Monday, April 26, 2010

Money Mantra Monday

If you want to feel rich, just count the things you have that money can't buy.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Healthy Habit: Ditch Convenience Store Stops

I drive quite a bit, and a bad habit I've gotten into is stopping at convenience stores for a bite of this or a drink of that for the ride. Convenience stores do a booming business selling fat laden and sugary processed foods alongside empty-calorie beverages (or, just as bad, zero calorie chemical concoctions) so I know I'm not the only one. I also happen to have it on good authority my dad has the same bad habit, so if nothing else, this post is for us, Dougie. However, if you fall into the same trap we do, it's time to declare yourself free from convenience store stops and the toll they take on your finances.

If the issue is your really hungry and in need of sustenance (and you find yourself regularly caught out of the house and famished) - plan ahead! Take snacks with you and you'll avoid that pricey gas station bag of Chex Mix and that corner store M&M and Poweraid fix. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
  • Fill snack bags with a healthy mix of almonds, cereal, and raisins. Keep a couple in your purse for when your blood sugar starts to dip and you're out and about.
  • Stash a few granola bars in your glove compartment for times your unexpectedly stuck in traffic and need some nosh. Opt for a variety that isn't too gooey or coated in anything - your car can get pretty warm and you don't want your snack to get runny.
  • Bring a few apples to work each Monday. Apples keep well at room temperature, so you can keep a few in a bag in your desk drawer or cabinet and enjoy a kick of crispy sweetness when you need a little pick-me-up (and avoid the vending machine) at the office. If you don't think the apple alone will stack up to your hunger, keep a couple single-serve packets of peanut or almond butter with 'em.
If the problem is less hunger and more a result of habitual conditioning (i.e. I stop here every day after work for something savory, I do it without even thinking. Or, grabbing a pastry every day is part of my morning routine.) You might need more of a jolt to snap you out of it. Here are a few different ways to shake up your routine to avoid being lured by your local convenience store until your new, healthier habits develop:
  • Pick a new route. If you always drive right by your source for that $1.30 Diet Coke, find a more scenic road that won't tempt you into spending.
  • Enjoy a more filling, healthier meal. By filling up on the good stuff that is brimming with nutrition, your body will be satiated with what it needs and that shiny package won't seem so alluring.
  • Listen to something interesting or relaxing instead of focusing on obtaining an oral fixation. If you think you need something to keep your mouth busy, chomp on some minty gum.
  • Do the math. I could (and have) easily spend $2.50 a day on seemingly little snacks (hey, those lemon zest Luna bars don't come cheap!). I didn't think much of this, until I realized that is almost $20 a week (half of my grocery budget!), $80 a month (the same as an unlimited yoga membership!) which totals over $900 a year (that's an IRA contribution friends!). Holy granola bars! Now I just think about those figures when I find myself involuntarily gravitating toward my local Circle K. It's simply not worth it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How to Shop at Marshalls

How to Shop at Marshalls... or Ross, TJ Maxx, Burlington Coat Factory, the Salvation Army, or insert your favorite discount store here. Some people don't have the patience for the overcrowded racks, the inconsistent merchandise, or the unglamorous dressing rooms - but for those of us willing to tough it out for a deal, these stores are the holy grail of good buys. Nevertheless, there should be some ground rules taken into consideration before filling your cart with products boasting 50% off stickers. Yes, it may seem like an unassuming pile of $7 t-shirts and $25 pumps, but before you know it your closet it filled with cheap items you wear only once that have plowed a hole right through your budget. Here's a few tips for using the power of the discount merchant wisely:
  • Don't go looking for a specific item - Discount stores can be hit or miss, so don't stress yourself out by looking for a particular wardrobe staple you have in mind. Save yourself the hassle, and go somewhere you know is dedicated to providing that specific item.
  • Do know what you need - Be clear on what you already own and what you are truly lacking of for the upcoming season. Stick to those areas in the store and you might just find some treasures waiting for you.
  • Don't buy something that isn't perfect, even if it's 80% off - Even $1.99 is too much to spend on anything that isn't right for you; particularly when it is an item that is not critical to your survival (no, those Steve Maddens are not critical to your survival even at $39... especially when they're a half size too small)
  • Do pay attention to quality - Check for signs of pilling, test the seams, look for loose buttons or thread, and make sure the fit flatters you. If it passes with flying colors, and the price is within your budgeted range, then you have a winner.
  • Don't let the knick-knacks fool you - Just like every retailer, these stores will bombard you with impulse merchandise at key points around the store (and particularly on the maze of shelves and displays they herd you through to get to the register). Just because they are cheap and strategically placed doesn't mean you actually want them - resist!
  • Do have fun - Shopping for clothing should be fun, and hitting up your local discount store can be a great way to stick to your budget while adding a few new pieces to your Spring wardrobe. Proceed wisely, and the discount deities may smile upon you.

