Monthly Archives: December 2011

Budget Glamorous Trip of a Lifetime!

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Passing the Christmas season in dreary weather, I often start daydreaming of other places — hot places, beachy places, exciting places, places that don’t look like the Appalachian mountains.  I love travel.  Ever since I was a little girl I’ve longed to see faraway destinations.  I blame my love of “third world” countries on James Bond flicks and being budget glamorous, but I love them just the same.  India, however, was never a place I thought I would get to see for a number of reasons, a big one being money.  Coming from the U.S. to places past Europe is Ex-Pen-SIVE.  But when I met my lovely friend Sreya, she helped make it a reality.

I spent what is up to this point in my 34 years the best summer of my life in 2011 partly in Calcutta, India.  I spent what appears to be about $3500 on the trip — mostly in air costs.  I had a fabulous time.  I got very sick, lol, but I had a fabulous time.  India (to me) is one of those very glamorous places that one dreams of going and then realizes will cost a fortune, at least if you live in the States.  Of that dollar amount above, I kept out about $900 in spending money — food, gifts, etc.  The rest was 100% airfare!  It is a 15 hour flight from the east coast of the U.S. to New Delhi, not counting any transfers you may have to go through.  Jet lag was pretty severe.

Things I Did Right…

I stayed with a family.  That cut my housing costs by, well, 100%.  Yes, I tried to do as much as possible to show my hosts I was grateful.  But staying with someone has other advantages besides monetary ones.  For one thing, I got to see a very personal side of Calcutta — how people really lived, what they really ate, what they really talked about.  Not that Calcutta is a prime tourist destination or anything, but I didn’t see a touristy package.

I went to an international travel clinic and I spent the money on shots and preventatives.  When I got sick in Calcutta, I was VERY grateful for my Z-pack.

I pressed on like a brave little hobbit, even though I was scared and at times it looked as though the trip might fall through.  The richness of this adventure was well worth the $3500 investment!  😉

Things I Didn’t Do So Right…

I didn’t buy the plane ticket when I should have.  Due to screwing around on the part of travel companions who didn’t turn out to be travel companions, I put off buying my ticket in February, when I should have, and ended up purchasing it in May when things were finally sorted out.  The lag cost me about $600.  And a bit of sanity, I might add.

I went during monsoon season (Yike!).  Now, I didn’t have much of a choice.  The best times to go, I gather, are between October and February.  Not June.  Definitely not July.  But I work for a university (and so does the lovely girlie I stayed with) so summer was the only choice for me.  The monsoon rains both fascinated me and kept us from going places frequently.  The roads were washed out in spots — and we’re talking major thoroughfare.  All in all, though, I didn’t mind.  I loved watching the rains and thinking and drinking chai.

I didn’t bring Pepto-Bismol!  Had I done a little more research about getting sick in India (as you WILL get sick), I would’ve discovered that frequent travelers to India swear by pepto pills once a day.  Might’ve helped, who knows.  Getting sick did cut my trip short.  I had planned to go to Delhi, maybe up to Darjeeling, all these lovely places.  On top of that, because I had to change my air ticket to leave earlier, I paid an extra $1200 approximately to get back home.  Well worth it in case I had to be near Western medicine, but definitely an unplanned expense.  Further, even though I had trip insurance, it would not reimburse the cost of the ticket since I didn’t demonstrate that I went to a Western doctor pretty much immediately upon arrival back to the States.  😦  So all that was totally out of pocket.  Had I realized that’s what it took to get reimbursed, I’d have gone in anyway.  I was just happy to be back, given how delicate my tummy was at the time.

There is always next time though, right?  🙂  In the meantime, I look at the sheets on my bed, the wooden bracelets, the charming and inexpensive Christmas gifts I was able to buy for my friends and family, the pottery elephants, the lovely photographs and I remember what a time I had!  It was a wonderful feeling to get to share Sreya’s culture with her during that summer and then to spread some of that around at Christmas time.  I am reminded of what we shared every time I go through my house or put on my Indian pearl necklace.  That is truly priceless.

