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Archive for January, 2014

Weekly meal plan

January 31st, 2014 at 01:47 pm

Saturday lunch: parsley breadcrumb pasta

Saturday dinner: pancakes, seitan sausage & fruit

Sunday lunch: kitsune ramen

Sunday dinner (bringing to Super Bowl party): vegan chili & stuffed jalapenos

Monday: cottage pie

Tuesday: pasta della California w/veggie buffalo wings

Wednesday: refried bean burritos

Thursday: spaghetti & tomato sauce

Friday: pizza delivery

February goals

January 31st, 2014 at 11:56 am

February really snuck up on me! But I took a look at the budget quickly and decided my debt repayment goal is $1400. The regular minimum $900 plus a $500 extra payment I hope to achieve.

I also want to set aside the final $1000 for the bathroom renovation.

The spending budget for our Puerto Rico trip is $1737.70 (what we had left over of the $5000 budget after booking airfare and hotel). We'll be gone 6 days, so that's an average of $289 per day. I don't know what prices will be like in the resort or in San Juan, but this seems doable as long as we don't eat at high-end restaurants every meal and don't do a ton of expensive activities. I'm mainly interested in relaxing, soaking up the warmth and playing with the kids, so I don't think it'll be a problem. Some of last year's summer wear may be a bit loose since AS and I both lost weight since then, but I think we have enough to get by without buying too many new clothes. I may stop by a thrift store before we go to see if I can find shorts. And I probably need new flip-flops.

We'll also start shopping for birthdays in February, since all five occur in March. The budget is $800: $200 for gifts for each adult and $100 for each kid.

We may sign up for our first Ting phone this coming month too; NT only has about 90 minutes left on his prepaid phone. None of us use very many minutes, so they've lasted a really long time. I have over $300 saved up in the cellphone budget, which means it's been at least 6 months since any of us needed more minutes. As AS and I run out of minutes on our prepaids, we'll join him on a family plan. I'm cautiously excited about moving into the realm of smartphones, as long as our costs remain about the same as they have for prepaid.

I think those are the main financial things happening in February, besides the usual. I'll pay for my birthday party in March, taxes in April. We'll look at the Y schedule to sign the girls up for the next available swim lessons after our Puerto Rico trip, so that may be February or later.

This 'n' that

January 30th, 2014 at 12:15 pm

I'm staying home today; the girls are kinda sick, and the snow was pretty heavy when it would have been time to take the stroller to daycare. And I DON'T want to pay for any more cab rides if I don't have to. We're taking it easy. Actually I feel a bit run down myself, but it could be psychosomatic, or just a result of jogging on the treadmill last night.

I called my home insurance company to talk about the negative impact of my credit report on my premium. It turns out $22 of the increase was due to the credit thing and the other $14 just a general price increase.

I explained why my credit report looked so different from 2010, the last time they pulled it, but they were firm that it was just an algorithm they didn't have any control over. So I went to an agent to see what else I could do to lower the price.

We increased my deductible from $500 to $1000 and lowered liability from $300K to $100K. That brought the price down from $263 to $234 for the year, so only $8 higher than last year. I can live with that. And actually I'm surprised my deductible was so low, but I guess it made sense when I first took out the policy and had virtually no liquid funds.

Looking at ways to spend up my credit cards, I realized one medical bill still hasn't come from NT's October ER visit. I know the amount from his insurance account online. Part of me wants to call them and ask to pay the bill even though it apparently isn't due yet. Another part of me thinks it'd be crazy to pay a bill before it even came. Still thinking through that one.

I had a real spending temptation: Elizabeth Warren, my favorite personal finance author and one of my favorite politicians, is coming to speak in Minneapolis (DFL fundraiser). The cheapest ticket was $125! I might have actually thought about borrowing ahead in my spending money to pay for it, but I've already been through that twice recently. Bought tickets to a comedy show for March and just finished paying that off earlier this month. Then my web hosting fees for my ordinarysavers.com website came due and I'm working on paying those down. So I just couldn't see going in the hole for another $125 right now. Especially when I'm keenly aware how much of our surplus money is going to be spent on my bday party.

Since we'll have the money saved up for our bathroom renovation by mid-February, I've started preparing mentally. Signed up for Houzz.com, a Pinterest-type site where designers post photos of renovated interiors. Started taping reruns of a show called "Renovation Realities," which shows real people going through DIY renos. We'll probably go to a home & garden show in late February or early March. At some point we'll need to agree on a vision, figure out what parts we think we can do ourselves, price out the things we want, and maybe schedule some time off work (or some babysitting if we'll be working on weekends) to actually go through with it.

I guess that's it for now!

January debt goal reached; big-picture progress

January 27th, 2014 at 08:12 pm

At last, I can report some debt repayment -- the first student loan progress of the year. AS's regular student loan payment hit, and $133 went to principal.

That takes January debt progress to $913, exceeding the $900 goal.

And remaining student loan debt down to $12,063.

I'm so itching to get rid of this debt, but I'm trying to balance it with everything else. I may try to squeeze in a $500 extra payment in February; I'll need to look at bday and tax bills and make sure I'll have enough to pay those when they come due (mid-March and mid-April). I think I will.

