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12/21/2009

How Are We Doing?

As you probably figured out from my "Until next time..." at the end of this week's blog post, I didn't realize it was already our last blog for Project Money. It seems like it went by so fast. Since we are wrapping things up, I'd like to answer a question we've been asked often over the past several months: How are we doing?
 
The answer depends on how you want to measure things. Are we debt free? No, we're not. But we're on our way. Even though we still haven't brought the debt balance down to zero and our savings balance as high as we'd like it to be eventually, we have had many great accomplishments over the past several months:


-- Owen wasn't even born yet when we applied to be part of Project Money. We had no idea how much things were going to cost when he arrived, and when we started to figure that out, we had no idea how we were going to pay for them. By taking a look at how we could reduce our monthly bills and cut spending, we were able to free up the $700 it costs each month to put Owen in daycare so both Willie and I can keep working. This was a big deal for us. Even though this means we're chipping away at our debt a little more slowly than others perhaps, we really did come up with a lot of money that we didn't have each month before.

-- When we started Project Money, I was contributing $0 each month to my 401K. Now, after a little prodding from our coach, Mike, I am contributing 5% of my income every month. I am truly excited about this because I realize how important it is to invest in myself and my future. I plan to increase my contributions to 6% monthly in the new year to take full advantage of the match from my employer.

-- We also realized where we were wasting money and have become more conscious of how we're spending.  I comparison shop a lot more, clip coupons, and try to evaluate whether we really need something. Sure there have been some slip-ups when an impulse buy gets the best of us, but this change in thinking something we can carry with us through the rest of our lives, and hopefully teach Owen as he grows up and learns about being responsible with money.

-- Possibly the best thing about being in Project Money has been the conversations we've had with friends, family, and coworkers. A lot of them didn't know what Project Money was all about--they just asked why we were staring at them when they went to cash a check at the credit union or waving at them from a billboard on the beltline. After we got to explain why we were in those places and what Project Money was, we really had some good conversations about money. We realized that a lot of the other people in our lives were in similar situations and we told them what we had been learning and encouraged them to talk to a financial advisor. I don't think there's anyone out there who couldn't use some help or a fresh set of eyes when it comes to looking at their financial lives. I am glad we could help inspire people to take a step in that direction.
 
Of course we've had lots of smaller accomplishments as well. In the end, we are considering Project Money to be just the start of our journey to a future of financial happiness.
 
We'd like to thank our coach, Mike Bunge, and everyone else at Summit Credit Union for letting us be a part of this program and for giving us a chance to make the changes we needed to make to start turning things around for us. And thank you to everyone who's been reading our blogs and sharing your own great ideas. We have truly been inspired by you and the other Project Money families!

12/18/2009

Winter...

What's with all the snow? I can't believe how quickly winter snuck up on us. It seems just weeks ago we were walking around without a jacket on and now we're up to our midsections in snow and cold weather. Winter sure has brought some added expenses for our family. In part, I am talking about small things like salt for the sidewalk and a new pair of mittens. But the largest expense has been a set of four new tires for my car. I tried to put off purchasing them, but I got them last weekend after the first snow. And after the blizzard that came a few days later, boy am I glad I did. The $325 price tag far outweighs the cost of what might have happened if I didn't have a safe vehicle. My old tires were the originals from when I purchased the car 7 years ago, so it was definitely time for replacements. The snowstorm also caused me to take an unpaid day off of work because I am out of sick and vacation time for the year.

Winter also continues to add to our healthcare expenses. Owen had another trip to urgent care this weekend. On top of getting his cold and nasty cough back, he got pinkeye, too. I'm thankful more than ever that our insurance covers the cost of the office visits and we only had to pay the copay for his meds.

Of course, the other big winter expense is holiday shopping. We are still trying to be responsible and conscious of how much we've been spending, and so far we are well within our budget. However, we haven't really gotten a lot of our shopping done yet. It has been hard for us to get into the Christmas spirit this year, despite my optimism in the last blog post. We haven't put up our tree yet, wrapped any presents, sent cards, or done any baking yet. I guess the good news is whenever we do get into the spirit and do some of these things, we won't have to spend any more money. We have an artificial tree that's already paid for, leftover cards and wrapping paper from last year, and I'm pretty well stocked up on baking supplies. Until next time...

12/02/2009

Being Sick is Expensive

Another month comes to an end, and unfortunately it was one that ended with our whole family being sick! Initially, you might think that being stuck at home for a week would save us money, but it turns out that it added some unexpected expenses: A few unplanned trips to the grocery store to pick up soup, juice, and Gatorade; money spent on a neti pot and Kleenex at the drug store (Note to self: the cheap facial tissues are only a good bargain if you don't actually need to blow your nose with them. I used so many that I had to splurge on the super soft ones with lotion!); an additional trip to the drug store to buy sinus medicine when I was still feeling miserable despite the help of the neti pot; and a couple meals ordered out when I just didn't feel well enough to cook. We are also still waiting for the bill for our copay on the medicine and nebulizer we had to get for Owen from urgent care the night before Thanksgiving. We are just thankful that we have good insurance that covered the cost of this visit and the other two doctor's visits last week.
 
