Recently in Money Category

Crazy couponing check-in

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So I'm still all about the couponing, and I've made some progress since my last post on the subject. The other day, I walked out of CVS with three bottles of laundry detergent and an eye shadow for around $10, saving $25ish. I though that was pretty good. I'm still not quite ready for the show, but I did score my first free items (some purse packs of Clorox wipes), so I'd say I'm headed in the right direction!

Best recent scores:

1. Three bottles All Free & Clear Detergent, regular $8.50, on sale for $3.99, minus a printable $1 off coupon, paid $2/bottle (CVS)

2. Four Clorox wipes purse pack, regular $.99, one store coupon for $1 off three Clorox items, 4 printable $.75 off 1 Clorox item coupons, FREE (Target)

3. 18 Gerber Organic Baby Food pouches, regular around $1.39 each, one store coupon for $5 off $20 Nestle products, 3 printable coupons for $.99 off six pouches, paid about $17 or $.94 each.

How about you? Are any of my readers couponers? Tell me your secrets!

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Thoughts of the inadvertent SAHM

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The other day, Rita Arens wrote a fantastic post over at her blog, Surrender, Dorothy, about her husband's unemployment. Go read it, then come back here, OK?

Wasn't that good? It made me think that maybe I should try to get a few of my feelings about my current unemployed status out there in bloggy format, too.

I got laid off. While on maternity leave. I'm not going to go into details, because going into professional details here would be dumb, but suffice it to say that yes, in this instance it was legal. What happened had absolutely nothing to do with me personally--it was a corporate rules issue that came from far above any of the team I worked with--but that didn't make it not sting, or make it not feel like I had been betrayed while I was vulnerable. I had fully intended to return to my position when Buzzy was eight weeks old, and, instead, I found out when he was three weeks old that I didn't have a job to which I could return.

Now he's almost sixteen weeks, and I still don't. I'm looking--sending the three queries or applications a week mandated by unemployment insurance and then some--but, so far, nothing has panned out. I haven't even had a real interview, though I have had a few phone interviews. Most of what I've applied for is stuff I haven't been all that excited about, but a few things sounded like great matches for my skill set, at which I would be really good, and none of them have called me back.

I am, oddly, not that upset about it. I'm sure long-time readers will recall that the last time I was unemployed, it made me a little bit nuts. Circumstances were better then, too, as far as not having just birthed a dependent. But this time, I feel very calm about it most of the time. I feel sure I'll find something else in good time, and in the meantime, I'm really enjoying the time this allows me to spend with Buzzy, which I would not have otherwise had. Yes, it's a strain financially, but when I add the amount of unemployment insurance I'm getting to the amount we're not paying in daycare, it's not that big a strain. It wouldn't add up long-term, of course (for one thing, UI is only for six months), but for now, it's working OK.

I am, however, bothered by not being more bothered. I don't think I realized, until I wasn't working, just how much of my self-definition is tied up in being employed. Not in what I do specifically, but in myself as a wage earner, as someone who gets up and goes to work every day. Even though I am in many ways busier and more engaged now, as the primary caregiver for an infant, than I have been in many (if not all) of my paid jobs, I still feel lazy. I feel like a leech on my partner, and on society. I feel guilty for not working. And even though I know I didn't do it "on purpose," I feel like I somehow chose not to work and that I am letting myself and perhaps all of womankind down by being, however unwillingly, a stay-at-home-mom.

I didn't expect to be in this position, obviously, but even if I had imagined it, this is not how I would have expected it to feel. I enjoy being home with my baby much more than I would have thought possible (though I suspect this would not hold true long term). I'm not bored. Though I look forward to going back to work, and especially to being an earner once again, I am not nearly so anxious as I expected I would be to slip into a non-mommy primary identity for 40 hours a week. While staying home for these first few months has not made me wish I could stay home long-term, it hasn't made me yearn to go back to work as soon as possible, either. I have been, and at this point remain, surprisingly content both with being home with Buzzy and with the idea that soon (hopefully!) I'll be leaving him in professional care and returning to work.

It has been helpful, in some way, not to have the responsibilities of a job complicating things as I've made the shift to this new identity as someone's mother. On the other hand, though, I worry that this ease comes at the price of sublimating my previous identities, including the wage earning identity that turns out to have been so important, to my new role. Obviously, all of the issues surrounding parenthood, and especially motherhood, and work are extremely complex and very controversial. I can't quite yet tease out how my perspective has been altered by this experience, but I sense that it has.

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Financial success and the 20-something woman

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stockvault-money-in-hands128486.jpg
Image via Stockvault.

Last week, there was a little article in Forbes entitled "6 Things That Keep 20-Something Women From Financial Success," by Amanda Abella. I can't remember where I found it--probably someone mentioned it on Twitter--but I read it with great interest, as I've been thinking a lot lately about "financial success" and how the decisions I made, both consciously and less consciously, in my 20s are playing out now.

I thought the article had some pretty large problems, though there were grains of truth in most of the specific pieces of advice. As I started to unpack it in my mind (and in conversation with friends), I thought it might make good blog fodder. As a woman in my (still early!) 30s, in a committed relationship, with a baby on the way, who is in a pretty good (relative to the majority of women my age) financial position, where do I think the article is spot-on? Where does it fail? How closely does it match up with the decisions I made?

Debt

The article's first admonishment is that women screw themselves financially by getting into debt. This one is a no-brainer--getting into a lot of debt early in your adult life will plague you for years. However, the cursory treatment given to the topic doesn't cover it in any meaningful way. The author writes, "we need to start prioritizing our money and cutting our spending habits." Sure. That would help with the consumer debt problem. But to my mind, the bigger issue for a woman in her 20s is college loans. Can you get a college education without taking on significant debt to do so? Some people can, but for an ever-increasing number of us, it's just not in the cards. So is that debt worth it? How do we make that debt work for us? Should we be forgoing college because of the specter of that debt?

I consider myself lucky to have gotten out of undergrad with about $30K in student loans, at a low interest rate, and not to have increased that debt in grad school. Both were conscious choices, though I can't really call them informed. I decided, at 17 and with very little idea of how repayment would really work, that taking on a certain amount of debt was a worthwhile risk to get the elite private education I wanted. It was a lot less than it could have been, given that tuition was already about $27K/year at that point. I got a lot of financial aid. And, even though I've been making payments on those loans for ten years now, I don't regret it in the least. I think, for me, it was the right decision--even if "all" it got me was an unmarketable liberal arts degree (a claim I don't believe, by the way, but that's another topic for another day). However, I think I also made the right choice by refusing to take on further debt to go to graduate school. I had that option--I could have gone to a "better" grad program, and taken on about $20K more in loans to do it. I chose instead to go to the perfectly good grad program I attended for free. Particularly given how little I actually got out of grad school, personally and professionally, I'm very glad I made that call.

The bottom line, for me, is that some debt is worth taking on. No, it's never really "worth" running up a credit card for frivolous, temporary purchases--I've been down that road, too, and can't recommend it. It causes me physical pain to consider how much healthier my savings account balance would be had I never gotten into that trap. But not all debt is created equally, and I think it's short-sighted not to account for debt that may well be necessary, in the service of both education and further income prospects, as something that needs to be carefully considered, but may well give more benefit than harm.

Not Saving for Retirement
The article's second piece of advice is another typical one--save for retirement, starting early. Again, I have no particular quarrel with this advice, but I think the cursory treatment leaves too much unsaid. The financial reality of living on a starter salary, in many places/situations, and particularly in the current economy, doesn't always make saving for retirement as soon as you get your first "real" job a possibility. In some cases, it surely is, and I absolutely agree that those folks should pony up retirement savings as soon as they can. The rest of us have to play catch up.

Having not started any sort of retirement savings until my very late 20s, I am among those playing catch up. It wasn't that the need to save for retirement wasn't apparent to me before then, it just wasn't going to happen when I was in grad school and working part time, or when I was making less than $30K/year and making student loan payments (see that previous debt thing!). While, retrospectively, I could have saved a very small amount, and probably it would be the advice of most financial planners that I did so, it wouldn't have been much, and I have always felt better with that paltry amount in accessible savings vehicles. I'm not saying that's the right way to do it--it's possible I'll be cursing my 25 year old self when I'm 70--but that's been my thought process.

I am, however, saving for retirement now. I'm still not saving as much as I probably should be, but I plan to increase my percentage every year for the next few years, and I'll get up to a better level pretty quickly.

Not Starting a Side Hustle
This was where the article kinda lost me. "Women tend to be creative, whether we're freelancing for clients or running our own Etsy shop," Abella writes. "We also own about 67% of all at-home small businesses. Pretty nice chunk, eh? Women clearly already have it in them to be their own bosses, so why not join the ranks and set yourself up with an extra source of income? Not only can it make you extra cash while working a traditional job, it can also be your safety net in case that traditional job doesn't pan out."

I think this advice is just...bad. First, comments like "women tend to be creative," send me around the bend. What does that even mean? Secondly, how many of those "67% of at-home small businesses" are turning a profit? Abella doesn't say, and the source she uses for that claim? Pretty sketchy. My anecdotal evidence is that most women who attempt to go the Etsy or similar route in starting a small side business end up spending more than they make, even before accounting for the value of their time. Craft-based businesses are very, very difficult to make financially successful, and doubly so if you are doing them as a sideline, rather than as your main job.

Another problem with this advice is that it doesn't take into account that every hour, every minute, of a person's time has opportunity cost. Is it better to spend time in your 20s building a "side hustle," or increasing your skills/working hours in your main job? What about time spent building that all-important network you're supposed to turn to when the employment chips are down?

I'm not again side work--I've had at least one and often two part-time side gigs for the past several years, and mine have been profitable. However, they've also been based on the experience and skills I have built at my regular, full-time jobs. And now, in my 30s with a baby on the way? I'm giving them up. Frankly, 40 hours a week is enough.

I think better advice for a woman in her 20s is to build a variable skill set. You don't want to have to depend on sporadic freelance work or your Etsy store when you get laid-off--you want to find another full-time gig, and the more things you're qualified to do, the easier that's going to be. This is one of those areas where I think I've been really lucky (and I do think it's luck, more than any advanced planning on my part). When I need to find work, I can look in multiple sectors (non-profit, education, technology, etc.) for multiple job types/titles (technical writer, editor, grant writer, grant administrator, researcher, etc.). This makes it easier for me to find opportunities and gives me more geographic flexibility, as I'm not tied to a given market. Building this type of variable skill set/experience set is the advice I'd give a young woman--not start a side business based on your inherent female "creativity."

Not having "the money talk" when a relationship gets serious.
I was glad to see this piece of advice included in the article. Your 20s is often a time when people get into serious relationships, and those relationships often come with a co-mingling of finances. People can be amazingly naive about this, and I am stunned by how many women I know who have been bitten in the ass by it. If you are going to share money with someone, to any degree, you have to work out the logistics of it--in advance--and you MUST protect yourself. It's really that simple. Nobody is going to do it for you, and it's not heartless or mercenary or any of those other words that get leveled at people (particularly women) who are together enough to do it. It's just good sense.

My advice would be not to mingle money any more than is necessary to achieve joint goals (buying a house, for example). I think it's better (safer, mostly) for folks in general to have control of their own personal finances. However, I realize that I hold the minority opinion on that, and that most married or long-term partnered people do share finances. There are more and less safe ways to do that. Your emergency fund (see the next point), should, to my mind, always be accessible by you only. Nobody wants to think about it, but when the shit hits the fan, it is MUCH harder to deal with a crisis without any accessible cash.

On a less dire note, it's important to be able to talk plainly about money with someone with whom you share your life just because so much of what we do and what we think about is money-oriented. Your attitudes about money will shape what jobs you take, how you spend your time, where you live, what you eat, and so on. Many things we don't think of as financial decisions are, ultimately, financial decisions, and you don't want to have to fight about every one of them, or be blindsided by your differences with your partner.

I feel like Mark and I have a good balance on this front. We've always been able to discuss money pretty openly, which I'm told is generally even more difficult for folks who come from such different class/financial backgrounds as we do. We've elected to keep our finances largely separate, though we have combined them more and more as time has gone on. In part, this has been due to the necessity of joint purchases, like our house in Austin and our vehicles, and in part it's been because we're not married and have to use joint financial accounts to prove our partnership in order to quality for domestic partnership benefits. However, we still keep our primary checking accounts separate, have separate credit cards, and have separate savings accounts as well as a joint one. The bookkeeping is a bit more complicated this way, but I believe it's worth it.

Forgoing the Emergency Fund
The article's fifth piece of advice is to set up an emergency fund for the unexpected-but-inevitable car repair, move, health emergency, etc. This is gold-star advice, in my opinion, and though it may be obvious, it can't be repeated enough. You have to have a cushion to fall back on. If you don't, you end up in debt (see #1) or even more screwed if that option isn't available to you. (The credit card trouble I got into in my 20s began with a huge emergency vet bill that I didn't have savings to pay and spiraled from there, so I'm way familiar with this one.) I believe a stocked emergency fund is the single most important savings you have--more than saving for retirement, more than a savings dedicated to a trip or buying a house or whatever.

The article doesn't suggest an amount to sock away in your emergency fund. For me personally, the amount has been variable depending on what I'm making, how well I'm saving, and how recently my emergency account has taken a hit, but I think the typical "3-6 months of living expenses" advice is probably pretty sound and that's what I shoot for these days.

Paying Yourself Last
The author's final critique of women in their 20s was that they so often refuse to "pay themselves first," i.e. to put money in savings before they do anything else. "For some reason," Arbella writes, "it seems to be really difficult for people to save their money. Granted, it's not completely their faults; after all, when bills pile up it can be difficult to make sure you put some money away in a savings account." This lip service irritates me, as it is nothing more than a condescending head-pat to those who simply are not making enough income to cover basic expenses (this is a problem with the article in general, actually). While the advice is good--save first, ideally automatically, even if it's a small amount--the execution is simply not always a possibility for those who are to-the-penny budgeting, which is what it's like for a lot of people right now.

Paying myself first is something I have never been good at. I'm better now, and have been doing automatic savings for the last couple of years, but, like retirement savings, it took me quite a while to get there. This is a financial mistake, I know, and it's one I regret (again, I know how much bigger my savings balances could/should be). However, I think more useful advice would be on how to make savings work. For example, I've read the suggestion that you automatically save whatever raise you get if/when you get a raise or change jobs, and I think that's brilliant. Similarly, the tactic of continuing to pay a bill once it disappears, but making that payment to savings? Love that. (For example, after your car is paid off, keep making your car payment to your savings account.) These specific ways to save help with the transition between not having anything to save and having money to save, and I think that can really helpful, particularly when you're first starting out.

There are things I'd have liked to see included in the article that were simply not mentioned. Given the state of employment (I heard on the radio this morning that 50% of college graduates are unable to find jobs within three months or something like that?), advice on how to deal with unemployment would be helpful. I still remember the first few months after I graduated from college as one of the financially scariest times I've been through, and it wasn't something I felt all that prepared to deal with at the time.

The article also skirts around one of the most controversial, but important, topics in female financial security--children. Having kids is a financial risk for women, full-stop. Writing for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Elizabeth Ty Wilde, Lily Batchelder, and David Ellwood found that having a child "costs the average high skilled woman $230,000 in lost lifetime wages relative to similar women who never gave birth." Though the actual paper is a bit too complicated to analyze here, the group's basic finding was that having children costs all women, financially, and that the higher the financial prospects of the woman in question, the higher the costs. In comparison, "men's earning profiles are relatively unaffected by having children although men who never have children earn less on average than those who do." Clearly, most women are going to have children regardless of this financial risk. However, a discussion of ways in which this risk can be moderated, both on a personal level for an individual woman and on a societal level, would be very welcome in articles like Abella's.

This analysis is, perhaps, overkill for such a short article. I should probably be glad that this discussion is happening at all, however cursorily. But I think it does a disservice both to young women who need and want this advice and to the more experienced women who can share their experiences to be so matter-of-fact about these difficult subjects. There is almost always a chasm between what you should do, what you can do, and what you are doing. We need to recognize that chasm and figure out how to bridge it, not just ignore it or pithily write it off. Further, a full discussion of women's financial issues can't be had without talking about the complicated effects of partnerships and children on women's financial health, and to do so strikes me as disingenuous. Finally, I'd love to see pieces like this one address not just the college-educated, middle-class woman to whom Abella is clearly speaking, but to a wider range of women as well.

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I'm down with UMC?

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Over the course of the past few months, I've been called something I never expected to be called. A name that just hadn't occurred to me to worry about having attached to my freewheeling bohemian self. A phrase that I just could not imagine would apply to me.

I've been called upper middle class.

And now that the shock has worn off, I'm considering the appropriateness of this term. My instinct, of course, is to snort derisively. I can't be UMC--no fancy car, no fancy house, no fancy clothes. I know what the UMC look like--I live among them!--but that's not me! My baby will NOT be riding in a Bugaboo, thank you very much!

However.

A bit back, I saw this (dated, but still somewhat relevant) New York Times class calculator online. So I filled in my statistics...and it gave me an average of the 71st percentile. The top 5th. Not just upper middle class, but actually ABOVE it. Huh.

So I poked around a bit more. I hit all the markers of Wikipedia's definition of UMC. I couldn't argue with most of what Urban Dictionary had to say.

Time for a reality check.

The interesting thing, I realized as I came to grips with this term actually applying to me, is not being upper middle class. It's that it is so bizarre to me to identify as such. I went to school for a million years and got a professional degree. I am partnered with someone who holds a Ph.D. I've worked for nearly the last decade towards a very comfortable income. How did I not think of these things as the upper middle class markers they are?

There are, I think, two major reasons. The first is an error of perception. I thought of upper middle class not as a measure of career/income/education, but as a measure of consumption. McMansions, low-end designer (but designer! and purchased new!) clothes every year, cars with bells and whistles, etc. What I failed to take into account is that those are consumption choices, and (particularly in the credit-fueled here and now) they don't necessarily reflect purchasing power as much as purchasing willingness. I also conveniently forgot to take into account the UMC purchasing decisions I do make--organic groceries, frequent travel, etc. The shift towards those things has happened so slowly that they've become normal, not something I think about as a marker of anything. That's pretty embarrassing. I've been paying attention to class long enough to know that assuming that my life is "normal" and anything "above" or "below" it is deviant is a big part of the problem.

The other reason I never thought of myself as UMC is a bit more complicated. I grew up working class, and though I've been aware for some time of having moved out of that class and into another one, it hadn't occurred to me that I'd shift not just by one "level" but perhaps by more than one. Like, apparently, a large number of Americans, it feels weird to me to define myself as anything other than middle class, particularly when even calling myself "comfortably middle class" seems like a departure from my roots. It's not like it happened while I wasn't paying attention--increased income and professional responsibility have been goals of mine for many years now--but I didn't necessarily realize, or didn't allow myself to notice, that the combination of achieving my education, career, and income goals was going to land me in the UMC.

These issues are all the more interesting and salient to me as I consider impending motherhood. Unless our situation changes drastically, my child will grow up in a much different class than the one I did. I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, I am happy that (again, God willing, as long as things stay on the trajectory they are on right now) I'll be able to provide her with things like lessons and trips and maybe help pay for college. As aghast as I am about how much we're going to be paying for day care next year, I am thrilled that we'll be able to do it, and that our economic situation won't force us to be creative about our childcare. I fully realize that it has to be easier to raise a kid with money than without. As fantastic as my upbringing was, I don't have a whole lot of poverty romanticism--being poor is tough.

On the other hand, though, I worry about my kid being a snob. I worry about her turning up her nose at where I came from, or not realizing just how lucky she is, how lucky we are, to have been afforded the opportunities we have been and to have had things go our way. I worry about all the things I see happening to myself, and don't like, being things she starts out with.

It probably seems as if I am overstating my case, and I likely am--it's not like we're rolling in dough. But I think it's important to have a realistic assessment of where you stand in terms of your country and your community, if only to better empathize. As uncomfortable as it is for me, I think it is important that, if I am actually upper middle class, I realize and own that privilege, while simultaneously realizing that it may not be permanent. So that's what I am, quite imperfectly, trying to do.

Talk to me about class--is it something you think about? It's a ridiculously difficult subject to discuss, as we all bring so much baggage to the table, but I think it's worth trying.

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I always love your blog topics.

This made me smile - I've always admired you for being such a successful woman. Class is something I'm constantly aware. I grew up UMC (I was SO down), had an Ivy League education, and immediately went into the arts, plummeting slowly into the bottom 5% income of the nation. Now I live in a certified ghetto and I sing in an alumni a capella group that meets in serious mansions in Bel Air. It's impossible not to be aware of class. The less I have, the more I'm aware of it.

Bottom line is, I'd give anything to make what you make right now!!

"I fully realize that it has to be easier to raise a kid with money than without."

Isn't that the truth.

Interestingly, we are a lot higher in the %s than I thought we would be. That calculator has me thinking now.

I'm a lot higher in the percentages than I thought we would be too (although I should know better, working with folks who are on the bottom, I know that we have a lot.) And yet, somehow we're sort of scraping by, and really truly living a modest but perfectly decent and nice life style.

Goes to show, I guess, how many people are far far below scraping by with a decent lifestyle. :/

Very true article. You never feel where you stand unless you start looking around and thats when you see where you really are.

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The class war waged in my head

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Recently, I've begun to shy away from too many personal posts on this here blog. This has been a fairly conscious decision--I'm not sure my personal thoughts and anecdotes are really all that interesting or help to build a readership. In part, it has been laziness, too--it's much easier to post links, write reviews, and point out things that I think are cool than it is to dive into my innermost thoughts and try to fish something usable out and write about it.

Still, the days of the personal post are not gone. They may be more infrequent, but I suspect they'll never disappear. I just have too much shit bottled up inside me that needs to go somewhere. And today, as is often the case, that bottled up shit is all about money, class, and guilt.

I grew up working class. My family is, largely, working class (with a few exceptions), as is the town in which I grew up. As is the case, I think, with many class straddlers (I take this term from this book), my life looks much, much different now than it would if I still lived in the society in which I grew up. I am still sometimes shocked by the amounts I pay for things, and by the things I pay for. This has been true for as long as I've lived in a city, to some extent--city prices and country prices are just different--but it's far more so now, in an expensive suburb, living an expensive suburban lifestyle. My rent is outrageous (as is the size of my house). My organic grocery bills are mind-blowing. So is what we'll spend on a nice dinner out. I get manicures. I pay someone to cut the lawn. These are things I expect always so struggle with, and to feel some guilt about.

The new feeling of guilt, however, comes not from comparing myself to my family, but to my friends. I've come to realize, over the past few months, that Mark and I have more money than most of our cohort (with a few notable exceptions). This seems new, though I guess it's not all that new. When we were all just out of college, with stupid jobs or going to graduate school, everybody was similarly broke. We had junker cars, or no cars. We lived in groups. We ate on the cheap. We didn't travel (well, those of us who weren't under parental subsidy didn't, anyway). Slowly, though, things have changed. Some of us, including me, have moved into professional jobs, then moved up in those jobs, and are now making nice salaries. Others have obtained professional degrees, or PhDs, and moved into the highest social class, if not the highest economic one. For the most part, none of us have had children, but we've bought houses, cars, taken expensive trips. These things, taken as they come, have seemed reasonable and natural, but in total, paint a rather striking picture of the class we're now in.

And others of our cohort haven't been so lucky. Some can't find jobs at all, some can find only subsistence work. Student loans stay in deferment, credit card debt piles up. I try to figure out what I should be contributing to my retirement account and I have friends who can barely pay their rent. I recently posted a Groupon for Whole Foods on my Facebook, and got a response from a good friend who couldn't believe the people he knew could afford Whole Foods. Mark and I have been shopping there for years. It's become so normal, I'd almost forgotten it is a luxury market.

There is no reason, beyond luck, for this discrepancy. I fell into a career that pays quite well. Mark has been successful in his field, has met the right people, and is now in a position that could, with continued luck, set him up for exactly the career he planned as a best-case scenario. We're not smarter than our friends. We didn't work harder. We got lucky. And yeah, I think we've done a pretty good job capitalizing on our luck, building on it and making good decisions, but really, the luck is all that separates us from those who aren't doing as well.

How do you reconcile that? How do you look at the people you love, watch them struggle, and feel OK about not having to struggle that way yourself? More than anything else, I think, this keeps me up at night. As I turn into this extraordinarily privileged person, this upper middle class white lady, with a new car and a big house, who shops at Whole Foods without considering the cost, how do I make sure to remember how lucky I am, and that this isn't about my being gifted in any way, or "earning" anything? Is there a way to keep that in mind without being so paralyzed by the guilt that you don't even try? Guilt is so rarely a useful emotion--how can I make it one?

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Why do you feel guilty for making good decisions and for having the opportunities to make those decisions? We are where we are largely through luck as well, our income 7 years ago put us well below the poverty rate. Now we bring in 12 times that, due to a series of extremely fortunate opportunities. We try to support our friends and family as much as we reasonably can, we give a lot to our community and we contribute for our friends who do missionary work. Family is trickier, because they don't want the help, but we do what we can. Hosting family gatherings, and such.

I happen to know that you make a conscious effort to give back, and that puts you one step ahead of many in my opinion. You show great self-awareness, and just because you've been lucky and blessed does not mean that you are not deserving or are any less deserving than the next guy. I don't know that you're any *more* deserving, but you're certainly just as, if you know what I mean. I'm happy to see you remember the less fortunate and not take things for granted. It means a lot to those of us around you who aren't so blessed financially, but are certainly lucky in many other ways. :)

I am in (as you know) a similar situation, though the discrepancy for most of my friends is not luck. It’s career choice. Which makes it more complicated to me. When we were in a situation where al of us had similar jobs and someone was un or underemployed, we’d all pitch in and help someone out. But now these people have made the choice to never make any more money than what they currently make, that’s awkward. I am not (nor would they want me) going to pitch in all the time for them. But I have gotten guff from my friends in this situation that certain things my group of friends choose to do is “too expensive.” That irritates me. Even when something was too expensive for me, I would have NEVER have said that as it implies everyone else is a spendthrift. Also I would point out these events are generally dinner out somewhere that’s under 15$ a plate. My feeling is a lot of these things are not too expensive, we’ve just made different choices. These people have the money to do lots of stuff I wouldn’t spend money on even though I have it. I think if it’s approached this way, as “I choose not to do that” (because I also choose to have a fulfilling career that will only ever pay me 30K or because it’s not worth the money to me), then that’s reasonable. I just cannot stand when people participate in the same activity as everyone else and THEN cry poor.

Oddly I get the same thing from the other direction from couples, especially with travel. Essentially, if I am traveling with a couple, everything is half the price for them as it is for me and they have been kind of insensitive about it.

I honestly never ever want to hear someone say something is too expensive for them. It rings false. My parents would’ve died rather than say something was too expensive for them, even when most stuff was.