Coming up next, how did I afford it?

Money Happens

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As the blogger Funny About Money (a blog I love to read) notes from time to time, sometimes money just happens.  I never really thought about it until I’d read several of her posts on the subject, but money does in fact happen all the time.  Sometimes we get tax returns or rebates.  This past Spring, for example, I won “teaching funds” from a donor to the university who wanted to support instructors specifically doing first year composition.  I bought a lap top with the money.  This money was even more special to me, considering that most donations and awards seem to go to tenure track/tenured people, who make up a minority of my department folks.  I was proud and pleased!

This year, money is getting ready to happen because I just closed on the refinance of my home.  I realized as I was going over the paperwork I’m going to get to skip a month of mortgage payments because of the paperwork.  That’s $615 back into my budget for January.

What to do with it?

I have a bit of emergency money/summer money (I don’t get paid during the summer, so it has to stretch).  But not enough to actually get me through the summer until I start making paychecks again.  This is all in theory, of course, because I won’t know until late March whether I have the chance to make paychecks at the university for another year.  I have about $4700 in credit card debt (gross).  $600 is a lot of sushi…

My inclination is to pay down the credit card.  While I am a tad worried about the summer, there are other opportunities, so I’m not terribly worried about it.  I need a 6 – 8 month emergency fund as well, but for whatever reason the card debt bugs me more.  I guess because the percentage I would be making on savings is laughable, while the percentage on my credit card isn’t bad, but it’s more cash out of my pocket.  I think I’d rather run a little lean in the savings department knowing the chances of picking up summer work are pretty high and get rid of the credit card as quickly as I can.  It’s by no means my only debt, given that I have divorce debt, a student loan and a mortgage.  But it’s the worst percentage payback, that’s for sure. And it would put about $120 back into my budget a month.

Decisions, decisions!  But hey, it’s good to at least have a decision to make!  Suggestions?

Further noted:  with the refinance, $65 goes back into my budget every month, since I was a good girl and did a fantastic job on the terms of the refinance.  What to do with that?!  Regular debt repayment?  Savings?  Retirement?  Gah!

Bookcase!

Gallery

Medical Setbacks (of the Financial and the Personal Variety!)

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How do people without medical coverage manage it?  I guess the real answer is they don’t.

Over the past few months, I’ve managed to accrue close to $1700 in sudden out of pocket medical expenses.  I’m going to have to set up a payment plan for some of it.

First, the boy faceplanted on the basement floor.  He busted his glasses and hit his face very hard on the concrete.  Seemed reasonably OK, but several hours later he was mentioning stars and a headache and some flashing lights.  Straight to the emergency room we went!  An MRI later, we walked out knowing he had a slight concussion, but nothing more serious than that.  About a month later, got the bill.  It was around $1800.  The insurance, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, paid for the doctor’s exam and the initial fee to step in the emergency room — but not a penny for the $1400 MRI.  I don’t mind paying my part, but I’m not sure how they can justify paying nothing for an MRI when a head injury pretty much automatically dictates one.  Who knows, maybe the hospital took advantage of my ignorance on the matter.

Afterwards, I’ve found myself facing some interesting medical issues of the female variety.  Things are still uncomfortably in process, but so far I’ve gotten a look at the “real” bill versus what my insurance company gets to settle for.  Some procedures are being billed for $500, but the company settles with the doctors for about $160.  How does your average Jane with no insurance company rep to lobby for her pay out of pocket for that?!  I’m not even done yet, haven’t gotten my latest lab bills or procedure bills, and I’m in it for about $200 already.  Not bad, for sure, compared to what it could be.

My health insurance is just as tenuous as my job.  If that contract doesn’t renew in March, I may lose my health insurance by the end of May.  I’ve done without it before for years, but it’s not a risk I like to take.  I should probably check into private health insurance and see what the cost would be and then think about just switching to that so it isn’t linked to my employment.

