Monthly Archives: August 2008

Debt-be-Gone Roundup

Whew! It’s official. I no longer have any credit card debt. Yahoo! This is the first time in my entire credit history that I am not carrying a balance on any cards. I managed to pay the cards off ahead of my original schedule. Now that I have altered my mindset about spending, I have some ambitious goals for the next few years. I know that to keep the steam going, I’ll need lots of positive reinforcement. So, to the weekly roundup. Here are some of the best articles I read this week in the world of personal finance.

Carnivals

I entered three carnivals this week, and each one was full of great ideas and stories. First up, the Carnival of Money Stories was hosted by Not the Jet Set. The Happy Rock describes a new stage in his financial journey. He’s so right that it is a journey and not an end-point. I need to start doing some serious reflection on our finances now that I’ve reached my first financial goal. No More Spending has cancelled all her magazine subscriptions. I love it! I’m finding that I get a lot better information from our network of PF blogs than I do from the latest glossy mag. Retired at 47 shares his early experiences planning for early retirement. His experience reminds me that even with careful planning, things might not go exactly as you want. I contributed my thoughts on savings; I know that we have to get serious about it to reach our goals!

Next up, I was in the always-popular Festival of Frugality over at FIRE Finance. If you’ve never visited, be sure to check out their ranking of top PF blogs. It’s a treasure trove of great blogs. Miss Thrifty shares an awesome afternoon with her frugal grandma. I want to visit! Art of the Coupon reminds us why being frugal and being green are two sides of the same coin. Everything Finance blogs about your future without debt. I know I like the sound of that! On this carnival, you’ll find my ideas about “how to cook a wolf.”

Last, but not least, I was in the Make It From Scratch Carnival at Learning the Ropes. She pulled everything together into a plan for one amazing party. I plan to try Funny About Money’s tip to use olive oil as hair conditioner. I also want to see if I can attempt homemade pita bread, thanks to Happy to be at Home‘s recipe. I don’t know if I can get to all of these, but RN Central offers 99 ways to make your home healthier! Lastly, I contributed a quick, inexpensive dinner to use up those tomatoes.

From my regular blog reading, I liked We Like Money‘s review of the 7 “debtly” sins. Get Rich Slowly has some excellent advice for budget planning. Almost Frugal offers some clever, frugal gifts. Simple Mom has put together her first eBook, full of tips for spring cleaning for normal people. Check it out! Blogging Away Debt examines the benefits of paying in cash rather than credit.

That’s all for this week. Next week, I’ll starting thinking about what our next financial goal should be. I’ve also got to get back on track with those “snowflakes,” by selling a few things on craigslist. Enjoy your long weekend!

Quick Summer Minestrone

The other day, I came across this recipeby Martha Rose Shulman in the New York Times.  It looked delicious and fairly simple, so I planned to give it a try.  I decided Wednesday night would be soup night, but by the time I got home from work, decompressed, and straightened up the house, I only had about thirty minutes to put it together.  The recipe would easily take an hour.  Now, I used to be a faithful recipe follower; I would never stray from the directions.  I think all that was good training, but now I can happily improvise when needed.  This is an especially important skill when you’re trying to live off a frugal pantry.  Here’s what I came up with in under thirty minutes.  I swapped out the water for diluted chicken broth to get a heartier flavor a little quicker and cooked the soup over a little higher heat to speed up the vegetables.  If you’ve got some tomatoes (and who doesn’t these days!) and a bit of summer produce in the bin, try this soup out.

