To be honest, it also makes me feel like I should expect presents... If every other mom I know receives something from her significant other and child(ren), I'd feel bad getting zilch.

In the end, Trent and our son selected a card and a bottle of not-cheap-but-definitely-not-pricey wine. Good choices, I thought. Then, today, a third surprise arrived in the mail, something I've been wanting ever since my son received one from his aunt a few months ago:

Thanks, Trent! 

This is a great investment, in my opinion. They're long-lasting and easy to clean. They eliminate the need to purchase plastic bottles (the bane of the ocean's existence). They don't make drinks taste funny, and they don't leach creepy chemicals into your water. They come in various sizes; the company even makes a stainless steel sippy cup for little kids. 

If you're looking for something less expensive, I'm pretty sure Target carries something similar. And of course, there are always thrift shops, garage sales, and Craigslist. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Ultimate Staycation

After numerous brainstorming sessions and several hours of searching for cheap travel, we've decided to just stay home this summer. As boring as this seems to me - because I love seeing new places and experiencing new things - it makes sense. We'll be able to save some money, and we'll be able to finally pay off the last credit card. Besides, we're working over the summer anyway; bringing my laptop to the beach doesn't sound like a good time.

Instead, we plan to save up some cash for a work-free holiday trip in December. We know where we want to go and how much we want to spend, and we're confident we'll be able to afford it. It's something we can all look forward to.

A couple of weeks ago, Trent's dad visited. He really loved where we live, and he opened my eyes to the number of opportunities and activities we have available around here. We have parks, museums, decent restaurants, swimming pools, community events - much as one would find in any vacation destination in another part of the world. Granted, we don't have the beach, and granted, the temperature can be pretty miserable in August, but no place is perfect. 

If we keep our eyes open, we'll find things to do. We just have to put some effort into it.  

Monday, May 18, 2009

Jogging/Running: Fun, Healthy, and Free

For the past 10 years, my husband and I have been runners (well, joggers, in our case; neither of us is particularly fast). Through high school and into college, I never ran unless blackmailed or threatened. In fact, I hated running. It made me feel like puking on the sidewalk. The mile run test in gym class was a living nightmare for me, one I dreaded for 364 days out of the year. 

But during my sophomore year of college, my new boyfriend Trent suggested we hit the pavement. I was too blinded by love (and his good looks) to protest. During our first workout, I managed to jog for 12 minutes. I felt great. The next time, we jogged for 12 1/2 minutes... then 13 minutes... Two years later, we completed the Nashville Marathon together.

Running is a wonderful activity for a multitude of reasons. It's good for you, for one thing; your heart strengthens with every workout. It gets you outdoors. It can help you lose weight (or so I hear - it's never worked for me because I use working out as an excuse to eat). If you're a lone ranger, running offers solitary meditation. If you're a social butterfly, you can always find people who want to participate in group runs. It revs up your endorphins. During the gloomy winter months, a quick run can help you beat seasonal depression.

In my opinion, one of running's best attributes is that it is practically free. There's no cost of admission, no expensive equipment, no lessons needed. All you have to do is put on a pair of comfortable shoes and get out there.

I love to see people who think they'll never be able to run a mile work up to that distance or even more. Try it - it's not as scary or as taxing as you might think. For those just getting started, consider the following:

1. Set small goals. If you don't work out already, you're not going to be able to run five miles at eight minute pace right off the bat (if ever - and that's okay!). Maintain manageable expectations. Your first time out, alternate 30 seconds of jogging with two minutes of walking. Alternatively, pick an object in the near distance and run to it. Stop. Walk for a while. Enjoy the scenery. Then pick another object and run to it. Either way, don't stay out too long. You want to feel energized and motivated when you get home. Beating yourself into the ground during your first workout is a great way to ensure it's your only running workout.

2. Pace yourself. Remember, your goal is to build up mileage. There's no need to sprint. If you start off at a pace that seems too slow, you'll be able to work out for a longer period of time. Slow is good.

3. Realize no-one in the neighborhood cares how sweaty you are or how grungy your sweats look. Seriously, they don't. For a long time, I refused to run because I thought people would laugh at how I looked. I get the impression that self consciousness hinders other would-be runners, too. Realistically, the only thing most people will be thinking when they see you is, "Wow, I should exercise more." See? You can be that inspiration for others! 

4. Don't invest in fancy shoes right away. Okay, so I lied: running does require equipment, namely decent running shoes. Most runners will tell you they're more than willing to spend $100 on a pair of Asics or Brooks because well-designed shoes help prevent injury. But in my opinion, it's wise to see whether you're going to stick with this hobby before you drop that much money on footwear. If you're still building up to a mile, you'll probably be just fine donning a pair of $10 cheapies from K-Mart or Payless.

5. Get motivated - for free! A great resource for runners is the Runner's World website. There, you'll find training plans, nutritional advice, and stories from other people who have been bitten by the running bug. You may find the beginner's section particularly useful.