Oddly my family is totally the most assy about this subject. They definitely think making money is 100% luck. When I try to explain I also, oh got two degrees which allowed me to get this job they think that's also just luck. Like, hello, I made a plan and I did things that weren't immediate gratification to get here. Nope. Just luck.

I've been keeping the personal stuff off my blog too. It is just one of those things that is always a struggle on what you want to share and what you should share. I grew up in a very working class family that was a times beyond hand to mouth. In high school I used to stand in line for free groceries. Then the next year I'd get a whole new wardrobe at the limited (back when it was fancy and euro)

Now I get manicures. Spend over $600 a month in food some months. Buy a $30 lipstick. But you know what? Who cares? If your bills are paid, you have a nest egg, you put away for retirement who cares if you get a manicure. I know I suffer from crippling catholic guilt and I am not even catholic (but half my family is) It will always be a struggle mentally. Seriously. Damned if you do or you don't. So why not enjoy yourself as long as you are within your means?

It has taken me a long time and I am not good at it but you can't compare yourself to others. you are no better or worse then someone who is stuggling with money. You might have issues they couldn't fathrom having. Everyone has a battle just they are always a bit different.

you can remember how lucky you are by appreciating what you have and knowing it can be taken away tomorrow. Don't buy anything you don't LOVE. Don't throw things away you could donate. etc. Take care of the things you have. Polish the fancy shoes, hang the new shirt up.

I love your personal posts...they are what I read for, 100%.

I really disagree with a lot of what the other commentors have said, for various reasons. I don't see why people shouldn't comment that something is too expensive for them (I think I'm just not "getting" that comment, perhaps) and I definitely don't think it's a "who cares?" situation. I think it's good to care, and important to care. "Who cares?" is in part what leads to the huge income discrepancies in the US, IMO.

I struggle with this too though. Not with regards to my family - I'm in pretty much the same class as my parents. Somewhat with friends. But mostly, it's an struggle related to the folks I work with (clients, not coworkers) . I don't make a lot of money, not at all. But my expenses are pretty low, and so I have a fair amount of discretionary funds. Spending every day with people who have literally zero discretionary funds leaves me feeling definitely spoiled. We're taking a three day weekend - two nights at a cheap B&B in Maine, and honestly I am struggling not to feel guilty about it. On the one hand, my job is wearing me DOWN in a serious way, and the more fun and pampering I can have on the weekends, the more able I will be. On the other hand, it feels seriously illogical to spend hundreds of dollars in one weekend, just for fun.

In fact, it feels more than illogical...it sometimes feels disgusting. And sure, I deserve it just as much as anyone. But here's the catch - there are people out there who deserve things even more basic, and don't have them. AND, I could give them those things. (Couldn't give hundreds directly to my clients, but you know what I mean.) The way we spend our money ISN'T neutral! We CAN spend our money in ways that make things better for other people, and give them things that everyone truly does deserve. Clean water. Food. Health care. So it's definitely not a "who cares?" situation, not in my mind.

Honestly, this is where my morals are overcome by self interest. That's the bottom line. Morally, I think I should keep the money that I need to have a healthy, simple, frugal life, and donate the rest. (Many people would probably say that the amount we make is pretty close to what you need for a simple frugal life, but that's not really true.) In reality, I'm not going to do that. I agree...it is hard to reconcile, as it probably should be.

I don't really know what we should do with those feelings. I don't think that finding a way to feel good about exorbitant spending is a good answer (nor am I trying to suggest that's the answer you're looking for). FWIW, I've always been impressed and inspired by your commitment to making contributions to the causes you believe in. You're one of the only people I know who does that on the regular. And I've just been reminded that student loans and saving accounts aren't the only place to be squirreling away my extra funds. So thank you.

Wow, coming in late to this one, but I have to comment, too, even though there have been some great comments to this point. I may possibly be the only man to comment, though, so maybe that counts for something.

As usual, we have a lot in common. I grew up in a working-class (sometimes lower) family in a working-class town. I went to college, but didn't end up finishing, finding my way in my career through a combination of determination, hard work, and the sheer luck of being in the right time at the right place. That last one haunts me the most, even 11 years after I "made it". It would be so easy to just say I made it on the strength of that hard work and determination alone, but I know the truth, and because of that, I continue to feel a great deal of guilt when I see the gap between my own lifestyle and that of my friends back home.

Of course, now that I'm slowly starting to see my fiction writing career pick up, my guilt is starting to double up on me.

Like you, I try to find ways to "give back", to be more aware of that gap and the inequality of opportunity that exists and work to support changing that, through teaching ESL, giving to causes that support education, and trying to help out friends and family where I can, but there's always that question in the back of my head of whether I'm doing enough and whether it's for the right reasons - do I really want to help people out, or just assuage my guilt?

I think you can end up driving yourself crazy asking those questions, though. In the end, we just have what we're given and have to do the best we can with it. No one can change it all and I think it might even be counterproductive to torpedo your own success - who better to push forward and "give back" than someone who's been on the other end of the income gap? I've tried to settle with the answers above and work as a kind of "vanguard", but I imagine it's never going to be 100% easy. I can definitely relate.

W/R/T Jess' comment, I'll try to explain. I think for me never saying things are too expensive for you is a pride & politeness thing. My parents grew up in weird foreigner ghetto situations, so I am guessing this is a result of that, but also is something that a lot of people I know who grow up in poor urban situations. If you're actually poor, you make do. You don't cry poor. If you're poor, you're obviously not going to pull the wool over anyone's eyes, but you look presentable. You never complain about it in polite company or bring it up. Sure, you make different decisions than non-poor people, but if they ask you to a fancy restaurant you just say you're busy not that you can't afford it. It's rude to do that because it basically puts the other person in an awkward position--s/he has to offer to pay or feel bad that they can afford it. It's a matter of politeness. Because talking about money is awkward and embarrassing. It's polite in the same way that you wouldn't go up to your poor friends and tell them about the awesome bonus you got that is more than their yearly salary. It's a dick move.

This is why, until this day, my entire family mocks all of my friends from college and grad school when they say they can't do something because of money. Actually poor people would never admit they couldn't do that for fear of embarrassment in their experience. I find it embarrassing on behalf of my friends when they say this. And again, with everyone I know it's less that they don't have the money to do something but they have CHOSEN to spend the money elsewhere, which is different from not having it.

Jenny - thanks for clarifying.

I guess I don't think of an honest "I can't afford that" as "crying poor"...but rather just being honest. And the other person is sort of responsible for dealing with their own feelings of guilt or obligation or whatever. I have lots of weird and not socially accepted opinions about what is polite or rude though. :p

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Report from the land of Big Lots

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Someone asked me recently if I was still shopping at Big Lots, and if I was, why I'm not blogging about it.I am still a dedicated Big Lots shopper. I guess I stopped blogging about it because I thought it might be boring? Anyway, I went this week, so I thought I'd give you an update on what I'm buying there these days.


Ritz Crackerfuls
are one of my go-to snacks at work. I keep my cabinet stocked with several boxes at all times. They are extremely satisfying and taste like they are made out of food (except for the bacon and cheddar ones, those are suspect). At my Safeway, they sell for $4.19 for a box of six, though they've been on BOGO a lot lately. At Big Lots, they are $2/box. This past trip I bought six boxes of the classic cheddar flavor.


I recognize the horrible environmental sin of the Colgate Wisp mini all-in-one toothbrush, and I don't feel great about it, but I still use them at work. They work better than mints or gum and I can use them at my desk, rather than hauling a toothbrush and toothpaste into the communal bathroom. At Target or CVS, 8-packs of these little conveniences retail for around $4.50. At Big Lots, they are $1. Oddly, the 4-packs at Big Lots are $1.90. Crazy. I bought 10 8-count packages on my last trip.


I am a big fan of Better Oats brand instant hot cereal--it's another work cupboard staple. It's tasty, cooks quickly (90 seconds in the microwave) and doesn't have unduly bulky packaging. The five-packet boxes I buy are generally between $3.50 and $4 in regular grocery stores. At Big Lots, they are $1. That's a cheap breakfast! I bought four boxes on my last trip.

Mark is a big fan of good glass-bottle root beer, and he's turned me on to it as well. Boylan's, which is family owned and operated in New Jersey, is one of my very favorite varieties. The stuff is generally not that easy to find, but Amazon.com has 12-packs for $39 (outrageous!) and Beverage Direct has 6-packs for $8.29. At Big Lots, it's $.75/bottle. I always pick up at least six bottles.

There are, of course, other things I buy at Big Lots. My last trip was heavy on paper towels, TP, Ziploc bags, etc. But the four items mentioned here are my current regulars. Are you a Big Lots shopper? What have you bought there lately?

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My store had the Cheddar Crackerfuls on clearance for $1 a box! Not sure if it is because of the expiration date (Sept) or because that flavor doesn't sell as well as the others, but it was good for me!

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And money chases its tail

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Over the years, I've written about a number of ostensibly private, embarrassing things here on ye olde blog. My depression. My weight. My inability to stick with...most anything. It's always been my goal to be a pretty open book here on the WINOW, and to present myself as the flawed person I really am. More than any other sensitive topic I've covered, though, people have reacted strongly to the way that I talk about money.

As I've mentioned before, I think our reticence, as a culture, to openly discuss money is to our detriment. The rules about not discussing money for the sake of being polite were made intentionally, by a wealthy upper crust trying to keep everybody else poor and quiet. I absolutely believe that. The more finance/debt-riddance/frugality/whatever blogs I read, and the more often those blogs use real numbers from people's real lives to illustrate their points, the better I feel. I think we're all better served by this level of financial transparency, even if it makes most of us really uncomfortable.

Why, then, haven't I been disclosing any details about my own finances lately?

The truth is that I am embarrassed. My new job has me making more money than I ever have before, by quite a lot, and I still have some unpaid credit card debt. Money seems to just be slipping through my fingers. It feels out of control. And having gone through everything I have with debt, and gone through it publicly on the blog, I have been really embarrassed to admit things are not currently as peachy keen as I'd like.

But I know that this shame is all part of the problem, so no more. Today, I'm going to tell you where I'm at, and tell you my plan to get out of it.

Right now, I am making approximately $2,600, post-tax, every two weeks. When I factor in my limited paid vacation, that's equal to a take-home salary of approximately $65,000 annually. I also have multiple side income streams, all of which are extremely variable and almost impossible to plan for, but which I expect to add up to between $10,000 and $15,000 post-tax in 2011. So I estimate my 2011 post-tax income total to be about $80,000.

It depends greatly on your current place in life and your own finances whether or not that sounds like a lot of money. To me, it sounds like a fortune. In comparison, my pre-tax income last year was about $65,000. And that was the highest it had ever been. Only a few years ago, my pre-tax income was under $30,000. My earning capacity has increased by a very large margin in recent years.

Income, of course, is not the only relevant number. Expenses are just as important. My current fixed expenses are:

$3,100/month to our joint account: This pays for all living expenses. Mark and I contribute to this account as a percentage of our incomes (i.e. if you make more, you pay more). This is a system we have used for years and it works very well for us.
$209/month student loan payment
$90/month gym membership (this amount covers my membership and subsidizes a membership for a less fortunate family through a program at my gym)
$15/month prescription medications
Total fixed costs: $3,414/month

If I estimate my monthly take-home at $5,200 (which is not exactly right, since I get paid every two weeks, not twice a month), that leaves $1,736 unaccounted for every month. Where is that money going?

My current non-fixed expenses look a bit like this:
$300/month charitable contributions
$100/month to savings
Total non-fixed costs: $400/month

That leaves $1,336. And that, my friends, is money that is disappearing. I have no excuse for it. I just like to buy things. That's not going to change.

Also? I have credit card debt. Not a lot--the current balance is $2,934--but some. And that needs to disappear.

And savings? I've got about $2,000 socked away personally, and Mark and I collectively have another $8,000 or so. That's it.

So, it's time for a new plan. I've read a lot of advice, and thought a lot about it. I know many people would suggest a spending fast, I don't think that's practical at this point. I don't have the self-discipline to do something like that when I'm not in trouble, and I don't feel like I'm in trouble now. Moderation seems to be a better idea. And simplicity is key. I've tried just about every budgeting plan and software idea known to man--I'm just not that interested in spending that much time thinking about it. To me, the biggest benefit to finally having some money is not having to think about it all the time.

With the help of some wise friends, this is the simple plan I came up with:

I will, starting on Monday, be giving myself an $125/week cash allowance. This allowance needs to cover everything not mentioned in my fixed and non-fixed costs above. All shopping, all eating out, all entertainment, all not-automatically deducted charitable giving. That will leave with me with $836/month to put towards my credit cards, as well as the "extra" paycheck I'll receive on the first of April (from being paid every two weeks rather than monthly). Between those two sources, the credit card debt should be gone by April 1.

After the CC debt is paid off, I will stick with the $125 weekly allowance, and all extra money (that $836, plus anything that comes in from my side gigs) will go directly into savings.

That seems really doable. There is absolutely no reason I ought to need more than $125/week for personal spending money. And I know I need to get serious about saving. Mark and I have set some fairly hefty savings goals for the next few years, with the idea that we'll have a good nest egg ready to buy a house when we move from here. I need to pull my weight with that. I know I am extremely lucky to have found this lucrative job. I've got to start making it work for me and stop being so out of control.

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Do you think it's the newfound freedom and euphoria of suddenly having that much money available? I know if I started making that much it would be nearly a 3x increase in my current salary. I'd like to say the first thing I would do is pay down my debt. In all honesty, I would probably go crazy shopping for a little while and then become responsible.

Would an automatic draft of your credit card payments alleviate the cc debt situation? Just have it taken out every month and then you don't have to think about it.

I frickin' LOVE when you talk about finances. And hallelujah it's time for bloggers to be frank.

You make a TON of money. We're the same age and I've never made more than under half that amount.

And we live in the second largest city in the U.S. (LA) so it's not super duper cheap for us either...sigh

I followed a link here from...somewhere. I don't remember now, heh. But I'm digging your blog a lot.

Your plan sounds great. A spending fast doesn't make any sense at all - it's like going on a financial diet - you feel deprived & you end up going out & splurging on more than you normally would spend to make up for it. So just moderating what you spend while paying things off & building up your savings is so much more sensible.

Hurrah for speaking up! We have a pretty big refund coming, after which we will pay off the last 2K in credit card debt, which we had been paying down at 400/month. The least painless way to save for us has been the automatic deduction from the paycheck. If there's a way to work that out, I highly recommend it. Automatic debit from the account is second-best. Have you spoken to a financial consultant? We have a guy who does a great job for us, and has helped us with mutual funds for the last 15 years. A good one will first figure out your level of aggressiveness (financially) and go from there. Just remember that investments are long-term.

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It has been one of my goals for the past several years, in one form or another, to get my financial house in order. I was doing pretty well for a while, but have been set back some recently by unemployment and bad shopping decisions. While the situation is certainly not dire, and I am making progress, I know I'm not quite in the shape I ought to be. Because of this, I read with interest when Louisa at The Really Good Life posted her progress towards 20 Financial Milestones to Reach in Your 20s (ish). Louisa's milestone list came from Gen Y Wealth, and I decided I'd see how I stack up against it as well.

# 1 - Finance a dream vacation...in cash
Done. Mark and I paid cash for our London trip last fall

# 2 - Pay off your student loans
Not even close. I still have $27,892 to pay on my student loans. My current expected full repayment date is March 14, 2026.

# 3 - Automate paying your credit card bill in full
Nope. But I do plan to do this as soon as my current balance is gone (end of March/beginning of April).

# 4 - Get rid of all bad debt
Nope. I have a couple thousand dollars in CC debt currently, as well as a car loan. The car loan is a conscious decision--it's at .9% interest, so paying cash didn't make sense.

# 5 - Build an adequate emergency fund
We do not have a six month expense emergency fund. Right now, we have about 3, maybe 4 months. But we're working on this and plan to be well above the six month mark by the end of 2011.

# 6 - Make your first, and last, investment mistake
I haven't made any investments, mistakes or not. I don't really plan to, honestly. My retirement fund is in some age-indexed thing I don't understand, and beyond that I stick with simple savings.

# 7 - Develop a statement of cash flows
I've done this, more than once. I am going to need to do it again soon, as circumstances have changed since the last round.

# 8 & 9 Max out a Roth IRA & Contribute to your 401(k)
This is a goal in progress. I have an IRA, but did not max out contribution in 2010 (though I did in 2009). I will begin contributing the maximum matched amount (6% of my income, I think) to my new 401(k) as soon as I am eligible (in April).

# 10 - Get a degree or certification that increases your earning power
Done. I am considering a new certification to increase my earning potential even more, but have not yet decided whether or not it will be worth the time investment.

# 11 - Take a career risk
Every new job feels like a risk, doesn't it? I'm not sure I've done anything seriously risky, though. I guess I'm pretty adverse to this type of risk.

# 12 - Negotiate something
Done and blogged about!

# 13 - Earn your first side grand
Done.

# 14 - Start a sub-savings account for an upcoming financial goal
I have done this a few times, though I don't have one active currently.

# 15 - Set a target retirement date
Done (my IRA is tied to it).

# 16 - Monitor your credit
Done regularly and semi-obsessively.

# 17 - Say no to a financial salesman
Done for both insurance and car add-ons.

# 18 - Give just enough to make it hurt
In process? I'm giving, and I'm giving more and more regularly than ever before, but I'm not sure it hurts.

2 Overachiever milestones:

# 19 - Invest $1 for every $1 you spend
Good God. Not remotely close.

# 20 - Start a 529 College Savings Plan
I don't quite see the good in this, since I don't have kids and have no plans to ever pay tuition again (I will go back to school when and if someone else foots the bill).

So how'd I do?
Done: 9
In progress/partially done: 6
Not done: 5

Could be worse, I guess. If nothing else, I'm moving in the right direction.

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Gen Y "Wealth" is right - I can't help but be uber-struck by how privileged one must be to achieve these, especially in one's twenties. I thought to myself, you really have to be solidly middle class to do this. And then I thought, I consider myself to be pretty solidly middle class, and there's no way I'm going to be able to do this. My husband is already out of his twenties, and there's no hope of him completing (or making much progress) in the near future. And while a lot of that has to do with choices that we've made, basically none of it has to do with any bad financial decisions (except maybe the decisions to pursue the careers that we are.) It's awfully hard to do most of those things when the money just isn't there.

Anyway, just rambling. Funny how the world can contain both people who think these goals are perfectly reasonable for a 20something, and people who really can never achieve these goals, ever in their lifetime.

Yeah, it's definitely a young professional focused list. For me, though, I'd say the majority of these goals have been reasonable. My failure to meet them has be my own stupidity and bad judgment, not a lack of resources.

If this old gal can give you a bit of advice, invest in a 401k. It will be a rollercoaster ride at times, but in the end, your money will grow like you never even imagined it would.

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Holiday shopping advice: don't forget discount stores!

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So I know I've already told you a tale of how much I love discount stores recently (In which I proclaim my love for Big Lots, and tell you why). But I'm going to do it again. In particular, I am nuts about Marshall's and TJ Maxx. Both are ubiquitous here (really--there are 12 TJ Maxx stores and 18 Marshall's stores within 20 miles of my house), so, second only to thrift stores, they are my go-to places to shop. I buy everything there--clothes, housewares, pet stuff, occasionally food, and bath and body products.

I recently had an online friend tell me she'd never been to a Marshall's or a TJ Maxx. This astounded me. I guess they aren't common in some places? Anyway, that got me to thinking about all the things I love to buy at these stores, so I decided I'd show you a few recent favorites.

travel_set_lavender_md.jpg
Both Marshall's and TJ Maxx have recently been stocking these great travel sets from EO. Containing a 1.5 oz container each of shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, and lotion, they'd be great for just tossing into a plastic bag to take a short trip. I'm a big fan of the EO line in general, so I was happy to scoop a whole bunch of these up. I got one each in French Lavender, Grapefruit & Mint, Sweet Orange, Tea Tree and Lemon, and Cranberry Hibiscus, and am planning to either give a couple of them away as small Christmas presents or hoard the whole bunch for my future travel needs. The price? $4.99 at Marshall's/TJ Maxx, versus $6.99 on the EO website.

shave cream.jpg
Another EO product I've been excited about lately are the 5 oz bottles of shaving cream. I hadn't previously used EO shaving cream, but it's good stuff and the scents are great. I picked up a lavender one and a tea tree and lemon one for $3.99 each. On EO's site? $8.99. If I get a chance, I'll pick some more up soon and stockpile them--that's one thing about finding this stuff at TJ Maxx or Marshall's, they aren't going to have it forever, so you have to get it while the getting is good.

pd_pink_grapefruit_scrub.jpg
Another brand of which I am a big fan, which TJ Maxx and Marshall's carry not infrequently, is The Body Shop. My latest score was several 7.1 oz containers of Pink Grapefruit Body Scrub--pink grapefruit is my favorite Body Shop scent, and I think they might be discontinuing it? Anyway, the scrubs were $4.99 each, and The Body Shop sells them for $20! I also picked up a couple of 8.4 oz bottles of pink grapefruit shower gel, on clearance for $3 each ($13 at The Body Shop), a Moroccan Rose body butter for $5.99 ($20 at The Body Shop), and a Wild Cherry body butter ($5.99, $20 at The Body Shop).

nars black eye set.jpg
Recently, I've noticed a few high-end cosmetics at TJ Maxx, which is, as far as I know, a new thing. The best thing I've found was the NARS Black Eye set--a bottle of eye makeup remover, a eye shadow duo in Pandora (black and white), a black mascara, and a black eyeliner pencil. The retail on this set, which isn't available anymore anywhere I can find, was $60. I picked mine up for either $24.99 or $29.99.

Lgwr_Basics_Tights_4689_F.jpg
I live in tights in the winter, and buying them is not easy at my size. One brand I can always count on to fit me properly is Hue (Size 4, baby! They actually really do fit a 6'0", 215 pound woman!). On their website, Hue charges $9.37/pair or two for $15 for their opaque tights. At Macy's, they are $8.99/pair on sale. At my discount stores, I regularly find two packs of the exact same tights for $9.99. And I buy them every time.

LgSaltBlackCan.jpg
The gourmet food section is definitely hit-or-miss at most discount stores, and do you have to keep an eye on expiration dates, but there are gems in this rough. Most recently, I found a bunch of these gourmet Spanish salts from SoSo Factory, for $8.99 each. I snatched up the smoked paprika salt and the five-pepper salt, and was Mark ever happy that day! These retail for $18 each and the packaging is almost as great as the product--I'd definitely consider them for foodie gifts.

harissa(1).jpg
Another recent food section highlight has been offerings from Mustapha's Moroccan, a brand Mark sometimes orders online. I've seen capers, harissa, and various spices. The 10 oz jar of capers was $4.99 (as compared to $9.50 online), and the 1.6 oz ras el hanout was $7.99 ($15 online). The 1.6 oz nigella (grains of paradise) was $3.99 ($7.50 online).

I also have to recommend taking a look through the clothes. Sometimes, there's nothing. Recently, though, I've been impressed with the sweater selection. The clearance rack at my TJ Maxx had tons of really nice merino wool cardigans that had their tags cut out, but I am fairly certain were from either J. Crew or Talbot's. For the $15 each they were marked, they looked very high end, and were I not allergic to wool, I'd be adding several to my new job wardrobe.

la creuset dutch oven.jpg
If someone on your list has been very good, another thing I've noticed in my stores recently is a lot of Le Creuset. Even at a discount, this stuff is expensive, but there is a substantial discount. For example, I saw the 5.5 quart round French oven, which is $235 at Amazon.com, for $145 at TJ Maxx. You won't be able to be picky about colors--they usually only have one or two, but still, it's worth considering if you have anybody on your list who lusts after fancy cookware and doesn't mind last year's model (and honestly, has it changed?).

Cookbooks are another thing I've noticed a lot of recently--usually for less than $10. My not-MIL has a thing for the Barefoot Contessa, and I've seen several of her books at Marshall's, as well as Giada and Martha Stewart.

If you decide to take my advice and check out your local discount stores, I highly recommend you buy first and think about it later. If you decide against something, you can return it (with a receipt!). If you leave it, though, chances are excellent that you'll come back for it and it won't be there anymore. You can't guarantee anything will stay on the shelves, or that there will be more when something runs out. Likewise, if you find something small you really love (like, say, the toiletries I posted about at the beginning of this post), buy a few and stockpile them. It's not unlikely their manufacturers have discontinued them, so this is going to be your last chance.

Happy shopping!

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i love TJ Maxx and Marshalls, Grace. Thanks for this post. I'm going to check them out before the holidays for some stocking stuffers. I have some Body Shop lovers in the family.

OMG. That salt! The cookbooks! The EO! The Mustapha's Moroccan! The LeCreucet! Oh, how I wish I could shop with you!

My mom and my sister and I have a big TJ Maxx shopping tradition when I'm home (San Diego). The closest one here is about 25 miles away but now I am newly inspired to take the trip!

Another thing I often find books at TJ Maxx are the sort of books that I tend to check out for too long at the library (cookbooks, other nonfiction how-tos). I buy them up cheap at TJ Maxx and then donate them when I'm done. $3 is usually cheaper than the fines I would incur on the same sort of book from the library.

Here, its Ross that is the place to hit. Our Marshalls can be really hit or miss. I'll have to re-visit TJ Maxx though. Its on the opposite side of town, so I never think to head over there.

I love TJ Maxx and Ross both...we've bought everything you've mentioned, and we also get a lot of our therapy items there. Let's see, $200 to buy a therapy ball from a specialized shop, or a $4 yoga ball from Ross? Tough choice....

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Gearing up for the new gig

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I haven't talked about it much here, but I have been, at least mostly, unemployed for the last three months. The technical writing contract on which I was working ended August 31, and the subsequent contract I'd expected to come through did not. While I still had some freelance grant projects, my main work (and main income stream) was gone. So, I started a local job hunt.

The job hunt went remarkably well at first. I was interviewed and then informally offered a job at a small technical consulting firm in mid-September. Then, a few days later, that job disappeared. I was told that they had decided not to hire anybody after all. Discouraged, but not yet worried, I went back to the drawing board. More interviews. During the first week of October, I was one of two finalists for a non-profit grant writing position that seemed perfect. The other candidate was chosen. Then, only a few days later, I was offered a technical writing position on a big federal government contract with a very large international technical consulting firm. We negotiated and agreed on salary. I filled out tons of paperwork, got finger printed, and began the federal security clearance process. It all looked to be going great. Two weeks after receiving my offer letter, I received an email from the HR department, un-hiring me. The client, I was told, had decided I was not a good for for the position.