I won’t flog the old arguments and statistics about the United States and sickness, missed days of work, expenses related to medical costs and our general decline in health as a country.  That’s all been done to death.  I have done my best to get to the point where I have access to insurance, especially for my son.  I try to be reasonably healthy.  I try to eat right, cook most of our meals from scratch, etc.  But sometimes prevention isn’t possible.

Sometimes things just happen.  Even with insurance coverage.  What then, for those of us on a glamorous little budget?  What then?

Why Do We Do It?

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Let’s be honest.  Sometimes being budget glamorous is great fun and other times it really stinks.

There are times when I get frustrated that I can’t just eat out all the time, buy buckets of expensive IPA beer, drop a wad of cash on some delightfully inappropriate fur vest or just take off this Christmas to some warm beach for a couple of weeks.

I would like to have all those things on command.  But instead I choose to work toward being budget glam instead.  Why?  Well, even before we get to the pissing and moaning about treats, there are more basic things that need addressed.  A few trees need trimmed or removed.  The roof and deck need replacing.  The car will not last forever (though it’s a tough little coot and is doing well so far).  I’d like to have Lasik eye surgery.  There is always something that needs replacing or an unexpected bill (like the boy’s $1400 hospital bill that is coming out of my pocket since the insurance company won’t pay a dime for his MRI, even though a head trauma practically requires one these days).  It’s easy to feel underwater when looking at one’s debt load, even if that debt was taken on for “good” reasons.  Debt is still debt, and a mortgage (“dead pledge,” after all, in French), student loan debt, divorce settlement debt, or whatever debt can feel like a ball and chain.  My salary is adequate for living, and not much more than that.  It takes creativity to put back an emergency fund, save anything for retirement and have a little fun on the money I make.  Nine months worth of pay has to be stretched over 12 months of living.

But beyond the basics that need cared for and the debt that needs to die, there are more inspirational reasons I work to maintain my budget glamour.

  • I want freedom over my own life.  For me, this means being free of debt so that if I must live on a severely reduced income, we won’t starve, lose the house, or face any other serious unpleasantness.  I’ve worked third shift truck stop waitress jobs, factory jobs, 9 – 5 office jobs, helped run nonprofits, and now the weirdly-houred but still just as much work teaching job.  I would rather work nonprofit and only have to worry about the groceries and the light utilities I have than I would want to go back to those sorts of jobs that are only a few dollars over minimum wage if you’re lucky.  I had to work those kinds of jobs even *with* two bachelor’s degrees, people.
  • I want to travel.  Maybe it was growing up in the cracks of the Appalachian mountains that did it, but even as a little girl I longed for exotic destinations.  The African serengeti, equatorial jungles, faded Eastern European capital cities — oh yeah, and Italy from top to bottom.  I plan on writing many more posts about budget travel, as I have figured a few things out about doing that while also, you know, paying on your death pledge.  I would rather pack in my coffee and lunches and save that money toward Central America for a few weeks.  It’s a real inspiration.
  • I want to write.  I love to write.  Writing, like travel, was something I’ve always wanted as a constant in my life.  I managed to publish a flash fiction story and present some academic work at the 4 C’s.  It was exhilarating.  I wrote for the local newspaper for a while.  For several years I happily ran a different blog.  I like writing in all its genres.  If I clear out the debt and make a few other glamorous maneuvers, I will be able to write more and work at other things less — something that would make me very happy indeed.  I’m not foolish (or young and without responsibilities) enough, however, to be a starving artist.
  • I want to start an urban homestead.  Yup, complete with chicky-wickens in the back yard.  I want to grow my own food, can it, and eat it with smug superiority in February.  I want to save seeds, make sauerkraut and pickles and have a little attached greenhouse where I can grow things year-round.  I might even get into aquaponics.  Enough with Tyson products and McNasty already.  Let’s grow some real food!  I want to grow flowers of every kind, enjoy my butterfly garden and create edible landscaping.  I want to show a  model of how that can be done right in the middle of town.  After all, I’m within city limits.  In order to make this happen, start up money has to be diverted from things like furry vests into things like lumber.