Menu plan

January 26th, 2014 at 01:54 pm

Well, a bit late, but here's our week's plan. We do need to get a couple more ingredients, but hopefully we can still stay under budget.

Friday: veggie burgers, hashbrowns & salad

Saturday lunch: cold sandwiches & chips

Saturday dinner: vegan seitan sausages, bubble 'n' squeak, red wine gravy

Sunday lunch: grilled cheese sandwiches, fries & salad

Monday: black bean & sweet potato burritos with salad

Tuesday: red wine asparagus pasta & garlic bread

Wednesday: vegan brats, coleslaw & baked beans

Thursday: spaghetti & tomato sauce

Friday: pizza

Keeping track of my CCs and other money thoughts

January 25th, 2014 at 07:31 pm

I feel like I need to regroup on my credit cards and the progress toward rewards every few days, because I've never had this many in play before!

NT Capital One 43.12 spent, 456.88 to go
AS Chase Freedom 252.01 spent, 247.99 to go
CJ Capital One 500 spent, reward received, cancel after paying off
NT Citi Dividend 0 spent, 500 to go
AS Citi Dividend 0 spent, 500 to go
CJ Citi Dividend 278.87 spent, 221.13 to go
NT BankAmericard 0 spent, 500 to go
AS BankAmericard 0 spent, 500 to go
CJ BankAmericard 500 spent, waiting for reward
CJ Discover 615 spent, 135 to go

So in total, need to spend $3061 more. I decided I'll have NT use one of his to pay my party food/drink bill, which will be more than $500, so that's one out of the way. We can put the $83 cable/internet bill on another one. And I can finish up my Citi Dividend with our annual homeowner's insurance bill. The rest will be easily used up with vacation and birthday spending, since we have a trip scheduled for February and our 5 bdays in March.

So I got my notice of our annual home insurance premium, and it's about $40 more than last year. Not a big jump, and I probably wouldn't have questioned it, but they included an insert about how they run a credit check, and adverse elements of my credit record had caused the bill to increase. Did not know credit cards could have anything to do with whether you're a risk-prone homeowner! They also included a sheet about a new rating method or something, where I might qualify for lower rates. So I'm going to call and see if I can get it closer to last year's bill. Mainly because I'm annoyed they raised it because of my credit card activity! Still, $40 per once is more than outweighed by the money we've made off the credit card companies (over $3K last year, and over $13K since we started).

I hate to jinx it, but we're on track with our grocery budget this week! I can hardly believe it because we blew the budget a bit and started with less money than usual. But we have a bit of money left after our main shopping trips, which means we have some recourse when the midweek budget-killers inevitably hit.

I filled out the forms to enter us in a 5K today! It takes place in April. It was $17 per person, which seemed fairly reasonable, and it's to support the Y, which is a great organization. We've all started trying to run on the treadmill, and we thought this would give us something to shoot for. I believe 5K is about 3.2 miles, and so far the longest I've made it is 2.35 miles, so I have a ways to go. Good thing it's several months away!

I'm excited about all the things coming up in February, March and April, but it makes me treasure our homey January even more. Other than one trip to a restaurant, a haircut and 2 dentist visits, I haven't been anywhere besides home and work. And we've only had people over a couple times (a games day with a friend, the Savers meeting, and a dinner with a friend). It's been divine! I definitely feel recharged and ready to re-enter my social life again.

Swings and roundabouts

January 24th, 2014 at 02:39 pm

Well, I'm really glad that I had my minibreakdown on here and got soothing words of wisdom from some of you!

I thought about it some more and decided, what the heck, I'm going to have the 40th birthday party I want. I probably won't make this big a deal out of my birthdays for another 10 years, so why not? I emailed a cute restaurant/sake brewery and reserved a space, then got in touch with a karaoke DJ to see if he can work that night. Looks good so far! I couldn't decide what budget to set so I looked at NT's 40th bday costs and saw that we spent just over $1000. So that's my limit too.

The space is free to reserve, so I'm going to preorder a certain amount food and drinks for guests, and then they can order more when stuff runs out or they want something different and put it on their own tabs. I like that I can set my spending up but still give people choices.

I'm also glad that I'd already committed to that idea when I got home last night, because I got AS's 1099, the last thing I really needed to get started on taxes, and I got a bit of a nasty shock. I'd neglected to remember that since she got a raise, her EIC, retirement credit, and a bunch of other credits designed to help lower-income families would have decreased dramatically. She still gets a small federal refund (I went ahead and e-filed that portion) but owes a bit on state.

Knowing that I'd been counting on AS getting a refund to cover my and NT's taxes, my heart was in my mouth as I hastily calculated ours. I got a few different numbers on the fly, but today work was slow and so I took more time to go over them. Last night my calculations got as high as owing $2400 total, but now it looks like the net we'll owe will be about $1150. After the shock of what I thought it would be, that's a relief!

I did contemplate canceling my bday party, but I still think the overall principle stands that I shouldn't deny something that's so meaningful to me. My goals are ambitious enough that even if I don't hit them, I'll still make a lot of positive progress this year.

At this point it looks like there's a bit of a shortfall, but I already found out that I'll most likely get a small cost-of-living raise in April, and NT is fairly confident that his job is going to follow through on their promise of a raise. Add in the CC bonuses and other extra income we expect, and it looks like we could still actually achieve our goals.

