Financial Friday

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I’ve been getting gifts for people in our families this week, and let me tell you: it gets expensive fast! In trying to make sure I have meaningful, generous presents for every one in both my family and my in-laws side, I’ve found some good money sense can help keep my head from spinning as we spend money:

  • A small present is great if the person will really like it. We’ve chosen locally-made necklaces for two of my in-laws, and they are beautiful even though they are quite small, smaller than stocking stuffers. I know they’ll be enjoyed, so I let go of my need to get people gifts that fill nice big packages.
  • Food gifts are sometimes impersonal, but sometimes they are perfect for the person who has it all. My sister got Husband and I a subscription to try different fancy coffees a while back, and it was great because we got a new experience together, enjoyed the high quality of the coffee, and then didn’t have anything new cluttering our house!
  • Making handmade presents is wonderful, but it still costs money. We’ve been making a really fun art project for three of the gifts we’re giving, but it isn’t without the challenges of having to purchase materials, sometimes twice if anything goes wrong! The best homemade gifts, I think, are also made with things that you already have handy, saving you money and being personalized at the same time!

How do you keep from breaking the bank during the Christmas season? Share good strategies in the comments!

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On Thanksgiving, we started (or re-started) a tradition of running for 3 miles through downtown, and actually paid for the privilege to do so. Husband and I ended the race satisfied with our performance (we each ran the whole time, though my run is a snail’s-pace jog, not a spritely trot like his pace). However, I did think: why didn’t we just run for 3 miles… for free?

I’m realizing that, in my current state, there are a few expenses that I make simply because they pressure me into making an experience happen or push me toward a bigger goal. The biggest example that is coming up is signing up for a marathon next summer, spending more than 100 dollars on it, and using that investment to propel me to the gym early in the dark cold winter mornings.

A perfectly, supremely rational human being would be able to go to the gym 3 times a week simply because it is good for her, but I am not that girl. Much of my discretionary income goes toward “bettering” myself, but not directly; rather, I bribe or goad myself with this money! I know that saying “going to the gym is good for you” rarely gets me out of my warm bed an hour earlier; for some reason, “you’re going to do SO BADLY in that marathon if you don’t train RIGHT NOW” works better.

One of my recent resolutions, ironically, is to stop trying to see the negative in everything and fear it, and rather see the positive in things and hope for it. Sure, I’d be disappointed more often, but I also wouldn’t be so driven by fear. I’m hoping that the same can be true for some of these non-rational expenses too: rather than thinking of how likely I am to fail, I will try to focus on how good road races feel when you are well-prepared. For instance, my half marathon this past year was wonderful because I had a body that was ready for that distance.

 

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I once was teaching a classroom full of teenagers about American customs, and I thought that they’d probably had lessons on American Thanksgiving and Black Friday before. I explained, just in case, that we had a day of gratitude followed by a day that was well-known for crazy good deals and sales. I talked about the concepts of consumerism and planned obsolescence, and ended with the radical concept of Buy Nothing Day.

Needless to say, the teenagers were UNIMPRESSED with Buy Nothing Day and thought that Black Friday sounded awesome. I had to laugh at myself for thinking that they’d get behind my goal of reducing consumerism and promoting the idea of making things and spending quality time with people you like.

I don’t truly hate Black Friday – I have a few wonderful memories of getting a ridiculous box of yarn for very little money because of the sales at my local craft store. Still, I do think that when the “reason for the season” after Thanksgiving is all about getting good deals, a bit of the magic of the holidays gets turned into a big old shopping trip.

I still buy gifts for people, especially if I know that they really would like something but are unlikely to get it for themselves, but I do try to spice it up a bit as well: I try to sometimes gift tickets or experience gift certificates, so that someone feels freed to go ziplining or eat at a lovely restaurant because they have the gift certificate. I try to also send Christmas cards… which I need to get started on! I think that sometimes hearing from someone who cares about you is almost more important than getting a thing from them.

At the same time, there is a part of me that wants to make a big deal out of Buy Nothing Day sometime, if I have a friend or family member who wants to sit out the madness on Black Friday… maybe some year my dear ones will be in the mood to hole up with hot cocoa and board games and sit out the doorbusters for a year.

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It’s one of our downfalls: Husband and I love eating food out at restaurants! It saves time and effort after a long day at work, the food is often inventive and delicious, and I don’t even have to go grocery shopping! We figured out a long time ago that this was one of the budget items that we were going to struggle to keep under control.

While we still eat out a lot, one really effective way we cut down on eating out and thus got ourselves to save some money by cooking at home was by turning it into a game. At first, we wanted to just count each time either of us ate at a restaurant and the person who ate the least won. However! We realized a better way: once ONE of us mentions eating out, all bets are usually off: both of us love the idea of getting some sushi or curry or barbecue, so as soon as someone mentions it, that is actually the moment in which we choose.