But what a glamorous little life that would be, indeed!  Why do you strive to stay budget glam?

Budget Hypocrisy!

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I confess that there are several budget savvy moves that I have a terrible time complying with, even though the savings to me would be quite nice.  I am going to list my sins and the estimated savings to myself in hopes of shaming me into doing better!

  • Not taking the bus.  Do you know what it costs me to ride the bus?  NOTHING.  It’s free with my university ID.  Even if it did cost me money, it would be $0.50 a pop.  Or a $1 a day to get to and from work.  What it costs me instead is time management and planning.  Originally my excuse was the operating hours.  It used to run just a little too late for me to catch it in the morning and it ended far too early for me to make it home at night.  (Even though I could’ve walked home within 30 minutes).  That excuse is no more.  The bus has expanded operations and runs well into the night.  I just have to plan to catch it and be ready at a reasonable time in the morning and then catch it again in the evening by walking a few blocks to one of its stops.  **WHINE**  I like the freedom of my car and there are days when the bus is not feasible because I have places to go after work that are too complicated to work out by bus.  This is a college town, after all, not a big city — and the bus routes reflect that.  But seriously, for most days I could catch the bus and pay no parking fees.  Since I’m paying on average $6 a day to park in the garage, savings lost to me:  $18-30/week depending on what is going on.  Monthly:  $72 – $120.  What?!?!  That could be another credit card payment!  Or 9 months of that would give me between $600 – $1000 to go lay on a beach somewhere.  What is wrong with me?!  Bad baby!
  • Eating out too much.  I love to cook, I really do.  But because I’m pulled in so many directions right now, and because I also love food, I find I’m eating out way too often. This could be a pick up bag of McNasty or it could be a bigger sit-down dinner.  It feels like a reward after a hard day of hard.  Student fallout, divorce fallout, health scare, house refinance, boy dropping a pair of testicles and suddenly deciding he’s King of the Jungle, cat throwing up bloody hairballs, wearing an uber-pink dress in my sister’s wedding, you name it, it’s happened this fall pretty much all at once — pass the Asian-Fusion cuisine, please!  I’ve dealt with some of this by being a little kinder to myself.  Sometimes our budgets have to stretch to accommodate picking up a pizza for supper that night.  We can’t be all things all the time.  Sometimes negative life events need to be treated with a helping of sushi.  But it does need to stop now.  Savings lost to me:  I have no idea, as I haven’t bothered to keep track of it.  BAD BABY!  Bad baby on two fronts!  One thing I did do to stem the flow of blood, though, was spend $30 on a giant coupon book full of discounts for things all over this town.  My favorite places to eat are in there.  That way if I do spend money on eating out, at least I’ll be doing it at half the financial damage.
  • Emotional spending.  This one doesn’t happen very often to me unless you count food.  If you count food, I’m a very emotional spender.  I tend to think of it more as “stuff,” though, like clothes and furniture and doodads.  The worst thing in the world I can do is go to the mall if I’m feeling broody over the divorce, for example.  Guess what?  Even if it’s 99% off, it’s still wasted money if you don’t need it!  Savings lost to me:  Again, no idea…didn’t actually keep track of it.  BAD BABY!  Fortunately, when I do drop money, I rarely drop a lot of it.  I have a feeling of revulsion once the amount gets too high for my stomach to bear.  I’ve been incorporating two things that have helped significantly.  First, I head to the bathtub instead of the mall if I’m feeling sad or worried.  I run a bubble bath and pour a glass of wine.  And then I lay in it feeling very glamorous.  So I remove the temptation from myself, basically.  The second thing I have been doing is budgeting in a clothing/gifts jar.  (I use a jar method where I take out cash each week and put it into the jars accordingly — I work much better visually that way for some reason.)  I also have a jar for “entertainment”, and I’m trying to get better at reserving that jar for the occasional sushi binge.  When you know there is a bit built into your budget to spend on such things, it takes a bit of the allure out of random shopping and shopping becomes a planned event.  For a few months I got so good at it that I was actually rolling the entertainment and the clothing/gift money into another envelope to then use for Christmas gifts, which were all paid for in cash this year and on budget.  So woot, there.  Of course this was pre-health scare, pre-final divorce, and pre-ball dropping.  So back to the mall I went.  Time to revisit my coping methods.
