Financial Fridays

do you have a day of the week when you focus on money? get everything in order? I really think I should otherwise all the days run together and then ‘was that bill due yesterday?’ happens.

Yesterday was pretty close to being my financial catch up day of the MONTH. here’s why:

  • I balanced my checkbook after 3 weeks
  • transferred money to savings
  • tallied how much I owe Mom for my part of the phone bill
  • filled up the Toyota with gas
  • got coffee with sbx gift card
  • withdrew my July cash
  • picked up books at the library book sale
  • borrowed a miter saw from my cousin
  • dropped off my water and gas/electric bills here in town
  • confirmed my mortgage payment was drafted as scheduled

I found some great deals at the book sale, I’m still pretty excited. Like 21 Dr. Seuss hardcovers for $2! Or 40 volumes of Shakespeare for $10? Ridiculously cheap.

Next up I need to pay my quarterly taxes, send my payment for the Cadillac, and update my savings goals now that we’re halfway through the year.

Ego and Fear and Money, oh My!

I’m going to resist classifying this post because, as y’all should know by now, I just write what comes into my head.

Ever since my trip to Colorado I’ve been really thinking about my life on the meta level – why do I do what I do? What’s influencing me? Who is influencing me? What guides and directs my life and actions and thoughts on a daily basis?

Really, this post is all about motivation but you can partially blame it on the Wizard of Oz DVDs I ordered in January. I can’t help it. I’m from Kansas and I like sparkly shoes.

While I can’t definitively isolate all of the positive influences by which I want to influence my life, I did find three not-so-positive ones that I’m now hyper aware of:

  • Ego
  • Fear
  • Money

None of these things are bad by nature but when the control your motivation, watch out!

Ego, aka ‘because I’m important’

This one is born and bred in the school system, I swear. Who gets attention in schools but the kids who know the most, have the neatest handwriting and excel in academics? They get bumper stickers and certificates and recognition in school assemblies. From a very early age we’re conditioned to want that recognition and do whatever it takes to achieve it. Don’t think I’m the artsy kid who felt left out because I could draw better than spell. Oh, I got those little certificates and I’m sure there in a file cabinet around here somewhere! And I can’t draw. At all.

For the most part this evolves but still, no matter where your passion and strengths lie, it’s ingrained to be the best, the star, the one who gets attention. When that ego gets in the way of everything else it’s a dangerous thing, baby. When you act the way you act, work the jobs you work and communicate the way you communicate to feed your ego it’s a losing battle. Because the most powerful things we can do is serve others.

Fear, or ‘oh crap!’

I’ve written about this before, but oh how do I fall back into it all the damn time! Making decisions based on fear (of running out of money, of looking stupid, of becoming like people I dislike) means that I’m working against, instead of working towards an outcome. And if I’m just running from something, I’m going to be running all over the place without a real direction.

At this stage in my life the biggest fear is the unknown. The most horrible, nagging question EVER: what do you want to be when you grow up? Do I really have to choose NOW? What if it (life) changes drastically? Who really sets the entire path for their life at 18, does everything they set out to do and is happy throughout?

I really like working from a place of nervous fear, that jittery, I-better-get-this-right-because-it’s-really-important-and-I-want-to-deliver feeling. Good fear is motivating. Crippling, scary-hide-under-the-bed-and-cry-because-I-can’t-make-a-decision-because-it-might-be-the-wrong-decision fear is not so productive.

Money, really doesn’t buy happiness

Despite a book which suggests the contrary from a former MSN Money editor, money doesn’t result in inner joy, peace or fulfillment. Sometimes money does help make life easier, I won’t deny it. But the idea that money, cash and more moolah will bring some kind of satisfaction is a lie. Why then does money motivate so many life decisions?

Do you work a job you hate because the pay is good? Or it’s more than unemployment? Do you engage in frugality because you fear running out of something? Do you feel the need to spend money to feel better without caring what you spend money on?  I used to notice this with friends who had parents that were absent 18 hours of the day, home just to sleep, when their child was in elementary school and junior high. ‘Cause nothing bad could happen to a 10 year old left alone all day. These parents substituted their presence, time, affection and attention with money. Poorly. Now I see adults doing the same thing to themselves! I work too many hours, didn’t have any relaxation time, managed a big account, went to the gym every day and didn’t have dessert all last month! Now I will spend $50 or $500 or $5000 on something I care nothing about as a reward. Thus, I need more money to reward myself more so I can try to feel better.

Do you know what is motivating your decisions? Have you ever stopped to think and consider it?