Now go hit the road!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Five of my favorite frugal-friendly things

1. Cheap wine that still tastes good: Penfold's runs at about $6 a bottle, sometimes less. And see how the glass looks kind of warped? Yeah. It was cheap, too.

2. Netflix: It keeps us out of the theater.

3. Cleaning supplies: Cheap and environmentally friendly! The combination of the two works especially well on plastic showers and tubs. I also use the baking soda to clean out the kitchen sink.

4. Dental floss: This cost me about a dollar. If I use it on a consistent basis, it'll save me hundreds of bucks in dental procedures. We have a bare-bones dental insurance plan, so this stuff is well worth it!

5. Inexpensive toys that entertain my son and promote exercise and/or learning: He received this as a birthday present about a month ago and has played with it every day since then. He thinks it's fun to bounce it off his parents' heads. Bonus: it doesn't scratch the floors. 

True, some of these aren't necessities, but for us, they're the financial equivalent of "healthier alternatives."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Jonesing for some spending

I don't know why, exactly, but yesterday afternoon and evening, all I wanted to do was spend some money - on food, on home decor, on a vacation. Okay, so mostly on a vacation. It's almost June, and so far, we have no travel plans for the summer. That's practically unheard of in this household. My fingers are itching to go to and book a getaway. Good thing our kid gets motion sick, or we may already be out a few hundred bucks... 

Right now, saving seems a lot like dieting: it isn't all that fun until you start seeing significant results. Until then, you feel deprived, irritable, and kind of at a loss as to what to do (since anything involving yummy food - or, in this case, fun spending - is out). Last night, I was like a dieter who just wanted a really, really, really big piece of chocolate layer cake. Today, I feel like a dieter who managed to overcome her cravings and avoid doing something stupid, something that would set back the whole operation.

We're not out of the woods yet. Something tells me I'm not going to be able to sit here all summer, basking in the humidity and clouds of mosquitoes. The trick will be to plan something fun, adventurous, and cheap; something close to home but new to us; something that will get our minds away from work and everyday life.

And don't say "camping." I hate camping. ;-)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

More money... but more worries

One thing that has definitely changed for me in the last two years is how I view and use money. Two years ago, I never thought about it. We'd get a paycheck, pay the bills, inevitably run out of cash, put some of it on our credit cards, make some more money, pay the bills, pay part of the credit card, run out of money, etc. etc. etc. In the back of my mind, I knew it wasn't an ideal way of handling things, but oddly enough, I didn't worry about it. I assumed it would all work out eventually.

Now, we're in a better financial position. We can pay our bills. We've established a bit of an emergency fund. We are a few months away from being done with credit cards forever ("just" $4000 to go...). We know what's in our bank account every day. We've started putting 15% of our earnings into retirement. All good things... but instead of relaxing into the knowledge that we've given ourselves a little financial breathing room, I worry WAY more about $$$ than I used to. I'm glad I'm more aware of how I spend/use/save money, but I don't think it's a good idea to obsess about it. Ever. Maybe I do it because 1) we have a child to provide for now; 2) what with the crappy economy, it wouldn't take much to plunge into financial ruin; and 3) I no longer have any illusions that anyone will ever step in and help us if we need it. I mean, maybe they would, but I don't count on that the way I naively used to.

It's amazing how much time an adult person can spend thinking about how he/she is going to provide for his/her family. What boggles my mind is that Trent and I do okay, and we STILL scrape by sometimes. How do people do it? My suspicion is that a lot of us don't have real financial freedom - that is, the freedom to not worry about how we're going to meet our financial obligations. 

Sometimes, I lie in bed and think about where we will be 30 years from now. Will we have affordable health insurance? Will we be eligible for social security? Will anyone our age be getting social security benefits?  Will we be able to help our son with his college education? 

Even if we save and scrimp and never purchase anything expensive ever again, will we be able to afford the future? 

It's scary. I worry.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sticking with it

Just a quick, personal update, since a couple of people gave me advice regarding my job dilemma: I didn't quit anything. :-) I'd say that's a sign of maturity; three years ago, I would have probably quit without a second thought. Maybe I've become more aware of how much my current decisions can affect me years down the line.

That said, I am still pretty displeased with the situation. As any working parent knows, trying to juggle a job (two jobs, in this case), a kid, a relationship, and a house, plus the ten zillion other little things life throws at us, is not easy. I feel like everyone is getting a piece of my time except me. Even when I do have "down time," I tend to be thinking about all the stuff I have to do in an hour, or later in the day, or later in the week.

What I plan to do this week is ask for some time off. I *think* my employer will be amenable to this; at least, the company was amenable to such things when I first signed on. If they don't want to allow me a break, I'll have to reconsider and go from there. But even a short breather from this one contract will recharge me and get me energized for the rest of the summer and the fall, too.

It's such a strange time... I'm thrilled to have these job opportunities, and they've really helped our financial situation... but I'm also completely overwhelmed, stressed out, and exhausted.