Anyway, last night was kind of blown because I was frantically flipping through forms and such. NT was doing homework and AS had brought work home. Tonight we've resolved to leave all our work aside for a little while, and just relax and have nice family time together. The taxes can wait; especially now that I know we owe, I see no reason to rush.

Diving deeper into annual budgeting

January 21st, 2014 at 09:15 pm

A couple days ago I talked about some wants and needs that were tugging at our surplus and endangering our goals for the year. Well, tonight I learned that both duvet covers have big holes in them that may be hard to fix. Also, our handheld vacuum has been making burny smells when we try to use it. I started feeling a bit frantic, wondering just how much our goals were in danger. So I sat down and did some projections for the year.

OK, so the tuition is already budgeted out, as well as the UK flat reno, EF and moving fund goals. So is the bathroom renovation. The only big uncertainty is whether we'll have enough to pay off student loans.

We have $12,196 of student loan debt. AS's student loan payments will put at least $1596 toward principal over the course of the year. That leaves $10,600 we need to come up with.

I went over our projected surplus for the year and there's a little less than $11,000 there. Less than $400 surplus, so I'm calling it $300, just to give us a tiny bit of fluff each month.

I went over the year and all aspects of living I could think of with NT, and had him consider the things that we would probably be wanting to purchase over the course of it that are unbudgeted-for. This is the list we came up with:

Duvet/comforter $40
Dual citizenship for girls $580
NT passport $250
CJ license $25
AS yoga $700
Swim lessons for both girls $480
2nd half of laptop $500
SL bed & mattress $120
Drill $50
Girls' new snow gear $150

Grand total? $2,895. So, at first glance, we come up pretty short what with the paltry $300 surplus.

But, I can predict we'll have at least $1000 of bonus credit card rewards (hopefully more, but we'll leave it there for now). AS said one of her out-of-town engagements will get her $1000. So that brings our surplus to $2300.

OK, $695 short. I kind of have faith in windfalls because we usually have a few. Setbacks, too, but they typically average out and we come out a little bit a head. Some potential sources for the rest of the money:
- NT possible raise
- My possible raise
- Tax refund (though I'm thinking we'll break even -- I need to do them soon)
- More credit card bonus offers later in the year
- Freelance jobs (we don't have any lined up, but it's possible we could scrape up one or two if needed)

So, I'm not too worried about the shortfall and feel we'll probably be able to achieve all of that. But I don't really see a big 40th bday party in the cards. Now that the space I wanted is no longer available, I've lost enthusiasm for it a bit. So I might just go to dinner with a few friends or have a party at the house. Hey, maybe I can gear up for a 41st bday bash instead!

Overall, I'm feeling relieved that achieving our goals still looks realistic. And if we find we have another need, now we have a list to go to and see if anything can be pushed to next year instead.

Oh, and the handheld vacuum? NT did some research and now thinks it needs a new filter. Only $7. Big Grin

Yet another wrinkle in my dental scheme

January 21st, 2014 at 03:13 pm

As everyone probably remembers, I had over $5000 of dental costs coming this year, so I withheld $5000 in my and NT's flex spending and also opened 10 credit cards requiring $5250 of spending in 3 months to get a total of $1150 in bonus cash rewards.

Then found out that the dental procedures would only come to $3260 or thereabouts.

Well today, I had my follow-up with the periodontist and found out that the next step doesn't happen for 5 and a half months! And the one coming up is no additional charge, part of the $1615 I already paid. This means the other $1645 I was planning to put on these CCs won't come until well after the 3-month period I have to spend up these CCs.

Well, it's not a big deal. I'll see if I can spend the rest without doing any unplanned spending. If not, I can cancel the cards without getting the bonus.

And if there are any bigger bonuses still available later in the year, I could consider opening another card to cover the second half of my dental costs.

Here's what I've spent and still need to spend on the cards (mainly for my own reference):
CJ Capital One spent $500 DONE
AS Chase Freedom spent $201.01 need $298.99 more
NT Capital One spent $0 need $500 more
CJ Citi Dividend spent $144.55 need $355.45 more
AS Citi Dividend spent $0 need $500 more
NT Citi Dividend spent $0 need $500 more
CJ BankAmericard spent $500 DONE
AS BankAmericard spent $0 need $500 more
NT BankAmericard spent $0 need $500 more
CJ Discover spent $615 need $135 more

So in total, would need to spend $3289.44 to reap all the possible bonus money. I should see if we can use them in Puerto Rico without incurring foreign transaction fees. (Seems like it's treated like a foreign country in some ways.) That would be about half the needed spending right there. Bdays are coming up in March with $800 budgeted. And depending when we start our bathroom remodel, maybe we could spend some money on paint or fixtures. If not, there are some little fixed expenses (haircuts, cable) that could add up if I put them on the cards.

More odds and ends

January 19th, 2014 at 08:28 pm

The problem with the annual budget, I find, is that it puts in stark focus how we just barely have enough to meet our goals. The problem is the little unbudgeted-for things that pop up. Too many of them, and we'll be in danger of not meeting our goals. And we REALLY want to meet our goals; small space living (950 sq ft with 3 adults, 2 young kids and a cat) is really starting to chafe.