On a good note, we sold some more stuff on Craigslist, adding a total of $110 to our holiday shopping fund. We're not expecting the money we make from selling things to cover all of our holiday expenses, but at least it is a good chunk of it, which means less money for us to come up with in December (and less money to put on the credit card!) We have not used our credit card since before Project Money started and we'd like to keep it that way. Since our last blog post, I actually did make it to Savers to look around, and I found two great holiday gifts for a total of $9.47. It was kind of fun seeing all the variety and "one-of-a-kind" items you wouldn't find at a department store.

11/19/2009

Christmas Spirit

Last time around, a couple other families started talking about their plans for saving money for the holidays. Generally, I'm not one to get in the Christmas spirit until at least the day after Thanksgiving. I think people that turn their holiday lights on the day after Halloween are nuts, and it really bothered me that IHOP started advertising holiday eggnog and gingerbread pancakes the week BEFORE Halloween. Nonetheless, the holidays are coming and, as our coach, Mike, pointed out at our check-in last week, we'd be better off if we started planning for it. So this week's task is figuring out who we need to get gifts for and how much we can afford to (or plan to) spend.
 
I think this holiday season is going to be scaled back for a lot of families. I know we've already decided not to exchange gifts between some of the adults in our family. Like Rachel and Kari and Darek, I've thought about doing some homemade gifts to save money (I make a mean batch of cinnamon-sugar nuts!). Willie and I also decided that we are not going to buy something just for the sake of buying something. So often we draw a blank when it comes to getting gifts for certain family members. A lot of times we end up buying them useless junk that they don't need. For example, just because Aunt Myrtle loves wiener dogs and collects wiener-dog-related stuff doesn't mean that she NEEDS that winter scarf with the knitted wiener dog head on one end and the tail on the other. (This is just a hypothetical example--Aunt Myrtle is not really a member of our family and we would probably never buy such a scarf! Just saying that it's easy to fall into the trap of buying something, ANYTHING, just because so-and-so kind of likes things with that theme.)
 
We're also planning to use some alternatives to mall-shopping to come up with these gifts. We've had luck with eBay in the past (as long as shipping costs aren't too high) and other online sites where you can get things at a discount. I bet we could also find some neat things at the Dollar Store or thrift stores. Craigslist might be another good option--I've never bought anything from it, but we've sold plenty of things on there. And that's one thing we're doing to try to raise money for our holiday gift fund--yesterday I made $30 by selling some used video games.
 
How do you budget and save money for holiday gift giving?

11/03/2009

We Want To Be The Biggest Losers!

You might think from reading the title of this blog entry that we are confused about the competition we’re in, but really, Project Money and The Biggest Loser have a lot in common. They’re both about tightening your belt: getting rid of the excess fat that weighs you down (your debt), working out hard (managing your budget), and building muscle to keep you strong (increasing your savings to build a solid financial foundation). Calories in, calories out = paycheck in, debt out.

Like on The Biggest Loser, it was easy to start out strong because there were so many things we could do to really kick things into gear. After those big things were out of the way, it really became about discipline and staying on track. We’ve definitely continued to make progress as we “weigh in” each month, but there are times when I feel like we’re one of those contestants who seems like they work out hard but then only pulls a one or a two at weigh-in time. I think most of the time this is due to consuming “extra calories.” Sometimes these are for a legitimate reason, like having to take our cat to the vet again. Other times they could surely be prevented.

Take this month, for example. I really wanted to go see Daughtry at the coliseum when they were in town. I had thought about buying tickets for months but I had enough control to say No, I don’t need to go. We can save that $70 (or however much it was after taxes and fees) and put it towards our debt. Then the end of October came and Willie and I had an opportunity to have a kid-free night out (coincidentally on the same night as the concert I wasn’t going to). I really wanted to see this one horror movie that was supposed to be one of the scariest movies ever, so we went. We went to the matinee to save money (although, when did the “cheap” tickets go up to $6.50?!), but I’m one who just cannot resist a big bucket of buttery popcorn at the movie theatre, so we got that, too. Afterwards, we had time to spare and were still hungry because we hadn’t eaten dinner yet, so we decided to try a new restaurant in our neighborhood. After all of this, we were out about the same amount of money I would have spent on those concert tickets. The food was pretty good and it was nice to have a night out, but the movie wasn’t that impressive and at the end of the day, we really had nothing to show for the money we spent. Talk about ruining your diet with too many “empty calories.” At the end of the day, I would have much rather gone to the concert—at least then I might have had a memorable experience.