Bulk Buying and Cooking for Singles

There are some great sites out there lauding once a month cooking which usually involves large casseroles, piles of waffles and pancakes and a quantity of food that is staggering to me.

And yet I have a Costco membership I use frequently, buy in bulk packages at the co-op and often have enough food in my freezers and pantry to eat for a month or more without shopping.  It’s a fine balance between getting the best price for food (usually in bulk) and not throwing money out by dumping spoiled food in the trash.

Here are some of my tricks.

Snacks

I make granola in huge portions and keep it fresh in a glass jar to top yogurt or to mix in with cereal. Rolled oats, raw sunflower seeds, raisins and cinnamon.

Costco sells a 5 pound bag of organic carrots for just a few dollars. I divide the bag up into 12 small bags of carrots for snacks

Great for eating raw or dipped in hummus.  Other vegetables good with hummus include peppers, cucumbers and broccoli.

My co-op sells peppers in bulk bags of 2-3 pounds for under $2/pound. These red peppers were under $1 a pound in the half price bin.  I like peppers fresh in a variety of dishes but they are a bit of a pain to wash, prep, slice and keep these from going bad. So when I buy in bulk I take the time to pre-slice and chop to freeze in smaller portions. Some are sliced for fajitas and burritos,

and smaller pieces are great for stuffed zucchini boats and scrambled eggs.  Since my freezers are full it’s tough to make room for flash freezing peppers. Ice cube trays are great for this,

Side Dishes

Typically I buy just one or two bags of dry sides (rice, pasta and lentils) at a time. I use glass jars from Ikea to store these sides and it’s simple enough to pour a half cup or more.

A bulk bag of broccoli is incredibly cheap at the co-op – less than one bag of steam fresh from the grocery store.

This was about a fourth of the broccoli I bought and couldn’t eat before it goes bad. So after steaming I let the broccoli cool and bagged it in smaller portions.

The chicken cutlets I picked up this summer ( 8 – 2.5 lb bags) is still in the freezer. It’s super easy to pull out one or two pieces, defrost and and add to the George Foreman grill.  In the coming month I may buy a bulk container of ground beef at Costco to brown and divide into smaller pieces.

Fruit

Summer is gone. Sigh.

But during those fruit filled months I stocked up on a variety of fruits including cherries, bananas, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, pineapples and blueberries. Flash frozen and then in small containers, it’s easy to use these in small portions for smoothies year round.

Remember these fruity summer drinks? One of the most complicated parts is adding a cup of lemon juice (fresh is best). So I take the lemons I get in bulk from my Grandma’s tree or direct from the farm and freeze them in ice cube trays.

Just a few tricks I use to save money on a few items I use over and over all year long.  I stagger these purchases to keep my grocery budget from getting out of control but in the long run it’s a simple way to make the most of low prices despite the fact I never make casseroles or pounds of pancakes.

On Family

I definitely have not spent any time reducing the amount of clutter around my house recently. Wednesday night I was called about my grandfather who was ill in the hospital. I am still at the hospital.

This is one of those times I am so grateful to have an emergency fund so I can

*refill my gas tank daily without worry

*buy lunch on the run without stress

And I’m grateful that I work independently and remotely so I can

*communicate with a small team as to my availability

*check email from my phone at the hospital on occasion

*use free wifi at the cafe to catch up on work

It’s freedom that I haven’t always enjoyed.

Thursday morning, shortly after the doctors said my Grandpa had an hour to live, I was there in the ICU holding his hand and talking. Grandpa leaned in and said “go to work.” Because that’s the kind of man he is, he is always thinking of others. And to him, if I wasn’t at work on a Thursday morning, I was putting myself in a precarious situation.

I am grateful that is not the case. If it were I would still be here, holding his hand, supporting my Grandma and praying that he recovers. But I would be a lot more stressed and worried.

So if you’re considering going out this weekend and having a lot of fun, or just spending money you don’t need to spend, consider putting some of that in your emergency fund. I hope you never leave your home at 10pm, driving 80 mph and praying you arrive in time. But if you do I hope the last worry on your mind is the costs associated with such a trip.

Are We Just Competitive Jerks?

You hear the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” often in personal finance writing to denote the trend of spending money to impress the neighbors. But once the competition with the Joneses stops another one seems to always crop up to take its place.

I would argue the world is larger than our neighborhoods now, it’s not just about the family across the street and mental ‘my SUV is bigger than your SUV’  – truly the world has become our bragging place. Now we can brag on twitter, post pictures on flickr, write a note on facebook, and show up to lunch to show off in person.