  • 2 TBs olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp chili powder or red pepper
  • 2 tsp dried herbs (I used an Italian mix)
  • salt
  • 1 lb tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 quart water and 1 quart chicken stock
  • 1 lb summer squash or other firm-ish vegetable
  • 6 oz green beans
  • 1 c broken pasta (I used leftover lasagna noodles)
  • 1/4 c fresh basil
  • extra olive oil, Parmesan, and crackers to finish

Heat the olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat.  Add onion, garlic, chili powder, and dried herbs.  Cook until onion softens, about five minutes, stirring occasionally.  While the onions cook, chop the tomatoes.  Add the tomatoes and salt, cook about five more minutes to soften the tomatoes.  While they cook, peel and dice the squash.  Once the tomatoes have released their juice and softened, add the water, chicken broth, and squash.  Bring to a boil, then simmer over medium heat about 15-20 minutes, until the squash softens.  While simmering, prep the green beans and toss them in.  About 9 minutes to the end, add the pasta to cook.  Finish by adding basil, a bit of extra oil, and cheese.  We also crumbled in some crackers, which thickened up the broth.

While Shulman’s version sounds delicious for a weekend meal, this streamlined version is nice because it’s all in one pot, and you can prep the vegetables while the soup is going to save time.  We loved it and plan to have leftovers tonight with pizza.

New Look, New Plans

Life at My Daily Dollars is going well.  As you can see, I’m updating the look of the blog.  Since I’m transitioning from debt-repayment to frugal living, I wanted a fresh theme to mark the occasion.  

Tomorrow marks the end of my first six months of blogging.  I’ll be free of credit card debt (hip, hip, hooray!).  I’ve also been featured on MSN’s SmartSpending blog, interviewed for an Associated Press article, and been introduced to many wonderful bloggers.  Be sure to visit all the folks on the blogroll; I love what they deliver day after day.

Next week, I’ll put together a series on paying off your credit cards, along the lines of the “My Frugal Wedding” series.  Over the next few months, I’ll be focusing on building up savings, managing a two-income household, planning for earlier, part-time retirement, and trimming my biggest daily expense: groceries!  For so many reasons, I want the food my family eats to be as sustainable as possible.  I plan to start a series on “My Frugal Pantry” as I learn to store and cook good food as frugally as I can.  I’m adapting recipes to cook from what I have on hand when I get home from work.  This afternoon, I’ll share the summer minestrone that I made last night.  It was wonderful!

Please Take a Number

Do you know that sinking feeling you get when you walk into the DMV? Most of the time, the room is full of people who are veterans of the waiting game. You have to walk past all of them, up to the counter, to pull off your little number. The worst part is when you look at the number, look up at the sign on the wall, and realize just how long you’ll have to sit there along with everyone else.

Debt-repayment reminds me a lot of that particular waiting game. You take a number, probably the amount of debt on your credit card; you calculate how long you’ll be waiting in debt-repayment mode, and then you realize it’s time to sit there and wait as your debt shrinks. I get paid once a month, so that means I have 30-31 days of wait time in between the exciting days where I can send big payments off to the credit cards. That’s a lot of time to easily get discouraged, say “forget it!”, and go shopping. In all the years that I tried paying down my cards, that’s usually what happened. This time, however, I finally figured out how to WIN the waiting game. Come Friday, my last big payment goes off to the cards. How did I do it? Well, here were my rules to make all that waiting go faster:

  • Rule #1:  Keep yourself occupied by “snowflaking.”  At the DMV, I always take a book to make the time go faster.  At boring meetings, I have an “activity pack” of papers to grade or work to edit.  In debt-repayment mode, Paid Twice’s great concept of snowflaking became my activity pack.  To fill in the thirty odd days between paychecks, I completed surveys, did tasks on Mturk, cleaned out our house and sold things on Amazon, hosted garage sales, and picked up contracting work.  Anything I could do to earn money, I did.  Keeping myself occupied earning extra income helped to keep my focus on debt-repayment.  I was working so hard to bring in $2 here and $10 there that I didn’t want to go blow that money on books or coffee.
  • Rule #2: Be kind to yourself.  Instead of beating yourself up over having debt, reward yourself for taking the steps that few folks take to get OUT of debt.  When I started, I gave myself $200 a month for “fun.”  At first, it was the psychological security blanket that I needed to change my behaviors.  Instead of going cold turkey, I had a little money to pay for things that I used to charge.  Once the debt snowball got rolling, I often snowflaked most of that money to my debt.  However, at first, I needed that little cushion to feel like I wasn’t in debt-repayment purgatory.
  • Rule #3: Find a frugal support network.  You have to find a way to combat the steady stream of encouragement that we Americans get to over-consume.  Advertising is everywhere.  While it may not influence you much to buy one product over another, I’m convinced that it does persuade you to consume in general.  During debt-repayment mode, I cut way back on television.  I’ll never forget the time in March when I was sick and watched TV all day.  The next time I was in Target, I had this urge to stock up on cleaning products for the house.  I know it was because I was barraged by cleaning-product ads for that eight-hour stretch!  You may find a real-life support network of friends who are in the same boat, or you may rely on the great network of personal finance blogs.  Whatever you do (I do both), the more “normal” it seems to be frugal, the easier it is!
Those are the three things that I did differently that really helped this time: “snowflaking,” a little “fun” cushion to start, and a support network.  After six months, which is not really that long in the grand scheme of things, I’ll finally be free of credit-card debt.  I actually even had fun along the way!  
What do you do to play the waiting game?

What a Difference Six Months Make

This morning, I called one of my credit card companies to change to my married name.  As you may recall, the last time I called companies, I was trying to lower my interest rate on the cards.  My hands were all sweaty, my heart was pounding, and I hated feeling like I was asking for a speical favor.

Today, just a few days away from the big payoff, I called the company with my zero balance.  Rather than getting kicked around and ignored, I got the royal treatment.  For the first time in my life, they offered up a “gold” option, and I was told that my credit report must be grand because not everyone gets this offer.  Of course, I know they were just buttering me up, but I’ve never been buttered up by them before.  Remember, for most of my twenties, I spent my time dodging calls from creditors.  The “gold” offer was for debt consolidation at a “low” long-term rate.  Once I was transferred and learned the specifics, I realized it wasn’t that great an offer, still 8% for the life of the loan.  The woman asked how much debt I’d like to consolidate, and I happily said “none!  I’m paying my cards off on Friday.”

She quickly countered that I could use the line of credit for anything, such as home renovations.  Now, the husband and I would like to do some serious renovations in a few years, but we plan to save up for it.  It could have been so easy to say, “Sure, we’ll take $30,000″ and just jump in.  We’d like to renovate the second floor of our garage into a gym/yoga studio and home office.  We also want a den and extra bedroom in the basement.  While we’re at it, why not toss in new appliances in the kitchen?  Ours work great, but are not all shiny and new.

It just goes to show you how ubiquitous credit is in our culture.  Now that I’ve worked so hard to pay my debt off, I could sink back in the blink of an eye.  It’d be great fun to start on the house.  I have lovely fantasies about a little nook to work in over the garage, with a view of all the pretty, old trees in our neighborhood.  However, I’m not even officially debt-free yet.  I also want to spend a few years wallowing in that feeling!

Weekly Roundup and Welcome!

Mystery solved!  All week, I couldn’t figure out why my hits had jumped with an influx of google searches for my blog title.  Then a friend in DC came across this article in the Washington Post Express.  A few weeks ago, an AP reporter contacted me about home canning, and the article came out last Friday.  So, a belated welcome if you found me via the “Jarring Economy” (clever title!).  I blog about finances, debt, and new-found frugality.  If you like what you see, please subscribe for free!

This week I was in four carnivals, so let’s get to the highlights for your weekend reading:

Carnival of Debt Reduction:  If you’re looking for inspiration on your journey to debt-free land, be sure to read No Credit Needed‘s post, “Ten Things That Rock About Being Debt-Free.”  I know that I’m feeling some of those things in the home stretch of my own debt repayment!  A guest post at Free Money Finance offers a clever first step to paying off your debt.  By canceling cable/satellite TV, you get a bounce from cutting yourself off from all the ads.  I can attest to that!  It’s amazing how much easier it is to avoid shopping when you aren’t getting a constant deluge of messages telling you to go do it.  If you’re really serious about getting out of debt, read The Digerati Life‘s discussion about not buying anything new for a year.