I guess the point of my story is that it doesn’t take much to blow a “weigh in” and make mistakes when it comes to sticking to your financial plan. The good news is, each time you do something like this, you feel bad about it and maybe you’ll remember it for the next month. We are not giving up on improving our financial situation, but we do realize the tackling this challenge is much like weight loss in that it doesn’t happen overnight and we’ll really have to work hard to get where we want to be. It took years to put on all those “pounds” and will take some time to work them off. We accept the fact that we might not be “the biggest loser” for the Project Money competition, but we are looking forward to being slim and strong financially down the road.

Now if only I could get Bob or Jillian to ride along in my purse and keep me in line whenever I leave the house…

10/21/2009

The Great Pumpkin

I’m not particularly a fan of fall (I’m more of a spring person), but one thing I do look forward to every year is taking a trip to the pumpkin farm. Willie and I used to take my niece to Schuster’s Playtime Farm when she was younger, and this year we got to take Owen to pick out his first Halloween pumpkin. Aside from helping out a local farming family, I really enjoy going because it’s fairly cheap and a fun way to spend the afternoon.

Owen enjoyed seeing all of the farm animals, including pigs, goats, chickens, donkeys, llamas, and kittens. He also did pretty well on the hayride around the farm on the way to the pumpkin patch (although I think he enjoyed staring at the lady at the end of the hay wagon more than he did the scenery. If you’re reading this, sorry! I know it’s rude to stare.) We ended up picking a medium size pumpkin—the perfect size, because it’s small enough that you don’t have to clean out too much pumpkin guts, but big enough that mommy can get some nice pumpkin seeds to roast and snack on. Next year should be even more fun because he’ll be able to enjoy more of the other activities they have there for kids.

As far as other things concerning Halloween go, we decided not to spend a lot on a costume for Owen since he’s too little to go trick or treating. Instead we bought a little jack-o-lantern onesie and pants and a matching hat with a pumpkin stem on it (for way less than $10), figuring that he could wear pieces of it again.

I’m curious to know if any of you have other tips for being thrifty around Halloween time. What inexpensive activities do you do with your family this time of year?

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10/07/2009

Shopping Itch

Sometimes I miss shopping just to shop. It used to be a way for me to get out of the house and have some “me” time. I’m the kind of person that flips through the Sunday paper and enjoys reading the store ads more than the news. When I was a kid, I used to sit down with a yellow highlighter and highlight everything I wanted on all those glossy pages.

Sometimes, shopping has also been kind of an activity for Willie and me to do together. (You know, like, we could go to a movie, go mini golfing, go to the mall...) Nothing better than spending an afternoon strolling through the Home Depot, daydreaming about all the things we’d want to do around the house if we just had the money. And we’ve both had times where money just burns a hole in our pockets. He’s said to me before, “I just want to buy something!” Most of the time (at least lately), I think we manage to put out the fire, but it’s still kind of an itch you need to scratch every once in a while.

This month was raise month at work, so I had a little extra money in my check. I decided I was going to treat myself to a couple new fall outfits because I haven’t bought fall clothes I could wear now for two years (last year I only bought maternity clothes). Well, wouldn’t you know that when I actually wanted to spend some money, I couldn’t even find anything that I liked (of stuff that I liked that also fit me right!) My plans were foiled, and I was left with that sense of want. At least I am a few dollars richer for now...

09/23/2009

It's Bowling Season

September brings the changing of seasons, but for our family, it’s not just summer turning to fall. It means softball season is changing to bowling season. Bowling has been a huge part of Willie’s life since he was a kid. His dad owns the pro shop in Dream Lanes, and Willie pretty much grew up there. He’s been bowling since he was about 5 years old and he now bowls in a men’s league two nights a week and in a couples’ league with me and his parents every other week. He also helps his dad out by working at the pro shop two nights a week and Saturday during the day. So what does that mean for us and our family?

It means $170 a month in bowling dues. It also means that we get to eat dinner together only on Wednesday nights and weekends. This is part of the reason we have struggled with eating at home in the past. Sometimes it’s just a lot easier to pick something up if you’re eating alone or if we’re eating together after he gets home at 9 pm. I’m pleased to say that we have managed to break that habit so far and are eating almost all of our meals at home. I think the key to doing this has been buying foods that are easy and quick to make for one person, like ingredients for quesadillas or sandwiches, soups and salads, and frozen foods that won’t spoil if you don’t eat them fast enough. It’s good that we are saving money by eating at home because those bowling dues really do add up. That $170 could really help to pay off some of our debt every month, but we are trying to manage doing both because it’s the one thing Willie does for fun and it would be devastating for him to give up something that’s been a part of his life for twenty-some years.