And for that reason you’ll never win. It’s feasible to get the newest car in the neighborhood, even the best television in your family. But when you set yourself up to compete with everyone on the internet you will always lose. Sometimes you’ll lose by default, “you got the new iPhone 64? Oh, that’s cool I guess. My cousin got the early release iPhone 65…” It’s not enough to be the first one to have the elusive it item, you need to be the first one they’ve heard of who has it too.

Personally, I don’t think it’s all that impressive to buy crap. Even nice crap. One of my favorite quotes comes from Justin who has the great Twitter feed @shitmydad says:

“Son, no one gives a shit about all the things your cell phone does. You didn’t invent it, you just bought it. Anybody can do that.”

Once you break away from that constant one upsmanship you’d think the competition would go away. And that’s now always the case.
The odd thing is that I’ve observed this behavior – sometimes more freqently – when people move in the opposite direction and reduce their spending. This borders on the misery competition scale* but I hate a race to the bottom in any form.

True, it’s encouraging to hear how someone is saving money but it’s discouraging when that becomes insulting. “You spent $1.28 on spahetti sauce? Well if you learned to stack coupons and shopped where I shopped and once dated the store manager like I did you could have 2 jars of sauce for only 87 cents!”

Similarly, there’s a competition to become the cheapest of them all. If you mention forgoing meat three nights a week someone else will tell you they’re a vegetarian and never “waste money” on meat.  You find some great curtains on sale that will make your living room nicer and lower your electric bill and someone else admonishes that they sew their own from scraps and never use the air conditioning anyways.

Again, unless you move to a cave in the wilderness and sew clothing out of leaves you’re never going to win.

The solution is simple in theory, difficult in application. Set your own rules, your own expectations. Know where your balance lies and when someone begins to tell you how they spent more and got something sooner or went without and got that cheaper than you, nod politely and say “that’s nice.”

Of course you could just refrain from ever talking about yourself, your purchases and your spending but that’s a little much.

*the misery competition is prevalent among teenagers and unfortunately some people never outgrow it. The competition only produces losers and sounds like this:
Loser #1 – I have two tests on Friday! I’m soooo miserable, I can’t study, I have soccer practice! Waaaaaaaah!
Loser #2 – Oh yeah? Well I have 3 tests, a quiz, research paper due, soccer AND tennis practice, a tournament AND my Grandma is dying!
Loser #3 – Oh yeah? Well….

An Example of the Personal Finance Continuum

I LOVE this comment from Jaime on the Personal Finance Continuum post:

“I think I read your post wrong. It doesn’t make sense to me. My financial picture when it comes to spending less looks more like this:
Make the things you have last longer by taking care of them, make your own cleaning supplies,cloth instead of paper as much as possible,reusable items over convienence,trade/barder for goods and services,choose homemade over store-bought…things like this.”

The idea of the post was that becoming financially aware and in control of your spending does not always mean spending less. Lots of people assume that they’re not making financial progress because they’re not frugal enough.

I loved Jaime’s example of how she spends less and her blog is full of ways that they live according to their values (like the tip to wash and fill a used plastic bottle with an inch of water, freeze, then fill with water before going out. The ice at the bottom is just enough to keep the entire thing cool!).

As we all look for ways to make the most of our money it’s important to remember that we need to make choices based on our values and goals – not just on the cost.

If you value sustainability and reducing waste then place mats, cloth napkins, cleaning rags and reusable water bottles are great ways to save money AND avoid waste.

But sometimes values don’t align with the cheapest option.

Let’s use an example from my own life for the personal finance continuum: smoothies.

When I didn’t pay ANY attention to my finances I went to Jamba Juice for my smoothie fix (Buy whatever I want to buy because I can). Sure, I paid cash but I didn’t think of the cost at all.

Next I heard the advice to “make it at home” and “cut back on eating out” (Consider new options). So I would buy yogurt, fruit and milk and make my own.

Now that I was making smoothies at home more frequently I had choices (Test one or more options). I could buy individual cups of yogurt for easy portion control OR a larger container that was a bit cheaper per unit.

I could buy fresh berries, frozen berries or pick my own.

I could use my blender OR buy a newer, fancier, sparkly blender.

Smoothies are not a cornerstone of my life so I don’t spend much time debating these choices. But I do want to make a smart decision (Weigh the cost savings against the time commitment, personal values and lifestyle).