Culinary Cheap: Homemade Hummus

Hummus is a middle eastern chickpea-based spread that is delicious on wraps and sandwiches, alongside falafel, or smeared on pita chips, carrots, and other cut veggies. I love hummus and it's a regular in our fridge, but it also runs $4-$5 a pop at the grocery, so this weekend I made my own and was quite surprised with the result! It tasted just like the store brands, but can be easily tailored to your own taste preferences (spice it up, or not so much) and nutritional needs (less olive oil, more, or maybe water packed roasted red peppers instead). The best part was I had nearly all the ingredients in my kitchen already:

Can of chickpeas - $1
Garlic - a few cents
Juice from one lemon - $.60 *less if you use bottled lemon juice
TBS Tahini - $.16
Tsp Salt - a few cents
2 TBS olive oil - $.20
Black pepper - a few cents
Sprinkle of cumin - a few cents

Approximate total cost: $2.10

We just tossed it all in my VitaMix, but you could use a food processor or hand mash it together with a potato masher for a chunkier variety. The result? A yummy hummus that measured up to the store brands for less than half the price I typically pay. You can bet I won't be buying pre-made hummus again any time soon.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Soapy Savings

Dedicated body wash users, there's a new cleanser in town! I've always been in favor of liquid soaps, but last time I ran out of my bottled soap du jour I unwrapped a lovely smelling glycerin bar my mother had given to me. I figured I'd use it until I remembered to buy some more of my usual brand, but quickly realized my soap-bar stereotypes were misguided. It turns out glycerin bars are nothing like their Irish Spring or Lever 2000 counterparts - they don't dry your skin, smell as good as the runnier varieties, and best of all... they last forever! Okay, maybe not forever, but I am shocked at how long this one bar has been holding strong - just a few swipes across a loofah each shower has hardly worn it down over the last couple of months. If you're looking to pare down your toiletry expenses, try trading in your typical $6-$10 body wash for a $2-$4 bar of vegetable-based glycerin soap, and you won't run the risk of accidentally squirting your cash straight down the drain.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Budgets: Part III

Congrats! You've already made it through Budgets: Parts I & II. Before we forge ahead into our third and final installment, let's take a quick look back at all we've accomplished so far. In Budgets: Part I, we explored why budgets are important tools for reaching our financial goals, and made a master list of our expenses (where our money goes) as they stand, right now. In Budgets: Part II we organized our list of expenses into three categories: our regular expenses (they're due on a consistent basis, and they're unlikely to start shrinking in the next month or two as we're typically contractually obliged to them, eg. your rent), our priority expenses (they are only a couple of these - two at most - but we're not ready to start spending less on them at this time because they make us feel really good eg. your weekly trip to the cinema), and shrinking expenses (that's everything that's left over folks, and this is where we're going to start paring down the numbers eg. your twice weekly trips to Target for nothing in particular, your latte a day habit). We also started using an Excel-based budget to play with the numbers, and to see how much more we could sock away or pay towards debt if we really focused on thinning out our shrinking expenses.

Today we're going to talk about how to solidify and stick to our personal budget. After playing with your own budget for a while you probably settled upon something livable that lets you save much more than you are now. Don't get too stressed out thinking about what happens when your living situation changes or when unexpected expenses arise. There are three things in particular to make sure your final budget offers you:

1. Your budget should enable you to put enough money into your savings (or towards your debt) to make consistent and considerable strides toward your financial goals. In my case, I want to add $6,000 to my savings account in the next 6 months. You can bet my monthly budget includes a regular $1,000 deposit into my savings account.

2. Your budget should leave you enough wiggle room that you're not completely strapped for cash right before your next pay check. This means don't budget out every dollar and cent you make in a pay period. I have made this mistake myself, and it really helps to make sure you have a couple hundred dollar cushion in your checking account. This will give you enough cash on hand should an emergency arise and you don't have enough time to move funds over from your savings.