So we decided to keep track of how often each of us mentioned eating out, and it became a bit of a game of chicken. When we got home from work, tired and hungry, we’d kinda size each other up, see that the other person wasn’t saying anything, and resign ourselves to making some salads and baking some chicken.

What was great was that we really loved cooking together and eating at home, once we got more accustomed to it. Sure, when we have a totally bonkers day (or month…) we still eat at restaurants with relish, but this competition has made us more likely to get all the groceries we need to be frugal and cook many meals. The winner, ironically, only gets a 30 dollar gift card to some store they want (for me, a craft store and for Husband, a hardware store). Yes, it’s already our money, but we had to figure something as a reward.

🙂 What’s your budget splurge category? Do you have any creative ways to keep that spending under control? We’re definitely a work in progress.

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For a long time, I heard that eating a lot of fruits and vegetables can be costly. However, over time I’ve realized that there are a few ways in which eating a lot of veggies and fruits actually can save you money, or at least help you reach financial goals elsewhere. Here are my tried and true strategies:

  • Buy definite-use veggies fresh, and aspirational-veggies frozen: If you know you are making a soup tonight and you are currently at the store, get those fresh veggies! Some veggies, like onions and potatoes, are fresh for so long that you can pretty much always afford to get them fresh. However, if you aren’t sure exactly when something will be used, getting a chopped up frozen version does two good things: it ensures you never have to scrimp on veggies just because nothing is available without a trip to the store, and you even get a little time discount because someone else chopped it up for you. I pretty much always keep frozen spinach and kale because they blend magically into smoothies.
  • Buy and freeze cheap summer veggies, preferably from farmer’s markets and local community gardens: If you see supporting local business and promoting good food systems as part of your goals, any money you spend at a farmer’s market or local community garden is basically double-dipping: you get benefits in your stomach AND in your heart. I extend this because I can often get very inexpensive tomatoes, squash, and herbs in mid-summer that I can then process and freeze for the winter. Sure, frozen may not taste quite as good as fresh, but I see keeping a freezer running as more environmentally friendly than heating a whole greenhouse enough to grow winter tomatoes.
  • Fill the freezer and fridge so full of fruits and veggies that processed foods get crowded out: People who see unit prices of fruits and veggies as high are comparing to the idea of buying no veggies and fruits, but that is a misleading comparison; you have to compare instead to how you would eat without them. Processed foods, while sometimes deceptively cheap, aren’t always cheaper per serving and may not make you feel as healthy and energetic as fruits and veggies do. Obviously you need more in your fridge than just fruits and veggies, but filling up your plates with these will actually be offsetting expenditures on other, still-costly foods.

What do you do to make sure you don’t break the bank while trying to eat healthy?

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When I was recently in New York, it struck me how everything was just a little more expensive than I was used to. It made me think of a lovely night that Husband and I recently had in Cincinnati, a city far closer to home than New York and a bit less exciting, but nonetheless lovely.

There were a few ways in which Cincinnati was cheaper. Here are some of them:

  • Dinner and drinks: We were able to get a reasonable meal near the theater where we were seeing Wicked and half-priced drinks because it was happy hour. I love the vibe of some of the downtown restaurants of Cincinnati; while it is far from the size of New York, the market is pretty intense for restauranteurs nonetheless, and that keeps the quality high without sending everyone’s prices through the roof.
  • Parking: I was stunned that only two blocks from the theater there was a garage that charged only 3 dollars for the whole night of parking! In New York, I saw signs advertising things like “27 dollars for 6 hours!” as if it was a steal. Little things like this make us want to travel into the city more often.
  • Theater Tickets: Wicked, even the touring production, is never going to be an inexpensive night out. That being said, we were able to get super-close tickets that were off to the left of the theater for only 50 dollars each. Definitely not a frequent way to enjoy ourselves – free concerts and live music at restaurants is more our speed – but for a show we both were so excited to see, it wasn’t bad. Also, it’s nothing compared to the rumored 600 dollar tickets to see Hamilton! – as much as I’m sure it’s amazing, that would be past my level of entertainment spending for sure.

What do you do to make sure that evenings out or travel to cities isn’t too expensive for you? Any tips for other readers on making sure that they take advantage of all their cities have to offer without breaking the bank?

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I used to love credit cards: it seems so magical that, if I only spent what I could pay off each month, a credit card would give me a perk that was totally free – cash back, points for a rewards program, or other positives. Even signing up for the cards gave me bonuses, and because I didn’t carry a balance and I avoided cards with annual fees, I got something for what I saw as nothing.