At that point, I was intensely discouraged, and starting to get a little bit scared. What if I couldn't find anything? My savings was running down, and I was getting really bored. I sent out more resumes. I considered prayer. Then I had a couple of phone interviews followed by the single most nerve wracking in person interview of my life (it's a long story, and one I don't think I should share here, given the outcome). And I (finally!) landed a job. I'm 99% sure it's going to stick.

For the sake of privacy and professionalism, I'm not going to say much here about the job itself. It's a professional writing job, doing a different type of writing than I've been doing for the past few years, for a small but growing company. It's an easy commute from my house, but I will be working in a professional office. I am extremely excited about it. I start the Monday after Thanksgiving. I'm currently freaking out about what I'm going to wear, since I've let my professional wardrobe slide quite a lot in the past year of working from home and the previous couple of years of casual work environments. We're going to need to buy a second car now, since Mark and I will both be commuting (and in opposite directions). Hopefully we're going to do that this weekend.

This is the longest period of time I've ever been unemployed. I know I got off easy--I had savings, some income stream, and a lot of decent prospects. Still, it was really horrible, and I ended up questioning myself on everything--my value as a professional, even as a human being. I don't think I've been properly sympathetic in the past to those who can't find work, and it's a mistake I won't make again.

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Every time we've dealt with a lay off, its been a real trial of our relationship, choices, and perseverance. I'm glad you finally have a job, and I hope you thoroughly enjoy it. Also, pictures of business attire are needed as its acquired!

I was unemployed for about two months last year after I moved with my now-husband to Michigan for his job. It was one of the most discouraging things I've ever experienced. I did eventually find two part time jobs and then a full time job, but I'm still looking for a job that is a good fit, and the process of applying for everything for which I'm qualified for 16 months running has just been awful. I agree - I didn't really understand what unemployment or underemployment does to a person. I'm glad you're making your way out of it!

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So you all know I love to thrift shop. What I may not have blathered on about as much is my love of discount stores. Part of both loves, of course, come from the thrill of low prices, but that's not the entirety of it. There is also the joy I get from shopping at a store I can't count on to stock any particular thing at any particular time. The treasure hunt, to see what new great items are available. Often, these are things I'd buy anyway at another store. Sometimes, they are things that I never even knew existed. But they always make me happy to find.

I've mentioned this love to friends before and been met with looks of skepticism. "What," I've been asked, "can you possibly be buying at Big Lots?" So, today, I thought I'd show you. There is no such things as a "typical" Big Lots trip, because the shelves are always stocked with different stuff. But this is what jumped into my cart last night:

What you see here is:
-three 32-oz shelf-stable boxes of Wolfgang Puck Free-Range Roasted Chicken Stock, $1.50 each (typical price $3.50-$4)
-two 32-oz shelf-stable boxes of Wolfgang Puck Organic Vegetable Broth, $1.50 each (typical price $3.50-$4)
-two boxes of Double Stuf Oreo Cakesters, $1.80 each (typical price $3.75-$4)
-two bags of Ghiradelli All-Natural Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips, 2/$5 (typical price $4 each)
-two bags of Ghiradelli All-Natural Milk Chocolate Chips, 2/$5 (typical price $4 each)
-two tubes of Toms of Maine Anti-Plaque Toothpaste in Spearmint, $2.50 each (typical price $4.50-$5.50)
-package of 100 Royal 100% cotton rounds, $.80 (typical price $1-$1.50)
-two rolls of 2" x 1600" USPS packing tape, $3 each (typical price $4.50-$5.50)
-one package of SomaDream sleep capsules, $2 (typical price $2)
-one package of Seven Moons Udon Noodles, $1.50 (typical price $3.50-$4 for similar)
-one package of Seven Moons Soba Noodle, $1.50 (typical price $3.50-$4 for similar)

As you can see, nearly everything I bought was at a substantial discount from what I'd have paid regularly, unless the item happened to be on sale (I don't coupon, I just am not organized enough). And most of it was even at a similar price to a BOGO sale or similar, which is about as good as regular sales and coupons get. Now, were these all things we needed, or at least things I would have bought anyway? With the exception of the SomaDream capsules, yes--each of these items was something on my regular shopping list, that I would have picked up at Target or the grocery store had I not seen them in Big Lots. It's not always that way--sometimes most of what I come home with falls into the bizarre category, rather than the necessary one, but usually it's more like this.

While I was browsing Big Lots (I totally go down every aisle, I find it mesmerizing), I saw several other things at high discounts that I personally don't need, but I know others would find useful. Boxes of Green Mountain coffee pods were $4 (regular price around $10). Condensed soups were $.50/can (regular price around $1). There is always a wide variety of pet products (I often buy cat toys there, and occasionally they have our brand of litter at a substantial discount).

This post is not intended as a Big Lots sale's pitch--they aren't paying me. I just think it's an interesting and often really money-saving experience to shop discount stores. It helps, of course, if you are willing to take a chance on some products that might suck, but if you go often, you'll likely find a few of your regular purchases every time. Plus, it's a lot of fun (well, it is if you're me, anyway).

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I loooove Big Lots! I've bought Crocs there for 5 bucks before. I've found, though, that sometimes the food isn't the best. We had some pretty pitiful Little Debbie snack cakes, but then again that might just be that we bought Little Debbie snack cakes.

I freaking love big lots sometimes. I've gotten big bottles of good laundry detergent for half of regular store prices, and have regularly found good organic foods at ours.

Big Lots is my "Go To" store for bargins. I've found exceptional low prices on grocery items. For example,Seven Moons Soba Noodles for $1.50 a 12-oz pkg is one example...a $2.00 savings. Great prices on seasonings, Spanish olive oils, Italian whole wheat crackers, etc. And then there are great prices on most everything else. The selection of gardening related items is very good and priced right. Oh, I'm in no way connected to Big Lots other than going there to shop
or to browse. See you in the international food isle soon.

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Black Friday from the couch

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While I have no desire to go and fight crowds at malls today, I do like to shop, and I like to shop sales. Being able to "partake" in Black Friday online, from my couch, in my calico cat pajamas, is just lovely. So, I thought I'd share some of my favorite Black Friday sales with you all (a la Mir).

First, Threadless t-shirts are all $9. I love these, and I particularly love buying them for Mark. This one is today only, so be sure not to put it off.

SmartBargains has fancy high thread count sheets and duvets for $34.99, any size. They've also got 30% off Vera Bradley stuff, if you're into that. Again, I believe these are today only.

6pm.com has a bunch of crazy good deals, but the one I like it the flip for $50. I can't quite justify buying one of those, but I'd really like to.

You likely already know about Old Navy's sales, as they're going on yesterday through tomorrow, but there are some good deals there: $15 adult jeans; $10 kids jeans; $15 sweaters; and lots more. Free shipping on $50+.

Smashbox Cosmetics is having 20% off everything until December 1. They are one of my favorite makeup companies.

If you've got a teen on your list Aeropostale has 50-70% off everything in the store. They've also got some online door busters that might be worth looking at, and free shipping on $75+.

Now, on to the stuff I really love--independent sellers having Black Friday sales!

Knitty Knitty Bang Bang is having a huge sale. Everything is 20% off, and orders of $15+ ship for free. That means hand-knitted wool/bamboo blend socks are going for $32. Nice.

Bathtub Bling has everything 50% off, which is really exciting for me. My eye is on the honey collection stuff. Bath bombs are only $1.50. They've also got free shipping on $50+.

Lue Cosmetics has BOGO on everything in the store! I really don't *need* mineral makeup, but I'm still tempted.

Indira Albert, who makes beautiful things, has free shipping on everything and 50% off selected items. I'm coveting her 2010 desk calendar.

Harriet's Haven has very cool printed towels and onesies and the like, all 20% off. I really love the flour sack towels, and a certain bike-loving baby in my life is definitely going to be getting this for Christmas.

That ought to get us started! I'll likely be back later with more.

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Festival of Frugality

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How's this for a laugh? I have a post featured on this week's Festival of Frugality, hosted at It's Frugal Being Green. Pop over and check it out, and also check out the other helpful posts. My favorite tip is Don't Forget the Toiletries, But if You Do...by Alison at This Wasn't in the Plan. Simple, but a great idea.

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Kudos, Scribe!

Thanks for the mention! Now I'm off to go read your entry.

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Want to save $5K a year? Get married!

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I posted last week about the state of my relationship with Mark: we're partners. Since then, I've been thinking a bit more about marriage, and specifically about not being married. Why? Because it keeps coming up.

Not being married is costing me money. And if you're not married, it may well be costing you, too.

Mark's new job comes with really excellent insurance benefits. His employer not only pays 100% for employees, they pay 100% for spouses, same-sex domestic partners, and children of employees as well. So if we were married, I could get free insurance through Mark's job. If we were same-sex domestic partners, I could do the same. As opposite-sex domestic partners, though, this benefit is not available to me. It's not a huge tragedy, for us, since I have coverage through my job. However, that coverage costs me $300/month, or $3,600/year. That's what not being married is costing me.

Another area is taxes. You hear a lot about the "marriage penalty" when it comes to taxation. However, that only applies to folks who don't have a big discrepancy between their incomes. Mark and I do. Last year, our combined (single) tax burden was $8,280. Had we made the exact same money, but been married and filed jointly, it would have been $7,110. Not being married cost us $1,170.

Next, we come to the process we went through trying to find a house to rent. Applications fees on a couple of houses we looked at were $75 per individual or married couple. So, we had to pay $150. A $75 not-married penalty.

Then there's our annual co-op membership. If we were a "family," we'd pay $60. Since we're not, it's $45 each. $30 more for the unmarrieds.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point.

For me, this is an annoyance. It irritates me, and I don't think it's fair, but my life goes on. If it was a huge issue, I could give in and get married. Nobody would stand in my way. But what about people who couldn't just tie the knot? In this case, the largest part of the financial outlay (the health insurance) would be extended to same-sex domestic partners, but in many similar cases it wouldn't, and they'd have no recourse. I may not like the choices I have, but at least I have them.

And so it is a matter of deciding what to do with them. In dollars, what are my principles worth? Knowing that my not being married isn't actually helping anybody, and that the stand I am taking exists mainly in my own head, is it worth doing something I feel is wrong to save some money? How much money does it need to be to make it worth it?

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It is a question of return versus risk. Divorce can be very expensive and actually reduce your assets. I hope things work out well for you two.

There is also a question of principle, given that in the United States, marriage is a segregated institution denied to a minority of citizens.

Sincerely,
-danny

I work as a tax paralegal. I just completed state and federal death tax returns for a decedent who was gay and partnered. His partner was the sole beneficiary of the estate. Had they been legally married, the estate would have paid NO tax. However, since they are not married, the estate paid nearly one million dollars in state and federal death taxes.

I see this scenario often. The couple I refer to above didn't have good estate planning in place, as the death was unexpected and happened while the partners were very young. However, there is no amount of estate planning that will reduce your death tax rate to zero. Getting married will.

My partner and I seriously considered getting domestically partnered, rather than married. Two things happened though that changed out minds. Firstly, it was a PITA. Hard to figure out if its even legal to do that, and if so, where. Secondly, we ended up deciding that we did want the protections marriage offers. We DO want to be able to visit each other in the hospital, be the decision makers, etc. When it comes down to it, much as I dislike marriage (because it is for hets only, because it is sexist, etc.) that's not a battle I want to fight when my loved one is ill. That, for me, was what drove the cost too high.

So we're married, but call each other partners, and see it as a chance to redefine marriage. Its not perfect, but it works for us.

You need to read Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage by Nancy Polikoff. She also has a blog. It made me much stronger in my convictions to not get married.

She frames it by saying that the law intentionally creates inequalities between married and unmarried people, not necessarily gay/straight people. That all people in caring and/or financially dependent relationships should be supported and protected.

I'm moving to Oregon in a month and have emailed her to get her perspective on suing to gain access to the state's domestic partnership registry.

"how is anything ever going to change if everybody just keeps doing what has always been done because it's easier this way?"

What I question though, is the idea that my not getting married makes a difference. How will things change, if I get married against my principles? Because I will work to change them. Because I write my politicians, donate to organizations that support equal marriage rights, etc. I don't really see how not getting married changes anything for anyone else.

It does change things for me, in that it frames my relationship in a certain light that I don't always love...but I feel that being married and not conforming to that is a revolutionary act in itself.

I made this particular deal, for similar reasons to what you have described.

My SO and I also have a big income disparity, so there were tax benefits for us when we got married. And my company does not extend benefits to unmarried hetero partners, so I was paying about $450 out of pocket for insurance for my SO to ensure that he could continue his prescriptions and get good quality care. It just seemed like such a waste. Getting married seemed like a clean, easy way to fix the problem, and in some ways it kind of was.

What most screwed me in the end was not recognizing the slippery slope I was on before I took this particular step. Secretly getting hitched at city hall turned into "let's have a wedding since we're already married anyway", which turned into family drama and chaos, which wasn't worth the heartbreak. But I really hope that no one else would be as naive as me going into this process. :-p

I would do it again, for sure, because the financial burden was just too much for me. I'm not entirely comfortable with being a married person and probably never will be. I think that if I could continue benefits for my SO (or take part in a national health care plan), I would divorce in a heartbeat.

This is a timely post for me, as I contemplate leaving my job and losing my insurance.

I am baffled that a company would offer same-sex domestic partner benefits but not opposite-sex domestic partner benefits. In my case, we are looking at my partner's insurance and it looks like they across-the-board domestic partner benefits. I was told that's how it usually goes - with companies that provide it at all.

Failing that, we may just have to go the certificate/courthouse route, because I have no idea how I get insured otherwise.

I totally hit send on that post too soon.

I meant to say that my goal would be to get people to see the ridiculousness of separate but equal when it came to marriage and DP; what is so special about each that forbids the other? There is clearly a huge concern about invalidating the concept of domestic partnerships in the state, though, so we'll see what actually happens. Even if we lost the case it would still get a conversation started.

Also, you know what helped me figure out when it made sense to get married? To literally put a dollar amount on how much my statement against marriage is worth. When is it literally worth it to me?
What if I got a 100k tax break just for getting married? (And forgive me if this is simplistic, I don't know much about taxes.) What could I have with an extra 100k in my pocket than I have now? We'd travel more. Get a dog. Feel more secure about retirement. On the other hand, though, if we have a potential 100k tax break, that means that we're earning way about 100k between the two of us which means we're already doing good for ourselves.

I'm so, so fortunate that neither of us have major health issues that make health insurance a huge priority. It's going to cost a bit right now, but we can swing it. Paying private insurance premiums costs about $3,600. Am I willing to get married in exchange for that amount of money? No.

Kim, have you considered just asking his human resources department to offer it to opposite sex partners?

Grace, you know me too well. I'm incapable of keeping quiet on this topic. ;-) Glad to hear that a wedding isn't on the table for you and M., even if you do decide to marry.

The one upside of getting married has been loudly and proudly defending my choice to keep my last name, so at least I enjoy that aspect of it. :-)

I think that if equal marriage were legal everywhere, or if they only had locations in equal marriage states, my company would probably drop DP benefits altogether. I work in a very conservative industry, and I assume that they don't really give much of a crap about equal rights - they want to offer benefits to as small a number of people as possible while still remaining competitive. The marriage line is an easy one for the company to draw for hetero couples, since we can get married anytime, anywhere. Makes no sense from an equality perspective, but I can sort of see the perverse business logic to it.

This is why employers shouldn't get to decide what does and doesn't qualify a person for coverage, IMO. Come the revolution, we'll detach health care from relationship status altogether. But that's probably a topic for another day.

Rachel, after I read your post, I did a quick calculation and realized that I have saved almost $20k on health insurance premiums alone by getting hitched to my SO. It just seems so wrong to me that so much can ride on that one little piece of paper.

Hybrid, a lot of companies have outright said that if the state they are located in legalizes gay marriage that they would suspend domestic partnership benefits and require gay couples to marry. I think Toyota or Ford was one of those companies.

Oh, also, Grace, I'm getting a Master of Public Health from Oregon State University.

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What's worth the money (and what's not)

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There is a ton of talk right now about belt-tightening and money saving and the altar of frugality. I follow quite a few blogs on those subjects. They are full of tips, from cutting out unnecessary expenses to re-using to cash-only budgeting. That's all good advice. I have nothing to add to it. And yet, I wanted to contribute something to the growing body of frugality knowledge. So, with that in mind, I give you my lists of what is worth extra money, and what is not.

Worth Extra Cash

  • Coffee: if you start your day with a cup or a pot, you depend on it. Things on which you depend to get you started should not suck. Life is too short to drink bad coffee. And yes, if it comes in a metal can already ground, it is bad coffee.

  • Eyebrow waxing: If you get your brows waxed, don't cheap out on it. I did, once, getting them done for $5 or $8 at a cheap nail salon. It HURT, and I ended up looking like someone had punched me in the face. At my beautiful, wonderful Aveda salon, they charge me $20, but it barely hurts, it looks great, and I get a cup of tea.

  • Pet food: Don't feed your pets cheap chow. Just don't do it. It's bad for them, and it will end up costing you more as they develop more health problems. Plus they'll need more quantity to eat, since it's mostly filler. Pay for the good, protein-rich, healthy stuff.

  • Direct flights: Flying is expensive. Flying is uncomfortable. Flying is a general pain in the ass. Direct flights are a much smaller pain than connections. If it's possible to get one, I will pay more (though only to a point) for a direct flight. (What I will not do, however, is pay to check a bag, upgrade to a seat with 3" more legroom, or eat nasty airplane snacks.)

  • Your own domain name: If you want to use your websites in any serious way, it's really worth it to buy your own domain name(s). It isn't expensive, and it makes you look way more professional. Plus, then nobody else can buy them and use them to host porn sites.

  • Nice soap: Anybody who reads WINOW for long knows I am a sucker for bath and body products. There is a reason for that, though. Showering is something we have to do every day (or I do, anyway). It's a forced opportunity to take just a few minutes out to relax. Having nice products that make you feel good and smell good helps a whole lot with that. So it's worth it to me to pay more for those products.

  • Cable and DVR: Cable is something that a lot of people suggest cutting out of your budget. I disagree. We use our cable, and our DVR, and I think we use it well. We watch what we enjoy, on our own time schedule. We don't spend a lot of time staring at a TV with nothing we want to watch on it.

  • Tattoos: If someone is going to put permanent ink into your flesh, you don't want a discount. Seriously, this one is a no-brainer. You want the expensive tattoo artist. And then you want to tip really, really well.

  • Laundry detergent: On a whim, I recently bought Mrs. Meyer's Clean day lavender laundry detergent. It's not cheap. However, given that the $14.99 64 oz jug will do something like 100 loads in my HE washer, it's not exactly breaking the bank. And it's SO nice--smells great, the clothes come out clean and soft, and environmentally friendly. My All Free days are over.

  • Underwear: For a long time, I've been a proponent of discount underwear. I just wore whatever was cheap at Ross. Then I happened upon a pair of Aerie panties. And now I am in love. They are made of thick, soft, cotton. They stay in place and don't ride up my prodigious behind. And they hold their shape, don't stretch out, and look cute. They aren't super expensive (5/$25), but they are more than what I was wearing. Totally worth it for an ass that is comfortable all day.

OK To Cheap Out On

  • Books, movies, and CDs: Really, wise up and learn to use the library. If you have a decent branch, you will be able to get a large portion of what you want to read, watch, or listen to for free from them. Also, learn to use the RedBox in all its free code goodness.

  • Furniture: There is no reason I can see to buy new and expensive furniture. All that leads to is having to worry about what will happen to it. Our furniture is 75% hand-me-down or thrift store and 25% Target and Ikea, and it's done just fine. You can even have a cute house with this type of furniture--just focus on "eclectic" as your decorating style, rather than anything too specific.

  • Air conditioning: People here pay out the nose to have their houses at icebox temperatures in the summer heat. It makes no sense to me. Sure, we use our AC, but we set it at 79 or 80 during the hottest part of the summer. Is our house perfectly chilled? No, but it has air movement and it's not an oven. Gives us more incentive to be naked that way.

  • Baby clothes: Thrift stores are full of barely used kids' clothes, especially in the smallest sizes. Often, they are new with tags on them. In my moral universe, those are prime gift material. I do not buy presents for friends having babies at regular stores, I buy them at the thrift store. And, should we have a kid in the near future, it's going to be Goodwill model baby. There's just no reason not to.

  • Multiple cars: Mark and I have been a one-car household the entire time we've been together. It's really not that hard to do, with a little bit of flexibility and planning. And it saves us a lot of money--not just another car payment, but insurance and gas and maintenance. Plus we have to be more efficient with our car use this way, which is both an environmental and an economic good.

  • Landlines: Why do people still have landlines for their phones? Now that everybody has a cell phone, and most of us have a lot of minutes on that cell phone, what's the purpose of a landline? We haven't had one for years, and I've missed it exactly once (when stuck at home with a dead cell phone). I've been happy not to have it countless times, though, especially since I get no telemarketing calls now.

  • Glasses: I posted a while ago about the amazing cheap glasses I got from Zenni Optical. I am now kicking myself for having spent so many years paying $200 and more for glasses. Never again.

  • Mascara: At this point, I've tried just about every expensive brand of mascara there is, as well as a good many of the cheaper ones. I see no substantial differences. Next time I buy mascara, it's going to be at Target.

  • Cleaning products: Lots of people will tell you that all you really need to clean is baking soda, vinegar, and Dr. Bronner's. Add a toilet bowl cleaner and something for pet stains on the carpet, and I'm one of those people. There is no need for expensive cleaning products. They smell bad and hurt the planet and cost a lot.

  • Bras: I've worn cheap bras, and I've worn expensive bras, and the conclusion I have come to is that bras are uncomfortable no matter how much they cost, so may as well still with Target. If I splurge, it's to buy Jockey. No Wacoal for these ta-tas.

Clearly, I know that my lists don't apply to everyone. The real point is about knowing your priorities and spending in line with them. If you are anything like me, there are things you are currently spending extra money on that you aren't getting any extra value from, and there are also things you are spending on and feeling guilty about when they really are worth it to you. So, it's worth taking the time to think about your spending, cut the areas in which you aren't seeing value, and stop feeling guilty about the things that really are worth it.

19 Comments

I will use my last red cent for a/c. It's not worth it to sleep poorly if I could just turn on the A/C and sleep well.

Where does one by Aerie panties?

Re: bras, I would point out sports bras are a totally different animal which i will pay a lot for. Expensive bra companies don't make bras in my size, but I think really well made (as opposed to marketed) bras would be worth it.

I disagree about the bras. In my size (triple OMG), the difference between a moderately-priced bra and a high-end bra is about a year's worth of wear - or more. I recently paid $50/per at the fat ladies' store for bras, only to have the underwires poke through the casings within three months. The bras I'd purchased at the fancy-shmancy lingerie store lasted well over a year before succumbing to general malaise.

I can't always afford the high-end bras (hence the $50 jobbies), but I've never been disappointed by the high-end versions. By comparison, every other bra I've purchased has had serious defects within a scant few months.

Oh, for a lingerie line item in my budget.

I agree with most of your list. Of course, I can't make myself spend a lot of soaps, but I should... and we don't have cell reception at home, but I'd love to cut out the landline. Also I don't drink coffee...

For us, landline works out cheaper than cell phones. We have triple play and we don't use contract phones.

We also used to be 1 car. Then we moved to suburbia and my husband changed from taking the train to driving. If you have kids, being stranded at home all day is not really an option.

As for furniture, I divide it into 2 groups: Worth spending money on, and not worth it. Beds and sofas are worth it. Bookshelves are not. But the new book about the true cost of cheap would disagree with me.

Interesting!

AGREE: Coffee, clothes, cleaning supplies.

DISAGREE: Cars (we need two, and we actually have four that can serve as daily drivers), books (if I like the book, I want to keep it), furniture (what Alexis said), land line (have to to get Internet service), underwear.

This is SO interesting, to see other people's priorities. I will say that an expensive bra is worth it for me, but only because the cheapos don't tend to make my size. I also will say that a WELL-FITTED bra will *not* be uncomfortable for most people.

I completely and totally agree re: books. Even if you want to own them, most "popular" (ie not academic niche books) are quite cheap on the internet. There is no reason on gods green earth to buy them full price, unless you need one NOW for some reasons.

My latest favorite cleaning product is kosher salt. I use vinegar plus a heavy layer of kosher salt to scrub the crap out of my bathtub...it works pretty well on hard water stains.

Its funny that you mention baby clothes - one of my favorite podcasters was just talking about how he doesn't believe in buying new clothes for children. Makes a heck of a lot of sense to me!

Oh, and one thing I would add? Good food. Totally worth the price, especially for organic meat and dairy.

i respectfully disagree on the AC, but then again we have hellish allergies and skin problems. so our house is at 73 in the summer and 71 in the winter.

and yes, i am a pussy. why do you ask?

I love this post! The comments are also facinating - I love knowing what other people's priorities are.

I just wanted to add my 2 cents on the bra issue. I agree with Jess that a bra has to be well-fitted but not necessarily more expensive. One of my favorite bras was a Ross purchase, but the others I have paid dearly for and would do so again because they give me very good support every day. (I am another big-busted reader, so we may have different perspectives.)

I gotta agree with Jenny re: A/C. For those few months out of the year when we need it, it is SOOO worth it to be able to live and/or sleep properly.

I am kind of a book-buying junkie, and I gotta say that I tried buying used books but probably never will again, unless I can find ones in really mint condition. I am just one of those people who like my books new and untouched by others. I know that it is completely irrational, but it REALLY bugs me when I pick up a used book and its beat up, or has writing in it, or the pages have been dog-eared, etc. I sort of feel the same way about CD's and DVD's, although I'm willing to be more flexible with them. My only issue is that I don't see the advantage of buying a used CD/DVD that is all scratched up because it won't play well, and then what's the point?

The one thing I wanted to add to your list, though, was medication. I strongly believe in buying generic drugs, and really don't see the point of buying brand names. Granted, I don't take regular prescription medication, and I know that some people have very strong (and justified) preferences for some drugs that they have to take for specific medical conditions, which is fine and totally legitimate. I'm talking about everyday over-the-counter drugs. The one drug that I take a lot (and carry around everywhere) is ibuprofen for everyday aches and pains. I refuse on principal to pay extra to buy Advil just for the candy coating when generic Target brand ibuprofen is half the cost. After my bout with the flu last May, I also discovered that most cough syrups are a complete waste of money when compared to simple antiseptic mouthwashes like Listerine. Gargling with Listerine relieved my sore throat and coughing just as well as (if not better than) Robitussin, and is way less than half the cost. The one exception I make is that I keep a bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol around just for emergencies, because I find that it works best to reduce my fever if I have one, but that's it.

re: Zenni optical

In January I ordered 2 pairs of glasses from Zenni. Shipping took 5-6 weeks (slightly longer than expected.) After wearing one pair for a week or so, I developed a slight rash above my ear. I tried different things ... maybe my new hair band was causing the rash? After about 10 weeks of trying various things, I had oozing uncomfortable areas above both ears. I finally had the Zenni ear covers replaced. Almost overnight, the rash went away and has not returned.