3. Your budget should leave you feeling empowered. You want to look at your budget and get the sense that, “Yeah, I may need to make some changes but this is doable and it is SO going to pay off”! When I examine my budget, I feel comfortable knowing all of my regular expenses are factored in, excited knowing I can still enjoy my spending priorities (a few new pieces of clothing and some coconut ice cream), and amazed at how by cutting down in other areas of my life I can save some serious dough.

Don’t even think about putting your budget into action until you’ve got all 3 down pat. Your attempts will be futile and painful, like sticking to an Akins diet in Italy (and really, why in the world would you do an Akins diet anywhere?). Once you’ve organized a monthly budget that works for you it’s time to put it into action… not tomorrow, but right now.

I find the easiest way to stick to my own budget is to have it readily available and to update it continuously throughout the month as I make purchases and payments. I opt for an Excel document to keep my budget in, and upload it to Google Documents. That way, no matter where I am or what computer I’m using, I can jump online and quickly enter in how much I just spent at the gas pump or for that last minute lunch date. If you haven’t tracked your spending like this before, really recording each and every item, it’s a wonderful habit to get into. You’ll be surprised just how easy it is to stay on track with your budget when it’s truly tailored to your needs and you actively track your progress each and every day.

There you have it! A solid foundation for reaching your financial destination - your own personal budget.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Budgets: Part II

In Budgets: Part I we examined why budgets are so important and how they can act as a map, guiding us towards our chosen financial destination. We wrapped up part one with an expense brainstorming exercise to help us gain a clear picture of where our income is going, right now. If you haven't read part one yet, I encourage you to do so (just click here) and to complete the expense brainstorming session for yourself. Today we're going to build off of that list to create and hone a budget specific to each of our individual needs and priorities. Plus, I'm going to share some awesome digital budget resources you won't want to miss!

So you've already identified what you spend now, and where each precious dollar you possess finds a new home - be it a more permanent resting place in your IRA or in the narrow confines of the Forever 21 cash register. So now what? How does this help me, you may wonder, if my current spending habits are what I'm trying to change? We are going to use the expense template you’ve created as the basis for a more ideal monthly budget. The first step is to break down the items in your expense list into one of the following categories:
  • Regular Expenses – These are the expenses that you have to pay on a regular basis, like your phone bill and rent, and are consistent in size from one payment to payment to the next (i.e. an arm and a leg this month, a similarly sized arm and leg next month…). Debt payments, should you have them, also belong in this category.
  • Priority Expenses – These expenses are the couple items (try for no more than 2) you choose from your remaining list that are really important to you and you couldn’t imagine skimping on. For some of us, this might be Fido’s food fund or the best fresh produce your grocery has to offer. Others may be willing to stick to the culinary staples at home as long as they can spend the weekend out on the town.
  • Shrinking Expenses – These expenses include everything that’s left over and is where you’re going to start shaving off the dollars.
Once you’ve identified which category each of your expenses falls into, you can begin to create a budget that reflects your current situation and your personal preferences (while identifying the quickest, easiest places to start making changes). There’s no better way to play with the actual numbers that correspond to each of these expense items than with a computerized budget. By using one of the templates I’ve linked to below, most of which are free excel documents you can download in mere seconds, you can quickly compare your fiscal bottom line should you get your hair cut at Irina the Swedish Scissor-hands’ Salon versus a no appointment necessary stop at Supercuts.

ChristianPF has 10 free excel budgets to download. I especially like the first one, but scan through them all to see what looks most appealing.

Suite 101 also has some resources and tips for using budget templates which you can tailor to your personal needs.

And when in doubt, go straight to the source! Microsoft Office has a personal budget to offer you too.

Go ahead and play with the numbers. Be open to experimenting with different scenarios - see how much you could save if you cut out those trips to the manicurist or if you ditched your gym membership for a morning jog outside, figure out what the impact would be in a year's time if you curbed your grocery budget by $7.50, and calculate out what dropping that soda habit could mean for your nest egg. The idea is to not feel tied down to any finalized budget just yet, but to get a feel for the impact that shrinking expenses can have. Be sure to stop by next time for Budgeting: Part III where we'll discuss solidifying your budget and sticking to it!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Budgets: Part I

I've written a bit about determining your long and mid-term financial goals (if you haven't read it yet, you can read it here) and I hope you’ve had a chance to reflect on and determine what your own goals are. If you have, you might be thinking - but how do I get there from here? The answer will differ for all of us, and not just because we are each starting at a different financial location and aiming for a unique destination. While most of us probably have a plan for achieving our financial goals along the lines of “spend less save more”, that model can have a distinct look for each of us depending on our situation and our priorities.