Our cat has been acting neurotic, either a UTI or mad at his new litter box, or on a hungry spurt and mad about his diet. Anyway, he's been managing to scatter litter over the whole house, and has peed in various non-litter places at least 5 times in the past couple months. Two of them were today, on the sofa. One of those was right in the space between NT and me as we watched TV.

We'll be calling the vet to see if we can get UTI meds tomorrow without going in, and if not, we'll bring him in. (Not ideal because he hates his carrier and we're not supposed to have pets in our building, so the elevator rides are nerve-wracking.)

But either way, the situation paints a clear picture of both problems: the cure will cost us $60-$100. And meanwhile, we live in a 950-square-foot litterbox that we're trapped in until we can scrape up enough money to get out. And that vet bill is just one of the many stumbling blocks we'll face.

Other expenses (both needs and wants) coming up that aren't budgeted for: my 40th birthday party: $300-$600. (Would like to have a bit of a blowout since it's a significant milestone.) My license renewal: $25. Cab rides if there's another major cold snap: $10-$15 per ride. AS yoga: $750 for the year. Textbooks: unknown. Later this year, new snow gear for the girls: unknown. I'm sure a hundred other little things will come up, and each one has to be dealt with, deciding whether it's better to spend the money or find a way around it (if possible).

As it stands, we have exactly enough surplus money to hit all our goals. Then we have $1150 coming in credit card rewards over the next few months. Incremental rewards coming in after that. Money from a guest appearance AS will be making at a conference. So we're still probably in good shape. But it's hard not to obsess.

We also need to carefully plan our vacation spending this year. After Puerto Rico in February, we have four more things to pull off: NT's best friends visiting for a week or so from UK in May. NT's mom and sister visiting for 10 days in August/September. We would like a grownups-only weekend away in late summer or early fall, Chicago being the most affordable option probably. We would like some kind of weekend cabin trip with the kids in the summer. We have $5000 planned in the budget for all four things. So not a ton of money for each. We'll have to make smart choices to stretch that money and put it to maximum advantage.

Some raises would be AMAZING good news. I really hope I and/or NT really do get one this spring. That would ease my anxiety considerably.

Oh, and I'm really glad now that my dental costs will be smaller and leave us a bunch of flex money: I just noticed my acne may be coming back, and the co-pay this year per visit is $40 instead of $20. The last time I went through this, I had at least 10, maybe 15 visits with the dermatologist, so this year that would be $400-$600. Thank goodness at least THAT isn't a source of financial anxiety!

Anyway, things are so far so good. I just wish I could stop stressing out about it!

Good money times continue, and other bits and bobs

January 17th, 2014 at 01:44 pm

So this is my first year that I'll be doing a performance review on a direct-report; she joined Oct. 2012 so I wasn't required to do one last year. I'm a bit nervous because she's a friend as well as employee, but I think I can be diplomatic yet straightforward and pull it all off.

Anyway, I'm getting emails about the manager side of the process this year, and I noticed that on March 3 "Manager consults with HR Rep re pay increases before holding meetings" and on April 15 "Pay increases appear on paychecks for eligible employees." So it's far from a sure thing (don't know whether there will be merit increases, cost of living increases, or both, and whether I'll be eligible), but at least there's a chance I'll get a raise this year! After the abysmal financial performance last quarter I wasn't sure, but I threw myself into the performance and budget-saving goals that were given at the time, so hopefully I qualify!

In other good money news, I ordered some style guides and dictionaries for work that I've been meaning to get to for a while. Now that I have all these rewards credit cards, it seemed as good a time as any! I ordered the cheaper online/desktop versions vs. print editions but it still came out to $115. I put all of it on a rewards card and will get fully reimbursed. 20% of the way toward earning the $100 reward with no out-of-pocket myself!

Oh, and I called the dentist to say I was planning to pay on 3 credit cards. The receptionist right away said that was fine, and to bring them when I come in for my follow-up because it would be easier to scan them than read the numbers over the phone. Must not be too unusual! Smile (Actually, I wonder if people do it based on bill due dates or something, to try and manage the costs.)

We canceled a couple of credit cards and are down to 20! (Still a crazy high number.) I requested cancellation on one more, and another should be able to be canceled in late Jan. or early Feb. (whenever we can cash out the rewards), and three more will go after our Feb. vacation (want to keep them open since we charged everything to them).

We didn't have much food in the kitchen for Friday's dinner, which is typically just thrown together (we tend to plan our meals Sat.-Thurs., got out of the habit of planning a Friday one because the CSA drops off Thursday night in the summer and fall). We tossed out the idea of getting delivery, but I just bought my dad a b-day present with my spending money, plus I know the web hosting fee for my other blog is coming up this month.

So we looked around and found enough ingredients to make seitan (wheat meat), some slightly wrinkly but still usable potatoes, frozen peas and corn, leftover cranberry sauce from Xmas, and a box of Stovetop stuffing (AS and I bought out of curiosity because it's pork-flavored but vegan Big Grin). I can whip up gravy with veggie broth, oil and flour and maybe some onions. Voila! Actually a pretty sumptuous feast just from the odds and ends we have in our kitchen.

