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Archive for February, 2013: Ceejay74's Personal Finance Blog
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Archive for February, 2013

March goal (debt snowbomb!)

March 1st, 2013 at 05:45 am

I should have a LOT to throw at debt this coming month! A pretty conservative estimate of what we should be able to put toward it:
Standard minimum debt payments $870
Extra debt repayment from normal budget surplus $1300
AS freelance check $600
AS federal tax return $4000

So ... deep breath ... I should be able to put $6770 straight to student loan principal this month! Happy birthday to me!!

And that's assuming:
- my $1100 stays lost in the bowels of the federal government all month. If it manages to find its way out, I could get even higher!
- AS's next freelance check doesn't come. If it does, that's $250 more.
- I don't get the withholdings sorted out in time to see any gain. There is a chance we could net $140 or so more on March 15.

Holy moly! But even discounting all of that, $6770 will be an amazing month of debt repayment.

Since my big-picture progress only has to get to $6687 (and is already at $4400), we're going to get months ahead in that goal.

Wow!

Snowball gaining size and speed!

February 28th, 2013 at 02:01 am

The $900 I sent to NT's student loan hit, with $898 going to principal! Oh, and it DOES take the money out of the loan I choose, which means I can eliminate the higher-interest portions sooner. Yay! Smile

That means we paid $2367 this month, surpassing the $1960 February debt repayment goal.

It also takes our big-picture progress to $4399.89, just $58.11 short of where I wanted us to be by the end of February. Not too mad at that result!

I'll record March debt goals tomorrow. Trying to get up the courage to include the $4K tax refund I'm planning to put toward debt ... that just won't seem real until I see AS's federal return is approved!

Ridiculously good BBQ pasta

February 28th, 2013 at 01:38 am

Years ago, we went to a restaurant that didn't have any vegan options. The server said she'd speak to the chef, and came back to say HE was vegan himself, and would whip up a special dish for me! He made pasta tossed in a BBQ sauce; it had veggies and may have had tofu (it's been so long I can't remember). All the meat-eaters at my table sampled it and loved it.

AS has mentioned making something similar for years, so I finally, finally tried it. And it was great! So I'm writing down what I did; otherwise I might forget. (Sauce is thanks to vegandad.blogspot.com, an inactive blog that's still up and full of great recipes.)

INGREDIENTS
Sauce:
- 1/4 cup margarine
- 1 sweet Vidalia onion, halved & thinly sliced
- 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 cup ketchup
- 1/3 cup maple syrup
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 1 tbsp vegan Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tbsp mustard
- few dashes of hot sauce (might use 1/2 a canned chipotle next time instead for a smokier flavor)

The rest:
1 lb. pasta (we used mostaccioli)
2 T vegetable oil
1 pkg extra firm tofu, drained, pressed & cut into smallish rectangles
1 large or 2 small zucchini, halved & sliced
1 large red, yellow or orange bell pepper, or equivalent in smaller peppers, chopped into largish pieces
8 oz. pineapple chunks, drained
1 pkg cherry tomatoes

Make the sauce:
1. Melt margarine in a saucepan over medium heat. Saute onion and garlic for 15 mins, until onions have cooked down and starting to brown
2. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to bubbling. Simmer for 15-20 mins, until sauce thickens and gets a nice deep red color. Can leave on low if it finishes first, stirring occasionally.

While that's cooking, heat pasta water. Add pasta when it's boiling; cook al dente. Reserve 1/4 cup water before draining.

Meanwhile, heat 1.5 T oil in large deep pan over med-high. When hot, add tofu in a single layer; check frequently and flip when lightly golden-brown and getting crisp.

When the other side of the tofu is just about done, add zucchini and peppers to the pan. Turn heat to high and flip or stir frequently. After about 5 minutes, add tomatoes and pineapple and continue to cook until tomatoes start to soften; the skin might slip off a couple.

Pour the reserved 1/4 c. pasta water into the BBQ sauce and stir.

Put the pasta in with the vegetables and pour the sauce over the top. Toss/stir over high heat for a minute or two until everything is coated with sauce.

