Monthly Archives: June 2011
I don’t like penny-pinching any more than you do. I hate clipping, carrying and using coupons. I am not crazy about this whole budget thing, even though it does seem better than my “spend blindly and hope for the best” plan of yore. Besides my rent and debt payments, my biggest cost each month is food. And I know that there is plenty of food I end up tossing each month, so I am looking for ways to cut down on all the waste.
I buy too much food for a two-person household, and at least half of the stuff I buy goes bad before I finally throw it out. I have good intentions about making food, but I still don’t do it. I often come home to a full refrigerator and look at the head of lettuce and think, “I’ll make a salad tomorrow. It’s not going anywhere.” And I repeat that mantra until the lettuce is sufficiently soggy and brown to warrant throwing out. It’s not just me though, at least 1/3 of the world’s food production ends up going to waste. There are foods where this happens way too often and here are a few foods that are always outsmarting me:
7 Foods that Go to Waste Way Too Often
Ciabatta, pita, sourdough, tortilla, naan, sangak, lavash, bagels, seedless rye and plain ol’ Wonder bread. Those are just the kinds of bread I have in the house right now. I love bread in all variations and when I buy too much of a good thing, I can’t eat it all, even when I eat bread everyday. If I leave it out, it gets moldy, and if it stays in the fridge for too long, it becomes stale. I can’t win!
Solution: Buy less varieties of bread at a time, or at least finish one type of bread before buying another.
Asparagus is a super food and it’s freakin’ delicious. My boyfriend does a great grilled and marinated asparagus, and every time he makes it, I immediately go out and buy more asparagus the next day so we can make it again. But of course we don’t eat asparagus two days in a row, and by the third day the excitement has waned and I’m eyeing the asparagus warily and wondering how long before it goes bad? And the answer is, you’ve got about a week. And if you can’t get excited about asparagus within the week, say goodbye to that $3.99 a pound vegetable. Ok, sometimes it’s on sale for $1.99, but that’s not everyday and my cravings don’t change because of sales. (Although they should. Note to self: rewire cravings mechanism in brain. Has Steve Pavlina written about this?)
Solution: Don’t buy asparagus until the day you are planning on making it.
Mangoes need no extra flavoring or fancy preparation, and they are so sweet and distinct from other fruits. It takes some time to peel a mango, but it’s not really that part that detains me, I think that you have to be in a certain mood to eat a mango. Like, let’s slow life down a little bit and eat this amazing mango. It’s bright and yellow and it’s has rough and soft texture at the same time. Lately I haven’t been able to slow myself down and my mangoes are turning into leather in the fruit compartment of the fridge.
Solution: Relax and eat more mangoes.
4. Cucumbers, Zucchinis, Bell Peppers, et al
These all fall into one category because they go to waste for the same reason: they go bad fairly quickly and sometimes you just don’t need a zucchini in your dinner. But they’re all great foods and the solution here is pretty much the same as with the asparagus.
Solution: Buy smaller quantities of vegetables that spoil quickly and don’t buy too many varieties before you already know what you are going to make with them (and plan to make it soon).
5. Feta Cheese
Even though feta cheese keeps for a long time, especially in brine, I just buy way too much of it. I think it’s always been a comfort food and so I buy a pound at a time, even though I’m the only one who eats it, and even then, I always forget I have it. Also, I like getting stuff from the international market, where they have the best Bulgarian feta and they always nod approvingly every time I order it.
Solution: Buy a 1/4 lb. of any specialty cheese at a time so you don’t get sick of eating it. Stop seeking approval from strangers.
How many times have you used 1/2 lb. of hamburger meat, frozen the other 1/2, and promptly forgot all about it? What about with chicken breasts? In bigger households, the use half, freeze half method works great, because they are much more likely to use the other half of the meat quickly. But if you’re single or just two people, there are probably tons of foods you’ve frozen and forgotten about until it was time to clear the fridge. It might not always make sense, but why not just make the entire portion and serve the extras for lunch the next day?
Solution: Buy smaller portions and use as much of the meat as you can right away, keep frozen portion in high-visibility shelf of the freezer to remind yourself to cook it sooner.