Festival of Frugality:  This is the first of two carnivals I entered that were hosted by Our Fourpence Worth.  She had a busy week!  MoneyNing offers some great back-to-school advice.  I was very happy with how frugal our back-to-school shopping was.  In my credit-happy days, that was an excuse to go nuts.  For more tips, check out My Two Dollarssuggestions for re-purposing everyday items.  This week, I was washing our new wine glasses, thinking “I need a new drying rack for these.”  Before I ran out and bought one, I realized that my cooling rack works just as well.  Little swaps like that save money and clutter. I also liked Frugal Fu‘s suggestions for brown rice for breakfast. I think I’ll try one of those sometime this week with leftover rice. Also in the festival, you’ll find my tips for clipping coupons.

Money Hacks Carnival:  Our Fourpence Worth‘s second carnival featured a fun tour of old money.  Uncommon Cents speculates on the savings a GPS device can bring.  I’ve been tempted to buy one lately, but think I can wait.  However, he offers some reasons it could help you save money. Funny About Money offers an important reminder on why we should speak up for what we’re worth in our careers. I contributed a story about our frugal, but yummy, brunch.

Finance Fiesta:  Hosted by Living Almost Large, this carnival was a new one for me.  Fabulous Finances analyzes the difference between financial goals and financial wishes.  I know that I’ve got to sit down next month to turn our wish to work part-time ten years into a more specific goal! Capital Couples Finance offers three ways that being frugal strengthens a relationship. I can vouch for those; it’s certainly helping get our marriage off on the right foot. I also share my reasons to switch from being a spender to a saver.

From the Blogroll:

Almost Frugal has taken us on a great trip of frugal tips in her house this week. She starts in the kitchen; be sure to read the whole series!

Paid Twice describes how to determine your minimum budget. I plan to do this when calculating what we need in the emergency fund.

Dreaming of Ferraris has been sharing how she and her husband have decided to loosen up a little on their budget. Since she’s still got it all mapped out, it seems like it’s been a great decision for her.

Blogging Away Debt is considering downsizing their home. Check out their ideas here.  It sure makes sense to me.

Lots of good reading for the week; I hope you enjoy it. I’m finding that by swapping a steady diet of commercials for a steady diet of PF blogs, it is really becoming easier to stay on track with a frugal lifestyle.

$3.00 Dinner for Four, Homegrown Tomatoes Included

If you’ve got a garden, you’re probably eating as many tomatoes as you can these days. We’ve had some every night this week, and I still have enough ripe ones to do some canning over the weekend. Sometimes, you may tire of fresh tomato salads. I decided to use mine in a pasta dish last night and was really pleased with the results. You should be able to do this entirely out of your pantry. From my pantry, I used white beans ($0.50), penne pasta ($1), and a cup of shredded cheese ($1.50).

  • 2 TB olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/4 c onion
  • 1/4 tsp. hot pepper
  • 1 16 oz. can of Great Northern Beans
  • 1 -2 lbs. ripe tomatoes
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 TBs. fresh basil
  • 1 lb. penne pasta
  • 1 c. shredded italian or parmesan cheese
Bring water and salt to boil for the pasta.  In a medium sauce pan, heat 2 TB of olive oil over medium.  When warm, throw in garlic, onion, and hot pepper.  Brown for three minutes, stirring occasionally.  Rinse and drain the beans; then add them to the sauce pan and mash them up some.  Stir frequently for a minute, then reduce to a simmer.  While the beans simmer, cook the pasta and core and dice the tomatoes.  Toss the tomatoes with the beans, and stir occasionally.  The “sauce” should be fairly thick.  To finish, add the basil, salt, and pepper to the sauce.  Drain the pasta and combine with sauce and cheese.
I liked how the beans thickened things and added an inexpensive protein.  The tomatoes were delightful.  Since the sauce was ready when the pasta was, I didn’t have to plan ahead as much as you do with a traditional tomato sauce.  I’m hoping to put up enough tomatoes over the weekend to be able to enjoy this meal with canned tomatoes through the winter.  I also plan to freeze some pesto this weekend, so I’ll substitute that for the fresh basil when I make this in the winter. I hope you enjoy this quick, easy meal as much as we did.