The rest of the menu:
Saturday lunch
BLATs & fries or hash browns
(BLATs are fake bacon, lettuce, avocado & tomato sandwiches)

Saturday dinner (AS out at lit event)
African stew & flatbread

Sunday lunch
NT & CJ Gandhi Mahal (Indian restaurant we have coupons for free lunch at); pasta or sandwiches for everyone else

Sunday dinner
tofu turkey cutlets, carrots, black walnut wild rice (parents sent us homegrown W.Va. black walnuts!)

Monday
ramen yakisoba (maybe w/leftover seitan from tonight)

Tuesday (trivia)
KFC bowl (veg buffalo wings, mashed potatoes, broccoli, corn & gravy)

Wednesday
Mandarin chikn-broccoli stir fry & rice

Thursday
spaghetti & tomato sauce

A good news day

January 15th, 2014 at 06:29 pm

First of all, this is my second day since dental surgery with no painkillers! Now I need to find my resolve and start working out again. Dieting will have to wait until after Thursday -- I still need to have a midnight snack to take my antibiotics tonight and tomorrow.

Then, our first paychecks of 2014 hit, and it turns out I had miscalculated our take-home pay -- we're getting $95 more per month than I thought!

Since groceries have been such a pain point lately, and this would be a painless time to infuse that budget with more money, I've decided to add $15 per week. That leaves $35 (or $20 in the months there are 5 Saturdays) that I'm putting into surplus to hopefully go toward our goals.

I also transferred $3000 into short-term savings to go toward our bathroom renovation. Now we only need $1000 more and we can get started. We'll have that easily in February and can start pricing and planning for a springtime project.

When I got home, I found out that AS will get to go to London in April for work! This is great because it ups her visibility in England and raises her chances of someday finding a job there.

Oh, and I forgot about this (probably because I take everything NT's job tells him with a grain of salt) but apparently they're planning to give him a raise this year! They should, because he pretty much works 50-hour weeks now. We'll see if they follow through.

I was thinking about next year a bit, and I realized that we should see a decent raise in take-home pay/surplus money. First of all, we probably won't have to put $5000 into flex spending. Then, AA will be starting kindergarten the fall of 2015, believe it or not, so daycare costs will be cut in half. NT won't be in school anymore and we won't have any student loan debts. Of course, all of these things are pre-tax or we get tax credits for them, so we won't be taking home the full amount. But we should still see a nice increase.

All in all, a pretty good day!

January 2014 net worth update

January 15th, 2014 at 01:28 pm

Assets:
NT's UK pensions:
#1: 15,544 pounds ($24,870)
#2: 19,653 pounds ($31,445)
#3: 4,452 pounds ($7,123)
NT's 401(k): $28,074
NT's Roth IRA: $6,645
AS's 401(k): $11,898
AS's trad. IRA: $1,682
AS's Roth IRA: $16,773
CJ's 401(k): $66,411
CJ's Roth IRA: $6,645
NT's flat: 140,000 pounds ($224,000)
CJ & AS's condo: $145,000
Emergency fund (shared asset): $15,000
House down payment/moving fund (shared): $4,572
---
Total Assets: $590,138

Total Debt: $243,736

Current Estimated Net Worth: $346,402

December 2013 estimate: $339,364

Change in net worth: +$7,038

Summary: Wowsers! Most of this is just retirement fund gains. We are truckin' along!

I will update my "Individual Net Worth" page shortly so you can see how it breaks out per person.

Notes on the numbers above: House value estimates are approximate. I don't have a way to check NT's UK pensions or flat value, so their values stay static for the purpose of this update (unless I happen to get some info by chance). UK asset values and debt amounts are calculated figuring $1.60 for every British pound.

The best thing about my job

January 14th, 2014 at 03:28 pm

Hands down, it's the paid time off. Not only do they give a generous number of holidays, plus some extra days before or after holidays sometimes (which you can take another day if you have to work the actual day), but vacation accrues at a very satisfactory rate, for an American company.

Between carryover, increased accrual and other factors, I found out today that I have 26.5 vacation days and 10 sick days. These days, time off with the potential to do nothing is one of the most precious commodities to me! Even though I'll have to use quite a bit when our British visitors are in town this year, I'm going to make sure to carve out a few do-nothing days for myself.

Menu for the week

January 11th, 2014 at 05:30 pm

It didn't end up too bad (the grocery budget); we still have $5 left and need to hit the Asian grocery, should be about $11 for what we need there. We left the water filter and floor cleaner and razorblades for another week.

At least it's a delicious week coming up:
Saturday lunch (today):
scrambled eggs/tofu, hash browns & facon
dinner:
penne vodka

Sunday lunch:
grilled cheese sammies, sauteed spinach & soup
dinner:
Seitan au jus sandwiches & fries

Monday
black bean & portabella stew w. quinoa
peach cobbler

Tuesday
burritos

Wednesday
Southern-fried tofu & waffles & broccoli

Thursday
spaghetti & tomato sauce

Grocery budget already floundering

January 11th, 2014 at 10:38 am

And just as quickly as we had it, our balanced grocery budget is out of whack. Not really sure what happened ... last weekend we were right on target. I actually had some surplus from the previous week, used that for some accumulated diaper charges, but that was fine. Then, a couple of random trips to Target etc. later during the week, we had eaten away about $30 of this Saturday's budget. And all of a sudden we need a water filter, extra wipes for daycare, floor cleaner, razor blades -- all the big ticket items seemed to hit at once. Now we're probably going to go over budget this Saturday, which means we'll start next Saturday with less than the budgeted amount, and if we have little needs that creep up on us over the week...