The Zenni glasses are a good deal even if you factor in possible ear piece replacements... but don't expect the same quality you would get from your local optician.

Always so interesting to see these things. Fun to see differences and similarities.

I'm jealous about being able to save on cars and bras (my SO and I both work 40-60 minute commutes in opposite directions; my boobs and chest size make it so only pricey bras are my size - why?????).

I do save on coffee (don't like it), cable (don't want to watch as much tv as I would if I had it), and soaps (recently going through the ginormous hotel soap collection after realizing it was kind of silly to have about a bazillion of them and keep buying soap...).

Another possibility on the car situation is one "good" car and one "go to work / backup" car.

That's what my husband and I have done throughout most of our marriage. We've never been in a situation where both of us had to commute out of town - one of us always worked close to home.

We can't go to one car on a permanent basis, however, because our work schedules can be a bit unpredictable.

I love the list, and everyone's comments! For us, the AC at night is a must - though we'll do what we can to have it warmer in the apt. during the day.

Cars. Ugh. Husband and I both work in the same city, mere blocks from each other, so we share a ride in. But we're going to be looking at a 2nd car soon [still saving], especially after our current one quit in a parking lot late last Friday.

One thing I will never cancel so long as I own a car [besides insurance, of course]: AAA, or some similar roadside assistance. It's been my savior on the roadside in multiple occasions [popped tire, broken down rental, dead battery, the aforementioned incident last Friday]. I will go with the least expensive plan if I must, but it will always be there!

Good article, seeing how others prioritize with their money always fascinates me.
AGREE: Coffee, AC (we live in New England and 80 would be wonderful right now), mascara, furniture (craigslist, baby)
DISAGREE: Glasses (they are on my face for goodness sake!), brow waxing (I do it very well myself), baby clothes- with sales and coupons at Old Navy and Children's Place, new is often cheaper than used, cable (I wouldn't mind if I never turned on the TV again)
Confused about the underwear- Aerie IS my cheap undies
Lastly, what was with that P---y comment??? Ouch! Manners please.

I'll go halvsies on your list, but give you props for putting it out there.

We have no tv, but there is zero chance I'd go without my own vehicle. I don't care about coffee (a habit I broke when I quit Marlboro's), but I certainly agree about thrifting. Detergent--i make my own cheap, but I buy nicer furniture (think sofa, mattress)---b/c a comfy house is priority for this Cancerian.

Keep posting!

Ooo. Here are a few of my strong thoughts.

Baby clothes: Seriously! I always say my babies will live the first year of their lives in a one-color sack, Maggie Simpson style.

Direct Flights: So, so, true. Even the most remote chance of missing a connection or lost luggage is worth at least $100.

Domain Names: Agreed. They're so cheap, why the hell not? I tend to buy another one or two each year.

Cable and DVR: Strongly disagreed! The basic plan in my area is $64/month. This is a straight up waste of cash, and it's impossible to rationalize it as otherwise. The need to stare at the TV is a cultural myth, as is the need to find shows to enjoy. There is no reason you can't consume current events online, watch most shows on Hulu or similar, and wait for marquee shows to hit DVD rentals. All of that costs $0, you can convert the time into getting things done, and $64 a month is a nice dinner date or four local concerts.

Furniture: Mixed feelings here. When you need a piece of heavy furniture it's worth it to spend - either new, or used and well-maintained. Ikea is great for futons, coffee tables, and sets of drawers, but not for bureaus or china closets. E bought a mid/high-end entertainment center that was about twice what I would have paid, and despite my objection at the time I now acknowledge it's value - it's a tank, it's attractive, and it's put together well.

Landlines: Mixed feelings. The money I'm saving on not having a high-minutes plan on my cell is effectively paying for the landline, so it's six of one or half-dozen of the other. Bonus: I don't ever give my cell number out to arbitrary requests for phone contact.

Interesting that you are pro on underwear and con on bras - since bras have a structural component, I'd think the expense would be more meaningful there.

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Sponsoring the girl geeks

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In one of my earlier posts about BlogHer, I mentioned that I was surprised and happy to see the breadth of the sponsors list for the conference. Now that the final sponsors list is up, I wanted to say a bit more about that.

First, here are the sponsors (this list is pulled directly from BlogHer's site):

Platinum Conference Sponsors

  • Chevrolet

  • Green Works

  • Walmart

  • PepsiCo

  • Tide & Bounce

Gold Conference Sponsors

  • Microsoft Office and Bing.com

  • Ragu

  • Liberty Mutual's Responsibility Project

Premium Conference Sponsors

  • Bill Me Later

  • Ketchum

  • Wiley

  • Hanes

  • PLAYSKOOL

  • all

  • McDonald's

  • Elations

  • National Pork Board

  • BISSELL

  • Suave and Degree

  • Wild Planet

  • Motorola

  • Mary Kay

  • Brother

  • Ann Taylor

  • Michelin

  • Disney Consumer Products

  • VTech

  • T-Mobile

  • Bertolli

  • Eucerin

  • HP

  • Geek Squad

Exhibiting Conference Sponsors

  • Blue Avocado

  • Picnik

  • ZESPRI Kiwifruit

  • Safety 1st

  • CHPA Educational Foundation

  • Sprout

  • Safe Kids USA

  • springpad

  • JumpStart®

  • Nikon

  • The Johnson & Johnson Family of Consumer Companies

Other Participating Sponsors

  • LeapFrog

  • eos

  • Johnson & Johnson

  • Intel

  • Intelius

  • Pearl of Wisdom Campaign

  • Orbitz

  • PBS Parents

  • Gilbert Guide

  • Motherproof.com

  • Hasbro

  • 20th Century Fox's Strawberry Shortcake

  • PBS Frontline

  • Nokia

  • Dove

A couple of caveats:

First, some of these are companies with whom I strongly disagree on major issues. Some of them are even companies that I boycott. I'm not going to write about that here. I don't censor myself on those issues on this blog, and I may well write again about those companies, but that's not the purpose of this post and I don't want to get bogged down in it.

Secondly, I honestly and completely appreciate each of these companies being willing to sponsor BlogHer. I know they're doing it for business reasons--there is absolutely something in it for them--but I still appreciate it.

Now then:

I've been interested in advertising towards women for a long time, in particular since I wrote my thesis at Reed on Ms. magazine. One of the major problems with Ms. early on was that there both unable to entice advertisers who weren't "traditional women's labels" (cosmetic companies, appliances, etc.) and unable to appease their readership on the subject of morality of advertising "anti-feminist" products. This issue still exists today, obviously, and BlogHer is a great example of how it plays out.

When I last attended in 2007, one of the sponsors was Curves Cereal and Snacks. Some of the people to whom I spoke, particularly those on a panel about blogging and body image, took issue with that. It was a particular problem, I learned, because Weight Watchers had been a sponsor in 2006 and there had already been backlash about that. For my part, I was perhaps not thrilled with Curves' inclusion, but I was generally very happy to see so many companies that are not traditionally "women-focused" on the sponsorship list that year.

This year is even better. Yes, there are some sponsors who are definitely the same ones Ms. would have drawn ire from their readers for all those years ago: Mary Kay, Ann Taylor, eos, and Dove, which are obvious, as well as GreenWorks, Tide/Bounce, Ragu, all, etc., since advertisers still seem to think only women cook and clean. There are several more who are clearly there for the mommy bloggers: Playskool, Disney Consumer Products, Sprout, JumpStart, etc. But there are also a long list of sponsors Ms.'s advertising department would have given up their fringed ponchos for--honest to God gender neutral companies. Some of them are the non-surprising tech companies that go along with a blogging conference, gendered or not, like Microsoft Office/bing.com, Bill Me Later, Motorola, Brother, and T-Mobile. Others, though, I have trouble connecting in any obvious way with women or with blogging, and that makes me inordinately happy. The big one is Platinum Sponsor Chevrolet, but there are also Liberty Mutual's Responsibility Project, public relations agency Ketchum, technical publisher Wiley, Elations (a glucosamine condroitin supplement company), Michelin, and PBS Frontline, among others.

What does it mean that these companies have chosen to put their support behind a fast-growing conference of blogging women? Dare I hope it's respect for women's buying power, not just as mothers, cleaners, or purchasers of clothes and cosmetics, but as full-share American consumers who buy cars and cameras and pork (yep, the National Pork Board is another sponsor) and make investments and watch Frontline? Could they really be seeing us for what we are?

Time will tell. I'll be sure to report back next week on how these sponsors conducted themselves and what impressions I got from them at the conference. In the meantime, again, thanks to our sponsors!

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Chevy seemed very gendered to me--hello minivans! I think it's just that stereotypically in the 60s women wouldn't have had as much of a say in car choice. And there weren't cars designed for moms.

Wow, I meant to sign up for BlogHer this year because it's in Chicago and I'm in Milwaukee, however I totally forgot to sign up. Whoops. I'm totally impressed with the amount of sponsors that they have. Blogging has become so mainstream now and I'm thankful for the voice that I have, and that there is recongition for 4+ years of hard work.

Happy ICLW!

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Thoughts on self-indulgence

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The way I grew up, there were a long list of things considered self-indulgences. Not just things we didn't personally have money to buy, but things we wouldn't spend on even if we did. Things people shouldn't spend money on because it was weak, shallow, indulgent. Mostly, these things were not so much discussed as understood. And the list was long. Off the top of my head, it would include: paying people to things you could do yourself (including cleaners, having your car washed, lawn maintenance, painting, etc.); gym memberships; salon services (anything beyond a basic haircut at Supercuts, really); just about anything bought on credit; having multiple TVs or phones in the same household; paying full price for just about anything; name brands; and eating dessert or having an appetizer or drinks when dining out (and, to a point, dining out itself). Anything premium would also be included, from non-generic dog food to orange juice that came in a bottle rather than a concentrate can.

I remember, vividly, the small ways in which the inappropriateness of asking for or even wanting these things and others like them was instilled in me. People who spend money on things they can do themselves are lazy. Gym memberships are for people who are too stupid to find their own exercise. Salon services are for pampered princesses. People who have multiple TVs or phones at their house must just not like living together and being together. While it was clear we couldn't actually afford any of these things anyway, the more pressing issue, at least the way I interpreted it as a kid, was that wanting these things made you less of a person.

So now, clearly, things have changed. My parents, who do better financially now than they used to, have changes some. They buy orange juice in a bottle now and go out to dinner more than twice a year. Then even have a cordless phone. But the basic sense of not wasting money, no matter how much of it you have, is still healthy in them.

I, however, have become the kind of self-indulgent person I was steered away from as a child. This week, I bought an iPhone. I didn't need it--I had a perfectly good phone--but I wanted it, and I could afford it, so I bought it. And it's the latest in a long line of what would be considered unnecessary indulgences, including salon services (not just haircuts and colors, but manicures, pedicures, waxing, and massages); eating out often and well; buying premium items when I see a quality difference (like dog food); and yes, occasionally paying full price (though that one still bugs me). But these things don't come without guilt.

I have my fair amount of your typical middle class liberal guilt, i.e. "I shouldn't be buying this, I should be feeding the hungry/clothing the unclothed/sponsoring a child/insert your cause here." Beyond that, though, every time I buy something that is both expensive and unnecessary, I feel a little bit farther from my roots. It's not just that I've changed socioeconomic classes, and am now clearly in a different one than the one in which I grew up, but that I feel like I'm deliberately turning my back on the moral code under which I was raised.

I don't know how helpful any of this guilt is. It doesn't cause a change in my spending. I have been in the habit, for longer than I'd like to admit now, of buying pretty much whatever I want. I know it would be considered self-indulgent by the people who raised me, and honestly, I consider it self-indulgent myself, but I do it anyway. More and more, the pull from the way I was raised loses out to the pull of the hyper-consumer class in which I currently reside. In this class, these self-indulgences are normal. There are certainly people who don't visit salons or have gym memberships or buy expensive gadgets, but they are fewer and farther between all the time. And it's not so much that I feel the need to keep up with them (though that's likely part of it), but I can look to them as an example and think that this kind of spending must be OK.

This is one of the facets of growing up that nobody warns you about. Learning how to balance your identify as a consumer and as a worker is difficult in the best circumstances, but it is magnified when the consumption morals of your current class clash so dramatically with those of the class in which you were raised. The ways in which I spend embarrass me, and I do hide them from my family. I know that, even if they didn't say anything, my parents would judge the amount I spend on grooming, the number of times per month Mark and I eat out, and even the cost of the food our dogs eat. When they visited my house, I know that, consciously or not, they noted positively that we still only have one TV, and negatively that the TV is large and new. They notice those kinds of things for the same reason I do--it's how they were raised. How do they interpret them, though? Are they simply signs of my "affluence," of my being in a new class? Or are they signs of my weakness, laziness, and self-indulgent, thoughtless spending?

I know there are folks reading who have faced some of these issues as well. How do you deal with having not just different spending priorities, but different spending morals as either your family or the people around you? Is it uncomfortable? Perhaps most importantly, how do you arrive upon your own moral structure for these things, rather than just feeling like you are bucking those given to you without replacing them with anything else?

4 Comments

I grew up poor. However, frugality was never a thing to strive for. Certainly, I was taught that there was no shame in used cars, used clothing, store brands, etc.

My mom always said that she couldn't take the money with her and she'd rather spend it on things she'd enjoy. When we had "extra" money, it was spent self-indulgently.

So, while I was poor and/or lower middle class, I have NO qualms about self-indulgence. In fact, I find great happiness in indulging myself.

My parents are generally pro-spending money....My dad thinks that long distance phone calls are CRAZY EXPENSIVE but he would only buy a quality suit. He would never ever ever put anything on credit, and when I buy his groceries he is pissed when I buy shit that isn't on sale. I would pay pretty much any amount to talk to my friends long distance, but I buy my clothes resale. We have different priorities. That's okay. He is definitely of the school of paying for quality things that will last a long time, which I am attempting to adopt. And we ate out all the time growing up, but meals weren't ever over like, 8 dollars. I eat out constantly. I wouldn't think twice about it. He is definitely more of a model of "I have some money but I don't need to spend all of it."

My mom is poor. I made more than she did at my first job. She doesn't have good spending habits and like you she definitely instilled the generic food/clothes on sale thing in me. And the no appetizers/drinks thing.

However, both of my parents label me a "cheapskate." So they are not the issue.

It's my sister & my friends.

Part of it is that they have no understanding o what I do and so i think they find my pay somewhat unjustified? Which is fine. But it's when people say what I should or should by because I "have the money for it." I have the money for some crack too, but it's not sensible to buy it!

I guess I am getting criticism the OPPOSITE of yours--that I don't spend enough!

Also I remember when we were introduced to the concept of white guilt in PolySci.

This is quite a personal issue you've touched on. I don't have time to fully respond right now but I definitely feel some of the guilt that you describe.

I think this would be an issue for me if my life was more similar to the one I had growing up. Since it's so wildly different, I seldom really notice the difference in spending morals. Since my biggest expenses are generally flying home to visit, that fits in with my parents' values quite well, though they'd be appalled by how much my ticket alone is going to cost me for my coming vacation.

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Disover cash back duh moment

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So I'm a fan of the Discover card. Yes, I know, I was in credit card debt not that long ago and some people probably believe I shouldn't use cards at all. I think those people are wrong. Credit cards are tools, and if you can use them responsibly (which I believe I now can), then they are a good thing. So, I put just about everything on my Discover card. Why? The cash back.

Given that, how did I not know until today about the Shop Discover program? It's basically the same deal as Ebates, but for your Discover Card, and with bigger cash back percentgaes. For example, I always buy from Sephora though Ebates, to get 4% cash back. If I had been using Shop Discover, I'd have been getting 10%. 10% at Beauty.com, too. And at Ulta. An excellent 15% at Petco. 20% at Restuarant.com. 20% at VistaPrint. And the list goes on.

Making things even better, Discover is having a promotion wherein people who blog about this deal (like I'm doing now), can get $50 gift cards! I'm guessing this post is too late for that, since it started in early June and they are only awarding the first 50 bloggers, but I thought I'd let you know anyway, since this seems like a particularly good deal to me. That whole "card that pays you back" thing may be for real.

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Don't they have one of the highest interest rates around? Like 21%?

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A long way from government cheez

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Back in college and just after, in my hippier and less materalistic days, I used to like this song by T.R. Kelley called "Downwardly Mobile" (aka Government Cheez)." I can't remember all the lyrics now, but one refrain was, "you gotta pay somebody money to do things you ain't got time to do because you are too busy earning money." It repeated several times over to reinforce the circular logic. The song was all about living a low budget life that focused on valuing time over money. Another lyric said that "time is the one thing you can't buy back." At the time, I found that to be wise advise--do something you love, take off as much time as possible, live low on the food chain, reduce, reuse, etc. I never romanticized poverty the way some of my peers did--I grew up in it, so I had a better idea of the realities than most people--but I never intended to be wealthy, either, and I certainly didn't intend to be a big consumer.

The me of ten years ago would definitely scoff at the today's me--her makeup, her fancy bath products, her mortgage and car loan, and especially her very straight desk job. This was not what my younger self had in mind for us, for sure. So what happened?

A lot of things, I'm sure, but the biggest single one? I started making money. Unexpectedly, mid-grad school, I got a job that paid twice as much as the highest paying job I'd ever had before. So we bought a house. And a new car. And my lifestyle, without me much noticing, changed to accomodate my income. I'd been on my way to a class change since college, based on my educatio, but when I actually started having the income to match, it was complete. I took my place, unwittingly, maybe, but fully, in the American middle class.

The extent to which this has happened has been driven home this week, as Mark and I have been deciding who to hire to work on our house. We aren't just hiring someone to do the work we aren't qualified to do, like some electrical repair and intalling carpet, but to do the work we are, like cleaning up the landscape and painting. We're not hiring expertise; we're hiring labor. We're paying someone else to do something we could do ourselves, and it is a better economic argument for us to do so, as our labor (mine, in particular) is worth far more per hour than the labor of our painters and landscapers.

Just typing that makes my heart hurt. Ladies and gentlemen, I have become The Man.

It is information I'm not quite sure what to do with. On one hand, I am glad I'm not painting and landscaping in 100+ heat. And I recognize that I have put quite a bit of time and money into developing the skill set that allows my labor to be worth enough that hiring someone to do those things for me is feasible. But I also recognize that my time and money aren't the only reasons I'm here and not painting or weeding--it also has to do with luck. The luck of being born white and an American citizen. The luck of being born into a supportive family. The luck of being born without physical or cognitive obstacles to overcome. None of those things have anything to do with my effort. None of those are things I "deserve," they are just things I got. Given that, how can it possibly be right for me to make more sitting at a desk than the men who are sweating at my house are making from me?

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I'm so glad I stumbled on your blog. Your posts resonate with me.

I feel what you're saying in a very deep way.
One day, when the husband and I realized it made more sense to have a mortgage than rental, my heart lurched a bit in my chest. We're still trying to balance those youthful (hippie) ideals with the situation we've suddenly found ourselves in.

Not only am I the man now, but I'm doing something I never wanted to do. I work for the man (at Starbucks of all places). But, my work makes me happy, and that's at the heart of the hippie movement anyway, right?

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Where do your taxes work?

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I just got into an interesting discussion with someone who said, among other things, that she had no idea what percentage of her taxes paid for what services or programs. I was sort of shocked by this at first, but then got to thinking about it, and a lot of people probably don't know that (or they have major misconceptions about it). Due to the nature of my graduate degree and some of the jobs I've had, I actually have a pretty fair idea, and, more importantly, I know where/how to find that information, but I haven't really thought too much about it in recent years (being away from school and those jobs). So, I thought maybe it would make interesting blog fodder?

So, a tutorial. If you want to know how much you personally are paying to fund what, here is what you need to do.

Step 1: Determine your tax burden.
First, you need to know how much of your earnings you are paying to the federal government (for the sake of simplicity, we're going to keep this example all federal). You can find this on your tax return. I'll be the example:

As per my 2008 tax return, I paid $4,153 in federal income tax in 2008.

However, the federal government does have other sources of revenue. Personal income taxes only account for about half of total government income. The rest is made up of Social Security payments, payroll taxes, corporate income tax, excise tax, customs duties, estate taxes, etc. If you are like me, the only one of those that applies to you personally is Social Security, and you can get your paid in amount for that off your W-2.

As per my 2008 W-2, I paid $3,373.22 in Social Security withholding in 2008.

Finally, I also paid Medicare tax, which is separate from both income tax and Social Security. This is on the W-2 as well.

As per my 2008 W-2, I paid $788.90 in Medicare tax in 2008.

So, my total personal contribution to the 2008 federal government spending was $8,315.12. For the sake of whole numbers, we'll skip the $.12 and round to $8,315.

Step 2: Determine federal budget.
This is where things get trickier. Federal budgeting and federal spending are not the same thing, any more than your budget and you're spending are (or mine, anyway). A budget is what is planned to spend, not what is spent. That being said, if you are, like I am, looking at the last full year, you are likely to find more solid numbers for budgeting than for spending--it's easier to get your arms around. And, for the purposes a getting a general idea of where your money is going, it will work. So, we need to find the 2008 Federal Budget. The best place to do that, for my money, is the source itself--the GPO Access website. But, as you'd imagine, the federal budget is not exactly a simple document to navigate, and what we want is a simple breakdown. Luckily, someone has already provided that over at the lazy Internet sleuth's friend, Wikipedia.
Fy2008spendingbycategory.png
(Pie chart courtesy of Skiddum, used with permission.)

Step 3: Do the math.
From here, it's simple math. Multiply the percentage of federal budget dollars spent in each category by the total you paid in. For me, it works out like this:

Social Security (21%): $1,746.15
Department of Defense (16.6%): $1,380.29
Medicare (13.3%): $1,105.90
Unemployment/welfare/other mandatory spending (11.2%): $931.28
Interest on the national debt (9%): $748.35
Medicaid and SCHIP (7.2%): $598.68
Global War on Terror (5%): $415.75
Health and Human Services (2.4%): $199.56
Department of Education (1.9%): $157.99
Other on-budget discretionary spending (1.8%): $149.67
Department of Veteran's Affairs (1.4%): $116.41
Other off-budget discretionary spending (1.3%): $108.10
Department of Housing and Urban Development (1.2%): $99.78
Department of Homeland Security (1.2%): $99.78
Energy (0.8%): $66.52
Department of Justice (0.7%): $58.21
Department of Agriculture (0.7%): $58.21
NASA (0.6%): $49.89
Department of Transportation (0.4%): $33.26
Department of Treasury (0.4%) $33.26
Department of the Interior (0.4%): $33.26
Department of Labor (0.4%): $33.26

Obviously, these numbers are only as helpful as you understand what each category represents. And there are some pretty big things left out. For example, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars aren't funded through the budget, they are funded through special appropriations. So the $1,380.29 I gave the DoD last year? That's without my contribution to those wars.

Government budgeting is an extraordinarily (and maybe unnecessarily) complicated process. These estimates are very, very rough. Given time and resources, I could come up with better ones, but those would be rough too. However, even given its flaws, I this is a worthwhile exercise to get an idea of how much of your personal money goes where. For example, I'm not surprised by the amounts going to DoD and Social Security and the "War on Terror," but I had no idea I was paying $750 a year towards national debt interest, or only $160 on education. However rough they may be, those are enlightening (and horrifying) numbers.

3 Comments

This is very interesting. I had always thought that, by far, the largest portion of the Federal Budget went to what should be called "defense spending". And yet according to this information, Social Security is now the biggest chunk of the pie.

So are we actually spending more now on Social Security than on Defense, or is this just creative accounting? Given what you said about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars being left out of the budget for DoD, I couldn't help but notice that there is also a separate category for War on Terror (5%), Dept. of Veterans Affairs (1.4%), and Homeland Security (1.2%). In my mind, these should all be under the heading of "Defense Spending", but they are not. If you add them to the 16.6% allotted for DoD, then the total is 24.2%, which is only slightly more than the 21% allotted for S.S. But what about other discretionary spending, like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? Is this really an accurate picture?

And as a side note, it is more than scandalous that NASA is getting more money than the Dept of Labor, Treasury, Interior, and Transportation. We're willing to spend more money fixing a solar panel on an aging space station than we are to fix or modernize our highways, or provide safe working environments for our people. That's just great.

Thanks, I've been Googling for this information for a while and it's hard to find.

One problem -- none of the sources, including yours, seems to recognize that Soc Sec is self-funding. It depends on money that the retirees have paid in over years. So it's not really fair to say 'our taxes' are paying it.

Even if we look at the fact SS current cash flow is slightly negative, still there has been a big reserve fund from years when there were more workers than retirees. (The problem is that Congress kept borrowing from this fund, and now SS needs them to repay what they borrowed.)

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Yo! Spend local!

| 1 Comment

First, a question: how far back to you have to trace something for the sake of blog etiquette? For example, the thing I am about to post was made known to me when it was Google Reader shared by my friend Jenny, who shared this post from ennui will rock you (best blog name ever!), who in turn picked it up from this post on Humble Cuisine. I can't tell where they got it, because their site isn't working correctly on my browser. Now, did I need to tell you all that? If not, should I have stopped with Jenny? With ennui will rock you?

Getting on to the subject at hand:

You in? I'm going to give this a try this weekend. I'm shooting for stores that aren't just in my city, but in my neighborhood. I'll report back.

1 Comments

As persnickety as I should be about attribution considering my career, I would say this is the sort of thing that's less about who did it and more about getting the word out.

However, I just googled 3/50 and got this:
http://www.the350project.net/home.html

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Prioritizing with The Prioritizer

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I was reading one of my favorite debt-reduction blogs, I've Paid For This Twice Already... today, and paidtwice mentioned The Prioritizer. The Prioritizer is a tool created by CNN Money to help folks focus on their financial goals.

It works very simply--you enter up to 15 goals in the boxes (long-term or short-term), and the Prioritizer pits them against each other in various ways, with you having to choose not between all of them, but just between two of them at a time. Once you've made all your choices, it spits out a ranking of which goals you have indicated are most important to you.

Seems like something we shouldn't need a tool to help us with, right? For me at least, not really. It's very difficult to look at a list of things, all of which I want, and rank them. Much easier to pick between two things. So I decided to try it.

First, I listed some goals. I went back to my 43 Things list to remember some of them.

The 12 goals I came up with were:


  • travel

  • get a Ph.D.