There are likely a million and one ways to spend less on the things we need, to discover the joys of cost-free entertainment and experiences, to increase the return on our investments, and to develop a sense of empowerment and a healthy attitude towards money. Those are all topics I’m anxious to write about and explore further, but they will all be ineffective for those without the solid foundation that is a well-formed budget.

A budget is your guide to reaching financial goals; mapping out your weekly, monthly, and annual benchmarks that will keep you on track with your long-term plans. The prospect of sitting down to create a budget may be daunting to some, but the great thing is that once you have crafted your budget you can relax knowing that you have a well defined path to financial success. If you start feeling discouraged about your finances and think, “I can’t do this – I’m in over my head”, you can look to your budget as a reminder that you CAN do it. You have written proof that your goals ARE attainable.

I’ll be diving into the specifics of creating and honing a budget in future posts. Now is the time to brainstorm a list of all the expenses you have in your life, right now. Be objective and honest. You’ll want your budget to be detailed enough that everything you’re currently spending money on is taken into account – even those things that you are looking to cut out of your spending habits like costly trips to the manicurist or daily stops at the 7-Eleven. Understanding where your money is going now is key to developing a budget that will work for you and your priorities. One easy way to do this is to look over a month or two of history on your credit and debit card statements. If you pay for most things with plastic, this will give you a really clear picture of how much you spend on what. If you’re still not sure where your paychecks are going, make a log of everything you purchase over the next couple of weeks.

Below is a list of common budget items that can help you get started or fill in gaps with expenses you may have missed – print it off and jot down next to each item what you currently spend on each. Don't forget to stop by tomorrow when we'll explore how to translate what you learn from this exercise into a budget that is tailored to you. I'll also be sharing some wonderful web-resources that make developing a digital budget a breeze!

Rent or Mortgage Payment

Renters/Home Insurance

Utilities – Electric, Gas, Trash, Water

Cable/Internet Service

Phone Service

Car Payment


Car Insurance

Car Maintenance

Public Transportation Pass

Debt Payments


Prescriptions and Medical Expenses

Personal Care - Salon Visits, Massages, etc.

Eating Out and Drinking

Entertainment – Movies, Dancing, Concerts, Shows, etc.


Gym and Club Memberships


Organizational Dues


Pet-Related Expenses



Thursday, April 8, 2010

Free Information

Living fabulously means being informed and enlightened about the world around us, and these days you don't need a costly subscription to the evening post to do so. Two of my favorite sources of information and inspiration also happen to be free: the library and free podcasts. If you haven't made it to your local library recently, head on over - it's an incredible source for books, magazines and journals, CDs, DVDs, news, digital media, and more. Even if you live in a small town and think your library falls on the puny side, it is likely to have a partnership with other libraries in your area which means you can request materials from other locations and they'll be delivered to your particular branch at no cost. You can read more about why I think libraries are so great in one of my past posts here.

If you like to get your information in an audio format, podcasts are the way to go. The internet hosts a never-ending supply of regular (or psuedo-regular) audio recordings addressing topics of every kind. Downloading free podcasts to your MP3 player or phone takes just a few seconds, and listening to something interesting is a perfect way to make use of your drive to work, your afternoon walk, or time spent cleaning the house. I like listening to NPR's On Health podcast to stay up to date on the latest health developments, Stop Podcasting Yourself for some comedic relief, and the CNN News Update which comes out with new headline stories every hour. Do you have a favorite podcast you recommend?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Lime & Pepper Marinated Portabello Mushrooms

It probably comes as no surprise that enjoying tasty meals at home beats the pants off dining out when you're keeping a close eye on spending. But having fun by experimenting with new recipes - when you're also trying to pare down the grocery receipt bottom line - can be daunting. Often times those glossy recipes found in award winning cookbooks involve well over 10 ingredients and a smattering of herbs and spices that can do some serious wallet damage. However, I'm not about to advocate consuming inferior fare.