I eat a banana a day, but I also buy a lot of bananas. But bananas are the one food that I have been able to save, even without eating them right away, as long as I remember to freeze or use them before it’s too late. I freeze them for smoothies or throw them into a very quick banana bread recipe.
Solution: Freeze them before they turn into blackened, fly-attracting banana corpses or mash them up for banana bread.
I always over-shop for food, especially when I’m hungry. If you find yourself throwing out food on a regular basis, it doesn’t hurt to try buying smaller portions, even when Costco’s monster portions are being shoved in our faces as the “economical” choice. But how economical is it to buy an entire wheel of brie if you’re not going to eat it? Or the Hagrid-sized antipasto platter when you have 2 friends coming over? That’s my thought for the day, and now I’m off to finish this antipasto platter before it goes bad.
I have yet to master the art of not losing steam midway through a project. I’m great at envisioning things. I can even come up with the next steps I need to take for the idea to happen, and maybe I’ll even take a step or two. But eventually I start doubting the whole thing and it’s just easier to give up. It has been a true challenge with paying off debt and sticking to not using credit cards. Right now, it has been exactly 1 month of not using any credit cards. I know I can keep going, but I am changing a habit of EIGHT years! With that said, I’d like to take a little trip down memory lane…
How I First Got into Debt
Even though I had never been much for saving money, I didn’t have any debt through my first two years of college. I had gotten a credit card my freshman year, but I was paying it in full whenever I used it, which wasn’t every month. During the fall semester of my junior year, I studied abroad in Spain. It was one of the best times of my life. Being somewhere so new and so different was an experience that I can’t replace, and most of my motivation to get out of debt is centered around being financially competent and able to travel again, exotically. That’s not like exotic dancing, it just means going places without much of an agenda and embracing and discovering its people, its natural monuments, or its little back streets that feel like a scene from a movie. So, I was exploring Spain and meeting lots of new people. I played tennis on grass courts. I walked the entire city during siestas. I discovered José Ángel Mañas. I discovered cheap tapas at every bar on the route back to my apartment from university. I wouldn’t trade any of it!
But I also discovered the cash advance feature of my credit card, and the next thing I knew, I was using it as the most convenient way to borrow money without having to ask for it from my parents or any of my new friends in Spain. By the time I got back to the US, I had racked up about $2,000 in debt, which is a lot of money for an unemployed college student. That summer, I had a full-time job and paid off my two credit cards in full. But I didn’t create any savings and I had already gotten a taste of how easy it was to pull out a card when I didn’t have any cash, or even better, just use a card for everything since I was “getting the points”. So I used a credit card to live above my means from 2003 to 2011, and I can’t even explain how excited I am that my habits are changing.
Really Tiny Baby Steps in the Right Direction
It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but I really didn’t get the extent of it until I hid my credit cards last month. Before that and this new budgeting idea, I never had any idea how much money I had in the bank. I knew how much my paychecks were and I tried not to spend more than that, which is not much of a budget! I made budgets for May and June, and I’ll be making my July budget this week. I’ll make my next post a picture of my July budget. I haven’t been able to follow it completely, and I haven’t put in money in envelopes for things like repairs and emergencies. I’m also learning how to control my impulses. I haven’t been out of the country in two years, and I am really dying to travel. I have plenty of vacation time saved up at work. But dropping a few thousand dollars would wipe out a year of hard work. So I spent all day at the beach yesterday with friends, which felt like a vacation in itself. I haven’t watched TV in three days, which is also something I do on vacation (not watch TV), so my mind feels relaxed and I can delay the vacation for at least a little while longer!
Reminding Myself of the Goals
I’m motivated to get out of debt and focus on building positive cash flows so that I can provide for myself, my family and good causes in my local community. I want to make the urban, run-down areas of where I live more desirable and safe, but not just for the very wealthy. Everyone should have access to open spaces for their kids to play, good schools and colleges so that they can understand the world around them and become critical thinkers (and not unquestioning drones), and safe neighborhoods. I am not sure how to do all of that, although a lot of my friends share the same motivations and a friend of my boyfriend just started Citizen Good. I know that if I am spending less hours just taking care of the basics for myself, I can find ways to make change.