  • get Lasik surgery

  • see Gustav Klimt's paintings in person

  • donate more to charity

  • pay off my student loans

  • work for myself full-time

  • publish writing

  • have my photo taken by Karen Walrond

  • start my own dog rescue

  • move back to Oregon

  • build a retirement fund

After going through the exercise, the tool told me my priorities lined up like this:


  1. move back to Oregon (100)

  2. travel (90.9)

  3. pay off my student loans (81.8)

  4. work for myself full-time (72.7)

  5. see Gustav Klimt's art in person (63.6)

  6. get Lasik surgery (45.5)

  7. build a retirement fund (37.9)

  8. donate more to charity (34.8)

  9. start a dog rescue (28.8)

  10. have my photo taken by Karen Walrond (25.8)

  11. get a Ph.D. (18.2)

  12. publish my writing (0)

There are definitely some surprises here. The first two are what I expected, with moving back to Oregon being my #1 long-term priority and traveling in general being the most important way to spend money I can think of right now (though my actions don't necessarily line up with those priorities). The rest, though, is interesting. I had no idea that getting a Ph.D. would rank so low, or that build a retirement fund is more important to me right now than donating more to charity or starting a dog rescue. And publishing writing might as well just drop from the list completely, since I rank it behind everything else.

I don't know how much this list will change the way I spend money, but it certainly gives me a new way to thinking about some things. So what about you? Try it and see if you are as surprised as I am.

3 Comments

I love that tool! It definitely offers some surprises on bigger lists - two items you thought were relatively parallel turn out not to be at all!

However, I wish it was not always head to head, which can be hard to call. 2:3 choices might be easier/more-accurate to make.

the art institute here has Klimt drawings, but MOMA in NYC has a lot of his paintings. And that's only a few hrs from VA!

That was cool.

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Why online is better: Sephora

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This weekend, I visited my first brick and mortar Sephora store. I have been ordering from them online for several months, so I was happy to check out the real deal.

Disappointing!

In one way, it was fun--I got to see things and browse in a way that you can't really do online. But it ended up being more expensive than it would have been had I bought it online, or at least I got less for the same amount of money. Observe:

At the store, I purchased the following:
Benefit Silky-Finish Lipstick in Dessert First, $18
Urban Decay 24/7 Glide-On Eye Pencil in 1999, $16
LORAC Eye Shadow/Liner in Midnight Sparkle, $16
Smashbox Photo Finish Light Foundation Primer, $36
Smashbox Bionic Mascara in Jet Black, $19
Subtotal: $105
Tax: $8.66
Total: $113.66

The cashier added one sample to my bag, a small vial of j'adore by Dior fragrance.

Now, what if I had made this same order online?

The subtotal would be the same: $105. There would have been no shipping cost, as shipping is free for orders greater than $50. Then I could have picked three samples from among the ones being offered right now, which include the j'adore I got, but also fragrance samples from Donna Karan, DKNY Men, Yves Saint Laurent, Sean John, Lolita Lempicka, Escada, and Ralph Lauren; as well as a tinted moisturizer sample from Stila, a brow powder sample from Anastasia, a sample of Laura Geller Spackle, and a sample of Kinerase Extreme Face-Lift.

Then I could have used a coupon code. The ones available currently aren't that great (no percentages off), but even right now I could have gotten a DuWop Prime Venom sample; Sephora Brand Birthday Vanilla Cupcake Bath & Shower Bubbles; a sample of Bare Escentuals Buxom Lash Mascara; a travel sized Smashbox Photo Finish Primer; or a DiorShow mini mascara.

I also could have gotten 4% cash back from my purchase via eBates. And added the $100 I spent to my Beauty Points account, which I believe is accumulating to get some kind of free treats.

So...I would have ended up spending 4% less ($100.80 rather than $105), gotten two more small samples of my choice besides the j'adore, and gotten a nice large sample like Dior mascara.

Yep. Going with online from now on.

3 Comments

Have fun with all of your goodies. That stuff is pricey so I hope you like it : ) My friend was addicted to Sephora and went I visited her we went to the store. It was fun to look at all the stuff. She had a benefit card and was so excited about it - but then I saw the 'free' gifts and they were super measly. Much less than the 'free' gifts you get at department store make-up counters. Definitely not a worthy incentive.

It's funny how online is becoming not only easier in many ways, but also less expensive.

Obvious choice to stick to online buying, and disappointing they only gave one sample at the store. I've read the DuWop Prime Venom's supposed to be very good.

Christine

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In my previous post about what I've learned from paying off my credit cards, Kasia asked how I managed to transfer it around to keep the interest low/non-existant. Since that's likely a question a lot of people I have, I thought I'd answer it here. Please keep in mind that this won't work for everyone, as the credit situation is changing all the time, and the cards and limits you can be approved for depend on your particular situation.

Also know I am doing this from memory, so the details may not be exactly right.

So, at the time I decided to get serious about paying down my debt, in January 2008, I had about $11,300 total. It was divided onto two cards, a Visa with my bank that has I think a 12% interest rate, and a Discover card with an introductory 0% rate that I got through a mail offer. The 0% card was maxed at I think $9,000, leaving about $2,300 on my bank card.

The first thing I wanted to do was transfer the debt that was on my bank card to a 0% card. So I went here and searched for cards with 0% interest on balance transfers. I found a card that had 0% for balance transfers for a year, and applied for it (I think it was this one). I was approved with I believe a $4,000 credit limit, so I transferred the whole $2,300 immediately. I was charged a fee for the balance transfer, but I honestly can't remember how much it was--I am thinking $60-$80. Since that $60-$80 works out to only 2.6% to 3.5% of the balance, I was ahead.

Next, I paid at least the minimums faithfully every month on both cards. This is very important with 0% balance transfer cards, as even one payment one day late gives them the right to jack your entire balance up to whatever interest rate they say (in the case of these cards, I think one would have been 18% and one 22% or something like that). The other thing to make sure of is NOT to use the cards, since that 0% is only for balance transfers and new charges accrue regular interest. This is especially important when you realize that the new charges don't start being paid on until ALL of the old ones are paid off, so you'll be accruing interest on them until the card is completely paid down.

Then I waited until the end of the 0% period, putting me sometime last fall/early winter. About a month before the end of the 0% period, I called both cards and asked if that 0% could be extended. I did this to save myself transferring the balances again if I didn' thave to. Both cards declined my request, so I went back out and searched for a new 0% card.

At that point, due to either a change in my credit rate or in the greater economy, it was a little bit harder to get a 0% balance transfer card. I was denied for the first one for which I applied, and the second one only gave me 6 months at 0% and a very low maximum (I think $3,000). Since I still had more debt than that, I applied for another card that was similar and got it as well. I then transferred what was left of my balance onto those two cards, paying another $60-$80 each in transfer fees.

Once again, I paid faithfully (using direct withdrawl to make sure I didn't miss a payment) and didn't charge anything new on those cards.

About a month ago, that six months was up. I still had about $3K left to pay off, so I applied again for a new 0% card and got one for 6 months with a maximum of $4,000. I transferred what was left from the other cards onto that one, paid another $60-$80 transfer fee, and have since been paying that one off.

At this point, I have three open credit cards. These are the original two (the Visa from my bank and the first Discover card I had) and the last 0% card that I just paid off. I will be closing the newest one and keeping the two older cards, as I have been advised that older accounts are better for the sake of your credit rating, and the Discover card does provide cash back incentives. Neither of these cards has a particularly good interest rate now, but as I don't plan to carry debt, that should not matter.

So how much did it cost me to pay this debt down? If I assume each transfer fee was $80, it cost $320 in transfer fees. I made no interest payments. The current average consumer credit card interest rate is 14.7%. If I assume interest at this rate, it would have cost $1,060.98 in interest to pay down the same amount of debt in the same amount of time (you can calculate that here). For that kind of difference, the juggling and opening and closing accounts was definitely worthwhile. I was concerned that it would mess up my credit rating to have opened and closed so many in a short time, but it doesn't seem to have done so.

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So, Gracie, what have you learned?

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I was listening to this story on the Obama Administration's new standards for credit card companies on NPR, and got to thinking about this whole credit card mess I just got myself out of.

What have I learned?

First, I still don't think credit cards are an inherent evil that should be avoided. While I do plan to close the 0% account I'd opened and transferred my debt to most recently to avoid paying interest on it, I will still have two open credit card accounts, which I plan to keep and use. Credit cards are a financial tool. I misused this tool. But I don't think cutting myself off from it is the way to keep that from happening again. I used credit cards responsibly for years before I got into this debt, and I plan to go back to that pattern.

Secondly, I don't feel like I was abused or misled by credit card companies. I have no doubt that people are, but I wasn't. I knew what I was doing when I ran up my debt, and I was very lucky to have been able to move it from 0% card to 0% card while I was paying it off to minimize the amount that having it cost me. (Note that I did pay a transfer fee every time I transferred it, so it wasn't free, but it was much cheaper than it would have been at 18% or whatever.) During this process, I've dealt with several major credit card companies and a couple of minor ones, and while none of them made any effort to help me, none of them sabotaged me either. I feel that I was treated fairly as someone who had entered into a contract and was holding up my end of that bargain.

However, I think my situation is somewhat different than a lot of people's. I ran up my debt by spending stupidly, not due to any catastrophe (beyond the initial vet bills for Chance, but that ended up being less than 1/4 of my total debt). I was employed at a decent salary the whole time. Making mimimum payments was always within my capabilities, and making more than mimimum payments was usually possible. I have no idea how the credit card companies' treatment of me would have changed had that not been the case, but I can't imagine the change would have been positive.

Someone asked me recently what this experience has done to my credit score. The answer, as far as I know, is not much. My credit score right now is 867 on TransUnion's 925 scale, which is considered excellent (freecreditreport.com). That doesn't yet reflect the last two payments I've made, either. I can only assume my continued good score is due to making all of my payments on time. My credit report shows one 30 days past due charge in the last 24 months, from when I missed a gasoline bill and carried a $37 balance for 2 months. That's it. Everything else is gold star paid on time. So, apparently, you can carry at least some debt without hurting your credit. I was worried that the number of new cards I'd opened in the last 18 months to keep transferring my balance would hurt my score, but it doesn't seem to have. Still, in the interest of keeping it up or boosting it further, I plan to close all but my two oldest cards (one of which has been open since 1997) and use them for small expenses and pay them off each month. I also plan to call and ask to have my credit limit on those cards lowered.

Basically, then, for me, the reprecussions of my stupidity seem to have been pretty mild. The only major one was spending the last 16 months feeling like a complete moron for having gotten into this situation for no good reason. And it is that I want to avoid in the future. Unfortunately for me, since I had to do both of these things, that means budgeting and saving.

4 Comments

I hate credit score stuff...its so confusing. I was under the impression that closing accounts would lower your credit score...is that not the case? And is there something about what percentage of your credit you're using? Is that why its better to have lower limits?

My best friends lived off their cards for awhile, and swear that it helped their credit, because they were making minimum payments the whole time. And in fact, their credit score is EXCELLENT...so they can't be too wrong. ;) It makes sense that the companies would actually prefer you to carry a balance, so long as you make your payments.

I had credit score tracking for awhile via one of my credit cards, and when I racked up some debt, my score went up. And then down again. I really can't understand it. (These were relatively small fluctuations - maybe 20 points? But still)

Actually, the more debt you have (and pay on time), the better your credit score.

Retarded but true.

So I am basically in the same boat you were in as far as debt goes. I owe about 8000 in credit card debt, mainly from being broke during graduate school and spending stupidly. I am working on paying it down but haven't made much progress. All of my debt is on a high interest card right now... can I ask how you were able to transfer yours to a 0% interest account? Did you transfer your whole balance? Did you have to wait until you paid it down to a small amount? I really need to get this debt paid down, as I now have to start paying back a hideous amount of student loan debt. Ugh.

Thanks for sharing. It is useful for me.

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A very special Earth Day announcement

| 17 Comments

This is a funny post to be writing in light of my last series of posts, but I can't not share this with you all.

Look down at my sidebar. Scroll down, I'll wait. See that debt reduction bar that's been there for months? See how it says 0 now?

Yep. I'm out! I made my last payment this morning and my credit card debt is now 0.

For those who haven't been playing along for months, I started my debt reduction campaign in January 2008, with nearly $12,000 in debt. That debt had been accumulating since July of 2005 when Chance died and I put my half of his $6,000 vet bill on my credit card. From there it grew.

Since January 08, my progress has been up and down. Some months I did great, other months my debt actually grew. But I've been able to hit it hard with my new job and freelance work this past month or so, and today I finally finished paying it off.

I can't tell you how I thrilled I am, both not to have it over my head anymore and to have finally achieved a financial goal I'd set for myself.

I'm still not a financial rock star by any means. I have a student loan, a car loan, and a mortgage. I have no retirement and next to no savings. But now, with this hurdle out of the way, I can begin to tackle those ones.

Truly, this is a great feeling.

17 Comments

Congratulations!

Congratulations! That's a huge accomplishment.

Supercongrats!

Congratulations! I totally remember when we climbed our way out of 12k in credit card debt. I still revel in that accomplishment sometimes. Go you!

Grace, that is so awesome. You rock, lady! Big and much deserved Congrats!!!

Paying off my debt was the best day ever. Congrats.

Congratulations! What a great feeling!

You're a beast!

That is seriously inspiring. Maybe it means that one day, we can be just like you!

Yay you! Hopefully I'll be close on your heels!

Yay! That's wonderful Grace. Way to go.

I first realized I was truly an adult when we got a little extra money and I thought, "alright! We can make an extra loan payment!" Tragically practical, but it sure does feel good to get those balances reduced.

Grace, you rock.

Awesome! I admire you very much!

Congratulations. That is a true accomplishment.

Grace, that is just wonderful!! Many many congrats, it must truly be a great feeling.

Christine

Congratulations Grace, I know that this was a day you've been looking forward to for quite some time.

Wow! I know how long and hard you've worked on this. Congratulations! That's really an amazing achievement.

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A few more thoughts on morality and money

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The last couple of posts have garnered more comments than just about anything I've ever posted here! Figures that would happen just as I'm too busy to give it the attention it deserves. If I haven't responded to your comment, please know that I have read it and am thinking about it (and am not mad at anyone). I just don't have the time I'd like to have to reply to everyone individually right now.

That being said, I do want to say a couple more things to clarify my position. To begin, I absolutely do think that there is morality in consumption. The ways in which we make and spend money are full of moral choices. I just don't think that, removed of all other factors, saving is a more moral choice than spending. Is saving a more moral choice than spending in environmentally destructive ways? Yes. Is saving a more moral choice than spending in ways that profit off other people's labor in unfair ways? Yes. But is saving, in a vacuum, more moral than spending? I don't think so.

There are a lot of ways to be immorally frugal. Buying whatever is the lowest cost, regardless of how and of what it was produced, when you have other options, just so you can have more money in the bank, is, to my mind, immoral. And I have a far bigger problem with that than I do with someone who has consumer debt but doesn't buy plastic shit made by slaves in sweatshops.

Personally, I am by no means a perfect consumer. I haven't ever quite broken my Target addiction (though it is much moderated these days). I strive to comprise most of my wardrobe of secondhand clothes, but as I've admitted here before, I'm definitely not above getting fed up and buying from a mainstream (read: sweatshop produced) store. I am more and more committed to supporting small businesses, and I do pretty well, but it's certainly not 100%. I'm not above my own moral reproach here.

But, as someone who is fairly suddenly and not very comfortably (upper?) middle class, I think my responsibility to spend well is far greater than my responsibility to spend less. It is important to me, and I hope increasingly important to the rest of my new class, to support my local economy with my dollars, to support independent artists and craftspeople and farmers, and to make a concerted effort not to line the pockets of the Walton family and their ilk. If I spend in ways that are helpful to my community and further my personal and political objectives, I think that spending is good. Better, in fact, than not spending at all. If I don't spend at all, the only person that helps is the me of the future.

I understand, or at least am beginning to understand, the importance of saving. Saving for the future, for emergencies, etc. I'm not saying that I think I or anyone else has a moral obligation to spend every dime, or to go into debt, in order to buy more local fair trade junk. But much of the frugality stuff I'm hearing and reading seems to me to just be miserliness by another name. Super for you if you can pay off your mortgage in four years and have a twelve month cushion in your savings account and never have a credit card, but what's the cost? To the economy you didn't support, and to yourself? If that way you were able to do all that super special saving was to only eat clearance food from Wal-Mart and never do anything fun, then sorry, you aren't going to get kudos from me. And if that journey has turned you into someone who thinks it is a waste of money to buy art, or to support charities, or to give gifts, or even to treat yourself to an occasional luxury, whatever your luxury of choice may be, then honestly, I don't think it did you a whole lot of good.

Obviously my thoughts on this subject aren't set in stone. I spend a lot of time thinking about money, both in the direct sense (i.e. how to do I save and spend my personal income?) and in a global sense. I don't have a lot of answers, at least not firm ones. But I am beginning to get more assured about speaking up when something makes me uncomfortable. The idea that salaries are secrets makes me uncomfortable. The myth that people are rich or poor based on how hard they have worked, rather than to whom they were born, makes me uncomfortable. And, most recently, the idea that you are a better person if you are far into the black makes me uncomfortable. I'm truly sorry if any WINOW readers find that offensive--it's not meant to be. But, as always, I'm glad to have this forum in which to work my thoughts out, and to hear yours in return.

1 Comments

I've really enjoyed this series of posts.

One of the people I admire most, as far as spending goes, is a close friend of mine. He rarely buys things for himself, and really avoids cultivating a sense of wanting new things or wanting to upgrade. So in that sense he's quite frugal and sensible with his money. HOWEVER, he never hesitates to spend money on a party. He never hesitates to give money to a friend in need. And when he does want to buy something for himself, he buys it at his local, independent store, even if its triple the price.

That's the kind of spender I want to be.

(For me, getting out debt is somewhat of a priority - I would rather in the long term give my money to locals than to a bank, and I'd rather be free from the sort of debt-slavery that bills stick you in. But again, that's mostly a person "this is more comfortable for me, and in line with *my* priorities" kind of thing.)

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The (im)morality of debt

| 15 Comments

This is kind of an addendum to my last post, but I found I had so much I wanted to say to the commenters on that post that I should probably just add a whole new topic. (Please note that I adore both of these commenters, I just happen to take issue with them on this topic.)

Christine said:

I believe a large group of people in trouble are where they are because they can't separate needs and wants very well.

Crystal said:

We've lived with minimal "stuff", many handmedowns, and no vacations for years, because paying off our debt (and not accumulating MORE) was our priority, as I think it should be for anyone with a debt.

I have a problem with both of these statements. It's not that I don't think there are people in trouble because they spend unwisely (been there and done that and still paying the bill), but I'm bothered by the assumption that we can judge for other people what a need versus a want is, and whether paying debt should be a priority. I am increasingly bothered by the overtones of morality in fiscal conversations like this one. Not having debt does not make you a better person. Have a frugal lifestyle and not spending frivolously isn't going to get you into heaven.

The older I get, the more I believe that our financial system is a game of random luck. Working harder doesn't get you more, being in the right place at the right time does. Sure, stringent habits can keep you afloat, but so can not getting sick or losing your job. Given that, what is the use of attaching morality to who dies with the biggest savings account balance?

Obviously it has become important to me over the course of the past year or so to pay down my consumer debt. I've worked at it, and I'm almost finished. I'll have paid something like $11,000 in 18 months--not pocket change. But I bristle at the idea that whether or not to try to do that is a decision I can make for anyone else (and at the idea of being judged myself for running up the debt in the first place and for not being more frugal and paying it down faster). Lenders sought me out and lent me money. There is absolutely no shame in my having taken it, nor, as long as I meet with whatever interest conditions are agreed upon (most of which are, in my opinion, ridiculous) in taking my sweet time to pay it back. Deciding I didn't want it in my life and paying it back was my decision, and it's one I'm happy with, but it doesn't make me a better person.

Similarly, deciding that I don't need to buy X, Y, or Z doesn't make me a better person, at least not for fiscal reasons. Supporting small businesses and fair labor practices and environmentally friendly products, and forgoing those I know to be made with slave labor and of environmentally damaging materials, might imply moral growth, but just spending less doesn't. A large majority of what I spend my money on may well be considered luxuries by many people, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't be doing it. The important part, to my mind, is that you use your resources--time, money, whatever--in ways that make you happy. Letting someone else judge what those should be makes absolutely no sense.

I understand that it's natural and even necessary for people to get more frugal in a recession. And I roll my eyes at a lot of big spending, too. But why can't all of our discussions about how to do things inexpensively come without the heavy layer of self-righteousness? What does a discussion about frugality look like without the moral underpinning?

15 Comments

Thanks for this post too! I've been on a mission to convince myself of exactly what you're saying, only with regards to myself...that MY financial status is not a moral failing (or achievement).

For me, frugality is less important than buying the right things. By which I mean, rather than talking about frugality, because as you say saving money is not inherently a good thing, lets talk about making sure our spending is consistent with our priorities. Lets talk about generosity towards others. Lets talk about buying products that have a positive impact on the world around us.

I spend a lot on certain items, and I spend very little on others...and you know what? I'm damn proud. For the most part, the "luxuries" I spend on are things that I really love - that really add to my enjoyment of life. I reduce, reuse and recycle. I buy products that are made with as little impact on the earth as possible. I buy from companies that treat their employees well. I give to charity. Some of the things I do are consistent with frugality, and some are inconsistent...but I'm happy and proud about all of them, even if my debts aren't being paid down as fast as they otherwise could.

(Not to say that all my financial decisions are good ones...but you get my drift)

Yay, I got quoted on Grace's blog! (Boo, she's mad at me ;-) )

I think, honestly, you're getting unnecessarily defensive about this. I didn't say that anyone was Teh Evil for having debt. Heck I have debt. I've had lots more debt than what I have right now. I don't think I'm Teh Evil (not for the debt, anyways).

I guess what I do take issue with is the "woe is me" stuff (which externalizes the "problem", if I may be so bold as to call it that, i.e., makes it someone else's fault -governement, poor paying job, taxes, cost of living, whatever), when a person has it completely within their own power to make different choices that would make their financial situation differently.

The truth is not "I'm so broke", it's: "I spent all my money, plus money I don't have".

I'm saying this as a person who USED to make terrible financial choices (in the red and overdrawn everywhere) and complained about how broke I was and how stressed it was making me. It took a serious personal shakeup for me to see what I was doing was MY FAULT and no one else's and that only I could make my financial situation different - by making good choices about spending, saving, and earning.

I have to add one more thing(s) after reading some of the other comments...

this isn't an issue about morality AT ALL, and I think if folks are feeling defensive about other people questioning their spending habits, they need to ask themselves "why?"

Second, I'm pretty sure I saw someone say that people are "entitled to their luxuries". WHAT???!!?!? Seriously? No offense, but that's just a wild idea to me. Someone needs to explain that to me better. I would LOVE a weekly facial/massage, and would LOVE to have a house that didn't have a leaky basement, and would LOVE to quintuple my wardrobe...but I'm not entitled to any of those things. If I want them, I have to shape my situation in order to be able to obtain them...save up, cut back on other things, increase my earning potential, etc. etc. If I can't get them, I'm not going to die. I'm certainly entitled to safety and shelter and nourishment and freedom of speach etc. etc., but not facials.

I'm hearing this undertone as well, and it irks me. I find the occasional Vanilla Rooibos Latte from $tarbucks to be a need, if I want to maintain any kind of sense that my life is rich, even when I'm not. Long country drives, while wasteful in one sense, are a necessity in the 'I'm raising teenagers, dude, and I need a long drive in the country before I kill someone' sense of the word.

Being in debt is *not* a moral issue. It is a fact of life and of a culture that drives certain lifestyles down our throats as 'must haves or we don't measure up'.

Most of us are doing our best, even if we have facials, or go to movies, or take long drives in the country, and what's a need for me might make you laugh, but that doesn't mean it isn't a *need*.

It seems to me sometimes that people just need another reason to rag on other people. We all seem so hell bent on judging one another. I'm sure those who are incredibly financially responsible have other issues that they wouldn't want slagged all over the Internet.

We are no longer kind. This bothers me way more than what who spends on what.


I definitely agree that there's a moral underpinning to discussions of debt, one that plays to the "traditional American" ethic of hard work = morality, laziness = immorality, and debt = immorality on several levels.

However, had I seen your first post sooner, I would have argued that "No, a person recieving food stamps shouldn't get a facial,"

It's not a matter of entitlement; I agree that people deserve, even "need" luxuries. However, people with credit card debt have entered a contract with a bank. The bank lent them money voluntarily, because there is a possiblity of profit.

Taxes are compulsory, and there's no possiblity of a taxpayer benefiting from someone else's food stamps. In my opinion, the food stamp recipient has a responsibility to taxpayers-- to only rely on financial aid if they can't pay for essentials of survival.

1. again I think the major difference if you're supplying the money or if someone else is. when someone else is they get a say.

2. All American issues are moral--esp. those surrounding enjoyment--sex, booze, food, spending money, etc. Welcome to Puritainia.

3. I generally don't know/notice what people spend their money UNTIL they start complaining how broke they are. When you start complaining you lose rights not to be judged, IMO. Especially if YOU put yourself in the situation. I feel empathy if you complain about getting sick, but not as much if you insist on going outside without a jacket in the dead of winter.

4. I think the difference between our understanding in this is evident in your use of frugality. Not going into debt isn't being frugal. Living within your means isn't frugality. Living way BELOW your means is frugality. However our culture is so endorsing of living way beyond your means, that this it's framed this way.

Living beyond your means is irresponsible. I feel like it's reasonable to point that out as a bad choice.

If anything in my comment made anybody think I feel debt-free and frugal is better, that is not what I meant. I think Jess said perfectly what I feel: spending needs to be consistent with priorities. Of course priorities are different for everybody and highly personal, and they change a lot. But in this documentary I mentioned before, I saw a woman talk about her financial situation and explaining how her kids couldn't go on a field trip (with a definite "woe-is-me" tone) with their school because she couldn't afford the 10 euro contribution for it, and the whole time she was talking she light up one cigarette after another. Two packets of cigs cost 10 euro. This infuriates me, and I can't help it (probably because I felt sorry for the kids and I'm an ex-smoker). I feel this woman had her priorities all wrong, so in a way I'm not surprised she's in trouble with money, to be honest. Also, for a lot of people it's just so hard in this day and age to admit they can't afford certain things, almost as though it's a shame if you have limits to your budget. I don't know why this is but it keeps amazing me, and I wish it would change.
I don't think having more money makes people more entitled to anything, but it's just a fact money buys a certain amount of freedom, and it also means you can do more things that are beyond the basics. It's sour for those who have the bare minimum, but that's just how it is. And even if your budget is so tight there is hardly any room for anything but basics, there can still be some money for a luxury once in a while. Even just going to the bakery and buying 1 cupcake can be a huge luxury (it is to me, lol).
Interesting discussion. And Grace, please don't take offense about anything I said because that's not how I meant it. :-)

Whether someone makes 200K or 20K a year, I don't think anyone is really "entitled" to luxuries. That's why they're called "luxuries".