Finally some REAL progress! This snowball's gonna get big, fast

February 27th, 2013 at 03:10 am

I've been checking at least twice a day since Saturday, so it seems like forever, but it was actually quite quick. The $675 I sent to NT's student loan this past weekend hit! $594 went to principal; not surprising so much interest had built up since my Feb. 1 payment is still in limbo somewhere.

Still, I'll take $594!

Also, AS's regular student loan payment to the same company hit, and $129 went to principal. I just noticed her total non-mortgage debt (which is just this one student loan now) is at $10,303. In three more months, it'll be under $10K!

That makes it $1469 down, $491 to go on the February debt goal.

That also takes our big-picture progress to $3501.89 for the year. The February goal is to get it to $4458, so we have $956.11 to go. I don't think we'll make it, but we'll come darn close, because ...

AS went and picked up one of her freelance checks yesterday; one had gone missing in the mail and the company cut a new one, and we deposited it right away. $900, and I sent a $900 payment to NT's student loan that very night!

That payment is pending in his account. Should hit tomorrow or Thursday, and since we just paid a bunch of interest, almost all of it will go to principal!

So, while we aren't going to hit our goal, I'm not too mad since we couldn't have known that $1100 would be stuck in the federal government all month. And who knows; maybe that will hit by Thursday and we'll make our February big-picture benchmark. (Yeah, right.)

Anyway, the thing about the big-picture goals is that it's all about meeting them in 4 years. If we fall behind one month we can always make it up later. And two things are making me very confident about making it up:

If AS's tax return goes through without a hitch, the government will give us $4000 to put us WAY ahead for the year.

And, as a result of changing our withholdings to try and avoid such a large refund next year, we'll probably have about $300 more per month. That's more than enough to cover my projected $264 monthly shortfall for meeting those goals! So if all goes well for the next four years, we could meet those goals without even breaking a sweat (or dipping into our fun money)!

Some bits of good news and some meh

February 25th, 2013 at 05:35 am

The main "meh" is just that my weight drifted back up over 130 at my weigh-in tonight. So, back to calorie counting for me until I get back down. It's a bummer because we're coming up on the birthday month in my family, and we love to eat and drink to celebrate, so it's going to be difficult. I'll just try to be very good on non-festive days.

Also, although I'm looking forward to everything coming up, the next few weeks are going to be spendy, spendy, spendy, with my personal spending money taking the brunt. Since I still owe back into the checking account for my website hosting, I feel behind all the time, but with all the events coming up, it may be a while before I pay off that debt to ourselves. Just these next two weeks I have:
March 2: buy bday present for friend's son (5th bday)
March 2: buy delivery food and booze for my birthday celebration
March 4: buying brunch on my day off to celebrate my and AS's bdays
March 9: buy pizza & treats for AA's 3rd bday party (luckily we only have a handful of guests)
March 10: buy bday present for AA's friend's 3rd bday party

It's like the dieting; I'm going to have to be REALLY stingy on all other spending fronts so I can stretch my money as far as possible.

On the good front:

Apple fixed our laptop -- for free! It took over an hour, and I don't think we're on a warranty of any kind. The only things they suggested to improve performance were a new battery and new operating system. About $200 total. Since we have $975 of expected future money designated for the repairs, that leaves quite a bit we can roll toward debt instead when we get it!

To that end, I decided to send some money to Sallie Mae even though they haven't posted the Feb. 1 payment. My reasoning is that the problem with the check getting cut from Direct Loan and routed through the federal government shouldn't be an issue if I make a payment directly to Sallie Mae. I was going to wait until that other payment posted but I just couldn't stand it.

I sent $675 tonight; $375 was bonus money from last year we'd been saving for a tax preparer until we decided we didn't need it, and $300 was credit card rewards we were going to use for an immigration lawyer until we decided to put that off as well.

Supposedly this should hit in 2 to 4 days, but I'll be checking daily until it does!