Through trial and error I developed smoothie making habits that fit my life (Make an informed decision considering all of the options and chosing the one that aligns best with personal values.)

What choices fit my values?

This is the ultimate question when you move from blindly spending money without thinking to making conscious choices. Even on something as simple as a breakfat smoothie.

When it comes to smoothies I use my blender that does a great job blending (a gift from my parents). I buy the smaller containers of yogurt because they’re easier to measure, I can mix different flavors, coupons are easier to find, and I can freeze them if needed while a larger container could go bad.

I buy my fruit fresh in season as much as possible and supplement with frozen fruit. It’s often cheaper to buy a bag of frozen berries rather than drive to the co-op (or farm), pick out the seasonal produce, take it home, wash, freeze and package it. But I like the taste of this:

more than the taste of this:

So while the most frugal thing may be frozen or canned fruit, the action that aligns best with my values (supporting local business, real food, enjoying the experience of picking food, eating healthy food I actually LIKE) is fresh fruit.

And it is cheaper to make my own yogurt rather than buy but it doesn’t match up to my lifestyle (the additional cost buys me free time since I don’t have to measure, mix, cook, test and package the yogurt, not to mention clean the dishes!).

My advice on becoming financially savvy really isn’t about the lowest cost option – it’s about considering your choices and choosing the best one for your family.

It’s funny how these things evolve – I use this container for my plastic straws:

and recently found out about these awesome glass straws:

so I’ve decided to finish using the plastic straws I’ve already purchased and then buy a set of these nice reusable ones. I did the same thing when I wanted pretty chopsticks in San Francisco.

Personal Finance Continuum

Several PF bloggers have talked about the continuum they’ve traveled from ignorant to finance novice to book writing ‘expert’. And it seems there’s an untold progression to financial awareness that many presume look something like this:

Pay someone to clean my house
Buy my own cleaning supplies and do it myself
Use coupons to buy my cleaning supplies
Use half the recommended amount for cleaning
Substitute paper towels with rags
Make my own cleaners
Downsize my house to make cleaning easier and cheaper

Or perhaps like this:

Lease a new car
Finance a new car
Finance a used car
Save up for a used car and pay cash
Sell the car and buy a nice bicycle
Sell the nice bicycle and pick one up on freecycle
Sell the freecycle bicycle and walk everywhere
Make your own shoes

The tendency is to believe that when one moves from financial illiteracy to mastering the basics of personal finance that you become more frugal as awareness grows.

Not necessarily.

Instead of assuming that taking financial control means living in a shack eating beans out of a can and showering once a month while compiling a Scrooge McDuck worthy vault of cash – let’s look at a more likely scenario.

When someone becomes financially savvy it’s not just the amount of cash outlay that’s changing, it’s the mindset. It usually looks like this:

Buy whatever I want to buy because I can – on credit, loans or cash
Consider new options – buy instead of lease, do it myself?
Test one or more option – check out other insurance rates, try meatless meals
Weigh the cost savings against the time commitment, personal values and lifestyle
Make an informed decision considering all (or most) of the options and chosing the one that aligns best with personal values.

That might mean hiring a cleaning service. Or spending money on a newer vehicle, going out to eat or buying a smart phone. Changing your spending criteria will result in spending money when there are ways to be more frugal. It’s true that a gym is cheaper than a personal trainer and free weights are cheaper than the gym and water jugs are cheaper than free weights and… it’s always possible to find a cheaper alternative and debates have been waged for years over who is the most frugal of them all.  But financial literacy isn’t all about frugality – it’s about conscious choices.

The difficulty comes when we’re slugging through the endless number of personal finance choices and consider friends and family who have different values. While it’s difficult to see people make bad choices because they didn’t consider all the options it’s sometimes even harder to see someone look at the options available and choose different than you did.

It feels like judgement, doesn’t it? I mean, I have a 3 bedroom house and they bought a one room cabin. Or I use decade old cleaning rags while he hires a housekeeper.

It’s useful to take a step back and ask in these situations, how did you come to that decision? It’s non-threatening, seeks to understand and allows you to hear the other person’s point of view. Not just their point of view though, you’ll begin to see their values. That family that lives in a cabin, splits their own wood and cans vegetables from the garden places a high value on self-sufficiency. The couple that live in a busy city, use public transit and enjoy Pub Trivia place a high value on community.

How do your financial choices demonstrate your values? Do they communicate your values? As I mentioned yesterday, I engage in frugality in some very basic ways but I don’t feel deprived or cheap. The things I don’t care about spending money on are in line with my value system.