In an attempt to rephrase what I said earlier so as to not come across as generally judgemental of people who are not debt-free:

People who have debt are neither better nor worse (morally, ethically, etc.) than those who have no debt.

People who have debt and complain about it, but continue to spend money they don't have on luxuries to a point where they're unable to pay for their basic needs (food, rent, etc.), annoy me. I don't want to hear the complaining.

There.

Still love me?

It is interesting to me that in our society, money is almost as taboo a subject as sex. I mean, one of the questions you NEVER get to ask someone is how much they make: why?

We don't talk about money, we don't teach kids about money and we somehow expect people just to become financially responsible without any way to learn except by trial and error.

You can go to 4 years of college and study a subject and prepare for a career without anyone ever mentioning ONCE how much you are likely to make and what the prospects in the field are. THAT IS NUTS.

Most people aren't stupid about money - they are ignorant, and there is a big difference.

"I am increasingly bothered by the overtones of morality in fiscal conversations like this one. Not having debt does not make you a better person. Have a frugal lifestyle and not spending frivolously isn't going to get you into heaven."

Sorry, but failure to find something morally wrong is still a moral judgment. It seems like you're just substituting your own morals for the ones that you don't agree with.

Since we're all making moral judgments here, I'll chime in with my own:

I do think that striving for frugality is a morally good thing to do, and the more money that I make, the bigger (I feel) my responsibility to live below my means. My main concern is environmental stewardship and the direct and indirect impacts that that has on the health of other people and the planet. Consuming anything--whether I "need" it or not--indirectly negatively impacts other people and things around me. Sometimes it also positively impacts people and things around me (or myself), so the trick is striking a balance between the good and the bad. I cannot justify buying things that won't significantly improve my quality of life, due to the negative impact (use of resources, pollution) that goes into their production and disposal.

Of course, it is a personal decision for everyone about what will significantly and positively impact their lives. Richer people have more means to buy things that have little impact on their lives and, so, are more often in a position of buying things that probably don't have a good justification. However, poor people aren't exempt from thinking about the impact that their actions have on others, too.

Sure, things can be morally neutral. I was just pointing out that deciding whether something is or isn't morally bad is still making a moral judgment. Several people here seemed to suggest that only those who said that poor people shouldn't be spending their money on facials were making a moral judgment, and I don't think that's the case.

I'm not trying to be petty or argue semantics. I just thought it was important because some comments here seem to suggest that "judging" is inherently wrong, when in fact everyone judges what they think is right or wrong (or not right or not wrong). Similarly, a lot of times people seem to use "morals" or "morality" to talk only about viewpoints that they disagree with. Since the conversation had turned more toward how moral decisions are made about who spends what, I thought it was relevant.

Is tumbled into your blog by accident, read this post and wanted to say, "Hell ya!". I recieve food stamps, I'm in school full time, and I support a 17 year old soon off on his own to college. If anyone needs a facial with my levels of stress, I'm not sure who does. It might mean something else doesn't get bought, but at least I feel a bit more able to face the world with new nails, new clothes or whatever is my equal to that facial.

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Poverty and luxury

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On an online forum I frequent, someone recently asked if the members thought it was OK for someone whose family receives food stamps to spend money to get a facial. Berefit of things to blog about recently, I thought I'd bring that question, and my thoughts on it, here.

First, yes, I absolutely think it's OK for someone who is receiving food stamps to get a facial. I believe that those who qualify for government assistance should receive it, and taking it doesn't make them any more in need of my (or anyone else's) monitoring their spending than not taking it would. So whether or not you get food stamps makes absolutely no difference, to me, in whether or not you should get a facial. You are in charge of your money and how you spend it.

The response to that from the right (and much of what passes for the left, honestly) is that if someone has money for facials, then they should leave the food stamps for someone who "really needs them." I call b.s. on that. The truth is that nearly everyone in the U.S., even those who are constantly preaching and bragging about their frugality, has luxuries. Our standards for receiving assistance are plenty low enough without trying to cut out anyone who spends any money on anything that we don't consider necessary, especially when that consideration is so subjective. For example, that facial money could be spent on cable, or zoo admission, or cigarettes, or books. All of these things would be serving some of the same purposes the facial does--relaxation, a feeling of brief luxury, entertainment. Would they all be subject to scorn? Is it really possible that we believe that someone whose income is low enough to qualify them for government aid deserves none of these things, ever?

Speaking of "deserve," I think that's part of what this debate is about. The idea that that the poor deserve only subsistence. I reject that notion. Everyone deserves more than subsistence. And given the extreme luxury in which the majority of this country (myself included) lives, it is extremely hypocritical for us to spout about other people's wastefulness. Chances are very high that we ourselves are wasteful, but we have much more trouble identifying our own wasteful natures than those we see, especially when we see ourselves as somehow subsidizing other people's spending, as we do in the case of recipients of government dollars.

Clearly, I think I deserve luxuries. I spend a stupidly huge portion of my income on them. Why, then, would I think anybody else doesn't? How small and miserly would I have to be to begrudge other people the things I think are nice and fun and pampering just because they have less disposable income than I do?

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You know, when it comes to down to it I agree everybody deserves a treat or a luxury once in a while, but I've seen several documentaries here in the past years about people living on the absolute minimum with government aid, and they all seemed to have a problem with priorities. For example, I was very surprised to see so many people who talked about their tough situation smoking. I mean, it's an addictive habit that's really expensive, one of the first things that needs to go if the finances aren't there, IMO. If you've taken a good hard look at your spending and have your priorities straight, no problem to get facials or whatever, but I believe a large group of people in trouble are where they are because they can't separate needs and wants very well.

Christine

Thanks for this. We are so quick to judge poor people who make the very same decisions that we make every damn day. Sure, a lot of poor people make bad decisions. But so do a fuckton of rich people. They just have a bigger cushion to fall back on.

Before we throw stones at those who don't make the "good decision" to cut all the luxuries out of their life, we should take a close look at our own lives. Christine, how much good could you do in this world if YOU cut out all your luxuries?

I can tell you that if I ditched my cell phone, got rid of my car, ate cheaper (and less organic), stopped having drinks with friends, etc etc, I could donate a lot more money to those who need it. But you know, I like to enjoy my life. And I think that those living in poverty deserve to enjoy theirs too.

I'm just gonna keep on posting! ;) But I had two more thoughts.

1) It is not right to decide for others what their priorities should be. Maybe that facial saves a woman's sanity. Maybe it doesn't. But I don't think its anyone's place to tell her (or him) that her priorities should be otherwise, because we don't walk in her shoes. Likewise, I have in the past used food stamps to buy organic food. There are many people who would say that isn't right - that I should use them for cheaper foods, to fill my belly at the maximum possible value. Well, SAFE, chemical free food is a priority to me, and anyone who wants to tell me I should live otherwise can go you-know-what-themselves.

2) I very very much believe in gifts freely given. If you are going to give something or do something for someone, you should do it because you want to, no strings attached. I want to make sure everyone in the world has the *ability* to fill their belly. And if it were up to me, I would give each person the resources to do so. I wouldn't force them to do so...but I would empower them to do so. And I would do it freely. Its like giving money to a homeless person, which I do occasionally. I don't know what they are going to do with it, and I don't care. I give them my change because I want to. Once it is given, it belongs to them, and they can do what they please. (Actually its like giving any gift to anyone. My aunt may regift or throw away the sweater I buy her, and that is her business!)

I see your point, but I have to disagree at least a bit. I have friends who constantly complain about "being broke", but have an extravagantly pretty car, all the electronic gadgets, and go out on the town at least a few times a week and drop a ton of money on booze. These people have trouble paying rent and huge credit card bills. I don't feel sorry for them at all, and get annoyed when they complain about struggling to pay bills. There's a place for luxuries, sure, I like them too, but if I don't have CASH to pay for them, I can't have them. That's just how it is in our house. We've lived with minimal "stuff", many handmedowns, and no vacations for years, because paying off our debt (and not accumulating MORE) was our priority, as I think it should be for anyone with a debt.

I absolutely agree with you. Perfectly written post!

if someone has money for facials, then they should leave the food stamps for someone who "really needs them."

WTF?? If someone qualifies for food stamps, then that person really needs food stamps--the threshholds for food stamps are set very very low.

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Waxing poetic about discount stores

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I love a good bargain. This if, of couse, one of the reasons why I thrift shop (though at this point it's not the most important one). Coupons thrill me. I love clearance racks.

And I love, love, love Ross. More recently, my Ross love has expanded to include Marshall's, as well. I still don't quite get T.J. Maxx.

Anyway, I've been cleaning up at Ross and Marshall's lately, so I thought I'd share with you a few of the discoveries I've made therein.

abba shampoo.jpgAbba Pure Basic Shampoo and Conditioner
I bought an 8 oz bottle each of Abba Pure Basic Shampoo and Conditioner at Marshall's a while back for I think $6.99 each. The drugstore.com price on it is $14/bottle for the shampoo and $15 for the conditioner. And I LOVE this stuff. It leaves my hair soft and clean and it smells herbal and nice. Once I'd used it enough to know I loved it, I was delighed to see the same stuff in big liter bottles at Ross for $12.99 (they are regularly about $30). So I've stocked up. Which is good, since apparently Abba is discontinuing this formula.

Seven7 Jeans
My quest for perfect jeans is nearly endless, but I've lately found a pair that is pretty damn close. They are the Seven7 brand dark wash flare jeans. Retail on them is about $60, mine were $19.99 at Marshall's.

EO French Lavender products
The French Lavender line from EO is one of my favorite commercially available body products. I love the subtle scent, and the quality is very good. I've recently bought a anti-stress room spray for $3.99 at Marshall's (regular price $8 or so) and one of these cute "Spa Box" sets for $4.99 at Ross (regular price $19.99). I used the massage candle to figure out how to make my own, and have very much enjoyed the shower gel and bath salts as well.

Ann Taylor lotion
My most exciting recent bath and body care was Ann Taylor body lotions for $3.99 each at Marshall's. It looks as if these have also been discontinued, at least in the two scents I got--Peach Honey Sheer Musk and Orange Nectar Honeysuckle--but when they were being sold I believe they were about $16 each.

simple sneakers.jpgSimple Carousel Plaid Slip-on
One of my favorite things about Ross is that they sometimes carry shoes in my size. They carried these plaid Simple slip-ons in my size, and I love them for that. The shoes are from Simple's Eco line, made with recycled bottles and tired and organic cotton, and they are super cute. My Ross version were $12.99. Amazon has them for $49.99.

Now if I could just find a bag I like...

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What does a small household buy at Costco?

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I've been asked before if Costco is cost-effective for a two-person household. Though my impression is that it definitely is, I've never done the math before. Given the current emphasis on saving money, I thought I'd do that exercise now.

Today, I went to Costco. I bought most of the staples we buy there regularly, as we hadn't been in months. This is what I came home with:

Costco

Here you see:


  • Two whole organic fryer chickens, $21.25

  • Three Amy's Organics spinach pizzas, $13.99

  • Two large jars of Jif peanut butter, $8.99

  • A dozen Einstein's cinnamon raisin bagels, $4.99

  • A dozen organic Jonagold apples, $6.79

  • A bag of mini tricolor sweet peppers, $3.79

  • A 190-ct bottle of glucosamine condtroitin, $23.45

  • A large jar of pesto, $7.49

  • A large tub of Sabra hummus, $5.99

  • A big jug of white vinegar, $3.29

  • A two pack of organic spinach ravioli, $8.89

  • Two big bags of Stacy's pita chips, $5.69 each

  • A four-pack of organic chicken broth, $9.99

  • A block of sharp Tillamook cheddar, $7.49

  • Two pounds of Parmesan, $17.97

  • A five-pack of celebration crackers, $7.69

  • A 25 lb bag of cat food (not pictured), $14.69

  • A 10 lb bag of baking soda (not pictured), $5.69

Was my trip cost-effective? Well, if I'm comparing it to not buying convenience items at all, probably not. But frankly, we're gonna eat some convenience foods. So let's compare some of those:

The cheapest I've seen Amy's spinach pizzas is about $6 at Target, and they are much more than that at our regular co-op. 3 for $13.99 makes them less than $5 each.

Costco's pesto is marvelously cheap for the quality. I've paid that much or close to it for 1/4 that much or less before, and Costco's quality is better. Same thing with hummus. Sabra is my favorite brand, and it costs about 1/2 what that giant tub costs to get 1/4 that much in a regular grocery store.

The prices on basics are pretty good, too. Cheapest vinegar and baking soda I've found, and definitely the cheapest-for-the-quality cat food.

Yep. My two-person household gets their money's worth at Costco. What about you?

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Also a 2 person household with a Costco card. On the food side, we break even, but - if you are into photography - their developing equipment is some of the best around. So when you factor in the cheap, high quality photo development (if you are into that sort of thing) you definitely come out ahead.

You included the chicken just to taunt me right? ;) (I can almost buy one for that price, but not organic--those are more like 35-40 dollars apiece, depending on the exchange rate)

For comparison, several items on your list--in the bulk quantities mind-- are similar to what standard sizes cost here. I don't think you can find peanut butter for less than 6 bucks, and that is for a small jar.

And that quantity of cheddar would be anywhere from 15-25 dollars here, depending on brand. (Cheddar is uniquely expensive among cheeses here and not universally available; it's bizarre.)

So, keep up the Costco love!

Interesting to see those prices. We don't have Costco here and we're with 4 people so it doesn't compare, but I'm shocked something like peanut butter is so expensive in the US! Or are those jars 2 pounds each? And I don't mean to be nosy, but why do you buy so much Parmesan? It's very expensive (here also). And also cheddar, are you guys big cheese-lovers? ;-) The chicken (organic) and apples are about the same price as here. The spinach ravioli seems very expensive to me. I always buy (especially when I can get it in bulk) bottles or jars of strained tomatoes (passata). You can do so much with it and it's usually not expensive.
I know packaging is usually much larger in the US than it is here, interesting to see in your pic it really is. Pesto only comes in really small jars here. :-)
Great post!

Christine

I had no idea about the pesto, thanks for letting me know. I just realized they had tofu last week, why don't I know these things?

When I could afford it, I kept my Costco membership just for the Tillamook, hummus, fresh salsa, and 3-lb bags of spinach. Mmm.

For people who have to really watch their money, Costco has the potential to kill in 2 ways: (1) They only take debit cards or American Express. Even though the cost of Costco items is RELATIVELY small, it's still not small in absolute terms, and it adds up really quickly. I'd easily spend $75 per visit by just sticking to a few basic things. Without good planning, you risk overdrawing your bank account if you go the debit route. (2) Somewhat related--Costco depends upon impulse sales for earning lots of money. I don't know what it is about things in bulk, but some sort of primal hoarding instinct makes it really hard (at least for me) to resist buying things that I wouldn't buy in regular sizes. (Avoid the candy isle!!) And they rotate their inventory a lot, so every time you go in there, there's something new--and they'll give you a sample of it to make it even more tempting. So it can be hard to go into Costco and stick to a budget.

So if you're limited in terms of money and you have weak self-control, you may want to avoid Costco. :)

This makes me want a Costco really, really badly. I can't believe all the organic stuff you can get at such a good price!

We have a Sam's Club, and I was actually planning to do this kind of side-by-side comparison this week. I think we probably get our membership cost back just on Oxi-Clean, DD's gummy vitamins, and Cabot cheese alone.

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Over my head

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As I implied in that last post, and probably have previously, I ended up a bit over my head with this bath product making business. The problem, as is often my problem, is that I didn't think things through completely before I started. Mostly, this was because I didn't really expect to sell anything. So, even though I didn't sell that much, I ended up overwhelmed. I was short on supplies, so ended up paying a premium for those; I didn't manage my time well, so orders went out late; and I didn't think about packaging and shipping very thoroughly before starting. All of this has added up to a stressful learning experience that ended up costing well more than I earned for the Christmas season.

Why past tense? Because as of today my shop is closed until after the new year. If I am going to do this, I need to do it correctly, with some forethought. So I'm giving myself the next few weeks to put that necessary thought into it, with the plan of opening back up in January with a supply of products ready to be sold, a plan for packing and shipping, better photographs, and a generally more professional outlook.

But where to begin? I think I need a business plan. I can't figure out why it is that I am perfectly capable of thinking and writing one of those out for someone else, but for myself, I just fly by the seat of my pants.

For now, these are the things on which I think I need to focus:

  1. Making the enterprise profit. If I am not making money of it, there is no reason to sell. It's fine if it isn't something that can be profitable, but if it's not, I need to stop trying to make it so and go back to a gifting and swapping only policy.
  2. Focusing on a few things with which I am comfortable, rather than trying to make everything anyone suggests. Part of what what threw me through the loop this time was trying to add new products all the time. I need to perfect a few things and then add others slowly. For example, I know I can make bath melts easily and successfully, but I am far less confident about bath bombs.
  3. Identifying attractive and environmentally sustainable packaging. This is my biggest challenge right now--how to package. I hate everything I've tried so far--it's either wasteful, ugly, expensive, unwieldy to ship, or all of the above.
  4. Being a professional. I am really irritated at my lack of professionalism so far. Mostly, this has to do with packaging and shipping times, but also with the lackluster photographs on the products on the site and the way nothing is completely uniform. I'm not really sure where to start with fixing this, though.

That seems like a lot to think about right there, without even getting into the longer list of issues I have. I'm sure I'll be thinking and writing about this some more in the next few weeks. In the meantime, your advice and comments are very, very appreciated.

2 Comments

I had to think about this for a bit, but I can only come up with two things:
- succesful companies always have one specific item that's their core, which can be the bath melts for you. If you make that the focus it might make choosing what else can be in your shop easier.
- choosing a specific style (color, font) to have a signature look in your shop works really well.

Oh, and when I buy stuff at Lush I always get the bath bombs and melts in a simple paper bag. Perhaps that would work for you as well.
Hope this helps!

Christine

Hey Grace,

If you can use them, I can send you a couple dozen bubble-wrap envelopes in various sizes. They were in my house when I bought it and over the last two years I've used maybe three?

Let me know via Facebook and we'll work something out.

-Robin/Kate

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Halls a little less decked?

| 4 Comments

OK. So we're officially in a recession. As far as I can tell, this is news to exactly nobody. I personally am very lucky to have been very insulated so far--my focus on frugality of late is based on my own stupid debt, not on any reduction in my salary or job-related hardship (though, of course, higher prices do change things a bit for me, just like anyone). However, even I am aware of an increase in hardship around me.

However, I saw something today that really drove it home. According to a survey done by the American Research Group, the average American family plans to spend $431 on gifts this Christmas. That's a 50% reduction from last year, when the average was $859. And even last year's average was a reduction from the years before that, as every year from 1998-2006 averaged over $900 and as much as $1,052 in 2001.

What does this mean, besides fewer gifts and disappointed retailers? What it implies to me is folks either not having or not being willing to use consumer credit. Most of those middle class big spenders in years past had to have been putting some of that grand they spent in December on plastic, right? I mean, it's not like saving for Christmas gifts is the American way. So why not just do that again this year? Could it be that people are still paying interest on the $859 from last year? It's hard for me to believe that we've really collectively seen the error of our ways, so there has to be a more basic reason.

Since I've started using mint.com (and a huge thank you to whomever recommended it to me in the comments here--I love it), one thing I've been really interested in is the feature that compares Mark's and my spending to the "average" American family's spending. Surprisingly, in most categories, we're below average. Our mortgage, car payment, fuel, utilities, and entertainment spending are all well below average. Our food spending is slightly higher than average, but not substantially. The only place where we spend substantially more than the average family is, unsurprisingly, pets.

Our collective income is not substantially below average. And we feel like we're barely able to keep up with our bills. So how are all of those people who spend more than we do and make less doing it? And with added child care costs we don't have? The answer has to be credit, right?

So where does it end? How much is this trend towards frugality (and even new "hipness" of frugality) really making a difference? Are those who are making inroads towards spending within their means still a fringe group? I think it's too early to tell, but knowing that people are planning on a 50% reduction in their Christmas spending certainly implies that's the case.

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Wanted to say Congratulations on making it through November with a post every day. I have been reading them daily and I'm so glad that you're going to continue with regular writing.

Also wanted to chime in and say that our Christmas spending has drastically dropped this year as well. If we wouldn't have moved then I imagine we would not have had pay decreases this year, however, we relocated and are making approximately 25% of what we were previously making. Yikes.

Take care,
El

Both sides of our family has asked that we not exchange gifts this year, because of the economy. At first I was a little bum because like you the economy hasn't really hit us too hard(knock on wood). But the more I thought about it the more I love it. So instead of giving gifts to our families we're taking that money and using it to buy for those who have nothing or aren't getting by very well.

I keep telling myself there are tough economic times upon us. I certainly make less, in terms of the crap exchange rate and sending money home. However, my lifestyle hasn't changed for financial reasons at all, and it won't change any of my Christmas purchases. Granted, aside from when I lived in Scotland and everything coverted into a small fortune in dollars, I have never been the type of person to spend $800 on gifts. I won't be cutting back because I was never that wild to begin with.

Thanks for this great thoughtful post. I get very upset when I hear news reports saying it's bad for the economy when people are spending less money and using less credit. That makes little sense to me because I too deduced that lots of people were buying things with borrowed money and I don't understand how endlessly increasing people's debt loads would help the economy. People aren't making enough money to buy the things they're supposed to buy.

Overall we're doing ok. I took a big pay cut to get into a more long term job this year. It sucks, but my SO has had a pay raise and overall it really just means we're saving less and I'm buying less crap. We're doing a mini-Christmas this year with secret santa 40$ limit because we're all going on a family trip to Mexico in January. That'll mean lots of cutting back on spending for me because I'll have to take leave without pay for the vacation. We're all happy about the reduction in gifts too because we felt it was getting decadent.

Back to the economy, I'm still sad that house prices are so ridiculously high here. We have a good combined income but we can't afford to buy a very basic very small house in our town. A house similar to the middle class house I grew up in would require at least 10x our income. I wish house prices would drop more here!

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Welcome, December

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NaBloPoMo is over, and I did it! It's actually gotten not too difficult after three years. I'm going to try to continue posting daily, though not with my schedule of days. I like the discipline of it. I'm toying with doing themes each month, so I post at least 1-2 times per week on a theme. We'll see.

In the meantime, I need to take a look at how I did in November money-wise. Mint.com will tell me!

I spent:
$700 towards credit cards
$226 towards student loan
$100 towards savings

$146 on "Hobbies" (bath product stuff)
$100 on "Clothing" (there are some non-clothing GW purchases here too...)
$69 on "Shipping" (swaps and bath product sales)
$47 cash & ATM fees
$41 on eating out
$32 on gifts
$30 on doctor's co-pay
$15 on CDs
$11 on gym membership
$5 on "Electronics & software" (new headphones)

Total flexible spending: $496

Clearly, I am not happy with that total. I don't have $500 month to blow. The major areas I need to cut are my bath product supply spending (which I knew) and my general thrifting spending. I'll focus there this month.

6 Comments

But shouldn't "bath product sales shipping" be countered with the income you made from the sales? And the same for some of the supply spending?

To be honest, I think $69 for shipping this past month is a bit much, because the buyer should pay for shipping and not you.
For us, cash/ATM was also a problem. We agreed to use our debit card as much as possible to see where the money actually went and that helped a lot. And a question (feel free to ignore if you think it's too nosy): if you have $2000 on joint expenses with your partner, why is food/eating out coming out of your personal budget? For us, it's just part of the food budget.

Christine

I love mint.com. Someone posted about it on here in the comment section. I've been using it since then and really am enjoying it.

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NaBloPoMo #23: My Money Sunday

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Today, my focus turns away from my personal finances and on to the household's finances. This is probably something the more financially savvy among you have been doing forever, so it's not news, but Mark and I have been keeping track for the last 9 months (since February, but, for the most part, excluding August, when I got lazy about tracking) of how much we're spending in each category. We've mostly been tracking, rather than budgeting, though we do refer to this document as our budget. This morning, I took a look at the record of our spending in a few of our more flexible (and more problematic) categories, to see how far we've come and what our averages are.

I am not pleased.

But first, the good news:

Gasoline expenditures.png

The first thing I looked at was our spending on gasoline, because we really did make an effort to cut back on our driving when the prices started to spike. What I saw was a bit puzzling--months of one-tank spending ($44 in September?) followed by months of three tank spending ($140 in October). We didn't go anywhere in particular in October...Then I realized that more than reflecting our driving, this reflects the dates on which the bills came in and were paid. Our average spending over these months for gas was about $108/month, which, given the prices gas has been at, seems reasonable to me. Not a lot of concern here.

Grocery expenditures.png

The category I was the next most pleased with was groceries. Though we hit an embarrassing spike of over $500 in June, we've been progressing since then, and we went amazingly low in October. Our average grocery spending was about $339/month, which is not great, but not terrible. That's about $11 a day, or $5.50 a day each. Can't complain a whole lot about that.

Except when I see where we made up for it...

Eating out expenditures.png

Yes, we spent an average of $277/month eating out. There is no excuse for that. And, while we did a bit better over the summer months, we were up to a ridiculous high of $415 last month. And it's not even like we're going out to nice meals--these high numbers are mostly due to ridiculous numbers of pizza orders and coffee shop stops. We have to work harder on that.

Pet expenditures.png

People are often asking me how much our menagerie of pets costs. Well, here you go. They cost an average of $219/month over the past nine months. That's for food, vet care, litter, etc. Everything except for Leo and Ata's pet insurance, which is a separate budget category and adds about $35/month to the total. That $461 spike in April was when a bunch of pets needed to have their annual check-ups and vaccinations at the same time. We're going to have a similar spike this month, as both Leo and Illy went to the vet on Friday, for a total of about $325.

This category just kind of is what it is. We don't spend extravagantly on our pets. We buy them very high quality food and get them quality preventative vet care, but the cats use generic litter, I make the dogs' treats, and their beds and toys come from the bins. Having as many pets as we have is just expensive, no matter how you slice it.

Misc expenditures.png

This last category bothers me the most, because it's the most ambiguous. Misc. I might as well have called it "Target," because that is most of what it is. Everything we buy collectively that is not food or pet care. And it is wildly divergent, with monthly bounces. I suppose that's because a lot of what we buy in this category is needed every other month? I don't know. I do know that an average monthly spending of $272 on stuff I can't quite put my finger on is too damn much. The only thing I know that goes into that category every month is $6.95 in online bill pay charges. Can we really be spending $265 in an average month on toilet paper and deodorant? The mind boggles.

And so, there you have it. An eye-opening exercise, and one I suggest you do if you haven't. Before I did it, I thought pets were a bigger problem than they are, gas was more expensive than it has been, and we were doing better with regards to eating out than we have for months. These things are very good to know moving forward.