One potentially great thing about the loan being transferred to Sallie Mae: They let me choose which loan I wanted to put it to! Different amounts in the total have different interest rates depending on the going rate when we borrowed that portion. I picked the highest interest debt, of course. If my payment does indeed go toward that principal, this will be so satisfying, paying down those higher interest portions and saving a few more bucks in interest! (I don't know what DL did with the extra payments; I assumed they distributed them equally, but never kept track.)

Taxes almost done!

February 23rd, 2013 at 09:48 pm

Whew, I think I'll consider hiring someone again next year! That was brutal. AS's federal could be filed for free, but all the others would cost money, so I did them myself.

The worst part is having to cross-reference different forms and pages; I felt like my eyes were bugging out of my sockets by the end.

Luckily for AS's I had TaxAct's state refund amount, so when I got her manual state return to match that amount, I felt comfortable I'd done it right.

For me and NT, I used a free-file option on IRS where you fill in the forms, they do some of the math (but you need to know which forms to file), and you e-file on the IRS site itself. I tried and was rejected three times. Each time it said there was a data error on the education credit schedule. I quadruple checked my math as well as the instructions and the info I entered about the 1099-T, and couldn't figure out what was wrong. It says you can just print out and mail, so I think I'll do that. Hopefully it's just something weird like a character you can't use, or the name of the institution not looking exactly like on the 1099.

When I did the taxes more carefully, I found that AS's refund was about $1000 more than I thought, and NT and I owed about $400 more than I thought. Still, we came out $600 more ahead, so about $4600.

This is good, because I had already put $4000 in my head toward education debt, so when our computer crashed on Friday, I said we'd have to find another way to pay for it if it needed repairs or replacement. I was determined to put at least $4000 of tax money toward debt! So now there's an extra $600 we can use to repair or replace the laptop. (I'll find out soon; AS went to the Apple store half an hour ago. I brought my work laptop home so I'd still be able to get online this weekend.) Before we found out the refund was going to be more, AS accepted a $275 freelance assignment thinking she could use that to help pay for the laptop. So we'll have $875 to put toward it.

As for student loans, I don't know if any of this will happen in February, but in the next couple of months I should be able to put the following to student loan debt:
$1100 payment (the one already sent that hasn't showed up yet)
$1600 AS freelance money
$375 money saved by doing my own taxes
$400 CC bonus rewards (from 4 separate cards)
$4000 from tax refunds
That's $7475. The loan I want to get rid of is up to $19K with accumulated interest, so when all of the above hits, I should be able to get it down to about $11,525. I could pay the rest of it off with the regular extra debt repayment in the budget for the year! Of course, I still need to cashflow NT's summer and fall tuition, so I'd need to find more money for that if I hope to pay tuition AND pay off this loan. But it feels so close! A few more random windfalls between now and Dec. 2013, and this could be doable.

Still no word on AS's freelance check that never came, nor on the payment I sent to Direct Loan that should transfer to Sallie Mae. I did hear that they cut a check and sent it to some other federal govt. department who would then transfer it to Sallie Mae, so that's why it could take 4 to 6 weeks. It's already been 3 weeks, so hopefully not much longer!

The house is so quiet; AA had her first sleepover last night and a playdate all day today! She should be back in an hour. I wish I could have used the time to relax, but I knew this would be my best chance to get the taxes done; toddlers are incredibly and persistently distracting.

Big tax boon

February 22nd, 2013 at 01:17 am

Last night I stayed up late doing a rough sketch of our taxes on paper. I was rather stunned that there's a $4000 advantage to AS claiming SL on her tax return! Well, I guess that makes our decision for us. Feels a bit weird, but perfectly legal, so we'll do it! That money will go straight to the student loan when we get it.

AS will get refunds on both federal and state, and NT and I will owe on both, but we'll net about $4K all told. If we'd gone the other way, we would break even collectively.

We'll all change our withholdings so we come closer to breaking even next year.

Wow, the world seems hopelessly out of whack

February 21st, 2013 at 05:35 pm

Sometimes the terrible serendipity of Facebook has one person post this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html?pagewanted=14&_r=2&smid=fb-share&adxnnlx=1361466188-BTxT2coC722sFd6PnGoHqw

And another post this:

http://www.nationofchange.org/40-percent-americans-now-make-less-1968-minimum-wage-1361362370

And you read them in quick succession and think wow. We're doomed, aren't we?