It's this constant struggle. I suppose I need to up the grocery budget, but it has to come from somewhere else, and I really don't want to eat into our already-smaller (thanks to dental & other issues) surplus this year, which if we're lucky will just barely get us to our annual goals.

Plus, I have this sneaking suspicion that we'll always be struggling, because we had much less money per week over the summer, and we were always struggling at about the same level. I tried upping it a bit and we're still at about where we were. So if I upped it, say, $25 per week, I have a feeling we'd still be struggling about the same amount. No, I think I'll keep it where it is.

I wouldn't normally balk at covering the overage with surplus money, but Xmas was kind of a budget killer, and plus I'm eager to see some movement on our goals. I swore I would be less uptight about spending, but we spent so much more than I expected from October through December, so I'm not sure a looser spending policy really works for us. So back to eating into next week's amount and hoping we catch up at some point.

This is seriously the one part of our budget that never seems to be comfortably managed. The only other variable spending is our weekly spending money, but that's not really a problem because it's optional stuff. If the money runs out, don't buy anything until the next week, or borrow knowing you'll have less money the next week. Either way, at some point you come to grips with your optional spending.

But grocery and household expenses have this weird emotional pull. It's a NEED but it's also a WANT. If you don't crave the food you buy and prepare, the temptation to eat out may be too great. And you want a certain amount of quality in some areas of food -- everyone has their sticking points. For some it's organic produce. For me, it's buying humane organic local eggs and dairy, and vegan cheese and margarine for myself. For NT, it's tons of fresh fruit and natural cleaning products. For him, too, I think, there's this feeling where if there's a slight need or danger of a shortage, he wants the ability to buy right away. He's gotten better about putting things off, but that's where the drainage of grocery budget happens during the week. For AS, there's the need to feel like the cupboards aren't bare -- she wasn't seriously poor at any point, but she had moments at a kid where she worried they would go hungry.

It's silly, I suppose, to quibble over a few dollars. But I feel like this is a dangerous category that could easily spiral out of control and even derail our big picture goals. So I'll continue to quibble.

Wait, what?

January 9th, 2014 at 03:29 pm

I came to work today after 5 days (the weekend, plus a work-from-home day Monday, then surgery and recovery Tues.-Wed.) and my head is spinning.

I'd brought my work laptop home for working Monday, but of course didn't touch it the other days so completely forgot about it this morning. After some digging around, tech guy was able to find me a loaner, but it's a buggy little laptop with terrible scrolling ability.

Then, at some point I took a bathroom break, and as I pulled down my slacks I realized they were more snug than they had been this morning. My legs looked swollen, one of them noticeably more than the other! I contacted the pharmacy and my dentist to see if it could be one of the drugs I'm on, and they said it could be the antibiotic, though that would be an unusual reaction. So dentist wants me to monitor it and let him know tomorrow if it's gotten worse. I'm always slightly freaked out by unknown symptoms, so it's been a bit hard to concentrate. But I haven't felt too bad otherwise, and the swelling hasn't gotten worse yet, so that's something.

Then, I see a voicemail on my work phone from Monday. It's from the dentist's office, reminding me about the Tuesday appointment, and telling me that my portion of the bill would be ... $1615!

Wait, what? I read the insurance policy pretty thoroughly and my best estimate was $3400. That means I was off by $1785, and that my total bill (after my regular dentist does her thing) will be about $3261.

Which is such great news -- except, thinking my bill would be $5046, NT and I each set aside $2500 in our flex spending accounts. So now we've got $1739 more in flex than we need for this procedure!

I'm trying to look on the bright side: A) I'll only have to use THREE credit cards, not six, to pay this bill. Wink B) This year, for the first time, you're allowed to keep a certain amount of flex spending for the next year. I'm not totally clear on the law, but I'm thinking NT and I will each be able to roll over $500, making it $1000? If so, we're only $739 over. That wouldn't be so bad; there's always a chance regular medical expenses and copays will eat that up over the course of a year and, if not, there's a $600 (or so) non-essential test that I've been opting out of that my doctor would like me to get. If we're getting to the end of the year and we haven't used much of this money, I may go ahead and get that test just so the money doesn't go to waste.

What a weird day. My head is spinning!

Recovering from dental surgery, etc. (including delicious recipe)

January 8th, 2014 at 10:53 am

Well, I finally got my implant on Tuesday. It was unpleasant -- not painful, just weird and unpleasant -- and took about 2 hours. They had do do a "sinus lift" or "sinus augmentation" first, whatever that is, due to the bone loss caused by the infections that eventually led to the loss of the tooth.

I had a funny money moment when I saw a sign on their counter that payment was due at time of service unless other arrangements were made in advance. I'd only received one of the credit cards I intend to use, and I didn't have it on me. So I made up a quick fib that I hadn't received my health card (my FSA spending debit card) in the mail yet. I thought that would be easier to understand than trying to explain my scammy-sounding plans to charge chunks of $500 to various credit cards.