3 Comments

I use Mint.com to aggregate all my accounts and track all my spending. Now that you can customize your subcategories I think it is really easy to use and keep track of exactly what you want to see.

Grace, do you use some sort of software to track this or something else?

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Cluster

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One of the other participants in NaBloPoMo whom I have been following very closely is Rachel at Crunchy Turtle. In particular, I've been interested in her journaling tips on Mondays. Today, she talked about clustering, something I've done before, but not for years. Actually, it's been years since I've done any sort of writing exercise, much to my chagrin. So I thought I'd give it a try. I did it just the way Rachel describes, without stopping for three minutes, writing down whatever came to mind. This is my cluster:

money cluster.jpg

Not sure where to go from here, but hopefully Rachel will tell me!

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I can't see the whole cluster but it looks like "stuck" and "embarrassment" are coming up more than once. Definitely look at the cluster word and reoccurring words and the relationship or associations between them. Finding the core part of the issue will help you deal with the issue.

Also look at your cluster or if you aren't getting anything maybe come back to it, or try another word that's similar.

You can journal (free write) about the common theme's you've discovered or the relationships these themes have with Money or you can cluster again with the new words that are sticking out to you to dig deeper. Only you can really interpret your cluster.

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NaBloPoMo #16: My Money Sunday

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Mid-month statistics:

My goals this month were to have 16 days with no spending at all and not to spend more than $150 total on flexible items. Up until yesterday, I was doing fine. Between the first and the fourteenth, I had 9 no-spend days, and I spent a total of:
$44 at the Goodwill
$32 on bath product supplies
$19 on food/drink
$10 on postage
$5 on new headphones
I also earned $19 online, so my spending minus my earnings totaled $91.

Then, on the 15th (yesterday), it all went pear-shaped. Not counting what I spent at the art show (which I think Mark and I will probably split and which I decided was going to have to be an exception already), I put out another $56, which brings my monthly total to $147. Out of my $150 goal. Halfway through the month.

Drat.

There is no way I will make that $150 budget this month. Just the postage I am going to owe on things that have to go out in the next week will be at least $20.

So I'm just going to have to do what I can to stay as close to budget as I can. And, to be fair, even if I spend $200 or $250 this month, that is going to be a great improvement over the past few months, especially since I am slowly gathering Christmas gifts.

Someone remind me that this is a marathon, not sprint?

2 Comments

It's a marathon, not a sprint! ;-) What's $19 on food & drinks? The cupcakes and coffee etc? I would totally have gotten those cupcakes, they looked delicious, but to be honest, buying snacks and stuff while out is always a budget challenge. It usually doesn't look like a big deal until you add it all up (which you did). Grabbing things from your own pantry works better, as well as always bringing a bottle of water!
And perhaps $44 at Goodwill is too much. But hey, you didn't ask for a review. So sorry about that. I hope the rest of the month will go according to plan!!

Christine

I blew my budget this month too - buying a new iPod. That sounds like a really stupid decision, except with all the time I'm going to be spending in the hospital, it was more of a necessity for my sanity than irresponsibility.

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NaBloPoMo #9: My Money Sunday

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It's Sunday again, and that means we talk about my finances.

Last week I gave an overview of where I am and where I've been in the last year. I got a lot of very supportive and positive comments regarding the progress I've made in paying down my debt, which I very much appreciate. I'm afraid, though, that's I've made it seem easier than it is. It's hard. Every day. The truth is that I hate to think about money. I love to shop. While I know being thrifty and frugal are good things, they aren't things I enjoy in any way. I'd much rather not worry about it.

I think this is something that sets me apart from a lot of the thriftiness/frugality/debt pay down bloggers I am reading lately. A lot of them actually seem to be enjoying the challenge of living on less. From what I can tell, this is the big difference between those bloggers and myself. I see it as a challenge, for sure, but not a fun one. It's not a game I at all like to play, and I haven't lost of my taste for shopping in the least. I wonder, sometimes, if I'll ever really be effective at living simply and frugally without developing the aversion to buying and collecting stuff that some of the bloggers who inspire me seem to have.

Christine at 10Notes is one of my favorite simple/frugal living bloggers. She's recently written about the thrill of bargaining. Her post, while fascinating, was completely alien to me. Asking someone to charge you less than the posted price for something? Really? Wouldn't even occur to me. Ms. A at Living Without Money posts nearly daily about the ways in which she avoids spending. It is clear that it's not just a necessity for her, but a challenge she relishes. While I can and do put some of her tips into practice, I just can't imagine feeling the elation doing things on the cheap seems to give her.

So here's what I wonder: is there something innate that makes some of us enjoy the challenge of living on less and some of us just slog through it? If it's not innate, how can I learn it? I try to look at not spending as a game, seeing how many days I can go without parting with money or how little I can get a given item for, but I don't find it fun. In fact, if anything, I find it depressing. How can I change that?

What are your thoughts? If you are belt-tightening recently, or have been dedicated to living simply and frugally for years, how do you feel about it? Does it thrill you? Did it always? Guide me, wise readers!

13 Comments

Grace, altough not intended as a funny post, you still made me laugh because I do know what you mean. I have this wishlist of things I'd still like to do in this lifetime and one of those wishes is "going to Hawaii for a vacation without having to think of money". Really, lol! I may see asking for a discount as a sport now, but in my heart, I will always be the reformed spender. I think the longer I've been working on living frugally, the more "real" it seems to become (like Dr. Phil says: behave your way to success). It would really hurt now if I went out to buy myself shoes for hundreds of euros/dollars. I'd still love the shoes, though. Just not the spending. :-)
I don't know how long you've been on the path of paying off debt and being frugal, but if it hasn't been too long let me promise you it will get easier. But I've posted on my blog too about not really BEING a frugal because it's not my nature. And sometimes it gets on my nerves too, or I worry that I'm depriving my kids (or myself, haha). But in all, I choose being frugal over spending because it feels a lot better in the long run. It's thinking long-term instead of instant gratification.

Christine

I have never budgeted ever. I always just 1. buy the cheapest possible version of whatever it is I am buying (not to the detriment of quality, but you know, the generic, the less frilly thing), 2. research all purchases extensively, 3. live without cars or cable, 4. hem and haw about buying anything. basically, if i need something i wait as long as possible to purchase it. I have lived in new york for over two years now and have yet to buy a dresser, because i have not found the PERFECT dresser, for the ideal price. The only reason I have a tv is that someone gave it to me for free and delivered it. things like that., 5. just don't go to the store. ever. it's pretty easy. wait until you need like 5 things before going there. 6. I never ever keep snacks in the house. I didn't get them growing up, so it's kind of natural. But I never buy shit like that. I basically only buy meat & veggies & seltzer.

I realized my comment was bizarre, when I was walking just now. I guess, what I meant was less "tips" and more description. I don't intend ever to belt tighten. I just feel more guilty about spending money when I make less money. So I do it less. I have always saved money because the idea of not having money in my checking account would worry me more than spending money would be worth. When people describe living paycheck to paycheck it FREAKS ME OUT. I can't imagine it.

Yet, as I said, I have never consciously budgeted. I have lived on less than 10,000 a year, and many times that, and I don't feel like I was deprived either way. The idea of carrying a credit card balance is repugnant to me--it was just never presented as an option, so I would never think to take it.

In terms of entertainment, I can find tons of free things to do so I never think to pay for entertainment. I eat out a lot, but almost never buy anything more expensive than 5-10 dollars a meal. I never buy anything more than 20 dollars without waiting a few days.

My sister and I were discussing this, as her money issue is buying LOTS of things that are cheap (which I am guessing is yours too?). I think the whole "for every one thing I buy, one thing leaves the house" rule is helpful for that. Also I think she justifies buying things by saying they are for someone else, like "oh I can use this as a present!" or "oh I can make this food for my dad."

I think it's totally in born and a lot of it is shame based, I am not going to lie. It would pain me to buy plane tickets without many days of research. That's insane. it wastes my time (which is worth a lot more), but honestly, pulling the trigger on that sort of stuff PAINS me. It pains me to buy things. It worries me to not have the money to survive for many months on my own if I had no job. I don't want to have to depend on someone else if a worst case scenario happened tomorrow. That's just how my mind works.

I dunno how you make that true for you. I guess the "holding a credit card balance for more than one month is not an option" could be useful?

This is funny! I hate saving money. I'm really bad at it. It's so hard for me to tighten my belt and not spend money. But... I'm doing a good job as a personal finance and frugality blogger!

I sooooo identify with this! I hate having to be frugal. HATE it. I don't find much of a thrill in finding things cheaply, just annoying.

I would love to feel like budgeting was a fun challenge or thrill. I don't. I find it a constant trouble to remember to behave as if I'm poor when my credit cards allow me to behave otherwise. I'm not a huge over-spender, but I have my weak spots (iTunes!) where it's like struggling with amnesia to keep budgeting foremost in my mind.

I had to come back and read the comments this morning, your post kept me thinking. When I read everything, suddenly I had this idea that makes me grin, but perhaps it's true: in order to stop buying or being really frugal, one would have to REALLY love money more than stuff. The concept of really loving money always gives me an uneasy feeling, like being greedy or a Scrooge or doing anything to get more. I guess with stuff you can make it seem less negative by -for example- deciding it will be a gift or for the house. Perhaps the book by Suze Orman is something interesting to read (haven't read it myself because the library doesn't have it and it was 39 euros in the store and I thought that was too expensive, lol)? It's called "Women & Money" I think. Get it from the library! ;-)

Christine

I so hate budgeting and being frugal that I moved to South Korea where I can pay down debt without having to do any major budgeting. And any frugality I practice is the result of cheaper prices here. However, with big travel plans and medical costs, it's going to be time to tighten the belt. Conviently, I think I'll be too sick to go out and spend money, though I will be buying a new iPod asap. Must have music and mine is broken.

I think it's not loving money more than stuff, Christine. It's (for me) loving the security of money! :)

Also, I was thinking the only saving thing that makes me feel good is CHANGE saving. I know there's some account you can get which every time you debit something, it rounds it and puts the rest in a savings account. I just take all the change I have and put it in a bank and then cash it out. You could make that your budget for fun stuff or just save it?

Sorry to hear that it has got you down. I am lucky enough that I am happy living frugally, but I think it is an appreciation that developes over time. After a while you may get used to the lifestyle you lead and find that simpler things make you happy or that shopping doesn't thrill you quite the same way it used to. Maybe just allow yourself to feel the way you do now and accept that slowly and gradually things will change. I do have one suggestion, though: make a list of things you truly love that will make you feel good or special, and are also free - or cheap. Then when you feel down, you can treat yourself to an item on the list.

As you know, I've pretty much always been good at living frugally. With the exception of one year when I brought home a very comfortable salary, I've pretty much done it out of necessity. Still, I think that even someday when I'm doing better than just making ends meet, I'll enjoy living frugally, because it makes me appreciate things the things that I do get. Every un-absolutely-necessary purchase feels like a splurge. Maybe it's possible for some people to really appreciate everything they buy, even when they buy a lot, but I don't know if it'd work that way for me.

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NaBloPoMo #2: My Money Sunday

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It's Sunday, and we're going to talk about money. Specifically, mine. Specifically, at least today, debt.

Have you noticed that little (badly done, Mark says) line graph over in the sidebar? That's my 2008 debt pay down. Here's a bigger version, updated just this morning:

What that tells you is that as of January 1 of this year, I was a total of $11,351 in debt. Credit card debt, that is. I also have a student loan, a car loan, and a home loan. But this is just about that really bad nothing-to-show-for-it debt. Anyway, at the beginning of this year, I was pretty far in. Farther than I've ever been in before, even through student and post-student brokeness. And even though I was pretty successful at juggling it from 0% interest card to 0% interest card and making payments and never really paying much to owe, it still weighed on me. So I started actually trying to pay it down. The chart shows my progess. As of today, my credit card debt load is $4,437. This means I've paid $6,914 in 11 months, or an average of about $629/month.

That's not bad, it's really not. But it's not as good as I'd hoped. In January, my goal was to have the debt gone in 2008. Given my income constraints, that would have been really difficult, but I'm still not quite as far as I'd hoped I'd be at this point. Still, I've been making steady progress, and I have the debt nearly 2/3 paid, and down to a number that doesn't give me cold sweats, so I'm not complaining too much.

For the last few months, I've been slacking a bit. I've been making payments, but not to the degree I should be, and I've been doing something really bad--charging things to another credit card when I run out of money towards the end of the month (I make my debt payments at the first of the month). Though I have thus far paid that card off every month and not added to my debt, I know it's a dangerous and not particularly smart path, so I want it to stop. That's my #1 goal this month--no credit card charges. And that means living with a budget.

Let me pause to tell you, in case you are new here and haven't read my rantings on this subject before, I am very, very open about money. I use real numbers. I think the social phobia we have about discussing our incomes, expenses, etc. in real terms is stupid and counter-productive. However, I recognize that some people feel very differently, and that's fine. Nobody is asking you to share your digits here, and if you are uncomfortable knowing what my take-home pay is, you should probably stop reading this post. In fact, you should likely just skip Mondays.

OK, disclaimer in place, the budget for November:

Take home pay: $3,297

Fixed expenses:
Joint: $2,000 (this is the amount I contribute monthly to our joint checking account)
Student loan: $227
Credit cards: $700
Savings: $100
Gym membership: $11
Total: $3,038

Variable expenses:
Prescriptions: $75
Spend money/cash: $150
Total: $225

Pretty simple, isn't it? I just keep telling myself, all I have to do is come back to it and make sure I am following it, and everything will be fine. That shouldn't be difficult, should it?

If you are like me and having trouble keeping a handle on your money, I really recommend blogging about it. It may not make for fantastic reading material for your readers, but it provides a level of accountability that I haven't been able to get anywhere else.

6 Comments

As a family who is working hard to whittle down debt, as well, I commend you for all of your hard work! That's amazing that you have been able to get your CC debt down that far in such a short period of time.

I think you deserve a huge thumbs up for paying off so much of the debt. It's incredible you were able to do that in less than a year!! You'll get there, it will just take a bit longer (which is only natural in the current economy). And I appreciate you're so open about what you make and such. You earn quite nicely, if I may say so. :-) My husband always says it makes no sense to save if you're still in debt. Don't know what the experts say about that though.

Christine
PS: hang in there with the credit card thing, don't use it!! You can do it!

Fantastic job in paying down your debt. I hope you are giving yourself the credit you deserve for managing to pay down over $600 a month...especially based on the income you listed at the end. Good for you!

This post, for me, is like seeing some mythical beast, like a leprechaun or unicorn. I'm all, "what? what was that? did I really see that? was that a willpower or a discipline? holy moly! I thought those were just stories they told me as a kid to frighten me!"

So keep on keepin on, unicorn. It's pretty impressive.

Giving a standing ovation! Good for you, Grace. That's a lot of debt you've reduced and there's still two more months left this year! Stay away from the credit cards and stick to your plan. We're watching you! Tee hee.

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In which I become a debt reduction blogger

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I'm actually not really going to become a debt reduction blogger, any more than I am going to become a dog blogger or a thrift blogger or a craft blogger. I don't want multiple blogs (aside from Heroine Content, obviously), so this blog just has to be all things to all people. Or all things to me, anyway. I actually have a couple of long term projects I am thinking through rolling out here in the future, though, so you may be seeing a bit more method to my madness.

In the meantime, though, I am focusing, personally, on debt reduction. So you're going to hear about that. It's amazing, once you start looking, how many great frugality and simplicity and debt reduction blogs you can find. The ones that have made to my Google reader so far are:


  • We Don't Buy It: A blog about a family's attempt to spend a year without purchasing anything new.

  • 10 Notes: The blog of a SAHM chronicling her day-to-day attempts at frugality and natural living.

  • Walk Slowly, Live Wildly: Sara's personal blog. Sara and her family have spent the last year living in a vegetable oil fueled RV, traveling around the country talking about sustainability and natural living, and she's an inspiration. You can also read about her and her family's adventures at The Live Lightly Tour.

  • beauty that moves: One of my favorite blogs, beauty that moves features crafts, recipes, simple living ideas, and gorgeous photographs.

  • Almost Frugal: Kelly tags her blog, Almost Frugal, as "frugality for the rest of us," and I love this ethos. Reading Kelly, I feel like we're on the same journey.

  • Debt Diet: Debt Diet is the chronicles of a couple trying to pay down their consumer debt. They started over a year ago with over $50,000 in debt, and they update their progress in paying it down, as well as their struggles, on their blog. I think it's an incredibly brave thing to do and I salute them.

  • Frugal Veggie Mama: Her title doesn't lie! Frugal Veggie Mama is a blog about being an eco-conscious, frugal, vegetarian mother.

  • Gail's Blog: One of the few "financial expert" type blogs I read, I find Gail's Blog to do an excellent job walking the "tough but not preachy" line.

  • Living Without Money: On her blog, Ms. A leads us through her day-to-day life, trying to live well inexpensively. Though I disagree with many of the choices she makes, she's an entertaining writer and has some great ideas.

  • Notes from the Frugal Trenches: A Downshifting Journey: This is another blog to which I can relate--it's the story of a British woman in her late 20s who decides to get out of debt and change the way she's living, and her teaching herself to focus on what is really important, stop shopping mindlessly, and spend less.

  • Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op: This is a new cooperative blog, featuring the work of some of the other bloggers on my list (Notes from the Frugal Trenches and beauty that moves in particular). It focuses on how to downshift and be more frugal in increasingly precarious financial times.

  • SouleMama: SouleMama is another really inspirational blog, full of beautiful photographs and the words of someone for who simple, frugal, crafty living is obviously really working.

  • The Lean Green Family: I actually read about this blog in a magazine article in Business Week or some similarly unlikely publication. It's the story of an upper-middle class family who decides to stop their typical debt-ridden ways and get frugal.

Honestly, that's just a very small sampling of what is out there. The blogrolls of nearly any of those blogs will lead you to several more good ones--and I'm going to be filling out my reading list that way over the next few weeks.

Now, I actually have my first frugality tip! Coming from me, frugality tips are bound to be very elementary. I am an elementary frugalist. But we all have to start somewhere, right? So here's one of the things I've started with lately:

Use what you have. Seem simple, right? But I think a lot of us have a category of products we just really like to buy, and we tend to "stock up" on those. For me, it's bath stuff. I don't wear makeup or expensive perfume or hair care products, but I love handmade and natural soaps, lotions, etc. And over the years, I've bought a lot of them. I'd say currently there are no fewer than 15 bars of artisan soap at my house, and at least a half dozen tubs or bottles of lotion. And that's just the full-sized stuff, I also have tons of samples. So my pledge now is to use up all of what I have before I buy any more of these things. Not much, but it's a start, right?

7 Comments

I highly second your tip. Even if it does mean I'll spend about 3 more months hating my toothpaste! However, it's funny how that sort of stuff can slowly pile up - I've only been in the same country for 14 months and I've built up quite a supply already!

I'm also new to personal finance blogging. I look forward to reading your blog and thanks for the list. There are a few on here that I haven't seen before.

Wow, those are awesome. I've added about 4 to my reader also! Thanks for the links, Grace.

Dear Grace,
Thanks for the mention! I'm glad you enjoy reading my work. Sometimes I feel like I'm really not very good at being frugal... I'm glad I'm not alone. Thanks as well for the links to the other blogs- I knew about very few of these, so I'm looking forward to exploring them.
Kelly

Thanks so much for the link!

One small thing, it's just me, I'm not a couple, just a single 39 year old gal doing it on her own!

Thanks for the kind mention! Your tip is one of the best out there :)

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The real cost of driving

| 2 Comments

I am going to do math on my blog today. This will likely never happen again, so feel special.

Everybody knows gas is expensive, and that driving in general is often not the cheapest means of transport. There is a great blog post here, though, that tells you how to figure out just how expensive driving is for you. It's an exercise worth going through, so I'm going to do it here.

As the linked post mentions, I am only going to count gas, maintenance, tires, and depreciation in my calculation of per-mile costs, considering insurance, taxes, license and registration, and finance charges as costs of owning a vehicle, whether I drive it or not. I'm doing it this way on the assumption that having a car is necessary, but a lot of trips I make in it aren't.

My beginning numbers:
Our car is a 2006 Honda Element. It gets about 20 mpg in the city, where most of our driving takes place. We put about 7,000 miles a year on it. Current Blue Book Value is $17,225.

Step 1: Calculate depreciation.
$17,225 (current value) - $16,530 (estimated value with 7,000 more miles) / 7,000 (annula mileage = $.10/mile depreciation

Step 2: Calculate gas cost.
Gas here is currently an average of $3.79/gallon. We get about 20 mpg. That means gas costs for us are about $0.19/mile.

Step 3: Calculate maintenance and tires.
Here I am using AAA estimates of 4.67 cents per mile for maintenance and and .85 cents per mile for tires.

Step 4: Add it up.
$0.10/mile depreciation + $0.19/mile gas + $0.05 mile/maintenance + $0.01/mile tires = $0.35/mile total cost of driving.

So what does that mean? How much does it cost me to make non-necessary trips? Here are some examples:

Commute: Our daily commute is 7.2 miles each way, or 14.4 miles round trip (not including parking garage time). That's $5.04 a day commuting cost, or $25.20/week.

Target: If I go to the nearby Target from my house, it's 1.8 miles each way, 3.24 round trip. That's a $1.13 trip.

Goodwill: If I go the the bins from my house, it's 6.5 miles each way, or 13 miles total. $4.55 each trip. If I go to the other location from work, it's 4.7 miles each way (again not including parking garage), 9.4 total, for a $3.29 trip.

Well. That was an eye-opener.

2 Comments

I totally just bought a new car!

1984 Lincoln Mk VII.

I'd post an image here, but I can't figure out how to do it!

Here's my flickr page with it:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/simonmaxhill/2568292488/

I will not be doing the math until Jenny does the math on her "subway" car.

I'm very glad that you found my method useful. Thanks for the mention. :)

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Where is your stimulus check going?

| 4 Comments

Like most people, I'd expect, I have a lot of plans for my stimulus check. I may think giving them out is a crappy idea, but since I'm going to get one, I have lots of ideas on how to spend it. Clearly, what I should do with it is not even consider other options and just pay debt. But I need new shoes! And something off my Etsy favorites! And some summer clothes!

Or, I could give it away.

There was a piece on Marketplace on Friday about why it might be best to consider giving all or part of your stimulus check to charity. You can listen to it below, but basically the upshot is that charitable organizations are suffering right now just like everyone else, and there are those (myself included) who believe that the money these checks represent may well have been better spent bolstering social services. So, if you think like that too, maybe we should both put our money where our mouth is and give some of our stimulus checks to charity?

The question then becomes, of course, which charity? The piece on NPR mentions food banks in specific, and that makes sense. I have a couple of weeks until my deposit is supposed to show up, so I'll be thinking about it.

4 Comments

The next charity I am giving to is the Imagination Library. It's Dolly Parton's charity (she mentioned it at the concert) where kids get a book a month to instill a love of reading and literacy in the poorest of areas. Important, as you know, in these times when school budgets are being cut and libraries in some places eliminated entirely.

Mine is going to a $340 (not incl tax & tip) dinner at The French Laundry in Napa. One crazy, foolish thing.

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Companies that don't suck: Amy's Kitchen

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I've been meaning to post about this:

I am making a concerted effort to bring my lunch to work and not buy lunch when I'm here, and I've been doing really well. One thing that helps is to have an emergency stash of canned soup for days when I forget. However, I hate most canned soup, as it is salty and nasty. But Amy's Kitchen makes some pretty good lentil soup, so I usually use that.

Well, a couple of weeks ago, Amy's soup was on sale at the co-op and I picked up some more varieties to have around. One of these was potato leek. I like potato leek soup a lot, so I was jazzed to see it. Then, on a Friday, with the rest of my at-work soup supply gone, I popped open the potato leek.

It was so incredibly gross. It both looked and tasted like paste. It was gray, lumpy, and completely inedible. So I wrote an email to Amy's, telling them how bad it was and how disappointed I was, particularly since I usually enjoy their products.

Someone wrote me back. Not in three to six weeks, or even three to six day, but in a couple of hours. She said that they are aware of the problem with the potato leek soup (it doesn't hold up once it is in the cans) and are pulling it from the market. She also asked for my mailing address to send me some coupons for my trouble.

So I expected that I'd receive coupons for a couple of free cans of soup in several weeks.

Well, once again, they surprised me. By the following Wednesday (bad soup was on Friday) there was an envelope in my mailbox that contained EIGHT coupons, each for a free Amy's product. Any Amy's product. Not just soup, which I buy at the co-op for less than $2 per can, but frozen pizzas (which cost $6 or more each) or anything else. So, basically, the sent me $48 worth of coupons.

That is customer service about which I cannot complain. My complaint was addressed quickly, I was treated very courteously, and the company made it right. I will definitely remain a supporter of Amy's, and thought it only right to share the experience with you as well.

4 Comments

I haven't had too much of the soup (it's never on sale at HEB) but those frozen lunches are the best!

The only time I ever feel "full" after eating a frozen lunch. And I LOVE those pizza roll things.

Thanks for sharing that, Grace. I love Amy's products but I don't buy a lot of frozen food these days because I've found I just ignore them and feel like it's a waste. But I LOVE responsive customer service. I've been slacking on breakfast. Maybe their burritos would be a good bet? ;)

hmmm, I wonder how many people will try this and see how many free coupons they can get?

I don't know...are you suggesting that I shouldn't have posted this here as it could lead to Amy's being defrauded?

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Allie on budget love

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I know I am posting far too much recently about Allie and her blogs Wardrobe Oxygen and My Wardrobe Today, but she's got another great post up that I have to point you towards. At Wardrobe Oxygen, she takes up the question of what the style-conscious should do with their magic economy-stimulating tax rebates, suggesting debt pay-off, charitable contributions, or environmentally friendly upgrades, rather than new purses or shoes. She's a recovered shopaholic, she says, and points out:

It’s amazing what reduced or no debt can do for a woman – her skin is radiant from a good night’s sleep, she has better posture, a beautiful engaging smile for all. She cheerily answers her phone on the first ring instead of checking Caller ID for collectors, and she looks forward to the mail every day because it may bring a favorite periodical or card from a friend, not a Second Notice or Past Due statement.

I love Allie for writing this. God bless her for being someone who writes mostly about clothes and cosmetics but is still both willing and able to practice and advocate fiscal responsibility. Since both climbing out of debt/learning to live within my means and bettering my style are goals for me this year, she is definitely a good influence.

And for what it's worth, my tax rebate is going towards my credit cards.

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December finances

| 2 Comments

So I'm not posting a financial update for November. Or December. And here's why:

I love Christmas. And one of the things I love the most about it is buying gifts for people. I honest-to-God prefer giving to receiving. Christmas shopping (which I spent a good deal of the day at today) is fun for me.