Feeling better about a couple of my uncertainties

February 19th, 2013 at 06:43 pm

AS must have read yesterday's blog post because she came to my rescue on a couple of the points in it. Smile

- Immigration lawyer. She asked what I was feeling in doubt about, then went trolling the British immigration site as well as some blogs. My main sticking point right now is about who should claim SL on their taxes, so it won't raise any red flags or cause any confusion if we eventually try to immigrate. We talked it over and AS made me see that as non-married parents, she and NT could easily explain why SL had been claimed by someone in a particular year for support reasons, and NT and I could easily explain why she might appear on our tax forms but then not be part of our immigration application (because the mother had custody. It needn't raise any particular concerns that can't be easily explained; people have complicated parenting situations all the time. Now that I feel better about that part, I think we're going to hold off speaking with a lawyer, and just go with the most beneficial way to claim SL on our taxes.

- Taxes. Now that I can start on taxes, I'm still thinking about my random thought that maybe I could save us $300 or so by doing them myself. We've had an accountant handle them for the past two years, so maybe I could just look at what he submitted to the IRS and mimic that. Other than SL being born, not much has changed.

- Freelance checks. AS checked with the company she's expecting the three checks from, and their records show one of them being mailed out 1/29! So we think that's been lost in the mail, and AS is going to ask them to cut another one. Good thing she inquired about this. The other two checks won't be sent out until the next billing cycle. At least we know where we are.

So, with deciding not to meet with a lawyer, and if I manage to do our taxes myself, we may suddenly have $675 we can put to big-picture goals! I think I'll save it until that student loan payment hits, then put it toward that loan. (I don't want to send out any more money until I verify they received that payment, though.)

February 2013 net worth update

February 19th, 2013 at 06:38 pm

Assets:
NT's UK pensions:
#1: 13,884 pounds ($22,214)
#2: 17,268 pounds ($27,629)
#3: 3,709 pounds ($5,934)
NT's 401(k): $22,072
NT's Roth IRA: $5,130
AS's 401(k): $8,868
AS's trad. IRA: $1,682
AS's Roth IRA: $10,690
CJ's 401(k): $51,818
CJ's Roth IRA: $5,130
NT's flat: 125,000 pounds ($200,000)
CJ & AS's condo: $145,000
Emergency fund (shared asset): $15,000
House down payment/moving fund (shared): $3,494
---
Total Assets: $524,661

Total Debt: $276,737

Current Estimated Net Worth: $247,924

January 2013 estimate: $243,944

Change in net worth: +$3,980

Summary: We haven't had as much progress as I would have hoped because of a student loan payment hung up in the ether somewhere, and some freelance checks we haven't received. Despite that, we had modest gains in all our retirement funds and got rid of a bit of debt, so we did all right.

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.

Lousy 28-cent progress, other musings

February 18th, 2013 at 11:39 pm

Sigh. The only progress lately has been $.28 in interest in the savings account, which goes toward our medical fund. (The other $75 I would normally put there, I sent as part of the big payment that hasn't posted.) I've been trying to be productive lately, but I'm still stuck, a bit. Remember that list of things I was waiting on? Here's an update:

- Dentist. Success! The dentist I asked to do a free consultation said no, so I changed my plan of attack. I contacted a brand new dentist, didn't say anything about the periodontal classification my last dentist gave me, and didn't give them my records. Guess what? They gave me a regular checkup. I also didn't tell them that one of my previous dentists had me going 3 times a year (one of which wouldn't be covered by insurance), and they said every 6 months was fine.

- Immigration lawyer. No real progress since the one lawyer said he wouldn't maybe be the most qualified and gave us a list of UK attorneys. I'm still hoping to get some help from AS and/or NT on how to proceed finding someone to consult with us. Haven't got it yet. They are both crazy busy, and I'm feeling burnt out and overwhelmed from thinking about our situation.