To Save, Play the Waiting Game

A friend of mine has had a series of status updates on Facebook regarding an iPhone. Every few days he lets us know that he’s successfully resisted the temptation to buy one again. I like that he’s put it out there because the longer he waits, the more likely he is to avoid the purchase. Of course, now, he’ll also get heaps of grief from all of us if he gives in. Having a frugal support network like that can certainly help us save money.

For new bloggers like me, reading everyone else’s successes helps keep me in line, most of the time. Since I started blogging, my (now) husband and I have been thinking about buying a new flat-screen TV. We even started a savings fund for it. All summer, my “snowflakes” from selling things went to my credit card debt and his went to the TV fund. We’re now at about $400, but I think, by waiting so long, we’ve actually talked ourselves out of buying the TV.

When considering a major purchase, I’ve seen the great advice to wait one day for every $100 you might spend. We’ve actually waited far longer, but by saving rather than buying on credit, we forced ourselves to really think about it. If we had rushed out and bought a TV when we first got the notion, we’d still be paying for it now, probably a little unhappy that we had that debt. Instead, we have a little money to play with now (we’re thinking about a new digital camera).

Now, before I pat myself on the back too much, I have to make a major confession. In the whirl before the wedding, I gave into a serious impulse buy. I knew that I wanted some new lingerie for the honeymoon, and was even inspired by Mrs. Micah’s post to just buy some nice Hanky Panky items that I could wear everyday and leave it at that. However, in the back of my mind, I also had Grace Kelly from Rear Window floating around in that lovely, flowing nightgown and robe, passing a glass of brandy to Jimmy Stewart. Faithful readers may remember that I even resisted buying a nightgown in San Francisco.

When I walked into the store, I found the nightgown of my dreams, plus a matching chiffon robe. Of course, it was ridiculously expensive, but I got so swept up in the moment that I bought that, plus some underwear, plus some really cool yoga pants. I absolutely love everything I bought, but let’s just say that my current credit card debt would be half what it is now if I had resisted.

I’m pretty sure that if I had just walked out of the store with the few pairs of underwear that I went in to buy, I wouldn’t have gone back for the nightgown and robe. Of course, it’s easy to justify. . .”our honeymoon,” “I love it,” “it’s so beautiful!” However, the truth is that I charged it because I did not have enough money to pay for it. That’s the problem with resisting! We can be so good about it 99% of the time, like my husband and I have been with the TV, but that 1% can really set us back. That’s also why having a support network helps. Knowing that I do have to fess up keeps me on track most of the time!

How to Cook a Wolf

One of my favorite writers is M.F.K. Fisher. Her no-nonsense, straightforward approach to writing about food is a refreshing change from the overblown metaphors of many food writers. I recently came across a reference to How to Cook a Wolf, which she wrote during World War II. While my food budget is not at WWII emergency levels, I am operating on less than I did a year ago, and we all know that prices have risen significantly over the past year. So, I thought it wold be interesting to see what she had to say about budget cooking, and I promptly requested the book through our great inter-library loan service.