Since we’ve been spending more time at the pro shop lately, I’ve been trying to think of things from the business part of the shop that we could apply to our personal finances. Here’s what I came up with:

• Don’t buy things you don’t need. It’s bad for business if you build up your inventory with things nobody wants to buy. Likewise, it’s bad to buy a bunch of stuff and have it sit in your closets, cabinets or dresser drawers at home.


• Know what you need before you go shopping. There have been times at the shop when we’ve placed an order for merchandise only to find that we already had it in the back room. At home, you might find that you already had a black sweater like the one you just had to go shopping for, or extra toiletries in your cabinet.


•  If there’s something you know you’ll use, stock up on it when it’s on sale. With bowling balls, we can often get a discount if we order several of them at once, so it makes sense to order a lot of the most popular balls to take advantage of the savings. At home, it makes sense to buy several packages of items you know you’ll always use (like toilet paper or cleaning supplies) if you find them on sale.


• Don’t pay other people to do things you can do for yourself. At the shop, this means that we make our own signs, print our own business cards and flyers, and maintain our own website (check it out: www.chipandwilliesproshop.com). At home, this could mean doing your own home maintenance projects (like painting, carpet care, or small remodeling projects), yard work (mowing the lawn, landscaping, or shoveling), and automotive care (like oil changes or car washes).

09/09/2009

Unexpected Expenses

Managing money would be a whole lot easier if everything was a fixed expense. We’re finding that we do great at planning for normal bills, like the mortgage, credit card payments, and services like TV and phone, but struggle a bit with things that vary or that we don’t buy on a monthly schedule. We spend pretty much the same each month on important things like gas and groceries, but then there’s a bunch of miscellaneous things are hard to plan for. Like printer ink, wasp spray (we had a horrible nest under the eave in our backyard), a picture frame for my office at work, makeup, or Scotch Guard for the furniture (you can only clean baby puke off of things so many times before it starts to show…) Not only are these things hard to plan for, but they also don’t tend to fit nicely into the categories of our budget.

It’s easy to take a receipt from Woodman’s and put it in the Groceries category or a receipt from PDQ and put it in the Gas category. McDonald’s goes in the Dining Out category, and most of the time, JC Penney goes in the Clothing category. But where does Wal-Mart go? It could be any combination of groceries, clothing, baby stuff, personal care items, or the miscellaneous things I mentioned above. I find it frustrating to try to divvy things up from these receipts to assess how much we’re really spending on what, especially when you have to deal with sales tax on top of it. Do you have any good ideas on how to handle this? I’m really curious to hear if others have found things that really work for them as far dealing with mixed receipts and budgeting for these miscellaneous expenses.

We also got our water bill last week. Just a reminder that we need to come up with an extra $200 twice every year. Because it’s been six months since we thought about a water bill, we hadn’t really planned for it this time around. I just checked the city water website, though, and it looks like you can set it up to pay monthly. I might look into doing this—at least then we’ll be budgeting for it each month.

08/25/2009

Each New Experience Comes With a Price Tag!

This week is all about Owen. He had his 4-month checkup on Monday, so we finally got to find out how big he’s gotten over the past two months (14 lbs., 25 ½ inches). Everything is looking good. We asked the pediatrician about introducing some solid foods because it seems like Owen’s hungry all the time, and we got the OK to try rice cereal mixed with formula or breast milk. So, being the excited mom that I am, I had to go out and pick up a few goodies for this new experience—soft-bite spoons, a little kiddie bowl, cereal… Now we are just waiting on the highchair I ordered online because we hadn’t gotten one when he was born. I guess this is just one of many new experiences we’ll come across as Owen gets older—each one with its own price tag! At least we were able to buy everything through Walmart.com or in the store so Willie could use his employee discount. The high chair won’t arrive until sometime this week, and we have been waiting to try the cereal until we get it, but maybe we’ll have an update for you next time on how it goes!

Another expense we had for Owen this week was buying supplies for his new daycare. Unfortunately, his Grandma Jana has to go back to work, so he’ll be starting at another in-home daycare on the 31st. We bought diapers, wipes, formula, and some spare bottles. I did have $12.50 in coupons for those items, plus Willie’s discount, which helps a little, but things really add up quickly. Our first payment for daycare starts this coming Friday. It is $175 weekly, which is more than we were paying this summer with our family discount. We’ll have to be careful to make sure we have that extra $300 each month so we don’t come up short.

There was one other big first for Owen this month--his first haircut. We decided to try doing it ourselves at home. Lesson learned: there’s a reason you pay people to do this for you! I guess the good news is that we have an extra $10 or so to put towards debt or add to our savings, right?

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