  • Not prioritizing retirement.  Now, two things I actually do right are a)  having a retirement plan in the first place and b) putting in before taxes the amount that my university will match into the account.  That being said, my salary is bird feed, and even with the match, that won’t be enough to support my current lifestyle (which is budget glamorous as it is) in retirement.  My sin here is not prioritizing retirement.  Some of the reasons for this are unavoidable and some are stupid Gen-X reasons.  For one thing, I have debt. As an MSN article demonstrates, this is pretty common for my age group (article linked at bottom).   My personal preference is to clear the debt before I throw loads of money into retirement.  I have divorce debt, I have student loan debt, and I have credit card debt.  I have a mortgage I’d rather pay off first than slam any extra $$ into an IRA.  The Gen-X excuse is an essential distrust of the retirement system all the way from Social Security availability to there actually being any money in a retirement account left to me once I go to retire.  I sink into the paranoia that somehow, some way, the government will figure out how to take it all.  None of these things are an excuse to not fund more towards retirement.  I’m 34 years old.  I have time, but those returns will start to steeply diminish if I don’t get on it sooner rather than later.  Retirement calcs say I’ll need about $3000 to live on per month in retirement.  With a mortgage payment and a student loan payment out of the way, I could probably pull that off reasonably well, assuming no serious medical stuff ensues.  According to these same calculators, I am below my target by about half in contributions per month (bad baby).  By me not coming up with that measly $50 in additional Roth investing, calcs also say I’m costing myself $14000 over the next 20 years.  And that is at a very conservative 4% return.  If the return percentage increases, so does the folly of my decision not to cough up the $50.  And if I can pony up a cool $100 a month?  I’m costing myself around $27000 in retirement money.  Conservatively.  Bad baby!
  • Utterly failing at couponing.  This is one skill I simply do not have, nor do I have any idea how much I’m losing in savings by not having it.  I am trying to master the art of the pantry and stockpiling, but there is not yet a method to my madness.  I am starting to sit down with the Sunday sale papers and try to plan my grocery route in better fashion.  But it seems like a deep sea to navigate.  One thing I do right, however, is that I try to buy most of my food from Aldi, only going to the “better” groceries when Aldi doesn’t carry what I need.  Aldi is the poor folks’ version of Trader Joe’s.  Same people and same products, just different packaging.  I spend literally half of what I would at a different grocery store.  They’re even cheaper than Wal-Mart.  I’m going to have to stop being a bad baby and read up on how people make such great deals that they only need to go to the store once a month or so.  Hunting and Gathering is not an art I possess.
  • Not always packing coffee and lunch into work.  I mentioned this when I blogged about my handy-dandy new thermos.  I think it’s just that I don’t prioritize those things either the night before or in the morning.  I feel scattered and I’m rushing around thinking about everything but my own needs and my financial situation.  Last week, for example, the Bear made some mouthwatering salmon salad wraps — made with salmon from Chicken of the Sea’s foil pouches one can find near the soup aisle.  What an awesome pantry addition, by the way!  It’s cheap, it stores forever, it doesn’t have the problems that tuna poses.  It was made with pickles and green onions and spinach leaves, wrapped it in a flat bread, and took it to work with chips and a piece of fruit and a thermos of coffee.  WOW was it good!  But I managed to only do that one day.  Eating lunch at the university shops and not bringing my own coffee is costing me a minimum of $22.5 – $37 a week just in food and drink alone.  In a month’s time I’m losing $90 – $148 a month in wasted eating out.  It’s not like I even have to offset this figure by calculating what I have to buy at the store to prepare for this.  I have all these things at home anyway, for days when I’m not on campus!  BAD BABY!!  That’s another flipping credit card payment!  I’m going to have to start doing this the night before or something.  Sheer willpower will be what it takes, I think.
  • Not actually putting “saved” money into tangible savings.  Of course, none of this matters if you don’t actually physically take the saved money and move it into something else.  All too often, I don’t congratulate myself on the $6.75 I saved and throw it into the Get Rid of Evil Credit Card jar.  If it’s sitting there in the account, my mind doesn’t remember that $47.50 is extra happy money for paying down debt.  I just breathe a sigh of relief that my grocery bill has a little extra padding this month!  Or worse, get all excited and buy something I don’t need because I think I have the money for it.  Short term memory fail.  😦  I’m going to have to get better about shoving that money in a jar at the end of the day — or keeping track of it via sticky note that is paid out at the end of the week/month at the very least!  Bad baby!