“Balance the Day, Not Each Meal in the Day”

Fisher’s central advice is quite simple: rather than balancing the “food groups” at each and every meal, try to incorporate them throughout the day. After writing disdainfully of typical “budget-stretching” advice like watering down scrambled eggs, she critiques the popular media for their influence on how people plan meals:

“In our furious efforts to prove that all men are created equal we encourage our radios, our movies, above all our weekly and monthly magazines, to set up a fantastic ideal in the minds of family cooks, so that everywhere earnest eager women are whipping themselves and their budgets to the bone to provide three ‘balanced’ meals a day for their men and children.”

I’ll leave aside the gender assumptions here, but I did find it fascinating that she especially critiques women’s magazines. It’s refreshing to realize that long before Gourmet and Martha Stewart Living, glossy magazines were churning out unrealistic portrayals of what’s for dinner. I know that any time I look at a new diet in a fitness magazine, I always wonder how on earth I’ll afford shopping for the menu plan!

After a humorous look at one mother’s attempt to balance every meal for her son, Mortimer, Fisher describes how to stretch your budget by planning one meal of starches, one meal of vegetables or fruit, and one of meat:

Breakfast, then, can be toast. it can be piles of toast, generously buttered, and a bowl of honey or jam, and milk for Mortimer and coffee for you. You can be lavish because the meal is so inexpensive. You can have fun, because there is no trotting around with fried eggs and mussy dishes and grease in the pan and a lingeringly unpleasant smell in the air. . .
For lunch, make an enormous salad, in the summer, or a casserole of vegetables, or a heartening and ample soup. That is all you need, if there is enough of it. . .
And for dinner, if you want to stick solemnly to your ‘balanced day,’ have a cheese souffle and a light salad, or if you are in funds, a broiled rare steak and a beautiful platter of sliced, herb-besprinkled ripe tomatoes.”

I have to admit that Fisher can make simple toast sound so exciting that I was eager to put her plan into action. I realized that I do usually have a starch or yogurt for breakfast, salad or soup for lunch, and a protein and vegetable for dinner. Now, I plan to do so a bit more consciously and always make sure that my salad portions are ample. As I continue reading, I’m looking forward to more of Fisher’s sensible tips on “how to cook a wolf.”

The Beauty of Savings

Last week, I shared how my poor brain has finally figured out why carrying credit card debt creates havoc with your budget.  Now that the new school year is starting, I want to share a few of my new ideas about savings.  Once a savings account replaces a credit limit in your budget, I think that life can go a little bit smoother.  Here are some reasons why:

  • Spending real money makes you spend a little smarter.  I’m giving myself a wardrobe bonus for paying off my credit cards.  However, I want to wait until the October sales to get the best bang for my buck.  If I were just spending credit, I’d be out there right now, charging up new clothes for the full retail price.
  • Spending real money makes you spend a little more slowly.  By saving up for things, you have the time to decide if you really want them.  We’ve been saving six months for a new flat-screen TV.  However, we’ve now decided that we don’t really want to spend all that money for something we won’t use very often.  Instead, we’re looking at new digital cameras.
  • No one can reduce your savings limit.  Unlike a credit card or a home-equity loan, a savings account can’t be called back when there’s a credit crunch.  You’re in charge of how much you save!
  • No unwanted phone calls from creditors.  In my twenties, I couldn’t answer my phone for fear of an uncomfortable conversation about my credit cards.  It’s a nice feeling to know that I won’t owe anyone!  Lately, I’ve been logging into the account with a zero balance, just to smile at that “0.”
Those are a few ways that I’m imagining my life will improve, starting next month!  Dealing with money is really a mental game.  By envisioning how turning my finances around will make our lives better, I’ve been able to resist all the little temptations to charge.  The cool thing is that saying “no” gets to be easier and easier.  As I untangle my needs from my desires, I feel much more in control when shopping.  Now, if I can focus that energy toward resisting salty snacks, I can knock off my extra honeymoon pounds as well!

By the way, my debt-reduction post was an editor’s pick this week at the Carnival of Debt Reduction. Be sure to stop by today for lots more inspiration on your own journey towards the zero balance!