June 2011 Debt Update:
Current Total: $38,021
% Change from May 2011: 6.3% Decrease!
There are plenty of discounts for the rich. A great post by Genius Types puts it best: “It’s just more expensive to be broke than it is to have money”. So how come there are no discounts for poor people?
As I mentioned in my previous post, the US government is an elite group serving the interests of the rest of the elites. Because of that, there are plenty of loopholes and advantages for the elite. But there are still some concessions that they’ve made for the little guy, and I want to make this information as widespread as possible while we all climb our way out of debt.
1. File your Federal Taxes for Free: Even the IRS admits that 70% of all taxpayers have an AGI (Adjusted Gross Income) of $58,000 or less. The good news is that ALL of those people can file their federal taxes for free using the most popular tax-preparation software. I’ve used TurboTax, H&R Block and Liberty Tax through the Free File program and they have all worked fine and helped me find extra tax credits and deductions. Liberty Tax is no longer on the list though, so I would use TurboTax if your AGI is less than $31,000 and H&R Block if your AGI is between $31,000 and $58,000. The state tax return is almost complete once you’ve filed your federal return, and the state filing is 15 or 20 bucks for most of the programs.
Maybe you’re thinking “I would rather just let someone else do my taxes.” I don’t want to sound bossy, but if you’re making less than $58,000 annually, you really should be doing your own taxes. Chances are they are not THAT complicated, even if you had multiple W-2’s, 1099’s, investment income, self-employment or small business income. All of these tax software preparation programs walk you through each step of filling out your return, and you will save between $50-$250 by not paying someone else to do your return. Caution: Don’t get suckered in to getting your tax refund in advance with a refund anticipation loan or check (also known as an RAC or RAL)! This is one of the biggest moneymakers for places like H&R Block (offering them through HSBC), making $130 million from these high-fee checks and high-interest loans in 2010. They are even banned from offering them in 2011. With the electronic deposit, refunds are usually deposited with 7-10 days of your filing date. Unfortunately, the very poorest are always in need of money immediately so it becomes a tempting offer and 10 days seems like much too long. In that case, tell yourself you filed your taxes a week AFTER you actually did them and wait 3 days or less!
2. Request Low Income Discounts for Utilities: It’s generally frowned upon to ask for a “discount for poor people” at places like Best Buy or Applebee’s, but utility companies provide just that. A utility is a necessity and not a luxury, and low income discounts are common among power and gas companies. I know, Applebee’s doesn’t seem like a luxury, but it is more of a luxury than running your refrigerator or having lighting in your home. In California, you can receive a low income discount on many utilities if you have an income of around $30,000 or less as a single person. Check out the information for the following low income programs at these utilities in Southern California below.
Southern California Utilities Low Income Discount Programs:
3. Request a Fee Waiver on University Applications: Look at you, applying to college! Trying to get an education and take a vacation, to quote Too $hort. Education is the most important factor in breaking the cycle of poverty and debt, but that doesn’t neccesarily mean traditional education. You know the best place to start your education? At the library. It’s free, there are all kinds of classes all the time, and you can request the books they don’t have to come from other libraries. But going to college can be useful, especially in a family where no one has gone to college.
Higher education has become BIG business in the US (especially those wily for-profit schools), and four years of college, even at a state university, is going to cost you. And even before you’ve started paying for your over-priced education, you’ll be expected to drop a few hundred dollars applying to schools where application fees range from $25 to $75. Besides doing your FAFSA as soon as possible for grants and federal loans, you can request a fee waiver when you are completing your application. I can’t promise you’ll get it, because while the IRS and utility companies will consider you low income at around $30,000, these fee waivers are generally granted to people with very low incomes. But it doesn’t take more than a few extra minutes on your application, so give it a shot.
Fee Waivers for University Applications:
- California State University System
- University of California System (done within the online application)
4. Second Mortgage Assistance with Local Government: Developers work with cities to build affordable or low-income housing in a (usually run-down, less desirable) neighborhood, and the city will offer payment assistance to buyers whose income falls within a certain range. You’ll work with the developer’s lender to get a first mortgage and the city will provide a second mortgage to cover the difference between the purchase price and the first mortgage. Affordable housing programs can have very different characteristics, with some homes offered at market prices (but with increased assistance from the city), while other programs offer homes at below-market prices. Not all affordable housing programs are created equal so it is vital to do all of your research.