The receptionist said it was fine; I could call in and pay, or I could pay the next time I came in (I have a follow-up in two weeks). So that bought me some time to decide which would be less embarrassing, LOL. We got two more of the credit cards in the mail; just need a few more. I think the total cost will be $3400, but looking back at my notes it seems some of that was based on my interpretation of my dental insurance coverage, which might not be entirely accurate. I'll have to call and make sure what I actually owe. But assuming I'm right, even if I used my Discover card (which I need to spend $750 on) we'd be looking at 6 cards to use. I was picturing paying online, which is how I've handled these things in the past. I'm a self-conscious person, so whether I do this on the phone or in person, it's going to be kind of embarrassing. Might need to work myself up to it...

At least, if I doesn't work out, I'm not counting on the bonuses to be able to afford this. Most will be reimbursed by the flex spending we already had taken out of our paychecks. The rewards are just so I feel like I'm not spending a fortune on this!

Recovery seems to be going well. I took today off as well, and I'm really glad I did because one of the meds didn't agree with me last night and I got sick before bedtime, and spent the night on the couch feeling nauseous, not really getting any sleep. My mouth is sore and I'm trying to not talk or use it much. Because of the sinus part, I guess, my nose (mucus) is affected as well (bloody). My cheek has only swelled a little bit, but he said the worst swelling would probably be tomorrow or Friday. Great, I'll be back at work then!

I haven't felt around with my tongue and can't open my mouth wide enough to try and see it with a mirror. My regular dentist has to do something as well, so I imagine it's not completely tooth-looking yet.

Other than that wild card, finances are looking pretty much on track. I actually wish there was a bit more to do, since I'm just hanging out at home. But I'm reading a fascinating nonfiction book about the history of American con men and swindles, centered around one particular "mark" who got fleeced in the early 1900s and spent years tracking down all the men involved in the con. It's called "The Mark Inside" -- really good so far.

We've used up more of our surplus on cab rides to daycare -- it's just too cold in the mornings. Monday we used a cab both ways. Tomorrow we should feel better about using the stroller both ways. Can't wait for this deep freeze to leave! Using a cab so much seems extravagant, but I have to remind myself that it's $50-$60 total, compared with however much we'd be paying for insurance, gas and repairs on a car, not to mention the initial outlay of buying a car in the first place.

We had to move our meal plan around to put the softest meals on the first two nights after surgery, but other than that we've been sticking to it. This week I happen to be making three recipes I developed myself, either based on something I had at a restaurant or adaptation of a recipe I found online. Sunday we had tofu spring rolls with a delicious dipping sauce it took me years to copy from a now-closed restaurant; tomorrow we're having BBQ sauce pasta with tofu and veggies, a copy of a unique meal I had years ago at a restaurant; and tonight it's pinto beans and rice, a combination/enhancement of some online recipes that I at first ad libbed, then wrote down the recipe once I realized how good it was and how much we all loved it. It's no huge departure from Mexican food, but it's a really successful variation on some of our tried-and-true standard meals. Here it is if you're interested:

Pintos and rice bowl (makes 6 servings)

Beans ingredients:
2 cups dry pinto beans, soaked 24 hours, cooked until soft, left overnight in cooking water
1 T olive oil
1 onion
4 cloves garlic
2 t cumin
1.5 t paprika
1 t salt

Rice Ingredients
1 T olive oil
2 cups rice
1 onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
3T tomato paste mixed into 1/2 cup water
2.5 cups mock chicken broth
1.5 tsp salt
3/4 tsp black pepper
1.5 tsp coriander
3/4 tsp paprika
3/4 tsp oregano

Optional Toppings:
Chopped tomatoes
Chopped avocado
Chopped onion
Chopped cilantro
Pickled jalapenos
Shredded cheddar cheese
Salsa & hot sauce

Instructions

In a saucepan or deep skillet, saute onion in olive oil for a few minutes, then add garlic. When they soften or brown, add beans, all other beans ingredients and some of the cooking water. Bring to boil, then lower to simmer while you prepare rice. The beans will soften further, almost into refried-beans texture.
Add oil to another (pref nonstick) saucepan and heat over medium/high. Add in rice and brown, stirring frequently, for about 3-4 minutes.
Add in onion and garlic. Cook onion rice mixture, stirring frequently, for about 4 minutes, or until onions are softened.
Add in broth and bring to a simmer.
Stir in tomato paste, salt, pepper, paprika, oregano, and coriander. Bring to a simmer.
Reduce heat to low, cover & simmer for 10 mins. Remove from heat & steam for another 5 mins. Fluff with fork.

Serve rice topped with beans and any of the optional toppings.

Menu for the week and other ramblings

January 4th, 2014 at 02:08 pm

This week is very fake-meat heavy; there were some good sales/coupons, and plus we're all just really in the mood for that sort of meal (traditional meal where the meat is swapped out for a substitute); it's comforting, I think, since we all started out as omnivores.