Here's a new recipe I've been enjoying lately that's extremely versatile: Lime and Pepper Marinated Grilled Portabello Mushrooms. You can find the nitty gritty details of the recipe I used here, but the basic idea is to marinate a few portabello caps in olive oil, lime juice, and some seasonings (in this case fresh chopped cilantro and serrano pepper, plus salt and pepper) for an hour or so then toss 'em on the grill outside or a George Foreman.

What works well about this recipe is that it's easy to tailor depending what foods you have on hand. Maybe instead of a lime and pepper marinade you opt for garlic or make it easy and use some pre-made dressing as your marinade instead. I sliced up the grilled mushrooms and tossed them into a taco shell with some beans, romaine lettuce, avocado slices, and homemade pico de gallo - but you could use whatever items you have available or are on sale at the store. You don't have to make it a Mexican-inspired dish either: serve the mushroom caps whole alongside some wilted greens and polenta for a home-cooked feeling, make a yummy sandwich or wrap with long slices of mushroom and grilled bell pepper, or top a salad with mushroom bits alongside artichoke hearts and olives.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Setting the Course

Before we commit to any significant, intentional, long-term changes in life, it's important to take some time to map out the new course we're pursuing. I don't mean a set-in-stone turn-by-turn plan a'la Columbus (we all know how that turned out), think of this more as a fancy new GPS where you're typing in your destination and settings - detours, changes in ETA, traffic, and stops for refreshment will be accommodated for, there's no need to worry about them just yet.

If, like me, you're ready to take control of your financial future and jump into some new spending and saving habits, determining your destination means coming up with some long and mid-term goals for what you want to achieve. In my case, I'm determining exactly how much money I will save in the next 6 months, where that money will be deposited, and what big ticket material investments I also want to make in that time (i.e. a new pair of prescription glasses, snow tires for my car, etc.). What are your financial goals? What is your time line, and what do you want your financial status to be at the end of that period?

Right now, I'm focusing specifically on a six month period because that gives me ample time to both develop and solidify new habits and to start reaping significant benefits from them. Once you determine what your financial destination is, write it down. You'll want to be specific about how much money you will have in each of your accounts (savings, checking, retirement, etc.), how much of your debt you will have paid off, and what investments you will have made.

Now is also a good time to write out why taking control of your financial future is important to you. Why have you chosen your particular destination? Are you building your own nest egg? Are you saving up for a particular investment like down payment or a wedding? Is your focus becoming debt free? Or do you need financial stability for a change in lifestyle, such as starting your own business or going back to school? Without a reason to reach your destination, your unlikely to make it anywhere fast - writing out the reason you're starting on this new path can serve as fuel to get you moving and a helpful reminder to keep you on track.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

What's New?

Whoa! Pardon the sudden disappearance - I went on a bit of a hiatus from the computer. Emails went without response, my reader account went unread, podcasts went without downloading... it was a nice little break from the digital screen, but I started to miss it. Here's what I did in my time away...

Paid off my last remaining bit of debt (that's right folks, I'm debt free! woohoo!)
Relaxed and indulged in some laziness (and Real Housewives of NYC)
Started reading Eckhart Tolle (very interesting, soul inspiring stuff)
Saw HIM (and killer opener Dommin) at the House of Blues
Made grilled portabello tacos (there's a recipe post to come...)
Got a new Droid phone; I've officially joined the 21st Century
Saw John B at Phoenix Landing
Discovered this cool blog after ogling photos of the blogger's gorgeous farmhouse
Listened to the new She and Him album in its entirety (and you can too! it's free at NPR)

I've been feeling this shift within myself lately, a change of focus, I suppose, without really knowing what the next direction is. Since having paid off the last of my debt I have a new-found interest in saving up and really prioritizing where my paychecks go. I've always considered myself a fairly thrifty person, but even my own spending patterns can be erratic and impulsive (and I don't think I'm alone here). I also have a hard time accepting the idea that you can spend less and still get the same level of quality for what you invest in (yes, Virginia, you do get what you pay for). However, I also know that having a good nest egg and developing habits that leave us feeling empowered by money (not filled with a sense that it controls us, that we cannot be secure without having just a little bit more, or that it defines who we are) are critical to having control over our own financial future and a freedom that can't be taken away.

So I'm embarking on a new path - one where living fabulously and fulfillingly coexist with living on a budget and not fretting away hard earned dinero. It might mean a new look and feel for this site - I hope you're excited! I sure am.