My husband felt differently though. In our dating time together, we discussed extensively what he saw as the downsides of credit cards. He knew people who had been seduced into over-spending by having that card available to them, and he told me that credit card companies charge businesses a higher fee than debit card businesses do. I countered with points I had heard about fraud prevention being easier with a credit card than a debit card, and having a credit card was a great idea for short-term large purchases so that you could move money around and pay it off quickly.

When things settled out, I had two options. My husband didn’t mind me having a credit card, but it was a matter of principle for him to not have one himself. I decided, however, that if he wanted to take a stand against deceptive marketing that traps people with a lot of debt, I was okay with joining him! I waved to my 2% cash back as it went away, but I also noticed something: my cash back promise had made me more willing, even just a little, to spend money. Not having it actually made me avoid certain purchases, and even just one of those purchases was more value than all the cash back I’d ever received.

I also liked the idea of daring to be a little different in a monetary system that has caused so much stress, pressure, and pain for people. I have no problem with credit cards personally, and they are really useful, especially at times of life when unexpected expenses come up all of a sudden. However, for me and for my husband, it made sense to try something else, and so far… it’s really working for us.

Is there any money or finance choice you’ve made that you know is unpopular or uncommon, but which has turned out well for you? I’d love to hear your success stories, even if they are successes that are specifically about having credit cards and loving them!

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There are a lot of tools that help folks with their finances, and this Friday, I want to tell you about the one that has made mine (and a zillion other people’s) better, easier, and more logical. Mint.com is a resource that, once you get to know its quirks, makes taking a big-picture view of your money choices a snap.

I started with Mint.com because of Husband – he liked the idea of linking all the accounts in one place so that they would be easily visible and we could make sure we understood where we were, financially. I was a little weirded out about giving all my passwords and usernames to a software, but in the end, the time it saves is worth the risks involved; while there are hacks every few days it seems, Mint has a very strong motivation to keep your information secure, because they would lose their whole premise if they lost your info!

When Mint compiles a dashboard of financial accounts for you, it allows you to see how much debt you have, how many assets you have, even a Zillow estimate of your home’s value, and get a pretty up-to-date net worth. It allows you to plot trends, make goals, and set budgets. My budgets were set automatically based on our typical spending over a few month period, but I still check them periodically because it helps me rein in certain areas of spending when the month starts feeling kind of spendy.

What is most valuable to me about Mint.com is that it gives me cold numbers that show that we are progressing toward our financial goals. Most of us like to save in theory but get out of hand when we have to give something up in order to save. Seeing the progress we are making is what definitely makes me willing to pass on expensive coffee drinks, new clothes, or a more expensive holiday destination. It’s not without its confusing elements, but Mint is worth the time it takes to explore and take charge of it.

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Husband and I have conceived of a lot of ways to make sure we don’t spend too much each month. We are making all our payments, and we are saving some, so it can be tempting to think that whatever is left we can just spend till it is gone – but we’d love to live well within our means, since you never know how long both of us will keep our current jobs.

To do this, though, we don’t want to completely cut money-related fun from our lives. So we’ve been making a lot of decisions based on 3 questions that I think most of us could stand to use, even if you have more than enough money in the bank.

Does this bring me closer to people I care about? What I’ve realized is that many of the things I consider spending money on are things that I could easily exchange for other ways to be happy – going for walks, cooking at home, watching movies we already have in the collection, working in my garden. What I do want to spend money on, though, are fun (or just novel!) experiences with friends and family. I wouldn’t spend 40 dollars on a ticket to an amusement park by myself, but I try to let go of the purse strings when it only applies to me.

Will this be a momentary or lasting part of my life? I see grabbing fast food on my way home from work as a momentary pleasure – nothing wrong with it, but the investment value is so much lower than a copy of a book I loved, or a yoga class that will give me new moves I can try at home. For things that are more likely to be momentary pleasures, I tend to try to use coupons or shop secondhand (not for fast food, haha), because I know I don’t mind scrimping a little on the temporary things.

Is this the time, or can I sit on the idea for a couple weeks? Most of the time, anything that isn’t needed right this minute for an urgent purchase is a good thing for me to think on for 2 weeks. Often, the caprice of wanting to buy a new thing will pass in 2 weeks, and if it doesn’t, I’ve usually thought of a zillion other good reasons to buy it, which makes me more confident. Not to mention, 2 weeks is long enough to figure out where the cheapest place to get it is, and what discounts might apply.

So you see, I don’t really deny myself per se, but I try to prioritize, and I’m always thinking about whether I’d prefer to save that much money or spend it on this thing. After all, it is a zero-sum game, and I want to think about the alternatives to making these choices. It has served me well so far, though I can always afford to be more prudent. I think we are all in that boat.

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