But when I'm trying to count pennies and worry about my debt-payoff goals, it's not fun. It's a depressing chore.

So I'm suspending the whole deal until January 1. After January 1, I know I'm going to have to dedicate myself much more seriously to paying down that debt. But until then, I am not going to worry about it, and I'm not going to keep track of it, any more than enough to not overdraw my checking account.

Before anyone says anything, I know that this is an irresponsible, privileged, and not very wise position for me to take. I know it's going to set be back. I know I'll be crying about it in January. And you can go ahead and post all of those things if it will make you feel good. But it won't likely change anything. I'm young, have fairly few fiscal responsibilities (i.e. no kids), and am going to enjoy my Christmas gift giving as much as I can for as long as I can. If that makes me a worse or weaker person, so be it.

2 Comments

I'm right there with you.

Isn't the point of the holidays to get a break? :)

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Cyber Monday

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OK, so a list of Cyber Monday sales. I know there are people doing this all over the Internet, but I thought I'd get my $.02 in anyway.


  • Jockey: 25% off with coupon code 25TURKEY. Expires 11/28/07.

  • Coldwater Creek: $30 off orders of $100 or more with coupon code GIFT30. Also 25% off all jackets, ends Monday night.

  • Gaiam: 15% off with coupon code AP2A. Sale ends 11/26/07.

  • Lush: Several small sales. Use coupon code GREENGOODIE01 to get a free "green" item with your order of $65 or more including a wrapped gift; STUFFIT01 for a buy four get one free sale on bath bombs; STUFFIT02 for the same sale on bubble bars, and free shipping for all orders over $99, no code required.

  • Shoes.com: Code CYBERMONDAY for 20% off your entire order.

  • Overstock: Free shipping on everything, plus get $20 cash back when you spend $100 or more using Paypal.

  • Target: Spend $50 and get $5 off and free shipping, expires 12/1/07.

  • Fabulous Footwear: Buy one, get one 1/2 off, plus free shipping, plus 10% off your entire order with coupon code CYBER2007. Today only.

  • Potato Face: Spend $25 and get any pair of earrings for free--today only.

  • Claudia's Creations: 20% off entire purchase, today only--put "20off" in notes and wait for revised invoice before paying.

  • A Punkin Card Company: 20% off everything, today only. No promo code needed, just wait for a revised invoice.

  • Sweet Spice: Entire shop 50% off until 5pm EST! Put "CMS" in note to seller and wait for revised invoice.

  • Sierra Trading Post: At least 50% off everything on the site, plus free shipping for orders over $75. Ends 11/27.


We both know there are more--so, so many more. Add your favorites in the comments?

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October financial update

| 2 Comments

Last month:
Total credit card debt: $6,495.21
Total student loan debt: $32,990.42
Total savings:$650.00
Checking account balance: $361.62
Total: -$38,474.01

This month:
Total credit card debt: $6,710.72
Total student loan debt: $$32,831.73
Total savings: $358.78
Checking account balance: $522.97
Total: -$38,660.70

So basically, I suck. But I'm turning over a new leaf--I swear. I'm not paying much on the CC this month, because of Christmas travel and how expensive that's all going to be, but I'm not spending, either.

One step forward, two steps back...

2 Comments

It's really hard, isn't it? Luckily we have no credit card or student loan debt but we do keep going into our overdraft every month so I suppose we are technically about 1.5k in debt. Not too bad, really. I always get all gung ho with budgets and determined to get us out of it but we have a good month and then two bad, like you said. Aggh!

I might sound like some kind of crazy silver lining freak, but maybe if you included how much more of the mortgage you paid, these figures might feel less like a club to the head?

Maybe I invented that you're paying a mortgage. Hopefully not, or this comment is going to be even less helpful than I imagine it already is.

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Another financial thing

| 0 Comments

Oh, and another financial thing I need to do in order to get myself back into a healthy place is to resume my monthly giving campaign on the blog. I suspended it several months ago, and I can't even quite remember why now, and I have been resenting myself for it ever since. So, for the month of October, I'm giving to Basic Rights Oregon. Basic Rights Oregon is a group dedicated to "ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Oregon," and right now they are fighting for a comprehensive domestic partnership law in Oregon.

That's them on the right, if your giving dollars are still burning a hole in your pocket this month.

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Confessions of a financial dumbass

| 1 Comment

So for several months now, I've been posting a financial update every month like a good little girl, noting my successes and (more often) failures.

But I haven't really been trying. See, the card(s) were still in my wallet, and I was still actively using one of them. I was still buying more than I had cash for, not sticking to any sort of budget, etc. And that, more than any of the catastrophes I've been looking at recently, was why the numbers weren't going down.

Which is why October's numbers will show lower savings and higher debt than September's did, once again, even though I got a raise.

And it's gotta stop, or I am never going to get out of debt or reach any of my goals.

So.

I got another new 0% interest card and initiated transfers from the two cards I have with balances. Once those go through, I'll cancel the old cards. Then I will have exactly two credit cards--the one with the big balance being paid off, and the one connected to my bank accounts for overdraft protection. They'll both not be in my wallet, and neither one of them will have a number that is already pre-programmed into everywhere I like to shop. And then I pay, and I buy only what I can afford with the cash that is actually in my checking account each month. And I try in earnest to be a responsible financial citizen.

It's so long past time. This is so embarrassing, not just to not have a handle on it, but to have been pretending to really try and to have a handle on it for these past months. I can be such a spoiled baby.

1 Comments

Here's a suggestion:


Your credit score can be lowered by a lot of things, and having too much new credit and not enough old credit is one of them. So I'd suggest keeping open the oldest of your cards, and simply lowering the limit to $100 or whatever, so that you can't screw yourself over with it. That way, you're getting the benefit of the new 0% card, but also the benefit (credit score-wise) of your older card. It may not be old enough to count as old, but it will be old enough a lot sooner than the new one is.

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September Financial Update

| 2 Comments

Gonna have to try harder...

Last month:
Total credit card debt: $6,389.75
Total student loan debt: $33,159.21
Total savings:$700.00
Checking account balance: $467.60

This month:
Total credit card debt: $6,495.21
Total student loan debt: $32,990.42
Total savings:$650.00
Checking account balance: $361.62

On a higher note, my CC debt is down almost $1,600 from when I started last February. I was certainly hoping for more progress than that, but I've had some setbacks and if I get back on track I think I can still make my goal to be completely CC debt free by the time we leave Austin.

2 Comments

You're leaving austin?

Not soon--probably in about a year.

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Financial Update: September

| 0 Comments

Last month:
Total credit card debt: $6,078.91
Total student loan debt: $33,022.93
Total savings: $600.00
Checking account balance: $203.74

Today:
Total credit card debt: $6,389.75
Total student loan debt: $33,159.21
Total savings:$700.00
Checking account balance: $467.60

Looks bad, I know, but I'm contributing more to the joint now, plus I had to resume my student loan payments this month, plus I had to buy a plane ticket. And yes, those are pretty much excuses. My raise kicks in next month, so hopefully I'll be back on track then.

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Financial update--August

| 2 Comments

Last month:
Total credit card debt: $6,677.41
Total student loan debt: $33,022.93
Total savings: $500.00
Checking account balance: $403.36

Today:
Total credit card debt: $6,078.91
Total student loan debt: $33,022.93
Total savings: $600.00
Checking account balance: $203.74

So everything is moving in the right direction. I now need to contribute several hundred dollars a month more than I was previously to our joint budget, so my debt repayment is going to be slowed a bit, but I'm also going to start seeing bigger paychecks starting October 1, so I think it will all work itself out OK.

2 Comments

Wow, that's some honesty! I feel you on the student loan debt -- in the past 10 years I've put myself through a BA and MFA. Yikes!

The student loan debt is actually the least bothersome part of it for me. It is deferred right now (until the end of the month, anyway), but when it's not, I pay it off a wee bit at a time and it's fine. It's the CC debt that I really really hate. And the lack of savings.

I am hoping to get the rest of the CC debt taken care of before the end of 2007, though, and then things will start looking different.

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A note on money

| 1 Comment

I had a conversation (a couple of them, actually) at BlogHer about my comfort with blogging about my finances, and why I think it's important. In the course of this topic, it was pointed out to me that although I blog about my savings/debt, I have never given my income on the blog. I thought this had to be mistaken--after all, why wouldn't I have? But I just went and looked around, and apparently I haven't.

So, without further ado:

I currently make $49,920/year. I started in my current position at $48,000 and got a 3% raise about six months ago. As of September 1, I get an 8% raise, which will put me at $53,914/year. I have been at my job for 15 months. Salary.com puts the base salary range for my job title in my zip code at $49,039 at the 25th percentile and $71,312 at the 75th, so I'd say that with my current level of experience, I'm doing just about right.

1 Comments

I'm trying to remember if I've ever had a job title that I could plug into something like that!

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Monthly financial update

| 0 Comments

Back on track!

Last month:
Total credit card debt: $7,244.00
Total student loan debt: $33,188.70
Total savings: $400.00
Checking account balance: $364.80

Today:
Total credit card debt: $6,677.41
Total student loan debt: $33,022.93
Total savings: $500.00
Checking account balance: $403.36

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Financial update

| 2 Comments

I will attempt a real post-vacation entry tomorrow, when my head is on more straight, but today I'm just doing the financial update thing because I am doing my bills. I'm unthrilled. I don't want to talk about it.

Last month's numbers:
Total credit card debt: $7,111.47
Total student loan debt: $33,341.29
Total savings: $200.00
Checking account balance: $138.46

And today:
Total credit card debt: $7,244.00
Total student loan debt: $33,188.70
Total savings: $400.00
Checking account balance: $364.80

2 Comments

YOU DID GREAT! You're ahead from last month with only a teeny increase in CC debt POST-VACATION! Seriously - that's outstanding!

Way to go!

Welcome home!

I hadn't really thought of it that way. That makes me feel much better. Thanks!

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But I wanna buy it!

| 5 Comments

So I am trying (with limited success, but trying) not to spend unnecessary money this month. Getting out of CC debt and all that blah blah blah. Which means, of course, that I keep seeing things that I just. have. to. have. So once again I'm gonna make a list of them rather than buying them. My birthday is August 28, if anybody was wondering.

Hathor Legacy tank top1. Hathor Legacy tank. Love the site, love the shirt, would love to build collection of shirts from my favorite blogs (to go with my Fussy t-shirt).

Melamine lunch box2. Pearl River Melamine Lunch Box. It's so cute! With so many nice compartments! And not plastic! And I am trying so hard to bring my lunch to work more often! I need it, clearly.

Title 9 Universal Shorts3. Title 9 Universal Shorts. I am making do with the shorts I have for the gym, but they are all men's shorts and not the best fitting things in the world. It would be so lovely to have some that were actually made for the body I have.

Superhero Necklace in Earth4. Superhero Necklace. In truth, I already have a Superhero Necklace--the "Grass and Sky" one. And I wear it at least once a week and probably more. And I am greedy and want another one. Preferably the "Earth" one or the "Joy" one.

Red Wing Olivia shoes5. Red Wing Olivia shoes. Again, I already have some of these, in "Sunglow," but I love them so much I want some black ones as well.

I could go on and on. But I won't. Glad I have that out of my system.

Or...not. I'm just going to keep adding to this thread. It will make me feel better. More stuff I want:

brrg%20tank%20top.jpg6. Burning River Roller Girls tank top. My best friend is a member of this roller league (go Eva Lucien!), and I have one of their t-shirts, but I'd really love a tank.


5 Comments

Hi Grace,

I've got a somewhat nosy question for you. No answer or response required if you don't want, and I think someone has mentioned this to you before. (I tried, but my comment got lost I think).

Anyway, the question is: How do you come across these items that you want? Because IME, its hard to want things if you don't ever see them. You wouldn't HAVE TO HAVE that lunch box if you didn't know it existed! And I get the impression that you shop as a hobby, so even when you aren't actively looking for something, you're looking at shopping blogs, checking out etsy, browsing catalogues, etc.

Anyway, it might be easier to not BUY if you were also not (window)SHOPPING.

:) Good luck...I'm in a similar spot - not with debt, but with needing to save money for some up coming stuff. Its not easy, especially once you're used to buying the things you want!

You are, of course, correct. In this case, however, aside from the shoes, these are all things I came across on other people's (non-shopping) blogs.

Those sneaky non-shopping bloggers! That actually happens to me far more than I'd like to admit. ;)

Sounds like you need a Wist list down the side of your blog, like I added in the lead up to my birthday season (May 24th in case some random stranger feels like sending me something!)

More info here: http://www.wists.com/

My husband would fall in love this blog post. hehe

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Update on commerce

| 0 Comments

So last month these were the numbers:
Total credit card debt: $6,130.13
Total student loan debt: $33,517.92
Total savings: $100.00
Checking account balance: $200.24

And this month?
Total credit card debt: $7,111.47
Total student loan debt: $33,341.29
Total savings: $200.00
Checking account balance: $138.46

You'll see I headed in the wrong direction. I know--major suck. All I have to say for myself is that I bought two plane tickets and a pass for BlogHer. And it was a bad month (I also overdrew my checking account...). But I'm back on track and things will be better next month.

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Update on commerce

| 3 Comments

Well, I'm a week in, and my first bunch of auctions have ended. Results thus far have been semi-disappointing. It's doable, I can make money at it, but it's a lot of effort for a little bit of cash so far. However, I know at least ten times as much about what will sell and how to sell it than I did at this time last week, so I'm guessing my next bunch of auctions will do better. And even if the profit margin is smaller than I'd like, it seems pretty clear that I can consistently make SOME money at it. And in the credit card pay off race, every little bit helps.

Which brings me to my other update.

On February 22, I posted the following:

Total credit card debt: $8,093.16
Total student loan debt: $33,674.75
Total savings: $163.77
Checking account balance: $11.69

Right now, I'm here:

Total credit card debt: $6,130.13 (though $600 is Mark's and will be paid from him ASAP)
Total student loan debt: $33,517.92
Total savings: $100.00
Checking account balance: $200.24

The other change is that my raise went through, so my monthly take home has moved from about $2,868.97 to $2,969.04. So...progress, albeit not quite as much as I'd hoped.

3 Comments

You are doing great! Keep it up!

It is hard to do, but so rewarding!

Wow, that's a big drop on the credit card. Good work.

I got my tax refund, so that's why the big CC drop. But yeah, I generally feel pretty good about the first month's progress. Thanks for the kind words.

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Commerce

| 1 Comment

Several times, I have been advised that the way one is happiest in one's job is to try to make money doing something you love to do anyway. I've steadily ignored this advice, since the one time I tried to make money doing what I loved (writing for a newspaper, in this case), it was disastrous. I ended up not loving it anymore, and it hasn't been worth it to me to try again, since I'm not willing to lose anymore passions.

Until now.

Another piece of advice I've gotten more than once is that I should become a personal shopper, since I love to shop, especially for other people, and can often find good deals on things and spot cool things other people miss. This advice has also been met with resistance, as I've said that anyone who can afford to employ a personal shopper is going to want to shop for things that are beyond my interest and shop at stores I'm not comfortable setting foot in. Nobody, I've said numerous times, wants a personal thrift shopper.

Except maybe they do, because that is what a lot of Ebay is--personal thrift shoppers. People who buy things at thrift stores and garage sales and resell them for a profit on Ebay. I knew this before, of course, but never did it myself, because I could never figure out how buying something for $5 at the Goodwill and selling it for $7 on Ebay would be worth the time.

And then last week I discovered the Goodwill bins, where all items of clothing are $1.25. Buy something for $1.25 and sell it for $7 and there might just be enough profit in it to make it worthwhile. And so I set out, for only the second time, trying to make a profit doing something I love...

I've opened an Ebay store, Your Personal Thrift Shopper. Right now, it's very heavy on clothes for babies and toddlers, because that's what I've had the best luck with finding at the bins, and because I've gotten a lot of wonderful advice on what brands, etc. are good for resale in that department. However, I'm keeping statistics of how much I put into things and what they sell for, and I'll be trying to tailor my thrifting (and therefore inventory) to meet whatever is in demand. That being said, if you have a size or item you'd like me to keep my eye out for, just drop me an email.

I'm sure, given discussions I've had here and elsewhere before, that there is going to be some flak headed my way for trying to profit off thrift shopping. It has been suggested to me that someone in my income bracket is somehow "cheating" by even shopping at thrift stores, much less buying low there with the intention of selling high(er). I've got to tell you, though, I've given it a lot of thought, and I see nothing to feel bad about. The stores in my area are stocked to the gills--there is no shortage of stuff to thrift. And the bins is the last stop pre-dumpster for most of this stuff, so buying it, even to resell, is keeping it out of a landfill, which I'm all for. Also, if it doesn't sell, and some of it surely won't, I'll either give it away or give it back to the Goodwill, so it's not like now that I'm selling things I'm going to stop giving. When someone buys something off Ebay that they could have thrifted themselves, what they are paying for is the time and effort it took the person who found, listed, and sold that item to do so. And I think that's a skill worth paying for. My time has value, and if this can draw that value out of the time I spend thrifting, then I don't think that hurts anybody. Much--even most--of what we pay others to do is stuff we could do ourselves, or could learn to do ourselves, and I don't see how this is any different. Just like anything else, thrifting can be a service.

So, if you are in the market for thrifted stuff, without having to dig through the piles yourself, keep an eye on my store. The stock should change often, as I thrift often, and as I said before, I'm happy to do what I can to fill special requests, just let me know.

1 Comments

The majority of thrift stores are specifically set up to raise money for something, NOT to provide low-cost shopping opportunities for lower-income folks. They depend on higher-income people shopping there as well.

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I wanna...

| 7 Comments

I had really hoped I'd get more than four days into not shopping before I started a list of stuff I want to buy, but I am who I am, and so the list begins. It will probably get long.

Things I'd buy if I weren't not shopping:

1. Obama merch. My favorites are this sticker, this one, and this one. But I have to admit there is some small part of me that would love to display this one somewhere on my person.

2. Spring shoes. I really, really want spring shoes. Something cute and flat. And some sandals. I'm digging the Earth Echelon and Allure, the Dunham Juniper Mary Jane, and these incredibly cute New Balance yoga shoes (think I could pull those off with skirts?). I also really like these Red Wing Cosmos flats. For sandals, I'm tempted by a number of the Clarks styles, especially the Twill, but what I want more than anything is just some really nice, comfy flip flops, like these by Columbia or these by Simple.

I'd also love to get some boots for next year when they go on sale...

3. The Windowshoppist is giving me all sorts of stuff lust. In particular, I am nutso about the retro print laptop covers by Nanda (particularly the Stella green) and the truly fabulous Broken Plate Pendant Company jewelry. I'd have a hard time choosing just one, but right this moment I am lusting over the Peacock Broken Plate Pendant.

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OMG - I totally want that shirt! I'd wear it to karaoke.

The truth is that the only way I am going to get myself out of debt is to stop fucking shopping. Just stop. Completely, at least for a while. And as the season of Lent is upon us (though I am starting a day early), the next 40 days seems as good a time as any. So that's the goal--no shopping for 40 days (aside from grocery shopping).

Based on this list, I'd argue that you are still shopping. You just aren't buying. If your goal is to get out of debt, no harm, no foul. If your goal is to get your shopping under control, I fear this list is setting yourself up for a binge at the end of Lent.

It might help you to think of how you are going to reward yourself at the end. Come up with something that doesn't involve shopping. This may help shift your focus. (I know when I did a strict diet thing years ago, it was really hard for me to come up with non-food-related celebratory behaviors to mark my successes.)

Shit, you're probably right. My ultimate goal is to not WANT to shop. So I'm probably not doing myself any good.

I hate this.

Buddhists call this "fanning the flames of desire." Well, some Buddhists do... :p The desire feels kind of yummy, but it tends to result in suffering. Just something to think about.

I like what Siobhan said, too.

I'd have to agree with Siobhan...if you want to stop wanting to buy things, you have to stop looking at things to buy. If you don't window shop, you won't have a list of things you want, because you won't see things to want. Sure, you might feel like "oh, I want some spring shoes" but that's a much easier feeling to deny (at least IME) than "I want THOSE shoes."

I know that shopping becomes a form of entertain ment and such - maybe you need to find other activities to replace it?

Anyway, good luck! I know its hard...I am making a bit more money now, and really enjoying spending it! It's hard to get that under control, even when I know I have to save for car repairs, etc. :\ what a tough habit.

If you really like those laptop cozies - make one - they look pretty easy and you probably have fun looking fabrics (old sheets, old shirts) around to use.

Yikes... that Windowshoppist site is deadly! There are so many things I want showcased there.

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The hole I'm crawling out of

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One common thread among the debt-buster bloggers I've started to read is that they come clean on their blogs not just about being in debt, but about exactly how much debt they are in, when they make what payments, etc. I've thought a bit about whether I wanted to do that here, and felt very uncomfortable with the idea. Thinking about it further, I realized that the reason I felt so uncomfortable about it was (a) because I am embarrassed by my financial picture and have been lying about it to myself and others for a long time and (b) because I was brought up, like most people in this country, to think that talking about money was crass, particularly if you actually use numbers.

Well, fuck both those reasons. This is about accountability and changing my behavior, and the first step is definitely coming clean. As far as it being crass to talk about money, that seems almost laughable given the level of conspicuous consumption surrounding me and perpetuated by me every day. So I'm going to publish the numbers.

As of today, my financial picture is as follows:

Total credit card debt: $8,093.16
Total student loan debt: $33,674.75
Total savings: $163.77
Checking account balance: $11.69

My current post-tax income is approximately $2,868.97 per month, but should be going up slightly in the near future. I contribute $1,700 to our joint account each month. My personal monthly bills are as follows:

Audible subscription: $22.95
Cell phone bill: $48.57
Student loan payment: $257.03

That leave me with approximately $840 per month that is currently unaccounted for. That money has to go towards that ridiculous credit card debt and low savings balance. My plan, as I conceptualize it today, is to put $600 per month towards these goals--$500 to the credit card, $100 to the savings account (after I build up a month of extra money in my checking account from my no-spending Lent so that my checking account balance will stop going down to near zero every month). That will leave me with about $240 per month to spend. Part of this will certainly go to non-regular but necessary expenses, such as prescriptions and doctor's visits. The rest will be my spending money.

Finally, I am expecting a tax refund of about $1,800 in mid-March. That money will go to pay down the credit cards, period. No taking some out for fun money--I've already had too much fun. Also, if/when I get my expected raise, any difference between my current salary and my future one will go directly to the credit card debt.

'So that's what I'm working with. It feels good to have written it out, for some reason. More manageable. I've always been a person who has to write things down in order for them to be true, so I guess that's not surprising. I have a lot of work ahead of me.

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Wow, even figuring that all out in hard numbers is impressive!

Once I was in a group and one person asked another how much he made, and then quickly apologized for asking. Then the person asked said "No, I will tell you. If we keep it a secret then they always have the power." i.e. to pay us unfairly.

I never thoguht about it that way, but that's really true! Still it takes courage to put it out there! Congrats!

WOW. Very courageous, Grace. Go you!
-Amazon

thanks for the inspiration and the links

I only have one question: What will you do for fun? If not fun, then...whatever it is people do that isn't neccesarily fun but keeps them from flipping out?

This is the question I always try to figure out. If expensive fun(shopping, bars) is a bad habit, what will replace the benefits of those bad habits?

Please don't say "will power", either. I don't have any of that.

Out of curiosity, what's the rationale for putting the $100 in the savings account instead of towards the credit card debt?

Well, mainly it is just that it bothers me a lot not to have any savings. It feels really unsafe. So, since my credit card debt isn't accruing any interest, I want to put a bit into savings each month while I am paying it off, for the sake of peace of mind.

Do you think that's a bad idea? I'm open to suggestions.

Simon, that's a good question. I guess I will stay home and watch movies and read books, which is pretty much what I'd do anyway, just dispersed with shopping trips.

As long as the credit card debt is interest free, it's a fine strategy. It's when people pay interest on their credit cards in order to build up savings that I get worried.

To Skye
"...As long as the credit card debt is interest free, it's a fine strategy. It's when people pay interest on their credit cards in order to build up savings that I get worried...."

I've seen alot of people in credit card debt through my work, basically if you don't have some sort of emergency account or cash lump sum then eventually what happens is people will tend to use their credit cards again to get them out of trouble, which totally brings them back into the debt cycle that is credit cards. However if they have a cash fund which to use rather than the credit card, they will slowly but surely stop using the credit cards to bail them out

Dollface, I'm BIG-time proud of you. You're tired of credit cards taking a bite out of you at 18 percent each time, so you're deep-sixing the debt. Make sure to put away $1000 for the emergencies. Otherwise, good luck, baby ... and way to go! You inspire.

Hope to hear more about your financial situation in the next posts.

Not everybody is as adept as you are at handling debt, especially with sneaky credit card tactics people don't often know about.

Good for you for tackling your debt!

Hey, I have some good news to share (further to our e-mailing correspondence with Smithie last year) - I paid off all my credit cards! Unfortunately I still have $5000 debt in other areas, but it's interest-free, so hooray.

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Not Shopping, Day 3

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The good news is that the weather has taken a turn for the beautiful. It is supposed to be 80 degrees today.

The bad news is that I have very close to no clothes that fit and absolutely no acceptable shoes for warm weather. I've gained 30ish lbs since this time last year, and threw out a bunch of old summer shoes at the end of last summer. But, until after Easter, I'm just going to have to live with what I've got.

This is not going to be easy.

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Not Shopping, Day 2

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Day 2 of not shopping is going fine. I'm at work. I spent lunchtime at Ash Wednesday services at the campus Episcopalian church, and I think the service really helped to center me and get me thinking in the right direction about why it is so important for me to stop this reckless shopping. The bit from Matthew that is included in the Ash Wednesday service, warning against accumulating goods that can be moth-eaten or rust, but instead accumulating treasure in your heart, spoke to me today. It has before, I know, but given that I am starting this particular journey, it was especially loud today.

So it's the beginning of Lent. I am committed to not shopping until Easter. I am around $8,000 in debt and it is time for things to change.

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Another blogger who has some tips about getting out of debt is crazy aunt purl - she even has a budget spreadsheet in her sidebar. And especially see the Feb. 9th entry for motivation.

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Not Shopping, Day 1

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And so it begins. The truth is that the only way I am going to get myself out of debt is to stop fucking shopping. Just stop. Completely, at least for a while. And as the season of Lent is upon us (though I am starting a day early), the next 40 days seems as good a time as any. So that's the goal--no shopping for 40 days (aside from grocery shopping). And that makes today Day 1.

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Yay for you!

And remember: you can email me anytime to hear about the unnecessary evil of shopping to keep you motivated! ;p

Yes, good for you! And good luck!

I am looking forward to following your journey!

Good luck, I know you can do it!

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