- Taxes. Still waiting until we consult with an immigration lawyer. I did have the thought that if I looked at what the accountant did the past two years, I could probably copy him and do my taxes for free this year instead of paying over $300...so that would mean I could wait pretty much until the last minute to file.

- Student loan payment. So Sallie Mae has not registered our payment that Direct Loan supposedly sent them about 12 days ago.

- Freelance checks. Still no sign of them. AS has two, maybe three that she's owed. I can't even remember the amounts she's expecting, but I think it'll be about $1800 total.

- Big-picture progress. See 28 cents above. Frown 99% of my potential debt repayment and big-picture progress for February is tied up in the previous two items. If neither or only one happens, I may not even hit my Feb. goals.

- Credit card churn. This is going great! We did the three Barclays cards and already got credited enough for $100 per card, and made sure we charged at least $100 on each card. So I just have to get in there and claim them. I also applied AS for a Chase Freedom offer we got in the mail; the standard $100 for spending $500. I know double-dips aren't exactly allowed, but if they're going to offer, we're going to take it! I'll pay the home insurance and that'll be half of the $500 right there.

- Performance review. No progress; end of March and all. Not looking forward to it or anything, but there's always that small chance of a small raise attached to the review. I believe it won't happen until the end of March. I think of the three of us, I've got the best chance for a raise. (Meaning, I have slightly more than no chance at all.)

- League of Ordinary Savers meeting. Went well! I do need to do some more activity on my website and Facebook page; haven't done that for almost a week. But I've gotten a couple favorable comments from friends, AND a total stranger liked the Facebook page!

So, there you have it. Some progress but not much. But, the month is only 2/3 over.

This is the year!

February 12th, 2013 at 11:25 pm

You know how sometimes it seems your group of friends or loved ones get on a similar path but in seemingly unrelated ways? Well, my friends/acquaintances and I seem to be on a very creative, community-building one.

- I started my League of Ordinary Savers discussion group, and I also started a Facebook page for it, and started adding content to my ordinarysavers.com website.
- A friend started a Facebook page, to become a website, where he posts weekly short-story and novella reading recommendations.
- Another friend started a crafting group and may also start a book club soon.
- An acquaintance who's a great photographer had a recent showing at a coffee house. His sister, who lives halfway across the country, just had her first showing of jewelry she's started making.
- One friend is working on an article she hopes to publish at a magazine, about another friend's photography.

It's not like I don't have creative or socially active friends, but it seems lately we've been on FIRE! Smile Apparently, this is the year we get off our asses and do something.

The first meeting of the League was a success!

February 11th, 2013 at 05:19 am

As I mentioned a while back, I initiated a discussion group among friends and Facebook acquaintances, which after some thought I christened "the League of Ordinary Savers." About 7 local people expressed interest as well as several FB friends who live far from me.

Today was the day of the in-person meeting, so of course it snowed pretty hard. But 4 people managed to make it: a fairly new but close friend, a woman I've known socially for years, and a couple whom I met through another friend but don't know very well.

I wasn't sure what to expect since everyone's finances are always so secret and can be different from their appearances, so I prepared a little "budget fitness" quiz (that I didn't end up using) and mocked up fake versions of my two main spreadsheets, as well as an old budget using a rudimentary text-file list, and printed copies out.

I was surprised when the couple and the old acquaintance both pulled out laptops and shared their budgeting systems! It's so easy to feel like no one outside of Saving Advice does ANYthing to control their finances, so it was cool to see that.

One used an Excel spreadsheet, which is what I do, but his was way different. The other uses Mvelopes. The last attendee was the youngest and also single, and didn't have a structured system. All the guests had interesting perspectives and I really loved sharing our different strategies and stories. I even pulled up my menu/grocery list spreadsheet when we were talking about meal planning. I was kind of embarrassed as I did it because I think it makes me look really anal, but the husband of the couple called it "brilliant" and everyone seemed impressed.