In affordable housing programs, there are also often restrictions on who can live in the home (typically it has to be owner-occupied for the life of the second mortgage or for a certain number of years) and when the home can be sold. Although these programs are becoming common in a lot of cities, especially in California, they are generally small projects and the buyer interest can outweigh the supply of homes. It is worth researching if you are interested in buying a home but market prices in your area are out of your price range. If the programs have finished, call the developer or the city to place your name on an interest list for any future projects, or ask the city to begin the pre-qualification process in case any current buyers back out of a purchase. the best place to start is the city’s housing authority or community development agency. Below are just a few in Southern California:
- City of Anaheim
- City of Long Beach
- City of La Mesa (San Diego)
- City of San Diego
- City of Los Angeles
- City of Carson
I don’t want you to stay at the bottom forever, but the important thing is educate yourself as much as possible with regards to what’s available and what opportunities exist. And if they don’t exist, it’s easier to demand changes when we know what we’re talking about!
I picked up a copy of Peace and Plenty: Finding Your Path to Financial Serenity from my boss. I had also received The Total Money Makeover and Think and Grow Rich from her, so I had pretty high expectations of this book being full of applicable advice geared towards women, since most books about money management are not.
I think the problem was that I didn’t know what type of woman this book was geared towards. Apparently, Ban Breathnach’s advice is indispensable to women who fill their heads with lavender-scented visions of designer finds and fine furniture, and are constantly comforting themselves with a cup of hot tea. I love tea, but I am not sure what drinking tea has to do with me getting out of debt and managing my money better. It also doesn’t help that her writing style is weepy and sentimental and I don’t like being referred to as “sweetheart” from within the pages of a popular finance book.
I won’t deny that I didn’t finish this book. It would have been a waste of time. As one reviewer on Amazon put it, it’s hard to take this woman seriously when she advocates Simple Abundance but she clearly didn’t believe a word of it herself (after blowing through several million dollars from the proceeds of the book on an English estate, an army of personal assistants, and probably about 8,000 pounds of chamomile and green tea imported from remote regions of Asia). Stop talking about tea and tell me something useful.
In any case, I wanted to share some of the most ludicrous passages I found just skimming through this book. Keep in mind that this book is supposed to be about financial serenity, women and money.
Ridiculous Quotes and Advice from Sarah Ban Breathnach in Peace and Plenty
“If you’ve been crying on and off, dab your face with some [cucumber and chamomile tea rinse], rinse with cool water, and then pat your face dry with your softest towel.”
“Crying jags also leave us headachy.”
“…Gradually we’ll consciously make room in our busy days for restorative indulgences, elegant economies, and other bijou morsels of ecstasy: the charm of home comforts – pocketbook suppers, pin money stashes, or the morale of new curtains.”
“I take a pretty Tiffany-blue eleven-by-fourteen-inch box….Inside are all kinds of things that make me smile – clippings from different magazines…fabric swatches, photographs,brochures, a rapturous curl of salmon-colored silk ribbon.” (This is what she calls her Contentment Chest, which comes up again soon)
“Be on the search for a pleasing lidded box.” <———— (This one was my favorite. Can you imagine? Someone comes to her for financial advice, and she says, “Hmm, maybe you should be on the search for a LIDDED BOX! To keep all your bills in! I don’t have any financial advice, I spend all my money on teas and overpriced shabby chic crap!”
“So this is what I do to snap out of misery while I’m waiting for the tea to brew. I go to the kitchen counter, where I keep my scrapbooking basket…I open the Contentment Chest and select one magazine clipping.”
“Having special hand towels in the bathrooms and special tea towels in the kitchen fills you with feelings of contentment [….] You’ll be surprised how much whimsy, style, and elegance you can create with two hand towels.”
Now that I see all these quotes in one place, I am convinced that Ban Breathnach is a complete headcase. But still, in the interest of kindness: Dear Ms. Ban Breathnach, if you are reading this, you should be congratulated for completing a book. It is no small feat and one I hope to accomplish myself someday. I bet you would do great in the romance genre.