Friday (last night)
General Tso's mock duck w/rice (N)

Saturday lunch
huevos/tofu scramble with refried black beans, rice & cheese

Saturday dinner
bangers, mash & beans

Sunday lunch
pancakes & facon with apple sauce

Sunday dinner
veggie burgers, fries & salad

Monday
mock duck satay with rice & tofu spring rolls

Tuesday (trivia)
BBQ pasta w/tofu & veggies

Wednesday
Italian sausage & peppers hoagies w/ fries

Thursday
pinto beans & rice w/avocado

Our favorite Vietnamese grocery store, where we got cheap staples such as tofu and soy sauce, is closing. They're having a clearance sale so we'll stock up on nonperishables. Also ramen noodles, which are a guilty-pleasure lunch now and then. Smile

AS says there's a similar store just across the street on the same block, so I'm hoping they have good deals too. We never bothered to look since we liked this one so much!

Our building's water is off because a water main leading into it broke. We were warned, so we filled our bathtub and a few pots and pitchers as well; we have enough to make the toilet flush and to cook and drink and wash our hands, but we can't take showers. I'm dying for one, so I hope they fix it soon!

I handled our holiday grocery overspending with surplus money and various snowflakes, so that gave us a clean slate on the grocery budget starting the Saturday after Xmas. So far we are keeping slightly under our spending limit, which is great. I scored some great deals today, such as two free frozen juices (by stacking a coupon on a sale) and local apples for .99/lb. We didn't do too badly on food waste but did throw away some stuff. Not nearly as much as I was afraid we'd toss out.

Monday in Minnesota is supposed to hit record-low temperatures. My and AS's jobs are both doing work-from-home days. We do have to take the kids to daycare in order to get said work done, so we'll be taking a cab there and back, and then again when it's time to pick them up.

I was starting to build up a bit of surplus money with various eBay sales and other snowflakes, but it's been dribbling away about as fast as I accumulate it, on things like the upcoming taxi rides, and stroller rental at the Mall, and eBay fees from past sales, and so on. I'm glad for snowflakes even when they get eaten up by incidentals, because these types of expenses aren't precisely budgeted for and need to come from somewhere. But at the same time it's disappointing when we score a good snowflake and then don't get to put it toward debt repayment or savings!

Still, all of the credit rewards that will come from paying my dental bills are not spoken for. I'm trying to ignore the fact that they're coming; hopefully I can put each one toward some big-picture goal as we get them.

I have a faint hope that my company will give us a small bonus; they postponed our holiday party and a couple other things until the new fiscal quarter started, since we were doing so poorly last quarter, so I feel there's some chance we'll get a bonus. It's usually a $200 Amex card or thereabouts. If I get it, I'll use it for groceries and put a corresponding amount of grocery money aside for my 40th bday festivities in March. I really want to have a blowout party but it's not budgeted for, so I'll just have to scrape together money and see how much of a party I can afford.

Our January doesn't have many social or other obligations, and I'm LOVING it. So ready for a quiet month; the past few have been insane. Tomorrow we have one friend coming over; Tuesday is my dental implant surgery; next Saturday is haircut day for all of us; next Sunday is my "League of Ordinary Savers" meeting; the following Saturday AS has a work-related party. And that's IT, except for optional trivia every Tuesday. Compared with December, when there was seriously only one day on our calendar that DIDN'T have something scheduled, it feels amazing! Even when NT's college starts up again later this month, it's independent study this semester, so he won't be out late at classes several times a week.

I may try to revise my novel this month, and I might do another DietBet to take off the holiday poundage. Other than that, just going to try and enjoy my family and work on my New Year's resolution of being nicer and calmer in my interactions with people (family included). Mixed results so far, but the year is just beginning.

February doesn't look too bad so far, just our Puerto Rico vacation (5 days) and possibly AS going out of town later in the month for a book fair.

March is going to be slightly nuts again, with all five of our birthdays (probably mine is the only one we'll make a huge deal of since it's my 40th), and potentially THREE business trips (two for AS and one for NT). But knowing we have all that going on, I'm going to try really hard to not schedule much else for that month.

Quick poll

January 3rd, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Do you use a budgeting or personal finance app, software or online account, e.g., Mint, Mvelopes, QuickBooks?

I had a friend ask for a recommendation, and I could name a few, but I couldn't really advise him, because I have my own system in Google Drive spreadsheets that I'm really attached to.

It's more hands-on than a lot of the other options out there, but I find being hands-on keeps me focused, motivated and enthusiastic about my financial goals.

That made me wonder: Do those of us interested enough in finances to blog about it tend to use DIY methods or specialized software/programs/apps?

Spend $750 get $150 Discover card offer!

January 2nd, 2014 at 10:45 am

I didn't see this on my usual source for CC rewards, creditcards.com, but I was looking around for something I hadn't done before and found it on a couple of other sites.

If some of you feel like you've gone through all the usual companies too many times (Chase, Citi, etc.) this might be a nice one to do.

I wish I'd seen it before I applied for a ton of $100 rewards! I applied for one Discover card (and was approved), but I'd already applied for 9 other cards and didn't want to do two more Discover rewards.

January debt progress

January 1st, 2014 at 09:51 pm

All the mortgage payments hit! Surprising because of the New Year's holiday.

US: $472 to principal
UK1: $216
UK2: $44
UK3: $48

All told, $780 down, $120 to go on the January debt goal. Probably the only debt payments I'll make until the end of the month.

On an unrelated note, got approved for 3 more credit cards today. Just 4 more to go, which I'll try to get done by Friday.