I had already decided that I was going to parlay the "League" name I came up with into a website and Facebook page, but I wanted to see how the group went, to see if it would bring up good topics and integrate well with an online presence. I think it will! It was refreshing and interesting to have that human connection, and I think it will lend a unique tone to the online stuff, so I'm going to try and reference the group periodically in the posts I make.

I had already created the website but hadn't done much with it. Tonight after the meeting I created the corresponding Facebook page. I jotted down ideas that the meeting had inspired and will post them periodically over the next couple of months. I vaguely discussed a second meeting for April, so hopefully this will keep going!

Squeaky wheel keep on turnin'

February 7th, 2013 at 09:12 pm

Following up on yesterday's productive day, we figured out how to use the Wi-Fi of our new provider last night. We tested it on laptop, iPad, iPod touch and Wii and it worked great for everything. I tried to call and cancel our Comcast internet but they said I'd have to call back in the morning.

So bright and early, I called and canceled. The rep was trying to offer me temporary sweeteners to keep me, but I told her that I wanted a stable price that wouldn't go up all the time.

I got an email confirming the cancellation and it seemed like they'd be giving me a partial credit on my next bill, though it was hard to understand what the email meant. But hopefully I'll start saving sooner than I thought. Either way, glad to stick it to Comcast.

I received a reply from the dental office about whether or not they'd give a free consultation. Nope: They'd charge $86 for it, more than probably a periodontal exam itself would cost!

I looked around at private dental insurance to see if it would be comparable in price to get my own insurance policy with someone my old dentists would accept, but it would be significantly more money to get one with any kind of decent coverage.

SO this morning I checked my insurance website and called a new dentist I haven't tried before. I made appointments for me as well as AA, who has most if not all her teeth and is almost 3, so it's about time!

My plan is to not even mention the periodontal issue, and to not provide records from my latest dentist. If this new dentist decides on their own to code as periodontal then fine, I will accept that and pay higher prices from now on.

I also received an email from the immigration lawyer saying he would be willing to help as much as he could, but felt we might want someone more versed in British immigration. He sent us a list of contacts. Tonight we're going to look them over, decide if any look promising, and if not we'll either do our own search or ask our adoption lawyer for another referral.

Checked the Sallie Mae account and the student loan payment has not posted. They have until tomorrow morning and then they're getting another call! Smile

AND, our diaper provider mentioned that we're using about 30 cloth diapers per week, instead of the 80 we pay for. I've had a feeling we were at much less, but have been hesitant to bug him about it because he also handles the composting of our toddler's pull-ups, and because he's a really great, local business guy that we love to support. But when he sent that email, I went ahead and asked if that meant our fee would go down a bit. He said it would! Not sure how much, but any amount it decreases will go straight to our big-picture goals. Woo hoo!

In other news, for the first time in months I have spending money left over instead of owing something in! I have $40 left in my wallet, so tomorrow I'm taking $40 less of spending money and applying that amount to what I owe for the website hosting. I was only planning to pay in $10 or $20 at a time, so this is a big chunk gone! This is good, because with Valentine's Day and birthdays coming up, I'll be spending a lot more than usual.

Also, instead of leaking small amounts of grocery money over the week, we seem to have gained a bit back instead! NT put back in $3 for a snack he'd bought on the last shopping trip, and I applied a small credit for a return that finally showed up on our card, and the diapers cost slightly less than I estimated. So we're starting the weekend with $123 to spend instead of $116! Only $7 difference, but I'll take it! Usually the grocery budget gets depleted by unexpected needs or stays the same over the course of a week, so it's a nice surprise.

NT found an ideal birthday party venue and queried one of his favorite local DJs. Just those two things would cost $575, and we only have $663 budgeted. But NT said he will take fewer birthday presents so we can put some of the gift budget toward his party instead, and I decided I'll also donate $50 of the budget for MY bday gifts. I'll also kick in some spending money if necessary. We should be able to scrape together plenty for some nice food and drinks. If we can't afford to cater the food, we can always economize by preparing the party food ourselves. And we're fans of boxed wine and cheap beer, so I don't feel self-conscious about going that route if need be. Then we just need to arrange a babysitter. I think it'll be a very memorable 40th birthday party!