You mean to be telling me that I could be putting at the bare minimum $162 toward credit cards (extra, even!!) and a max of $268, virtually without breaking a sweat?!  That plus the minimum payment means I could have that card paid off without digging for extra money in either a year and four months…or just at a year!  Once the card is gone, that same amount of money gives me an extra $3384 to $4656 a year!  You know, to do important stuff like FUND RETIREMENT and PAY DOWN OTHER DEBT!

Bad baby, bad baby, BAD BABY!!

http://money.msn.com/retirement-plan/your-30s-do-not-get-derailed-by-debt-weston.aspx

Resetting Work Expectations

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Well, the semester is over…except, of course, it’s really not yet.

Classes may be over but the grading has only just begun.  I teach six courses in the fall semester — three basic composition courses and three orientation courses best described as “welcome to the university, here’s how to not screw up” classes.  Despite instructions to the contrary, some still are.  Between now and some point next week, I must complete three sections’ worth of portfolios containing four major essays (plus drafts) and at least 10 items of short writing at 2 pages apiece on average.  The “how not to screw up” courses involve online quizzes as well as a final reflective essay, attendance points, event points and other material entered into an online website that we had very little training on before we were shoved into using it.  It seems to be doing some interesting calculations of its own on the grades that are in the system so far, so that will also be a problem to solve by some time next week.

On top of that is the administrivia that I always seem to forget about.  The planning for next semester, for example.  Or the report writing so that I can continue to hope for a continued job next year.  At this point, though, I think sacrificing a bull would be just as effective.  All these things have to be done before the semester is truly over, and I always forget this every stinking year.

Still, this year I’m trying to be kinder to myself and adjust my expectations of what should be expected to completed and when.  Energy is always at its lowest during this point in the semester, corresponding with the point in the semester where the most energy is required to see things through to the end.  Naturally.

I’m setting reasonable limits on how many portfolios I will complete in a day.  I am not even going to bother touching the online grade book mess until the middle of next week.  I’m not running myself ragged to finish things before I have to.  Much of this I now recognize is driven by being surrounded by student expectations of when things should be available to them (right now).  I’m steeped in their culture all semester long, so it was no wonder it was beginning to rub off on me.  So sorry that you’re going home on Tuesday, kiddo, but I have ALL WEEK to get my job done.  Not busting my ass for you by Monday just because you’re checking out early.

Or, as I put it to my students the week before classes concluded, just because you decided to cram at the last minute does NOT mean I am going to as well.

I am not going to hang on the internet hoping to intercept your 11:25 p.m. email asking how to get started on a project due at 9:30 a.m. the following morning.  I am not going to refresh the page every 20 minutes to see if you’ve updated me on your latest excuse.  And I’m not going to hunt you down and take your hands and make you put the required drafts into the portfolio.  I’m not going to send yet another email reminder telling you that the things listed in the syllabus as part of the course requirements are, in fact, REQUIRED.

I’m not going to borrow trouble this time.  Trouble is not very glamorous at all.